I love nuns. I think my fascination with them started when I lived in Landstuhl. Often I would go down from the Army post at the top of the hill into Landstuhl proper and see several sisters in a line, wearing brown and white habits, thick stockings, and no-nonsense shoes uglier than a nurse’s. Though the nuns were usually elderly with thick horn-rimmed glasses, I always thought they were beautiful, ethereal creatures.
Recently I copyedited a book Spice & Wolf, volume 2, about Holo the Wisewolf and her companion Lawrence, a traveling merchant. The book takes place in an alternate reality, a Medieval type of Japan, where guilds, the church, and knights factor in highly. One idea that writer Isuna Hasekura brings up is the beauty that the nuns possess because most of them are the illegitimate children of a noble and peasant, who originally coupled because the lesser born had uncommon beauty. There is no place for these illegitimate children in a rigid society, and they must be placed safely away so they cannot compete with any actual heirs. Most of these children end up being shuttled off to a convent or monastery to dedicate the rest of their lives to God. I find it ironic that these children, the product of sin, are forced to repent for their parents’ error, and I think there is a great element of truth to Hasekura’s ideas.
While in Florence, touring the Uffizi, I came upon a portrait of Giovanni de Medici as a two-year-old child posed with a goldfinch, a symbol of the church.
Even at that young age, this particular Medici had his whole life planned out by his father without any input from him. He was destined for the church. Such a powerful family needed to be aligned with what was perhaps the most powerful organization of the time, the Catholic church, and children would be dedicated, pledged to this institution.
My sister and I stayed at the convent Instituto Oblate dell’Assunzione while in Florence in two austere rooms with the plainest of twin beds, a chifferobe, and the only artwork a Byzantine crucifixion scene.
Florence was a candyland of art. Even getting lost involved beauty, walking down crooked little cobblestone roads with yellow stuccoed houses rising up around us, discovering shrines to the Virgin or various saints every two hundred yards.
I so wanted to become a victim of Stendahl syndrome, that illness peculiar to Florence, where a traveler becomes disoriented, sometimes not knowing what century they are in because they are surrounded by so much beautiful art. It did not happen, and maybe it was because of our stay at the convent. The sisters did not speak a word of English, so Kristi and I had to make do with our pidgin Italian, and we had no distractions in our rooms and a curfew of eleven thirty. After pounding our feet on the marbled floors of museums and the cobblestone roads of Florence, we would have a two-hour dinner with lots of vino rosso; then, we would return to the convent and talk about all we had seen while occasionally going out onto our narrow balconies and sharing a cigarette, whispering like naughty schoolgirls.
Kristi took a photo of me with one of the sisters before we left Florence, and I love it. When I posed with the sister (who fastidiously folded up her glasses before standing beside me), I felt something special, and it was not Stendahl syndrome.
A backdrop to our visit in Italy was Dan Brown’s new book The Lost Symbol. We saw it in every bookstore window with every translation available. People carried it in the trains, read copies of it in cafes. Brown’s work is not just an American phenomenon; everybody wants to know about the secrets of the church.
I think one day I will write about a nun. With such discipline and constant meditation, I think she would be an interesting character with a very rich interior life.