by Mary Dyer Hubbard
“Go out and let something in nature speak to you.” What a silly thing for a Retreat Director to say to a group of nuns! I walk aimlessly up and down the rolling paths, hardly registering the green fields, wild flowers and spreading trees. My fellow retreatants, mostly white-haired women dressed in black, eagerly search for some mysterious treasure.
Even though we’re in silence, I break it when encountering kindly Sister Margaret. “Did anything speak to you, Margaret?” I ask jokingly. “Yes, I just realized it! See those blue flowers up there? One of them is speaking to me and I have to go back and listen.” A little ashamed of her sincerity and my skepticism, I watch as she hobbles back up the hill.
I’m 35 years old, a nun since 18, and burned out. Like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story I have journeyed from cloister to missions. I too have known: fervor, striving for perfection, willingness to suffer, working in impoverished areas, burning zeal. But the flame is dwindling and now I walk around with ashen heart.
Listlessly I turn back. I’ll be the one with no story to tell, no stone or twig clutched in my hand, excited to share its amazing personal message. With head down, I trudge along without seeing. But, that’s odd. What is that lying on the ground: small, brown and hollow? Oh, it’s a walnut shell – or half of one. Strange, there are no walnut trees around here.
I pick it up and study it. The inside ridges are more pronounced than the outer smoother shell; the inner grooves are pitted, sharp and dark. Imagine the nut pressed and squeezed until it matched those unyielding convolutions! Suddenly I drop the shell and gasp. Sobs follow and I’m on the ground cradling the shell in both my hands. This is me. Squeezed and pressed into a mold of perfection. Convoluted. Rigid. Never good enough. Try harder. Conform. But where is the nut itself? Where am I? What is left of ME? I grieve wildly for my lost self.
It’s a long time before I can breathe without pain and tears. Slowly, gently, I realize the shell has been cracked open; it’s half gone. Maybe the warm air and sunlight have already enticed my hidden self to start emerging. What would it take to shed the other half? But if I relinquish it all, I’ll be exposed, vulnerable. Who am I without the shape of the institution? I am alone. I am afraid.
I sit with my fears on a dusty path and wait to feel myself crawl back into my familiar shell but it doesn’t happen. Instead, something new begins to grow inside: hope. It won’t be right away. I don’t know when. But I will emerge all the way. Looking up at a nearby tree, I see a bird soar from its branches into the sky. Free.
Mary Dyer Hubbard was a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for 20 years. After leaving the convent, she met and married Carl Hubbard and the couple lives in Horsham, PA. Mary Dyer Hubbard is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a therapist with the Samaritan Counseling Center since 1995.