The Purpose of Nuns – Judith Ortiz Cofer
As a young girl attending Sunday mass,
I’d watch them float down the nave
in their medieval somberness, the calm
of salvation on the pink oval of their faces
framed by tight-fitting coifs. They seemed above
the tedious cycle of confession, penance
and absolution they supervised: of weekday dreams
told to a stranger on a Saturday; of Sunday sermons long
as a sickroom visit, and the paranoia of God always
watching you — that made me hide under my blanket
to read forbidden fictions.
Some of us were singled out for our plainness,
our inclination to solitude, or perhaps —
as our mothers hoped in their secret hearts —
our auras of spiritual light only these brides
of quietness could see in us. We were led to retreats,
where our uninitiated footsteps were softened,
and our heartbeats synchronized, becoming one
with the sisters’. In their midst, we sensed freedom
from the worry of flesh — the bodies of nuns
being merely spirit slips under their thick garments.
There was also the appeal of sanctuary in a spotless mansion
permeated with the smells of baked bread, polished wood
and leather-bound volumes of only good words.
And in the evenings, the choral mystery of vespers
in Latin, casting the final spell of community over us.
The purpose of nuns was to remind us
of monochrome peace in a world splashed in violent colors.
And sometimes, exhausted by the pounding demands
of adolescence, I’d let my soul alight
on the possibility of cloistered life, but once the sky
cleared, opening up like a blue highway to anywhere,
I’d resume my flight back to the world.
This week I am proud to feature the above poem by Puerto Rican American writer, Judith Ortiz Cofer, who recently passed away. Her work in prose and poetry helped to pave the way for a culturally infused and aware literary tradition that continues today.
The above poem works a subtle magic through the speaker’s impression of the nun figure. The stakes of the poem lie not in accurately portraying nuns, but rather in giving a sense of the strict world the speaker lived in growing up (first stanza), and then exploring how the perceived idea of the nun’s life offered relief from that strictness. There is a power to lines like: The purpose of nuns was to remind us / of monochrome peace in a world splashed in violent colors that works via contrast; if the nun is the idealized figure, then the speaker themselves lives in the world of “violent colors.” So much of life is looking for hope wherever we can find it, and sometimes a poem or a community can open up something inside you “like a blue highway to anywhere,” until you find yourself able to move, and dream, forward. Cofer’s work, here and elsewhere, made possible such empowered dreaming to happen for myself and others.
Reading the poem above the first time years ago inspired my own poem, “The Nun’s Lament,” which is included in my chapbook, Reasons (not) to Dance. I remember being stunned into a new revision of what became the poem below after reading Cofer.
The Nun’s Lament – José Angel Araguz
after Judith Ortiz Cofer
One night, I saw the figure of a man making his way towards my window. I had been looking across the roof of the chapel, stark in white moonlight. I closed my eyes, stood still, how long, I cannot say. The figure of the man, there behind my eyelids, flashed from shadow arms swinging, clambering across the roof, to a shadow flock of birds stirring in the air in unison, all but one taking off away from me. The one shot straight to me, past me, left me heavy, my pulse beating like wings inside. What I heard was not coming closer, was not hurting me, what I heard was restless. I had become a cloister for the heart, a space where the heart waited, idle, mid-flight. When I opened my eyes, there was the roof, clear, and a train in the distance, its whistle bursting.