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A Nun's Story

Written by Deborah LarsenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Deborah Larsen

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42948-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The story of novelist and poet Deborah Larsen's young womanhood, The Tulip and the Pope is both an exquisitely crafted spiritual memoir and a beautifully nuanced view of life in the convent.In midsummer of 1960, nineteen-year-old Deborah shares a cab to a convent. She and the teenage girls with her, passionate to become nuns, heedless of all they are leaving behind, smoke their last cigarettes before entering their new lives. In the same artful prose that distinguished her novel The White, Larsen's memoir lets us into the hushed life of the convent. She captures the exquisite peace she found there, as well as the extreme constriction of the rules and her gradual awareness of all that she is missing. Eventually the physical world—the lush tulip she remembers seeing as a girl, the snow she tunneled in, and even the mystery of sex—begins to seem to her an alternative theater for a deep understanding and love of God.

Excerpt

Becoming a Postulant

Taxi

Blue smoke curled out of the taxicab windows.

The driver, who had just parked outside what looked like a stone mansion, waited; he had most likely been through this before. Three of us, three young women, sat in his Yellow Cab and smoked our cigarettes.

The mansion was the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And this day, July 31, 1960, was Entrance Day, the day we would give our lives to God by joining the convent. About two weeks earlier, on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, I had celebrated my nineteenth birthday.

Other taxicabs were pulling into the motherhouse like limousines to the Oscar awards or like horses to the Bar X corral. One hundred and eighteen of us wanted to become nuns.

Many of us were edgy and sat smoking and speculating a little, like starlets or cowpunchers before it was time to crush out the cigarettes or flick them away and do the next things that needed to be done.

Edgy, yes, we were—but also blithe to become nuns, just as Thomas More had been blithe to bare his neck and have his head neatly sliced off by the likes of the black-hooded executioner in A Man for All Seasons. Thomas was so chipper because he knew he was headed for God, would see God face-to-face. Robert Bolt has Thomas say—or maybe Thomas said it himself—that God “will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

In a way, we were going to Him now.

I was going to Him now. When I died, why would He refuse me if I had been a good nun? It was quite a bit like being a princess; eventually I would come into my own and inherit the transfigured earth and the kingdom of heaven.

Maybe the Yellow Cab driver, unless he was Catholic, actually did think he was my executioner. I would give him a big tip, all the money I had left, and I would give him the rest of my cigarettes.


The motherhouse, the convent of wine-colored stone, looked huge as a Cotswold manor house or an estate in Croton-on- Hudson. But the river at the base of the bluffs on which this building stood was the Mississippi, as it flowed past the southern edge of the city of Dubuque, Iowa.

In 1960 most of us didn’t know much about the path of the Mississippi or the life on it or where the bluffs began or ended. Did the river mostly remind us of the flux of all things, or even of Jim and Huck? It did not. It might have been the Tiber or the Loire, the Tigris, the Ruhr, or the Yangtze. No matter. What we wanted that day was to become nuns.

We didn’t give a fig about our position in the landscape.

Smoke

My friends Teresa (Tessa) and Kathleen (Kathy) and I thought of ourselves as savvy. We knew what to do because another friend’s sister, who was already a nun in the order we were joining, had told us the tradition. On Entrance Day we were to give our last cigarettes to the cabdriver.

We three had come in the Yellow Cab across a bridge over the river, from the train station in East Dubuque, Illinois. We had gotten on that train at Union Station in Saint Paul, Minnesota—our hometown.

Twelve young women in all had come from Minnesota to be nuns, but I knew Tessa and Kathy the best. I had been friends with Tessa since we were both about five years old. She had lovely black hair and an interesting, angular face and white teeth; some of her relatives had been actors; she was talented in art and she spoke her mind in an honest way. Kathy came from a large family and had brown hair; her eyes and her mouth worked together when she smiled, and we always felt we could trust her and her kindness.

A letter from what would be our new community had earlier asked that our parents please not drive us to Dubuque. The Sisters wanted to avoid what could always threaten to turn into weeping and the gnashing of teeth at their gates.


Just watch your daughter disappear through the doors of a convent. Try looking down at her feet in black flats walking away from you into the religious life. Better to put her on the train, the Burlington Northern, so that it felt like she was going off to college.


I sat in that cab and smoked two cigarettes at a time.

To be funny.

I thought I was being funny, trying to look frantic to smoke them all up, juggling the two lit cigarettes, Kents, in my ringless fingers. In the end, I would still have plenty of cigarettes left for my taxi driver, who undoubtedly watched us through his rearview mirror. I felt like a comedian.


We had smoked since freshman year in our all-girls Catholic high school, which was called Our Lady of Peace. We certainly weren’t allowed to smoke at Our Lady of Peace. But after school some of the bolder of us—not I—would walk a couple of blocks down Victoria Street to, say, Grand Avenue and step into their boyfriends’ ’55 Oldsmobile 98s or ’56 Chevrolets (which action was also not allowed by our school), and within thirty seconds the smoking started. Off they went, Bernadette inhaling, Tom exhaling; Patricia blowing smoke through her nose, Mark grasping the knob on his steering wheel to make a dashing left turn, a louie.


We had been instructed to bring only enough money to get us to the convent, and I must have tried to calculate it before I left home, which was on Goodrich Avenue in Saint Paul: so much for a ham sandwich and a Coke on the train, and maybe a Nut Goodie or a Mounds bar; so much for cab fare and tip—that was it.

And so we handed over that cab fare and that tip and the rest of our cigarettes, and that part was over. The cabdriver thanked us.

We thanked him. It was time, just the way it was “time” when the curtain went up in the high school plays in which we had acted. Mother Was a Freshman. The Song of Bernadette. The Little World of Don Camillo.

“It’s time, girls.”

We stopped laughing, got out of the cab, and walked up the sidewalk.

Several Sisters were at the door to welcome us. Even before I stepped over the threshold I felt relief from the heat. The motherhouse, I thought, was going to feel good compared to the muggy Iowa summer afternoon.

I had seen the motherhouse before but I had never been inside.

But Why

I had seen the motherhouse, Mount Carmel, because I had lived in Dubuque while I attended Clarke College for a year before I entered the convent. Some of my friends and I had driven across town to look around the convent grounds.

“What about waiting a year?” my parents had finally said when I told them I wanted to become a nun right after high school.

They had not stopped and stared; they had not winced; they had not blinked—although one time after I had sat holding one of my sister Judy’s newborns, my mother said, “I saw you looking at that baby.”

They just said, “Fine. But what about waiting a year?”

In the end, I waited and went to college for the academic year 1959–1960.

No one asked me why I wanted to be a nun. No one needed to ask, except the young Protestant couple who lived next door. I hadn’t known many Protestants, but I loved this couple.

“But why do you want to be a nun?” they would ask. (They, like most of us, had never heard of the older distinction between a Sister and a nun; the latter belonged to what was called a contemplative order, and was cloistered.) From the screened porch where they sat drinking Old-Fashioneds before dinner, they had watched me go out on date after date.

I would sigh.

Would Protestants understand how much you loved God? Could you speak to them about such a thing without their getting embarrassed?

Bashful

I loved God. Maybe I could have spoken to my neighbors in the language of the parts of scripture I loved best. In this way, it wouldn’t have sounded just like me. For I was bashful. I didn’t want to sound like myself—who was I, anyway?—or like some sentimental dope.

What other language did I have, really, besides the one that had been handed to me by the Church and the scriptures? The only ideas I had about God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—would have come from tradition, from authority. It was important in those days that the words be sanctioned so I didn’t end up sounding bizarre or, worse, heretical, like the Arians, the Gnostics, or those southern French Albigensians who had been exterminated, according to the dictionary, during the Inquisition. The language of Holy Scripture, which I took to be the language of God and of the Roman Catholic Church—for the Church in a sense owned the whole Bible, I thought—was thrilling.

So if I had thought of it, I could have taken the Bible—for we had not memorized long passages in those days—and read from it to my neighbors. It would have been just like Readers’ Theatre, in which I had participated in high school.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters.

I would continue reading aloud about how God created a light, which He called Day, and a darkness, which He called Night; about how the firmament came from His Hands and the creeping creatures and the great whales. The winged fowls and seeds that grew into herbs and trees would come next. And then man and woman, and the river that divided into the four heads of Phison, Gehon, Tigris, and Euphrates. I would read the part about how God brought the beasts and the fowls to Adam “to see what he would name them.”

Since God wanted “to see” what Adam would name them, I would eventually decide that God was quite a curious Person. Such curiosity on His part endeared Him to me, as did His allowing mere humans to name the things of this world.

How could you not adore the Person who had done all this? He made everything. He must have been something. Why does something exist and not nothing? Easy. Someone was kind enough to create it. He dreamt things up: you would never have thought of seeds, for instance. What you couldn’t do with seeds down through the ages! And herbs: he must have thought of something for healing and to flavor cooking. And Leviathan: all that baleen for straining plankton. What an imagination. Everything was absolutely original with Him, the Absolute.

You shrugged off all the cranky things God did in the Hebrew Bible—which most of us called the Old Testament in 1960—and you absolutely loved this Person, the One Whom you could just imagine moving over the waters. You wanted to live as close as you could to Him, live in His Shadow.

Why not dedicate yourself to Him as completely as you could? It was a cinch. Why didn’t millions of people do this every day, like the lemmings in the Arctic who sometimes grow so restless for something that they leave home and head downhill to wherever water is and think nothing of it.


“Because,” my mother would say. “Because if everyone entered religion”—in those days, in going into the convent or the monastery or the seminary, one “entered religion”—“eventually there would be no people.”

I took that as a joke. Or I took it to mean that she thought that the world needed marriage in order to produce little babies who would grow up to be people.


From the Hardcover edition.
Deborah Larsen|Author Q&A

About Deborah Larsen

Deborah Larsen - The Tulip and the Pope

Photo © Lawrence Kinneman

Deborah Larsen grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and currently lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She teaches writing at Gettysburg College, where she holds the Merle S. Boyer Chair.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Deborah Larsen

Q: Why did you want to become a nun?

A: In 1960, the process of becoming a nun looked so exotic. I (and many other Roman Catholic young women like me) accepted the idea prevalent then that in becoming a nun–vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience–you would lead the most “perfect” Christian life possible. If you loved God, the idea of being utterly dedicated to him seemed logical. You could, then, fairly easily give up wearing sea-green taffeta prom gowns and smoking Winstons and driving around in ’59 Chevrolets with attractive, witty boys; all that seemed a little banal compared to being in a special relationship with the Lord. In the Midwest in those days you saw marriage as often dreary and could foresee how you would be mostly saddled with babies and diaper pails and furniture polish and frying pans. The alternative, being a “spinster,” and, say, working as a secretary in a hospital ward and then going home at night to cook on a hotplate, didn’t look too thrilling, either. Why not be a nun and lead an intensely spiritual life?

And if you had been taught by nuns who were super smart and savvy, you could also imagine yourself leading an intellectual life as they did and if not quite seeing the world, at least traveling around to the various schools where you might be assigned. Finally there was an aura of mystery about nuns and their sealed-off rooms where visitors were never allowed. In the book, I try to give the reader a very exact sense–lots of details–of what it is like to actually live in a convent.

It’s interesting: I’ve talked with women who are not Roman Catholic, including one woman who is Jewish, and they’ve said that they had thought about becoming nuns. So it must be a common fantasy. Did The Nun’s Story, published as a novel in the fifties and later made into a film with Audrey Hepburn, contribute to this? It certainly did for me, as The Tulip and the Pope reveals.

Q: The experiences recounted and explored in The Tulip and the Pope occurred forty years ago. What made you decide to write a memoir and why now?

A: It took me until now to fully comprehend the spiritual and psychological meaning of those early formative years. I think that’s why I am interested in historical material: I like getting a little distance on things. And all of a sudden I realized, granted my age, that part of my life had become historical material! So I went to work on that.

Also--and practically speaking--I worked mostly in poetry until the late 1990s. My life in the convent needed a roomier form: prose.

Q: You are known for your poetry and short fiction, but your novel, The White, was written around the nonfiction framework of an actual person’s life. How did that writing experience prepare you for your memoir? Was capturing your voice as a girl rather like creating that of a fictional character?

A: In writing about Mary Jemison, the central character in The White, I learned about selectivity, so as to make a character and her voice distinct. You get to know your historical character, you listen for your character, you’re busy watching as well as designing your character’s progress through various episodes; and all the while, the sum of her traits and her potential for change and so on starts–not to be too mystical about it–a kind of hum in your head.

When I was doing research for The Tulip and the Pope and writing about my life as a young nun, I began to hear what might have been pretty close to the tone, the “hum” inside the skull of the young person who was the fragile but questioning and curious me. Once I felt I had the voice, that tonality, I felt confident about proceeding with the book.

Q: You lived with fellow Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the “BVMs”) for nearly five years. Are there any common misconceptions of convent life that you hope to untangle for your readers?

A: Most people would not have guessed that some religious communities (such as the BVMs) in the 1960s could fairly be called progressive, theologically speaking, if not avant-garde. I profited greatly from that kind of exposure. Also, I am living testimony that a woman does not leave her humanity behind when she enters the convent. Some aspects of her makeup may go under ground; she may feel like a shape-shifter at times or like a robot. She may be ashamed of it. But ah, her humanity, as Bartleby’s employer might say. Thank God.

Q: Please explain the practice of Custody of the Eyes.

A: In practicing custody of the eyes in the convent, you lowered your gaze as you were, say, walking down the hall, so that you did not take in everything going on around you. Although you were supposed to watch where you stepped so you didn’t trip, you didn’t look through doorways, you didn’t gaze at people’s faces (much less into their eyes), you didn’t turn to look for the origin of a sound. The point was to keep yourself from distraction, to keep yourself “collected” as it were, to keep yourself in a meditative state.

Q: Why did you title your book The Tulip and the Pope?

A: When I was a young child I had an encounter with tulips in my Protestant neighbors’ backyard garden, the significance of which only came to me years later when I was thinking about freedom, grace, the beauty of the physical world, and approaching a loving God by means of metaphor. At the same time I was recollecting some of the more punishing aspects of the church (at the head of which is the Pope). The reader will see the results of this meditation toward the end of the book.

Q: During your time in the convent, your mother developed brain cancer and you were allowed to see her only once before she passed away. For this reason and any others, do you regret your time in the convent?

A: I do regret my absence from my mother’s side during that period of illness as well as during other, happier times in both her life and mine. As a young religious I didn‘t openly question isolation from my family during the “formation” period. I wish I had. But then I would have been a different person. Regretting in general my time in the convent would mean regretting the person I was and I don’t regret that person, although I would have done things differently had I known what I know now.

Q: Your exquisite, exact descriptions of growing in up in St. Paul in the 1950s are very vivid. With hardly any access to television and mainstream newspapers for five years, did you notice any shocking changes in the cultural landscape when you left the convent in 1965?

A: Not for some time. After all, when I left the convent in 1965 I went back to a very midwestern, very Catholic St. Paul–not to San Francisco, not to L.A., not to Boston, not even to that dangerous place, Minneapolis! I don’t honestly remember paying much attention to the media. Maybe I was still practicing custody of the eyes? Much later, the world would blow up for me. But that is another story.

Actually, the most shocking thing I read in those early days was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I got interested, in the early chapters, in the social conditions in England. And then as I, lately out of a convent, read on–Yikes!

Q: What was at the core of your decision to leave the convent?

A: The core of my decision now looks more like a constellation than it does a single star. I’m not being coy when I say that I’d have to include the text of my book here to answer the question.

Q: Are you still a practicing member of the Roman Catholic Church?

A: If you mean that version of the Church presently dominated by a water-tight, conservative clergy-hierarchy which covers up abuses and bars certain believers from holy communion, I am not.

My faith, however, persists and has developed through hard thought, prayer, reading, and as a gift. I have continued to attend various services and have taken an active interest in the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. I’m always on the lookout for a compassionate, intelligent worship community that reaches out to those in need.

Some people say, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” I think that’s nonsense. And it frightens disaffected Roman Catholics who are thinking of practicing their faith in other ways. People often need to be reassured–until they can arrive at this view for themselves–that they will not go to hell if they choose a little differently. On the contrary, choosing what is best for the expansion of their spirits, choosing in freedom, may well garner applause from someone like Christ.

Q: In 2003, you talked with several former and current BVMs when you returned to Mt. Carmel for the 200th anniversary of the order's founding. Based on those conversations, what do you see as the future of religious life? Will there always be young women eager to be nuns?

A: The number of young women entering the convent has plummeted. But I met three women, one quite young, at Mt. Carmel who were actively considering entering. I’m not a prophet, but I think some few persons will continue to choose–and have continued to choose–this particular way of living and of serving.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"[An] evocative and intelligent memoir. . . .Larsen summons up a lost world."—The Washington Post Book World

"[Larsen] recalls . . .an era when life in a nunnery, for many woman, was the only counterculture available."—The New York Times

"Movingly and honestly explores an innocent girl's faith and subsequent coming-of-age."—Bookpage

  • The Tulip and the Pope by Deborah Larsen
  • September 12, 2006
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Vintage
  • $14.00
  • 9780375712906

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