The cold rain beat against the window-panes of the convent like evil spirits trying to break into this holy place. The same rain that had been maligning my face for five days. At least I was safe now.
“Yes, yes. I think that’s right,” Sister Sylvie said as she stood to pour our tea, “I think most people have no idea what makes them happy.”
As she poured, Sister held back her veil with one hand. a gesture she made delicately, so effortless and graceful. Her hand I had seen many times as a young boy in church on statues of the Blessed Virgin – no wrinkles, no blemishes, skin that was white as ivory yet nearly translucent and perfect as glass. She handed me my cup, sat down and continued.
“I think people are eventually disappointed with their possessions. After the novelty wears off, they move them around in different places to try and re-capture that wonderful rush of buying them. Pretty soon they just get rid of them and go out and buy some new things to replace them. It all seems so sad and desperate to me.”
I didn’t interrupt her as we were pretty much in agreement. She continued.
“I was 30 when I joined the convent, so I wasn’t a little girl just out of high school. I had plenty of experience before I took my vows.” she laughed. We both took tentative sips of the hot tea.
“What was it,” I asked, “was there an incident or something sudden that led you to make such a big change at that age?”
“Oh no,” she replied, “I had been a schoolteacher in Switzerland, then a bookkeeper. I began to feel I was simply reacting to things, to life in general. I was waiting, but I didn’t know for what. I wanted to do something, um, intentionally. Do you know what I mean? I wanted to start doing things deliberately, not in response to something else. I have always loved the Lord and he has always helped me with my decisions.”
It had been just four hours since I knocked at the door of the convent, part of which had been converted to rooms for travellers. I was cold and wet from my miserable motorcycle ride over the Italian Alps and had finally made it to Susa, Italy, the northwestern-most fortification during the Roman empire. I learned later from Sister that I had just crossed over the same mountain pass used by successive waves of Gauls, Visigoths, Vandals, and other challengers to Rome’s dominance. “No wonder they failed”, I told her, “the weather up there is awful!”
Sister had decreed, for budget reasons, that all lights were to be left off during the day, so on rainy days such as this it was quite dark throughout the cavernous four-story convent. I also soon realized that I was the only guest. I think with so few people in the building (just five other nuns who glided as gossamers through the halls) and the quiet darkened interior, such candid and personal conversation was natural and unforced. We spent a good deal of time on three separate occasions just sitting in her office and chatting. It was quite pleasant.
“So you just take off on these long rides by yourself?” Sister asked a little skeptically during one of our chats.
“Yes,” I told her.
“Do you ever get lonely?” she asked in a way designed not to offend.
“No, but I often miss playing with my three grandkids.” I replied honestly.
Sister tilted her head and leaned forward slightly, suggesting she was in counseling mode. “It seems to me that someone who travels without a plan, and who travels with so little with him, is searching for something. I just hope you find what you’re searching for.”
Her concern was endearing, but misplaced. I wanted to lighten the mood.
“Sister Sylvie,” I said, “what I’m really searching for is a good Kawasaki mechanic. Do you happen to know of one here in Susa?” We had a good laugh and I felt at that moment that we had become good friends. I ended up staying with Sister Sylvie for three days before leaving for Capodistria. When I left it was still raining.