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My first experience with a funeral and death in the convent took place soon after my perpetual vows were made.
I was summoned to the Martyr’s Room at approximately nine o’clock and was told to stand vigil over a dead Nun until another Nun came to relieve me. After so many minutes I was to sprinkle ashes and holy water over her dead body, while I repeated my learned prayers in Latin (not audibly, of course).
The dead Nun was still dressed in her holy habit, stretched on a cooling board. The only other fixture in the room was the candlestick stand with seven candles burning.
Needless to say, in that semi-darkness alone with a dead Nun, and the deathly silence that accompanied it, the room felt ghostly, and I trembled with fear. We Nuns were taught to walk on our tip-toes and never break silence. Therefore, the Nun who came to take my place arrived without my knowledge. When she tapped me on the shoulder it terrified me and I let out a blood-curdling scream!
For this mistake, I was sent back to the dungeon for three days and nights to sleep on a cold, clammy dirt floor. I lived there in my own filth, for there were no toilet facilities. There was no food to case the gnawing in my stomach, no water to quench my insatiable thirst, no blanket to keep me warm at night. This I suffered for breaking silence.
After we made our perpetual vows, we became sheaves of Rome. We learned that we had sold our birthrights for a mess of theological pottage.
Poor deluded souls, suffering a life of crucial poverty and penance. Every time we whipped our bodies until the blood flowed, we felt we escaped one hundred days in future purgatory!
Down underneath the ground we had our secret place of burial. Some Nuns and priests were buried in the crypts in the wall (that is, if they were lucky enough to escape the lime pit). Their names were engraved upon the wall.
Once a year during the Lenten Season a Nun gave her life for the faith. Very much like the Hindus of India, a glass covered casket was rolled to the center of the chapel (one flight underground). While the ceremony was performed, amidst chanting prayers, a little Nun was then sealed and pushed back into the crypt in the wall. However, before the casket was placed into the crypt, we Nuns were allowed to look on that martyr through the glass lid. Yes, her face was twisted, her fists clenched and her knees almost drawn to her chin. Sometimes they reached their heads and had handfuls of hair clutched between their fingers.
Horrible suffering! Oh, yes. In a moment all the air was gone — she died quickly. Perhaps she felt those short moments of agony were far less than years of living in a convent — sometimes in a dungeon, sometimes walking on sharp rocks, cold, hungry, beaten, kneeling on peas and giving her body to lustful, carnal priests.
We were taught that if we died a martyr, we would be canonized after death.