Intrapsychic Cloisters

About the Images

A few years ago, I consummated a romantic relationship in a vacant convent that I trespassed into (not the height of my moral evolution). I enjoyed the fact that this sexual encounter happened in a convent immensely due of a certain level of playfulness or immaturity of spirit, and also because I adored the way the convent made me feel. I was captivated by the long hallways, dormitory-style rooms and the oceanic blue stained glass in the chapel that was the boundary between the attached high school, where the sisters used to teach and work, and the living quarters of the convent proper.

The color of this space provoked all sorts of fantasy images in my mind, not of religion but of a certain sensuality I had no name for at the time. I was enamored first by that oceanic blue and then the place in its entirety; the linoleum floors, wood-panel walls, the childish rainbow paint in the empty matchbox rooms where each nun used to sleep.

There is no feminine clerical counterpart to a priest (Father) in Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity. Nuns are called Sister and Mother despite their lack of functional equivalence to a priest. Convents, unlike their non-analogous counterparts – rectories – are not luxurious, decorated, or adorned. They are simple places. The women who take up residence there by requirement of their vocation live simple lives. Their duties, like a priest's, are to that of the soul. But, they tend to it in service to the collective with ‘good works' as opposed to opining on biblical parables with the ordained religious authority of God. Nuns do their work with none of the pomp and circumstance of the priesthood. As a society, we seldom understand nuns as individuals. They exist as a collective body and their living spaces and uniforms reflect this ontology.

Surfing in and out of my unconscious is a frequently forgotten and rediscovered fantasy of leaving my current life to join a religious order and become a nun. Not coincidentally, I have spent a lot of time over the past few years walking in and out of vacant convents. I devoured their details and familiarized myself with their structural conventions. This activity was in so many ways a reflection of my own psychic interiority. I was walking the perimeters of my own psyche. Here, the chapel (abandoned and in disarray), the common kitchen (no food), there is no grand dining room for honored and intentional communion, there are no frivolous decorations. In the dormitories there are no signs of comfort or pleasure.

The contrast of my own sexual encounter (the transgression of so many boundaries having taken place within the walls of that convent) and the desire to feel boundaried and protected in solitude within myself have haunted me. The truth is, even before I found myself sexually enmeshed with a boy, acting out in that convent, I was already playing with this trope in my life having attended an all women’s college. There, I found myself wandering the first iteration of what would become a familiar image: walls around the campus, dormitories, common areas, sisterhood.

The idea for these images was in part triggered by a film I saw about Benedetta Carlini, a Catholic mystic who had a sexual relationship with another nun in her order and reportedly experienced the stigmata and religious visions of Christ. She was eventually imprisoned as a heretic. She sat at the apex of forbidden sexuality, chaos, and religious experience. But what if the sexuality that she enacted was in truth the actual religious experience that we all seek?

The other part of the inspiration was more personal. I have lived a paradoxical reality of intensely desiring to be with my Self, but in practice becoming enmeshed with romantic partners. This mirrored another paradoxical and intense desire to withdraw from the outer world and retreat to my own fantasies. Yet outwardly, I became a workaholic and a human do-ing. I was intent on proving myself as highly productive, efficient, effective, and competent at absolutely everything to absolutely everyone. This was a type of disjointed grandiosity: no human can be productive, effective, and efficient at everything. But, I felt so hollow and vessel-like, I could not say no to anything. I abandoned my Self over and over again.

Let’s return to the convent and its cultural context. Christianity has removed the sexual feminine as an archetype from its mythology and in its practice. We see generativity historically associated with the sexual feminine (Aphrodite, the Graces, Kali, Ishtar) reappointed to a masculine image of God the Father. The gestational power and its creative possibility is removed from Mary (literally called The Virgin) and instead of sexual union resulting in (pro)creation of The Saviour, Christianity recasts the coming of humanity’s greatest hero as something that happens to Mary as opposed to an act she engages in. She has no responsibility in the consummation of Jesus. Her agency in the miracle is all but removed with the annunciation. As an aside, there is an argument to be made that Mary’s voluntary act of submission to the  will of God, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38), is revolutionary psychospiritual agency at its moral peak. To be clear, I am not suggesting this with any disdain. I think it is a worthy point to consider, gender politics aside.

Like Mary and God, the convent is its own archetype of an idealized union between the feminine and the masculine Godhead. Nuns are “married” to Christ, yet in the Middle Ages and the early renaissance, convents served as a space where women were liberated from actual marriage and its accompanying domestic duties. In turn, many women of religious orders were able to pursue artistic and creative expression  they otherwise could not have pursued.

For instance, Saint Hildegaard was a prolific creator; she composed theological manuscripts and over 69 musical compositions along with accompanying poems. Her theological work concerned the relationship between God and his human creation. Her music and its accompanying poetry were allegorical tellings of redemption and salvation for the fallen as it might be realized through the efforts of the feminine Virtues.

The emotion these creative works express is one of atonement (at-one-ment, as in “at one with oneself”), restoration of wholeness in the collective and Self and overwhelming transcendent ecstasy. Perhaps the convent is a site of aphrodisian creation and sexuality after all, despite all of the pretense of restraint, chastity, and sisterly/motherly nurturing.

I return to my personal expression of this paradox and what the images mean to me (which is really less important than what they mean to the viewer). On my worst and best days, I want to be with God and God alone. I want to be with my Self. I have not yet learned how to be at one with my Self without becoming tangled up in the needs, desires, and agendas of an Other. Hence, the fantasy of a cloister; of solitude, of chastity and silent mornings doing routine chores. These activities may conjure the image of Hestia over and above Aphrodite. Yet, somehow, the two are related for me.

In a dream, Hestia came to me holding the Holy Grail and  said, “You will not find the Grail in your marriage bed, but rather in the  day-to-day.” This image along with my fantasy of a convent led me to profoundly consider what precisely my psyche was demanding of me at this moment in my life.

My hypothesis is that, in order to be in right relation to an other, I need to periodically take refuge in my own personal “convent.” This becomes an aspect of my psychic interiority where hollowness becomes a sanctuary instead of a tragic ontology or pathology. Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον.

In my life, I have felt like a vessel ricocheting between the habit of filling myself with the needs, desires, and the emotional realities of others and an overwhelming desire to be cloistered from those same things that served to fill me up.

Now, I return to the images, which I did not make with any of the above  in mind. I merely followed my feeling of awe when imagining the lives of nuns and my curiosity about how nuns might feel about their own lack of sexual and/or creative expression.

There is a marked tension in the stillness of these images and all the undercurrents of emotions the subjects in them  suggest. That stillness unsettles me. What are they doing/thinking/saying? What’s going on here? If we ask and if we receive the answer, are we prepared to witness it?

I want to build my own intrapsychic cloister where I am at one, where my emotions are contained and sublimated into the sort of religious ecstasy that only fully manifests where there is room made by solitude and stillness. These images reflect that intrapsychic fantasy.