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Former nun offers fresh take on life after vows

Beryl Bissell entered the convent on Oct. 11, 1957, the day after her 18th birthday.

In her suitcase, in preparation for her entrance into the Monastery of Saint Clare in Bordentown, N.J., Bissell packed the bare necessities: "one dozen long-sleeved undershirts, three black-flannel slips, three black cotton slips, six yards of bird's eye (a dimpled cotton the nuns used for sanitary napkins), one dozen towels and face cloths (enough to last a lifetime), one pair of black oxfords (to be exchanged in six months for the heavy black sandals of the novice), and one dozen white handkerchiefs."

Bissell's sketch of her suitcase and its contents, a small and telling passage in her new memoir, "The Scent of God," reveals her for what she was in 1957: young (enough to need a lifetime's worth of wash cloths and sanitary napkins), inexperienced (oxfords were shoes for postulants only), and ready -- eager, even -- to begin her new life as a Poor Clare nun. Indeed, on the day of her entrance, Bissell felt impatient with those people in her family who didn't seem to understand or condone her vocation.

"I sat on this trunk," she writes, "filled with my material things in the hallway of my brother's apartment, waiting for my mother and my brother to come to terms about appearances, as I moved toward a life where appearances meant nothing."

Bissell does not tread much new ground in her memoir of living in and leaving the convent. It's a story line which fits into a pattern of ex-nun tales which stretches back not just to the controversial Second Vatican Council era but, in a darker way, into the early 19th century in the United States, when convent tales were horror stories of abuse and repression. Nuns -- or so-called "nuns" -- have always left convents in the United States, just as they have always joined them, and they have long been telling stories of their experiences within convent walls. In the 19th century, in fact, some fake ex-"nuns" even toured the country on circus-like speaking junkets, thrilling American audiences with their tales of convent mysteries.

Bissell's tale mirrors the more recent books in this long canon of work -- books such as British intellectual Karen Armstrong's "Through the Narrow Gate," a well-known title in the genre. Like Armstrong, Bissell joined the convent as a very young woman, filled with the desire for a life of extraordinary holiness and dedication. Again like Armstrong, Bissell suffered while in the cloister -- from an eating disorder, then from the effects of extreme solitude. Bissell spends a longer time in the convent than most ex-nuns: 15 years, a span during which she witnesses many Vatican II-influenced changes in the Poor Clare community.

Bissell matures and changes while in the convent, growing from a girl of 18 into a woman in her 30s. She may well have left her order anyway. But what spurs her decision -- and what sets her memoir apart, making for fresh reading -- is her relationship with Padre Vittorio, an Italian priest she meets in Puerto Rico, the island on which she spent her childhood. (Bissell's parents were there for business reasons.)

Bissell falls in love with the exuberant, passionate priest -- slowly and unwillingly at first, then joyously -- and decides to leave the convent to be with him. She watches him struggle for years with his twin calls: his vocation to the priesthood, and his desire to be with her.

As the priest struggles with his feelings, Bissell, once out of the cloister, embraces life. She travels in Italy, then settles in the United States. The ways in which her life resolves itself -- marriage, children, a patchwork of odd jobs taken to support herself and her family, a battle with a loved one's cancer -- glow with quiet dignity. Bissell today lives in Schroeder, Minn., where she works as a writer.

Bissell's book adds one more chapter to a long legacy of women's convent writing in the United States. For that reason -- and for the haunting pathos of her story -- it deserves a read.

Charity Vogel is a News Features reporter and frequent book reviewer.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>The Scent of God

A Memoir

By Beryl Singleton Bissell

Counterpoint, 288 pages, $24

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