James McKenzie ’71 Ph.D. | February 21, 2019
For six months in 1961, I lived with four other men in the “men’s bungalow” of the largest convent in the Diocese of Pittsburgh — the five of us lost, one way or another, among a sea of women vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience. What cast me there in early April, only a few weeks out of a Capuchin novitiate after six years of minor seminary, was a suicidal desperation very much like what Karen Armstrong describes in The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness: “When I looked ahead, the only possible future I could see for myself was a locked ward or a padded cell. My years as a nun had somehow made me unfit for the world, had broken something within me, and now I seemed unable to put myself together again.”
Armstrong fled her convent to survive, but I moved in the opposite direction to avoid my own padded cell. I went to live and work at Mount Alvernia, the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis. Named for the isolated mountain refuge of La Verna in the Tuscan Apennines where Francis of Assisi lived in a cave and, it is said, received the wounds of Christ, Mount Alvernia likely saved my life — and the lives of others in my family, too.
A few days before Sister Gladys hired me, I’d made a bizarre effort to drown in the ice-choked Allegheny River without committing a mortal sin: a suicide without blame, somehow. I couldn’t pull it off. Now, nearly 60 years later, I understand that the biggest source of my suicidal gloom is also what guided me to safety. As another sometime-Catholic writer, Mary McCarthy, has written: “the poison and the antidote [are] eternally packaged together by some considerate heavenly druggist.”
None of this was clear to me then. The form my impulsive suicidal hope took seems especially suited to a goody-goody, overheated Catholic boy — the undeveloped conscience of a first communicant frozen in the body of a virginal 20-year-old.
Here’s what happened: After shedding my brown robes and sandals that February, packing my few belongings and showing up — damned and crazy, I thought, a disgraced failure — at my dangerous family home where there was no room for me, all I could do was pray obsessively, keep trying to make a good confession and imagine writing for the Pittsburgh Catholic.
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