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Traveling In Style : A Night In A Monastery

March 15, 1987|PATRICIA HAMPL | Hampl is a poet and the author of "Resort and Other Poems" (Houghton Mifflin, 1983).

At one time, the little mustard-colored room in my high school where I was sent after lunch to practice playing the piano had been a dormitory room. Years before, farmers and bankers as far away as the Dakotas had sent their daughters to the nuns in St. Paul to be finished--as the rather sinister phrase of the day put it.

But by 1964 the boarders were long gone. We were all day pupils, studying trig, hoping to score high on the SATs. Most of the old dorm rooms, opening onto a long, dim corridor, had been turned into practice rooms. Another, used for storage, was filled with Singer treadle sewing machines from some ghostly home-ec class of yore. And one room, always locked, at the darkest end of the corridor, remained a mystery.

The room was next to a door on which a white cardboard sign announced in stern block letters: ENCLOSURE.

It might just as well have read STOP. No girl was allowed past this door or past any other "enclosure" signs posted throughout the building. Such markers indicated the border, strictly observed, between school and cloister.

The whole place, even the big, walled courtyard, was divided in half like that. Them and Us. "I'll fetch it, dear," a nun would say affably when one of us lobbed a tennis ball out of range into the cloister garden behind a tall hedge called The Maze. It was unthinkable that one of us might trespass Over There.

The building was romantic, made of red brick and laid out in an L-shape, with a great bell tower from which tolled the Angelus. There was an arched walk, a reflecting pool, statues, a grotto--the works.

Though it was only a few blocks from my own house, it seemed--and it was--foreign. The design of the building had been taken from that of an old French monastery. The fact that the nuns casually referred to their own rooms in the cloister as cells only heightened the romance, the oddity of the place. There is something tantalizing about what can never be seen, especially when it's nearby. Even more so when those deadpan "enclosure" signs were posted on every floor, teasing.

So complete was the injunction against entering the cloister that no one flirted with the idea of a raid. It was impossible to imagine putting a hand on the doorknob of an enclosure door.

Yet, the cloister calm reached us. I loved the cramped, yellowed room on the fourth floor where, truth be told, I did precious little practicing. After a few swipes at "The Jolly Farmer" and "Fuer Elise," I threw myself on the flowered daybed behind the black grand piano (said to belong to the archbishop, who stopped by at times and spent an hour playing things like "Begin the Beguine" and "Sweet Georgia Brown"). The long window rattled in its sash, and I stared down upon the courtyard. I was so high up that no enclosure sign could deny a view of the cloister garden below. It proved to be disappointingly ordinary.

I lounged on the daybed in my blue serge uniform and brown oxfords and considered my future. I had many airy castles in mid-construction. I would travel, and I would see the world. It was some kind of oversight, a mistake, that I'd been born in St. Paul, Minn., in the first place. I was really destined for . . . .

One afternoon, emerging from the practice room and my fine plans, I saw that the door to the always-locked room was open. The mystery room! A shaft of light fell across the dark corridor. There was a window in the room, south-facing, and the sun was flooding in.

It's strange, the places that strike one as perfect. They needn't be beautiful. But they must somehow register , must touch a core of harmony. A room, after all, is an interior : it speaks to the inner self.

The floor was maple, golden, highly polished. Nun's work. There was a small, blue rag rug, a plain table meant to be a desk, a chair. No crucifix; instead, a print of a painting of a ship at sea. Behind it, someone had stuck a dried frond--from Palm Sunday--that curled around the wooden frame.

But it was the bed, I think, that did it. The narrow, white bed, the candlewick spread, the great wafer of sunlight cast upon it from the window.

I wanted to go in there, lie down and sleep for maybe a hundred years. The entire cube (it was tiny, another former dorm room) was engulfed in light. Sweet clarity. It seemed not part of the school, not part of the cloister, but belonged to some middle ground of perfect serenity.

Sister Marie Therese was placing a vase of lilacs on the table. She had a bundle of bedding under her other arm. She gave the white bedspread a final flick as she came to the door. What was this room for, I asked.

"This room, dear? This is for visitors."

"Visitors?" Who, I wondered, ever came here to visit.

Sister Marie Therese took a final look around the little chamber; it seemed to pass inspection. She stepped outside, near me. "Strangers, dear," she said, closing the door, which left us suddenly in the dark again. "We must always have a room for strangers."

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