by Liberty Wright
“Catholic school as vicious as roman rule, I had my knuckles bruised by a lady in black, I held my tongue as she told me, son, fear is the heart of love, so I never went back” (‘I will follow you into the dark’ Death Cab for Cutie)
“Ouch!” thorns catch at Mary Margaret O’Leary’s right knee, drawing blood beneath the star shaped birthmark hidden by the hem of her school uniform. She picks blooms from the banks along the stream near her home, gingerly holding the thorny stalks of the wild roses in the pulled down sleeves of her cardigan. The scent of the flowers is heady, like candy-floss: a scrumptious smell.
“Hurry up, Mary Margaret!’ urges her younger sister Mary Frances. “You know we are not to be late home today!” despite a touch of impatience, her bold green eyes flash with good humor at her older sister’s dawdling.
“I know, I know” agrees Mary Margaret “but mammy loves these roses. Besides, I want Father Flynn and the Sisters to have a few moments with mammy and dada alone.”
Her sister is curious “Do you really want to be a nun, Mary Margaret? You will own nothing, never have a boyfriend, follow strict church rules and have another name! Worse still, we will rarely see you.”
“Yes, I really want to be a nun Mary Frances. I have prayed and I believe it is what God wants for me” she looks seriously at her sister “but I will miss you all terribly.”
Her sister can only sigh; Mary Margaret has always been the most devout of them all.
Crushed on the settee, the self-righteous priest vies for room with two stocky nuns in bulky habits. His thigh is pressed embarrassingly hard against that of the lemon-faced Sister Ignatius, and beads of sweat form on his forehead and around his collar. Father Flynn’s thin nostrils flare. He smells boiled cabbage and dirty nappies; the squeals of small scruffy children assault his ears.
They have come to speak about Mary Margaret’s interest in becoming a vestal or holy sister. Mammy cries with joy, but her father is unenthusiastic “What would a young girl of fifteen know about the consequences of such a decision?”
Father Flynn, a master of persuasion, huffs “Michael O’Leary, this is an opportunity for Mary Margaret to devote herself to God, to do good works that will benefit all humanity, to be university educated! Would you stand in the way of a good education for at least one of your children?
Michael O’Leary wavers: soon his first-born daughter’s future is in the hands of the Church.
Sister Joseph gently lifts the head of the deceased as Sister Bernadette places the bunched fabric of the plain long shift beneath. These two, who were closest to Sister Christopher in life, have washed and are now dressing the cadaver, before it is placed in a plain wooden casket to be interred in the crypt beneath the chapel; candles nearby cast a soft light.
During the washing, Sister Bernadette’s eyes widened momentarily. She looked up at Sister Joseph, whose gaze slid away in a rare display of avoidance.
Sister Bernadette is intrigued. The scar denoting a cesarean section is not that startling in itself, but on a religious she knows entered the convent young, it is an enigma. She also noticed the birthmark above Sister Christopher’s right knee.
A frown creases Sister Bernadette’s forehead. All nuns are aware that it is bad form indeed to pry into a fellow Sister’s past. Nonetheless, although unable to speak, Sister Bernadette can’t hide her interest.
She must be satisfied with a small shake of the head and a silent communique: Sister Joseph will pray for guidance.
He should not be a priest.
The young ecclesiastic prays for strength, his body drenched in perspiration. He raises the whip and flings the knotted cords over his bare shoulder, drawing blood. All suffering assists his soul toward purification, but it is consecrated celibacy that is his real agony.
“O Jesus, help me …”
His heartbeat quickens: she was a novitiate when first he saw her. Now, she has made her solemn vows and is a virtual prisoner. Her very devoutness has placed her at the mercy of a flawed construct and a frustrated and vulturine clergyman.
She is here for the Sacrament of Penance.
“O Jesus, forgive me….”
Sister Bernadette puts her hands on her hips and leans back for a satisfying back stretch.
“Good afternoon, Sister Agnes, Sister Mary Catherine.”
“Good afternoon, Sister Bernadette.”
“We’re in for a treat” says Sister Mary Catherine “Sister Therese is tuning the violin and Sister James is at the piano. I do love it when they play a duet.”
Sister Patrick looks up from her canvas and smiles “Sister Bernadette! Sister Joseph said to tell you to look for her in the orchard. Enjoy the sun!”
A silent cloister can be tough, but mercifully contemporary thinking has introduced this daily hour of relief. They live simply and chastely. The Divine Office requires they pray together seven times a day, setting up a rhythm that includes manual labor. They venerate the sacrament, but this short recreation time benefits their mental health.
Sister Bernadette steps outside and sees Sister Joseph ambling toward the orchard. She hurries to catch her up. The sun is warm; freshly mowed hay beyond the convent wall smells sweet. A smile transforms Sister Joseph’s taciturn and ordinary features as Sister Bernadette touches her arm.
“Will you tell me Sister Christopher’s story?” she asks the older nun.
“Yes” she nods “I have prayed for many hours, and I believe God wants you to know.”
“I c…can’t” whispers an exhausted Sister Christopher as she falls back in a lather of pain, exhaustion and sweat. The smell of stale human odors is cloying in the small room, and the tang of copper is sharp as bright red blood glistens between her thighs. The doctor removes the pincers from inside the young nun, beads of perspiration running down the ridge of his nose and trickling from the tip. She has been in labor for thirty hours. Many attempts to turn the breeched baby have failed, and the doctor is now acutely aware time is running out for both mother and child.
Grabbing a cloth, irritated by the turn of events, he rubs at his face rancorously. Plunging his hands into a bucket of soapy water he scrubs up. “I will have to do a cesarean section, Sister” he barks at the plain Sister Joseph, ignoring the brutally weakened woman on the narrow bed. “Just do exactly as I say…..”
Both nuns settle on a bench-seat in the orchard.
Sister Joseph’s arm makes a broad sweep of the convent and the walled grounds “This place in the nineteen-sixties was hard. We were cold, hungry and corporal punishment was common. Sadly, some became victims of predacious priests” her sigh is ragged. “She was raped a short time after taking her solemn vows. He was sent abroad: she was pregnant.”
“Were outside authorities advised?”
“No. I’m afraid the Church was expert at hushing things up: they pushed for an abortion, she refused. Just as the widespread abuse of young children was hidden for years, so was this. She was a victim not only of that priest, but Church collusion and a damaged system.”
Sister Joseph’s voice is raspy “The birth was traumatic: they were both lucky to live. The baby was a girl with a feeble cry when she was finally pulled free” she shakes her head, grimacing at the thought. “But I also remember seeing a birthmark above her knee, exactly like the one above Sister Christopher’s knee!” her eyes are moist.
“Did you hear what happened to the child?”
Sister Joseph bends to pluck a leaf of wild mint; wrinkling her brow, she muses “No, sadly we never did.” A long pause later “Thankfully, things have changed for the better: abusers are dealt with openly by the law, and humane improvements via the Holy See have been applied. Suffering is not nearly as literal as it once was.”
They sit in silence and digest what’s been said.
Finally, the older nun turns and looks at her companion. “She was young and a survivor. You came to know Sister Christopher in her middle years: a good, kind person who lived a godly life.”
“Yes, that’s true” Sister Bernadette’s voice is unusually tremulous.
Muted bells ring: only five minutes remain of their free time for another day. Sister Bernadette sighs, leans forward to brush aside her scapular and grab the hem of her heavy tunic. She crumples the fabric in one hand and pulls it up. She pushes a thumb beneath the top of the black woolen stocking that covers to her quadriceps; moves it down to reveal a star shaped birthmark above her right knee.