An Unexpected Jolt


Pamela York Klainer

They didn’t tell the Sisters in training much because they wanted them to focus on God not gossip, and not even on current events which were largely irrelevant to the timelessness of life as a Bride of Christ. That made Loretta’s smoking buddy Katie’s college friends an important source of news. One of the girls had Sister Joan for freshman Survey of English Literature, and between classes the girl told Katie she was totally bummed because that very morning they were told Sister Joan was out on medical leave and they were having a substitute professor for the rest of the semester.

Katie waited until she and Loretta were down in the boiler room, ready to light up.

“You know my friend Mary Jane, right, the one who has Sister Joan?”

“Yes. What about her?”

Katie hesitated. She knew about Loretta’s argument with Sister Joan, and how upset Loretta was that Sister Joan hadn’t come to see her. “I saw Mary Jane this morning and she said Sister Joan is on a medical leave. She’s not teaching. They’re getting a permanent substitute. They didn’t even say for sure if Sister Joan is coming back next semester.”

Loretta froze. “What else did Mary Jane say? What kind of medical leave?”

“She doesn’t know. Nobody told them. Loretta, what are you going to do?”

Loretta dropped her cigarette, with only a puff or two taken, and ground it out on the concrete floor. She stared wide eyed at Katie. “I don’t know. They won’t want to tell us, will they, even if I go and ask Sister Claire. But they have to tell me. Sister Joan is my sponsor.”

Katie thought for a moment. “Can you ask Father Leon? He’s way nicer than Sister Claire. He probably knows. He’s chaplain for the Motherhouse Sisters too.”

Loretta paused, considering. “No. I’m asking Sister Claire. Right now.”

Loretta climbed the gloomy cellar steps, slipping carefully through the wooden door into the first floor corridor. All of the Sisters in training were outside for their obligatory afternoon walk. She gave no thought to what Sister Claire might say about her being in the building, nor to the fact that none of them were supposed to knock on Sister Claire’s door except for an emergency.

“Come in.”

The surprise on Sister Claire’s face was palpable. She was writing in a large book that looked like a ledger, and appeared to be in deep concentration. “Sister Loretta, have you returned from your walk? Please sit down. Is something wrong?”

“Yes. Please tell me what’s happening with Sister Joan.”

Sister Claire folded her hands carefully, her expression neutral, her voice betraying no emotion. “Sister Loretta, this isn’t an appropriate question for you to ask. I know that Sister Joan is your sponsor in religious life. When there is something you need to know about her, I’ll tell you. You must trust me in that, as a matter of obedience.”

Loretta simply sat there, waiting. The seconds ticked on. When Sister Claire finally spoke again, her voice had a tinge of annoyance. “Please tell me what you’ve heard, and from whom.”

Loretta ignored the “from whom”. “That Sister Joan is on a medical leave, and isn’t coming back soon. If Sister Joan is sick she’d want me to know. I need to go and see her.”

Sister Claire felt her antennae go up. She knew, of course, what had befallen Sister Joan. She didn’t know if Sister Joan was able to receive visitors in her hospital room, or if Sister Joan would want one of those visitor to be Loretta. But all of that was beside the point. The point for Sister Claire, shaper of young lives, was that Sister Loretta stepped across an invisible line. Sister Claire’s job was to train first year Sisters in the fundamental stance of being a nun, which was to ask permission, and to send them on to their second year to master the nuances of poverty, chastity, and obedience. For Sister Claire obedience was the most important vow. Poverty and chastity could be enforced externally; Sisters simply had very little opportunity to stray. But obedience came from within. A young woman could look compliant without feeling submissive in her heart. Submissive to God, of course. Sister Claire was always aware of her role, to be a conduit for the will of God.

Sister Loretta was not submissive. She was not asking permission, as had been stressed since the day she entered training. Sister Loretta was far too insistent, far too direct in her request, and far too lacking in humility. That, for Sister Claire, was a huge red flag.

Sister Claire wasn’t close to Sister Joan, as they entered the Order two decades apart. Sister Joan was sent straight through for her doctoral degree, and after what Sister Claire thought was a very short stint in high school teaching, arrived at the College, the flagship of the Order’s ministries. When Sister Joan spoke at congregational meetings it was often to shred the arguments of Sisters with lesser intellect. Sister Joan didn’t do it unkindly, but she also seemed to have little awareness of the impact of her words. Sister Claire thought the expression “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” applied, the problem being that next to Sister Joan, so many of them sounded like fools.

Sister Claire was not, in any way, jealous of Sister Joan’s blazing intellect or her rapid advancement. Sister Claire had a master’s degree. She had a responsible position in the life of the Order. She had a kindly temperament most of the time and people liked her, inside the Order and out. She thought Sister Joan was, perhaps, a little too modern in her thinking, a little too far out on the edge. Sister Joan was polarizing, not an admirable quality in a nun.

“Sister Loretta, requesting a visit with Sister Joan is very premature. I will ask you again to leave this matter with me. When there is something you should know, I will call you in and tell you. If you are concerned about Sister Joan, prayer would be appropriate.”

Loretta knew she’d pushed Sister Claire as far as she could, at least for the moment. But she had one more seugue which she thought might work. Loretta stood, making her tone and posture respectful. “Thank you Sister Claire. I would be very grateful if you will call Sister Joan and ask about my coming to see her. I’m sorry to have disturbed your work.”

Sister Claire was not happy. She would most certainly not be pushed into calling Sister Joan. This would be an important learning experience for young Sister Loretta, a step in the direction of becoming a real nun. Making this about Sister Claire’s feelings toward Sister Joan would, of course, be petty and had nothing to do with the matter.

Any tiny sliver of discontent Sister Claire might have harbored toward Sister Joan was surely tempered by compassion for her recent surgery, which took a bad turn. For such a relatively young woman to be struck with a lethal ovarian cancer was an unmitigated tragedy. Sister Joan had weeks to live, not more, and there was a possibility she might not even leave the hospital.

Sister Claire was shocked when her phone rang a day or two later and the voice on the other end was Sister Joan, asking for Sister Claire’s cooperation in bringing Sister Loretta to see her. Sister Joan’s voice, thick with the influence of morphine, sounded fuzzy although there was nothing vague about the request.

“Claire, I know this is unusual. But Loretta is one of our most promising young Sisters, and she will be very shaken by my illness. I feel that I need time to talk with her alone, and soon, or it could cost her future with us.”

Sister Claire froze, unaccustomed to interference in her bailiwick, even when it came from the dying.

“Sister Joan, Mother General has told us about the severity of your illness. I am so very sorry. Please know that we are all praying for you.”

Sister Joan waited, lacking the energy to argue. Sister Claire finally broke the silence.

“In my judgment bringing Sister Loretta to see you would be  a mistake. We must protect your health and your spirits. And I must shield Sister Loretta from any upsetting moments. I’m sure Mother would agree.”

They say that impending death clarifies the mind. Joan spoke to her Sister in Christ in that vein.

“Claire, I’m dying. I need to see Loretta within the next few days, while I can still tell her what I need to. Please honor my request.”

And then, perhaps in a moment of physical weakness, or perhaps because she intended to, Sister Joan hung up.

6 thoughts on “An Unexpected Jolt

  1. for Nedra: the saga continues to unfold … so glad it’s working for you. Your comments are always a big shot of encouragement for me.

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