Pamela York Klainer
Loretta didn’t find her ongoing calling at the bedside of dying children, but in getting her college degree and teaching poetry to new English speakers who didn’t trust the song in their voice. After completing the early years of their training, Sister Loretta and Sister Kathleen were missioned to the same struggling inner city high school. Katie taught math. Loretta taught English and poetry and out of necessity, basic writing skills.
They still shared the bad habit of smoking. Katie’s family thought a smoking nun was a hoot and took over from Katie’s old college classmates in the role of supplying cigarettes by the carton. Once Katie’s brother slipped in a small bag of weed and the papers for Katie to roll her own joints, but she demurred and gave the pot back to Kevin with a hearty laugh.
“Even renegade nuns have limits, little brother. Cigarettes may be naughty, but pot is flat out illegal. Can you imagine a nun hauled off in handcuffs? What are you trying to do to me?”
Loretta still had Sister Joan’s leather bag, which was now filled with Loretta’s work: her personal poetry diary, a cluster of as-yet-ungraded student papers, her favorite newly arrived English lit. journal, three books she was reading, her pack of smokes, and Sister Joan’s last note, which Loretta carried with her always.
Their nemesis, the pious Sister Mary Magdalene, was no longer part of the group, having been dismissed in their second year. No one knew why. No one ever did know why someone left, whether the decision was the person’s alone or whether the Order uncovered an irredeemable fault. But rumor had it that Mary Magdalene was seen leaving the office of Sister Claire’s successor, the stern Sister Jane, sobbing uncontrollably. Within hours of that sighting Mary Magdalene was gone.
Gossip was strongly discouraged. But no one could forbid a sharing of thoughts between friends. Loretta had a student named Magdalena, and coming across her paper waiting to be graded made the two friends think of Sister Mary Magdalene once again.
Katie expressed surprise, which she also felt at the time, that Magdalene, who prayed the hardest and longest and followed the rules better than anyone, hadn’t made the cut.
Loretta ventured a guess. “We didn’t really talk about it at the time, did we? That’s because neither of us liked her and we didn’t care that she was gone. But I think they made her leave because she was too weird. Remember when she talked about mortification of the flesh when Father Leon gave us the no-sex talk? That if you had longings you were to punish your body because the flesh is weak? Did you see Father Leon’s face when she said that? Maybe she was cutting herself. No one would know with our long sleeves.”
Katie nodded. “She had all those books about old-time saints who were torn apart by lions and martyred for the faith. She said she wished she’d lived during that time. And she told me once she knew about a contemplative order where the nuns beat themselves on their bare shoulders every night with braided ropes as penance for the sins of the world. She was pretty attracted to that, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it and they made her come to us instead.”
Loretta paused, wanting to say more. But as much as she and Katie shared, sex talk still felt too private, too far out of bounds. Loretta did have urges, and after Father Leon’s single candid talk about celibacy and sex in their second year of training, no one ever mentioned sexual feelings again. She certainly wasn’t going to bring it up in confession, or with her spiritual advisor. She would have been mortified. She and Katie were sitting grading papers in the warmth and comfort of Loretta’s office, arranged as Sister Joan’s once was with comfortable chairs and reading lamps and shelves and shelves of books. The opening was there.
Loretta made it sound like a joke. “Cold showers for me, and lots of them.”
Katie looked surprised, and made her response in the same humorous vein. “I thought you loved your students. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Turn all that love into dedication to the kids, or into loving God?”
Katie paused, clearly wanting to say more. Loretta waited. Katie’s voice changed and became serious. “But it doesn’t quite work the same way, does it? I mean, I love teaching math. But that doesn’t help how my body feels. And thinking about loving God THAT way doesn’t seem quite right.”
Katie and Loretta both wore simple gold bands, wedding rings to symbolize their being brides of Christ. The bands were ritually bestowed on them upon making final vows. Loretta began to twirl hers around her finger.
“No, I don’t really think of loving Jesus in the way of going to bed with him. That sounds sacrilegious to me. Who ever thinks of Jesus having sex? Maybe he did though. Men in that time all had wives. Yikes, what are we talking about? Can you imagine anyone overhearing us? My mother would say to wash out our mouths with soap.”
Loretta wanted to pull back from the entire conversation, the sharing having grown too awkward. But Katie was expectant, clearly open to more.So Loretta went a bit further.
“Well, I do love my students. And that takes up a lot of energy. This isn’t something I think about all the time, just once in awhile. And I can manage the feelings. They aren’t sinful, Father Leon said, if we just let them be and don’t try to do anything about them.”
Father Leon hadn’t ever said the word “masturbate” out loud during his talks to the young nuns, and Loretta didn’t either.
After a long pause Katie took a deep breath and looked directly at Loretta. “You love your students and take cold showers. I love Father Stephen.”
Loretta almost choked. “You love Father Stephen the way we love everyone, right, not in any particular way?”
Katie shook her head, tears beginning to form in her eyes. Her voice, when she spoke, was barely audible. “No. I love Father Stephen.”
The two young women sat in the low comfortable chairs, student papers strewn around them and dusk beginning to fall. Someone should have turned on the reading lamps. The hallways, bereft of students, were completely silent. Loretta felt something crack, like the ice on the pond when she and her brothers used to risk skating after a thaw. When they heard that kind of crack their mother always said they must back away, carefully and deliberately, and return to firmer ground. A crack like that signalled great danger. Loretta didn’t move, but she felt herself draw back from the fissure now opened. When she spoke again her voice, like her friend’s, was barely above a whisper.
“Katie, what are you doing?”
Katie’s response was rushed. “Nothing. We aren’t doing anything. Just that he’s chair of my department, and when I meet with him in his office he sometimes takes my hands, like we were praying. But we aren’t praying. We don’t really say anything, just look at each other. And it feels nice. We don’t do anything else, like kiss or anything, so it isn’t sex. Don’t look at me that way Loretta. It isn’t sex.”