Pamela York Klainer
Sister Claire was a person of rules, which the Order thought made her a good supervisor of Sisters in training. Father Leon was not a person of rules, which didn’t necessarily make him a good chaplain but the Bishop had no one else. Ambitious men called to the priesthood wanted large parishes to run. Wealthy Catholics needed pastoral care too, and from them came new wings at the hospital and large donations to the Bishops’ Annual Fund. Visibility mattered, and recognition, and no upward striving priest would find that in the backwater of young Sisters’ unformed spiritual lives.
Father Leon was a small, neat man who surprised with his unconventional theology. He welcomed Catholics to communion whom one might judge were lacking a state of grace, looking at the lives they led beyond the parish. This is the Lord’s table, he intoned at daily mass. Come and be fed. He failed to inquire in confession whether a prominent couple with two children might be using birth control, or even preach on the Church’s strict prohibition when he got to offer homilies. He didn’t terrify small children preparing for their First Communion, knowing they were already frightened by the dark confessional and the thought of having sinned. He told them God loved them, and heard their prayers, and that if they forgot the words the Sisters taught them in catechism they could just talk to God in their own words and He would listen.
Father Leon, who was the new chaplain to the Order, sat with Loretta to talk about Particular Friendships and Sister Joan.
“I don’t want to be part of something if I can’t really care about people.” Loretta looked ready to burst into tears.
Father Leon frowned. “Who in the world told you God is calling you not to care about people?”
Loretta explained about Sister Claire’s recent session on Particular Friendships, and Father Leon sighed.
“Sister Loretta, you can read every word Jesus said in the gospels and you won’t find a single thing about Particular Friendships. People make rules for all kinds of reasons. Families have rules. The College has rules. The Sisters have rules too, and I’m sure someone, somewhere, had a concern that led to this one. You’ve made a vow of obedience, and you have to attend to the rules of the Order. But you have to hear them with the ear of your own conscience, and with the assurance of God’s love. Do you think God loving me as His particular creation lessens His ability to love you in a particular way too?”
Loretta struggled with the simple question. Improbably, she hadn’t yet thought much about God. Religious life seemed to her about becoming a woman like Sister Joan, and about not being a housewife. Loretta loved her mother. But she didn’t love the thought of cooking and cleaning and being at the beck and call of some man and a bunch of kids. Sister Joan had a life of her own and Loretta wanted that too.
Talking with Father Leon, Loretta had a glimmer – perhaps for the first time since she talked with Sister Joan about the ocean – of having stepped into something big.
Pastoral care sessions were confidential, which was a good thing. The Bishop, like Mother Superior and Sister Claire, was a person of rules. His counsel to a struggling young Sister would have focused heavily on obedience, and said nothing at all about individual conscience. A young Sister needed to learn submission to the greater wisdom of her superiors. The Bishop had great confidence in his own wisdom, and in his ability to interpret the will of God for the faithful. That’s why he’d been named a Bishop. And, although he knew naked ambition was prideful, he secretly had his eye on the red hat of a Cardinal. He saw the princes of the Church gathered in Rome from time to time, and felt he was born to be among them. He even looked like them, tall and with a shock of white hair and a booming voice.
The Bishop looked down on the much shorter Father Leon, literally and figuratively. The Bishop saw Father Leon as a moveable piece, someone who could be assigned wherever and would go without protest. That trait was useful in a diocese with a lot of jobs to fill, but not something that drew the Bishop’s interest or his respect or even his affection. The Bishop liked manlier men, those he could invite into his study for a glass of Scotch and a conversation about the state of the world.
Luckily the Bishop didn’t hear Father Leon at work in pastoral counseling, and as long as the chaplaincy was covered, the Bishop didn’t spend a second wondering what Father Leon might be saying. The Bishop’s concern was the other end of Sister Loretta’s formation process, when she and sixty or seventy other young women would emerge ready to staff his schools and hospitals. The last thing he wanted was people under his charge rambling off into the thicket of individual conscience, and he would have been alarmed at Father Leon suggesting such a path. But the Bishop had no basis on which to be alarmed, and he continued to let Father Leon be.
In the freedom of his one-on-one time with Loretta Father Leon planted a seed, and Loretta began to think about God. She resumed writing poems. She wrote late at night, with a street light sending just enough glow through the window to allow her to see the page. The young Sisters were supposed to keep their curtains closed at night while sleeping, but Loretta found she could pull back the curtain nearest the window just a few inches, and that was enough.
She didn’t share the new poems with Sister Joan, and indeed hadn’t seen Sister Joan since their argument. Sister Joan had to come to her, to request of Sister Claire that Loretta be allowed to come for a Sunday walk. Three consecutive weeks passed after family Sunday without an invitation from Sister Joan, and Loretta was still hurt enough not to ask why.
In the young Sisters’ silent meditation time Loretta usually thought about images for her poems. The meditation began with Sister Claire reading a short inspirational piece, and then the young Sisters were given half an hour to reflect individually on the lesson therein. So far Loretta let the readings go in one ear and out the other, finding their language flowery and uninspiring, but to Sister Claire Loretta looked as deeply lost in reverent contemplation as all the others.
Father Leon said God would find His own way of speaking to Loretta, and she would find her own way to respond.
Maybe the poetic images were that.
Maybe the images were the voice of God.
Maybe God wanted her to be a poet.
Maybe God creating the world was poetic too.
Maybe she was writing for God, as one small poetic voice to a gigantic and powerful one.
Maybe writing was, for Loretta, prayer.
Maybe it didn’t matter if she found saying the rosary boring.
Maybe God thought your own words mattered more.
She couldn’t wait to ask Sister Joan.
Why hadn’t Sister Joan come to see her.
Should Loretta talk more openly about her poems when everybody else talked about prayer life?
What if Sister Claire didn’t understand.
Maybe Loretta should keep her poetic prayer life a secret.
You weren’t supposed to keep secrets as a nun.
You were supposed to share your deepest thoughts so Sister Claire could tell you if you were on the right track.
Father Leon said talking to God from your heart was always the right track.
Where was Sister Joan.
Where was Sister Joan.