“The first year of your novitiate ends next month, doesn’t it?” Sister Bernadine asked, pulling me back into the present, which I’ll be first to admit is not always my favorite era.
“Why yes, yes it does.”
OK, now why was she asking me that? Walking into my 3rd Grade English class, wading through the bored stares of the nine-year-old boys, Sister Catherine had whispered, ‘Mother Superior said she needs to see you immediately, I’m to take over your class.’ As I hurried down the corridor to the administrative wing, I was pretty sure this meeting was going to be about the school’s new website. In my defense, I don’t recall a single person or clearly printed sign, on or near, the school computer, stating that a school website was prohibited. (The computer was a surprise gift from Mrs. Ethel Cavendish. The octogenarian Winner of the Pumpkin Pie Baking Contest three years running at St Dominique’s annual Thanksgiving Bake Sale, she was not known for her interest in IT). Set up across from the reference desk in the library, the new computer’s monitor displayed, ‘Welcome to St Dominique’s School,’ the homepage of the school’s new website. With its rotating collage of photos of the students and last year’s school activities, it was a bold first step into the 21st Century for the parochial school. Everyone seemed to like it. Well, not quite everyone. Some of the older nuns convinced that the internet is nothing less than a gateway to hell, appeared to be a little less enthusiastic. Mostly, I guess, because they’re convinced that ‘St Dominique’s Corner’ will let in all the rampant pornography and radical feminism that’s out there… ‘out there’ being defined as ‘not here in our Convent and School and Church.’ They feared the loss of the safe place that, as young girls, they decided was worth trading their everyday normal life of school and work, marriage and families, divorce and loneliness for. A nun, finding a life of happiness through hard work and extraordinary sacrifice is not a person overly inclined to welcome the constant change lurking outside the Convent walls.
Sister Bernadine’s question about my novitiate made it clear this meeting was not just about my building a school website or the people I’ve met through my blog. Which, for the record, I don’t really have, because that would be against the Order’s rules governing contact with the outside world during a postulate’s first years. Something was telling me that I’d better focus on the fact that the most powerful woman in my life was asking how close I am to taking my Final Vows.
“Is it the school website you wanted to talk to me about, Reverend Mother?”
(The best defense is a good offense, right?)
“The children all love that St Dominique has a website, a few are even asking if they can start their own blogs. Some of the other Sisters are…well; they don’t think it’s appropriate for a Catholic school.”
“What? Why, no, nothing like that! Don’t worry about what the other Sisters think, I approve of your work.” it felt like a weight had just been lifted from my shoulders, and the smile on her face made me feel, somehow stronger, not just relieved that I wasn’t in trouble. Sister Bernadine has that effect on people, you go to her fearing the worst, and the next thing you know, you’re ready to take on the world.
“Can I let you in on a little secret, Sister Ryan? We limit contact with the outside world during the novitiate not only to reduce the distractions that might interfere with learning the ways of life in our Order. Increasingly we’re seeing girls, and women, coming from a life that they didn’t feel a part of, or worse, did not feel deserving of, so having this time apart, a period of insulation from the world it helps them find their way to the life of our Order. Of course, we’re not a cloistered order. We’re teachers of young children, and we need to be a part of the world out there, beyond the grounds of St Dom’s. So don’t worry about how some of the sisters might wish it were otherwise.”
As she turned in her chair towards the windows and the natural beauty outside, the room grew silent. Her dark skin glowing in the afternoon light, Sister Bernadine seemed a part of the room, in a very real sense, a part of the Convent itself.
“What I need to talk to you about, Sister Ryan is nothing as simple as keeping our sisters from unplugging the library computer. I hesitate even to call it a problem; it’s more like a puzzle, a puzzle that a dear friend is asking me to help solve. It involves computers and the internet and the modern world that lies outside the Convent walls, ordinarily I wouldn’t consider asking a novitiate at such a critical point in her Calling.”
‘My Calling’…. sometimes I wonder how such a huge thing can be held within two small words. I’m here. I didn’t run away when I had the chance. Not that six brothers, a father with a temper and a drinking problem and a mother who went to Church every day, (the way some women follow soap operas), would have let me. Somehow, my brother Robert, the one member of the Ryan clan who genuinely deserved a vocation, escaped the Irish sacrifice. Not me! No ma’am! This wild red-haired girl scored ‘off the charts’ on assessment tests and only broke 2.0-grade average when the subject was interesting. She’s the one who left in the middle of her junior year at one of the Seven Sisters, took a cab out to the Delmarva Peninsula and stood at the door of St Dominique’s Convent with a single suitcase. Guess I’m the poster girl for cultural imperatives. I was about to challenge Mother Superior on my deserving to be a nun when she said, without preamble,
“Come, Sister, walk with me.” Sister Bernadine was almost to the door of the library by the time ‘Come Sister’ registered in my head. I marveled at how such a large woman could move so quickly and gracefully. The flowing black fabric of her habit was all I saw; there was no question that I would obey her invitation. I caught up with her as she approached the door out to the formal gardens. It being between classes, the corridor was crowded with nuns and postulates, the latter curtseying and stepping aside, like waves formed by the passing of a massive ship. One very young girl, a look of frightened resolve on her face, stepped away from her friends and held the door open as we approached. As we passed by, I could see in the Mother Superior’s face a quick appraisal, noting the girls rather bold behavior, no doubt added to one of the files that she maintained in her head on every girl and woman in her care.
As we walked down the garden path, the deliberateness of her gait seemed to lessen, almost as if, now that we were no longer in her office, she could relax just a little. Although still responsible for a Convent full of nuns and postulates, because she was no longer sitting behind her desk, some of her humanity seemed to return.
Without preamble, Mother Superior glanced at me and said, “I love and cherish all the girls and young women that come to us, but when you arrived last year, I saw something that set you apart.”
I said nothing, as any attempt to steer the conversation away from me would have the opposite effect, so I said,
“Yes, I noticed.”
Everyone has a single quality, one that seems at odds with the rest of their personality. Often it’s a quality that allows us to ignore other traits and characteristics that may be disagreeable to us. Mother Superior was demanding and strict and incredibly volatile, ‘simply scary’ as my friend and roommate, Sister Claire whispered across our room on that first night at the Convent. Sister Bernadine had a way of laughing that, somehow, made enduring her outbursts of temper and her impulsive aggressiveness worth it. And it’s not that she’s inclined to laugh that often, her day consumed with managing a school and running a Convent, it’s that when she did laugh, it was a full-chested, eyes-open laugh. She had the kind of laugh that made a girl want to be funnier. Never mean-spirited or at someone’s expense, I always felt good when I say something that makes Sister Bernadine laugh.
“You are a one, aren’t you, Sister? I’m about to divert from a centuries-old tradition, a way of teaching that’s helped generations of devout girls find their way from the first quiet whisper of a Calling to living the remarkably satisfying life of religious vocation. I don’t do this thoughtlessly or casually… and, I’ll ask your forgiveness for putting your novitiate, your entry into service to Our Lord, at risk. To deprive a girl of the blessed life of a nun is a dreadful price to pay and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was necessary.”
Okay, now I’m impressed. Sister Bernadine is not just feared and respected, here at St Dominique’s, but from the day I unpacked my suitcase, I’ve heard stories about how much she has always been, ‘a force to be reckoned with’; not just in the Convent and the school, but also in the parish. There’s a story, told to young nuns in their first year, that ‘if the Mother Superior had the floor, the Archbishop himself wouldn’t interrupt.’ Of course, I figured that this was what all newbie nuns get when they arrive at the Covent. A time-honored tradition, found in the military and police forces, to keep order among the rank and file: have a leader who is scary, but admirable and preferably, distant…sort of a good nun/scary nun.
Not that I needed to be scared straight, so to speak, but her candor was beginning to make me nervous.
“Please, Reverend Mother, tell me what I can do to help.”
“I need you to go to our convent in Chicago and help them figure out what’s a problem they’re having with their school website.”
“No, really. What is it that Sister Margaret Ryan, teacher-in-training, novice nun and part-time computer nerdette can do that the local Best Buy Geek Squad can’t? Not to be difficult, but I’m not that good with computers. Sure, I set up the website for the school and all…”
“…and kept your blog and other…non-Order approved activities on the internet, quite out of view of Sister Catherine, who I have there to monitor and protect the members of our community.”
Sister Bernadine stopped walking and sat…no, it was more that she ‘came to rest’ on a stone bench. The green expanse of lawn rolled down to the cattail edge of Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Feeling a little cornered, realizing that this woman had more power over my life than anyone since my mother gave birth to me, I decided that running was not an option. So, I sat on the grass, the perfect spot at this particular moment.
“I’m not accusing you of being a bad nun, Margaret. I’m hoping that the willful and resourceful girl that you’ve managed to keep out of view is still there in you. This is not simply a computer problem, and it’s not a religious problem…as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now. What’s going on at Saint Emily’s is, from everything I’m being told, somewhere in between …or both or neither. That’s why you and I are sitting, well, I’m sitting, whereas, you, my precocious sister, you’re kind of sprawled out on our very expensive landscaping and still thinking about running away.”
“You’re good, Reverend Mother, you are very good. I’ve done enough running away and, yes, I’ll do whatever you ask of me because I love it here. I want this life and no, I don’t think I’m actually, technically, sprawled…more relaxed and ready to spring into action, ya know?”
I was rewarded with the sound of Sister Bernadine’s laughter. The Sisters walking up by the administration building looked up in alarm and froze, each turning their heads to look towards the sound of rolling laughter. It made me think of a small herd of deer, motionless until they determine whether or not there’s a threat in the sound, ready to bound away to the safety of the building.
“I need you to promise me two things.” Mother Superior, serious once more, the joyous laughter now put away to wherever within her that she kept her softer, vulnerable qualities, said, “if you feel even slightly threatened by anything, you will call me. Agreed?”
“And the second thing?”
“Not a word to anyone about this. You are officially a part of a new Convent novitiate exchange program. You will follow the rules at St Emily’s, and you take your direction from Father Noonan. Take everything he tells you very, very seriously. Now go and pack your suitcase. A cab will be here within the hour to take you to the airport.”
There seemed to be nothing more to say, so I got up and walked towards the residential wing of the Convent. Reaching the door, I turned to look back and saw Sister Bernadine kiss her rosary and bend her head in prayer.