I asked whether she thought she might be called to marriage. She shook her head. "I don't think I'm called to have sex. It would be too intense for me to handle. My ideal relationship would be a romantic friendship, like Xena and Gabrielle had."

It's moments like this—when "romantic friendship" sounds like something I'd pay to see videotaped—that I realize what an awful Catholic I really am. Rather than impress my worldly constructs on Melissa's neatly constructed world, I simply nodded.

At that point, we were all called—to table. I found myself seated next to a hearty, sunburned woman named Sister Kristin—yes, I slipped and called her "Sister Christian"—who had just returned from Mexico, where she'd been working on a Habitat for Humanity-type project. "Did you know you can build a house for $150?" she asked me. I told her houses in my neighborhood would be selling for that much before long. The greed and exploitation I saw when I worked in the home finance industry had given me my first real sense of sin, and had made me want, for the first time, to do something with my life besides consume conspicuously. In a sense, they'd gotten me into the Church in the first place, so it was a fitting opening exchange.

After grace, we dug in. My compliments go to the chef, whoever she might have been. These nuns apparently checked their austerity at the dinner table; the turkey was juicier than some grapefruit I've eaten. I was halfway through my second helping—the dears had given me white meat both times—when I noticed that Sister Lucia was missing from her place. Then I saw her friend Henriette, a laywoman and social worker who had scandalized our RCIA class when she lectured us graphically on the dangers of anal intercourse, scurry out of the kitchen, looking worried. I beckoned her over.

When she came, I noticed her listing to one side. Earlier that year, she'd suffered a brain aneurysm and hadn't quite recovered. "Anything wrong with Sister?" I asked.

"She's got a nosebleed," said Henriette, and looked so grim that I realized I was missing something.

"Remember her sister, the one who died suddenly last summer?" I did. Her sister had also been a Sister. When she died, Henriette had e-mailed the whole parish, asking for prayers. "Well, a few weeks before she died, she started getting nosebleeds."

Ever since my father died—suddenly, of an allergic reaction to a bee sting, when he was otherwise healthy as a horse—I've lived in terror of losing the people I love. And that construction is deliberate; with a hoarder's instinct, I dread their death agony less than I do my own sense of loss. "Why doesn't she get herself checked out?" I asked, and realized I was almost shouting.

"I'm trying to get her to do just that, but she's a stubborn cuss."

"Jesus," I said. Used to my blasphemies, Henriette didn't flinch. "This is ridiculous. Most women I know live to go to the doctor." And to share the results of the inspection with the entire office, I thought. Baron Munchhausen can't have been any match for the baroness.

Henriette grinned. "Nuns aren't women. Nuns are nuns." She smote her palm with a fist to reinforce the point and headed back toward the kitchen. I abandoned my mashed potatoes and followed.

We found Sister Lucia sitting on a high stool by the dishwasher, holding a rag to her nose. When she saw, me she waved gaily and put on a hostess' smile. "How are you doing?" she asked.

"Never mind me," I said. "How are you doing?"

She made a gesture of dismissal. "Oh, never mind me. My nose gets sensitive in dry weather, especially during cold snaps. I'll be fine. I'm just sorry I had to run out on everyone." When I asked if she planned to visit the doctor, she balled up the napkin and dropped it in the wastebasket. "Don't let Henriette scare you," she said, wagging a finger. And then she was gone. I could hear her making the rounds, apologizing for her disappearance.

Henriette shrugged and listed out the door. Remembering my stuffing, I turned to go myself. As I passed the wastebasket, I caught side of Sister Lucia's napkin. I try not to dwell too long on other people's used sanitary products, but I was struck by the thought of that napkin lying in a jeweled reliquary, a conduit for miracles venerated by throngs of pilgrims. The blood on that rag, I realized, could turn out to be the blood of a martyr.