Still Water

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My mother knew a religious sister– let’s call her Sister Angeline.

Sister Angeline was a Charismatic.

She was apparently a Charismatic leader, someone very important in the “Community” my family belonged to; she was the one who gave talks to all the grown-ups, after Praise and Worship and after “prophecies,” when all the children were herded out of the room. I never once heard her preach at Community meetings. I don’t think I ever heard her preach, not once in my life. I don’t know how she was physically capable; she never spoke above a soft murmur. Every chatty and impulsive adult in that room must have gone perfectly silent and leaned in close to hear her speak. Anyone who could make the whole Community go silent must have been a wonder-worker. So, I suppose Sister Angeline had special gifts of a sort. But I can’t comment on the quality of her preaching.

My mother was insistent that we children give a good impression to Sister Angeline. She thought that Sister Angeline was deeply saintly and important. We were never to say any of the perpetually revised list of things my mother thought might scandalize Sister Angeline– though why my mother thought Sister Angeline was easily scandalized, I don’t know. She barely ever spoke.

I would have preferred to avoid saying scandalous things to Sister Angeline by saying nothing at all– that was my preferred method for dealing with the Community. But it wasn’t allowed. When Sister Angeline was in the house, we had to make polite small talk.

“Say hello to Sister Angeline,” my mother would chide at me the instant she came into the room, before I had a chance to open my mouth.

“Hello, Sister Angeline,” I’d say.

“Hello, Mary,” she would reply, without a single hint that she caught on to how awkward the situation was. Maybe she was extremely humble. Maybe she wasn’t very clever.  Maybe she just thought the best way to sooth an awkward situation was with a gentle demeanor. Discerning a meaning behind Sister Angeline’s placid exterior was impossible. It was like trying to look at clear, still water, rather than the dirt at the bottom of the pond or my own reflection on the top. It couldn’t be done.

My mother saw her own reflection in every pond. She assumed that Sister Angeline was exactly what she believed herself to be – a holy woman who was deeply offended by everything I said. She always debriefed me, after Sister went home, about all the ways I’d embarrassed her.

Sister Angeline was my mother’s “spiritual director,” as my mother was mine. “I’m your spiritual director,” my mother reminded me whenever I expressed a religious question. From her “spiritual direction,” I learned that God punishes people and nations by taking their guardian angel away, causing disasters; that God had sent me suffering as a special present to draw me closer to Him; and that evil spirits could be caught like viruses if you touched the wrong person’s hand. I don’t know what Sister Angeline said to my mother, during their spiritual direction sessions. I couldn’t imagine her directing anyone.

Sister Angeline also had a “healing ministry,” where she prayed over people, and I was very familiar with that ministry. As I started to have symptoms of anxiety, I was taken to be prayed over as the sole treatment. As it got worse– as bad physical health, chronic insomnia, and a bullying situation in school, all filtered through my mother’s religious hysterics, drove me to the brink of madness, I pleaded to get help. What I got was more Sister Angeline.

“I think I need to see a psychiatrist,” I said when I was eleven years old.

“You need to see a counselor,” said my mother.

But she didn’t take me to a counselor. She took me to Sister Angeline.

After a year of this, my scruples got to such a fever pitch that I ended up seeing a psychiatrist after all. My mother told everyone we knew that I was hallucinating, which I wasn’t, and that I’d only started having mental health symptoms that very week.  But I still didn’t get out of “healing ministry” prayers, or being “polite” to Sister Angeline.

If Sister Angeline ever noticed anything wrong with any aspect of what happened to me, she must never have said a word. She prayed when asked to; she sat there, placid, quiet, seeming less a person than a mirror. My mother went on treating her image of Sister Angeline as an authority.

When I was a teenager, Sister Angeline got permission from her superior to found a new order of nuns in Steubenville. (The bishop at the time was fond of encouraging small experimental houses for new orders to see if any of them flourished.) The nuns were to work among the University students, with the charism of “spiritual direction” and “healing prayer.” My mother took it upon herself to pray for vocations to that order of nuns; she offered every family Rosary for that intention and strictly charged me to do likewise. This new order of nuns was extremely significant, she thought. Sister Angeline was doing the Lord’s work, leaving that awful “liberal” religious order in our town and founding a faithful Charismatic religious order in Steubenville.

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