The Migratory Patterns of Nuns


Everybody loves nuns. A priest has to get lit up by a death squad before anyone will give him credit for parting his hair in a straight line, and the Church is still too unused to deacons to have set them any reliable benchmarks for success. But if one smile from a woman religious can’t melt your heart, then brother, you ain’t got one.

I am no exception to this general rule. The person who’s come closest to filling in as my spiritual advisor, my guru, both Blue Fairy and Jiminy Cricket to my Pinocchio, is a Sister of St. Agnes. Today, I learned that she’s leaving the parish where she’s served for almost 15 years, where I received my catechesis, and where I first received the sacraments. I realize it’s bad form for a blogger to devote too much space to his friends and relations, especially if they happen not to be public figures. But I maintain that this sister is a public figure — actually, an archetype. Everyone here must have had at least one of her in his or her life.

In this piece, the first I ever wrote for Patheos, I refer to her as “Sister Lucia.” This is not her name, nor is she even Latina. She’s the product of various stoical, northern European tribes, comes from Wisconsin, and — bless her heart –talks like it:

She flashed a tiny triumphant smile, as though she knew all along I’d accept. She probably did know, and that says a great deal about Sister Lucia. Though small-boned and demure as a springbok, she has a knack for nudging people outside their comfort zones. She does it with a finesse that verges on stealth. People surrender before they fully realize they’re under siege.

Later on, Sister demonstrates that she’s willing to put her health at risk in order to keep her guests comfy. But like I said, this stuff is generic. So Sister Lucia is gracious, self-sacrificing and subtly forceful. What woman religious isn’t these things?

What marks Sister Lucia indelibly as an individual is the confidence she inspires. To appreciate how far she’s branded herself — to use the marketing term — among the local faithful, you’d have had to be there that night in January when Brendan, my RCIA candidate, called me in something approaching a panic. A senior at the local university, he’d just arrived home from Christmas break to find both of his cats dead. Apparently, they’d clawed their way into a box of detergent and treated themselves to a lethal feast. Brendan had already spoken to his parents for over an hour; they’d consoled him as best they could, but he hung up feeling just as guilty and bereft as he’d felt to begin with.

It must have been ten in the evening, but Brendan simply had to speak to Sister Lucia. Nobody but she would do. It would not be stretching things to say he was jonesing for her.

To get a sense of just how striking this was, it will help to know a thing or two about Brendan. To all appearances, he was the sort of hearty, carefree all-American kid who had no place among the broken. Catholicism is only intelligible to people who have suffered serious self-doubts, and I could not, for the life of me, spot the provenance of Brendan’s. He was too good at school, too good with people, and — cutting to the heart of the matter — too good-looking.

But the grief in Brendan’s voice was real. Wanting to be a good sponsor, I met him in our church’s deserted parking lot. In what I can only describe as Harold and Kumar Get Spiritual Advice, we drove off in his pickup, determined to find the one woman who could bring him back to his angst-free, Jack Armstrong self.

This was harder than it sounds. I had been to Sister Lucia’s apartment exactly once, over a year ago, for an early Christmas dinner. I could identify the stretch of block on which she lived; the complex I had narrowed down to one of four, which stood in a row, and resembled each other as much as one ham sandwich resembles another. I explained this to Brendan, but he did not care. He was up for adventure.

When picturing Sister Lucia’s neighborhood, please consider that she lived alone on a vow of poverty. Yeah, I know — the idea of priests and religious sharing the hardships of the poor and all that pax et bonum hoo-hah sounds very romantic when you’re reading about it. But let me tell you, when it’s getting close to midnight, and you’re pounding on doors like the Keystone Gestapo, asking sullen members of the underclass whether a very nice nun lives anywhere nearby, you’ll find yourself wishing she had an apostolate among the elite. If anyone had answered, “Yeah, she’s right here,” and brained me with a bottle of Blue Nun, I could not have found it in my heart to blame him.

The fourth and last complex turned out to be hers. I recognized it by the big round archway that led to her courtyard from her street — a small perk, like rims on a Corolla. Reverently, we pounded on her door and shouted, “IT’S MAX AND BRENDAN FROM THE NEWMAN CENTER! OPEN UP, HUH?” After a few minutes passed with no answer, Brendan sighed and said he’d try again in the morning.

As he drove me back to the parking lot, where I’d left my car, Brendan seemed more chipper than he’d been all evening. I put this down to the thrill of a string of near-death experiences. The next day, he called Sister at her office, and arranged for some emergency grief counseling, which seemed to restore him to form. After that evening, I found myself much more supportive of Brendan’s candidacy. Sharing his quest had given me a proprietorial stake in the whole thing, and I wanted to see my investment pay off.

Sister Lucia: She could spot a Christian in a jock, and a sponsor in a cynic. What better epitaph does anyone need?

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