In Praise of Nuns
Last night a dear friend of mine, Miss Mew, invited me to see a play at a community theatre in which she’s involved. The play was Moliere’s The Hypochondriac, and a good time was had by all — there was, as they say, not a dry seat in the house! Miss Mew, as always, lent her trademark charm, cheek, and dazzle to the variety of parts she played. My goodness, but that girl can Conga!
Afterwards, I lingered about in the lobby waiting to talk to her. After about 10 minutes Miss Mew finally appeared, flushed with post-show excitement and flanked by a flotilla of sweet ladies Of a Certain Age, as the French so charmingly put it.
Miss Mew, ever the genial hostess, gathered me in and began the introductions. She knows the ladies through her work at a Catholic organization, she explained. Graciously indicating each one in turn, she said “This is Sister X, Sister Y, Sister Z…”. I had a moment of puzzlement, thinking “I don’t remember her mentioning such a large family!”…
At the same moment, one of the ladies leaned towards me and whispered conspiratorially, “We’re all nuns, you know!” and chuckled quietly, waiting for my reaction. A lot of people, probably graduates of Catholic schools, profess a fear (or worse) of nuns and I suppose it’s amusing to watch them jump.
Not I, however — I leaned back to the nice lady, grinned, and whispered, “You don’t scare ME!”
This seemed to please them all enormously, and we all spent a few minutes happily chatting and exchanging pleasantries before donning our coats and preparing to head out into the dark and rain.
At the last moment, however, one of them turned back to me and said how nice it was to meet a friend of the lovely Miss Mew. She paused and looked at me more closely. “You’re a lovely person yourself,” she said with a smile, and then hurried off to rejoin her companions, leaving me rather speechless. She had not spoken lightly or casually; I had a strange feeling of having been spoken to very genuinely by someone who had somehow taken a good close look at me and seen something pleasing.
It took me rather aback, and has once again got me thinking about nuns, and about kind people in general.
You see, all my life, despite being raised as a Protestant, and despite being an agnostic/atheist now, I’ve always been inexplicably drawn to nuns and to other people, often religious types, who are somehow set apart from regular society (and from me) by their deliberate, purposeful, meditative approach to life.
(The question of the purpose/worth of religion is vastly beyond the scope of this blog, of course; you have Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens etc. to guide you through that particular exploration. I speak here, in the most general of terms, of people who are both religious/spiritual and kind.)
As a young child I begged incessantly, to no avail, to be allowed to go to the Catholic school down the road. From my vantage point at the window of my chaotic and not-very-fun home, I would watch the students go by in their little uniforms and sorely envy the orderly, quiet, scholarly life I presumed they were leading. (My friends who did in fact attend Catholic schools and/or boarding schools tell me I didn’t miss much, of course, but what did I know at that age?)
My nursery school was in the basement of the United Church my family attended, and the minister there (the ironically named Dr Tipple) had a huge soft spot for me. Unable to sleep during our enforced nap-times, I would lie quietly on my little mat, staring at the door by the piano and waiting for Dr Tipple to appear. And appear he would: the door would creak open and he would peer through it, wink at me (the only wakeful creature in the room aside from the teacher), then swoop in like a genial, chubby crow in his black gown, arrange himself at the piano, and wake up the rest of the pupils with a rousing rendition of “In An English Country Garden.” I loved it and still do.
Years later, I got lost in the vast hallways and corridors of the church en route to a new Sunday School class. Shaking with fear, I opened door after creaking door, and suddenly found myself in Dr Tipple’s office, where he was putting the finishing touches on his sermon. I stood there in my dress and pinafore, nearly peeing with terror, and Dr Tipple came quietly round the side of his desk, took my hand, and walked me gently to the room where my class was waiting.
Fast-forward through childhood otherwise untouched by religion to me at age 21, more or less fresh out of a group home, meeting my birth mother for the first time. Among the stories she told me was that she gave birth to me as a teenager in a Catholic hospital, where many of the nurses were nuns.
I was the only baby not going home with its mother, of course, and so the nursing sisters made rather a pet of me. My young mother, who was undecided about my future at that point (keep me, or give me up for adoption?), tells of walking by the nursery window and seeing one nun or another cuddling me in her arms in the big rocking chair while watching television. Every so often another nursing sister would come past and I would be handed over so someone else could have a turn.
Also, although as an “adopting-out” mother she was forbidden to see or hold me, the sisters felt so sorry for her that on occasion they would tuck me onto the bottom shelf of the juice cart (I was a quiet baby, and swaddled, so it was more like stowing a loaf of bread, I imagine) and smuggle me into her room for a visit.
I have, of course, very few stories of my infancy other than those, and I absolutely cherish them. I’m sure the nursing sisters in question are either very old or have gone to meet their Maker, but I am grateful for their kind attentions and I like to think that their cuddles and squishes somehow insulated me, just a bit, from the bleakness that followed.
And who knows, it may also explain why I felt drawn to the parochial school down the road, to the twinkly, musical Dr Tipple, and to the many and varied other “spiritual” types who have dotted my life: my Waldorf School friends; the next-door neighbours who moved to a religious commune when I was 12 and whom I badly wanted to follow; the nuns and spiritual leaders at Loyola House in Guelph who guided me through a three-day silent retreat many years ago….
It’s something I don’t discuss, or think about, very often at all, but the fascination is there, as well as the fledgling ability to take comfort in the company of people who think and feel more deeply about these things than I have ever been inclined to do.
Another reason may be this: One of the tragedies of child abuse is that it badly damages one’s ability to “see good and be good.” We often become abusers ourselves (a path I chose not to follow), or we become so cynical and wounded that we are unable to see the good in ourselves or anyone else. I confess that I have fallen into the latter category — I am hard on myself, and on others.
But every so often, like last night, someone kind and gentle comes along, sees past everything I think I am now, and reminds me that in spite of everything, there is good in the world, and in me.