Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Nun's Tale

“We find it so important not to judge the girls,” said Mother Elizabeth. “Here at Seven Sorrows of our Sorrowful Mother, we do our best to receive each young lady as a fellow seeker in Christ. We receive them with open arms, and never cast judgment on them. Instead, we pray daily for their salvation, and that they might see the error of their ways, so as better to fulfill the mandates of Christ, our Lord.”

Mother Elizabeth stopped, and waited as a younger nun poured tea.

“One of our newest novitiates,” she murmured, after the nun had left the room. “She too was fallen, but through rigorous training and great prayer, has redeemed herself in the loving eyes of our Lord…”

“How much will it be,” I said, since I had no experience with nuns. Actually, the whole experience was weird, but what isn’t, when you’re 16? I mean, there was no reason I had to be there: I wasn’t the father of the child. But I was Joan’s best friend, and I had been with her while she had had an affair with an older man.

“Our services are entirely free of charge,” said Mother Elizabeth, “though of course what we do—providing shelter, food, medical services, nursing care until the child is born—is not cheap. And of course, seeing that the baby is received into a good Catholic home, and then following up to ensure that the child is baptized and then given his or her first communion—well, it takes time and money. And so many families, if they can do so, are generous enough to give a suggested fee.”

Mother pushed a brochure towards me: I swore, if there had been a pencil on the table, she would have used that, rather than dirty her hand with anything so crass. Well, I suppose I should have read it later, but I opened it—the cover was a picture of the ghastly statue of the Virgin Mary that we had passed on the way in—and glanced at the prices.

“Wow, 600 hundred dollars,” I said.

Joan kicked me under the table.

It was 1972—that’s about 1200 bucks in today’s money. And we were both 16, so did we have that kind of money? Then I remembered: Joan’s father was a neurosurgeon, as well as a major drunk. The drinking was a problem: the money was not.

“Of course, for those who are unable,” she paused, “or unwilling to contribute, we do expect help with the necessary chores of the orphanage. Cooking, light cleaning, and laundry, which brings us in a bit of additional income.”

In fact, Joan would tell me later: the whole thing was a scam. Because the nuns would leave you alone if you could pop the $600 bucks for the two month stay. But if you weren’t so lucky? If your mother had just dumped you off, pregnant and starting to show, at the front gate?

That’s how a lot of them got there, Joan told me later. The girl would have done what Joan had done: had sex with someone they loved, or thought they did. Then, they would have missed their first period. Right—maybe not so worrisome. Maybe just some fluctuation in their cycle. After all, they were adolescent: they were still establishing themselves, menstrually.

Then came the awful part: the six weeks turned to two months. OK—a skipped period. But what about the morning sickness? And why did some smells—fried food, cigarette smoke—nauseate?

It was the worst fate a girl could suffer. Because would the boy get the blame? Only in the most moralistic houses: every boy was expected to want it, lust for it, do anything for it.

“Getting to first base,” guys used to call it. Which meant what—kissing? Putting your hand on her breast? I seem to remember that feeling her crotch was second or third base, and do I have tell you what “going all the way” was?

Did I do any of it?

No, despite my close friendship with Joan, and several other girls, I had done nothing. I was, in the words of my mother, a late bloomer. Which meant that I could be a gifted cellist, I could get A’s without too much effort, and I could stay at home and listen to classical music, instead of begging for the car to go out with girls.

It was a fiction that we preserved: I would, perhaps after college and after having found a good job, meet a young woman, fall in love, and then marry. Hadn’t my father done much the same thing? After all, he was in his 30’s when he had married my mother….

“It’s wonderful,” said Mother Elizabeth to Joan, “that you have such support from such a fine young man….”

She glanced at me.

“Oh, no,” said Joan quickly. “We’re just friends. I mean, he’s not….”

“I see,” said Mother Elizabeth. What was she thinking: that Joan didn’t know who was the father of her child? That we were lying, even as we were arranging for Joan to have her out of wedlock baby in the orphanage?

She must have seen a lot, the Mother Superior. The girls who trudged up the long driveway: the orphanage had been a farm, before the founder had had her first vision. And so they arrived, tears streaking down their dusty faces. Their parents—more often their mother—had dropped them off at the gate. Sometimes, it had been rigid silence that had been their farewell: often as not, it had been a hissed reproach.

“I never thought I’d see the day when a daughter of mine….”

Curiously, it was often the fathers, and not the mothers, who came into the orphanage, waited nervously outside Mother Elizabeth’s study. No matter what time they arrived, or how early or late, she kept them waiting for at least ten minutes before she saw them. And she made sure to have plenty of Kleenex, since both father and daughter would be in tears after she was done with them.

“She’s a good girl, Mother, she just made a mistake….”

“I swear, Mother, if I had known….”

“We go to Mass regular, Mother. It’s not how she was raised….”

The more they spoke, the less Mother had to say, or chose to say. No, she sat there in her black habit, with the white wimple, and she radiated peace and sanctity. When the tension became unbearable, she took control.

“I’m sure you’d like to hear a bit of our story,” she would say, “since you’ll be with us until the wee one comes. And I think you’ll find it inspiring. So many do.”

Inspiring? Even then, I thought it was lunatic, but it was a different time. People still believed, in the early seventies, in the holiness of the Roman Catholic Church. Priests were still God’s representatives on earth; nuns were the brides of Christ, who had given up the most precious gift on earth—motherhood—to follow their vocation.

But even the most devout would have had a hard time with this story: Mary Ann van Hoof, the founder of the orphanage, had had a vision from the virgin, who out of convenience was referred in their writings as the BVM, of Blessed Virgin Mary. And the BVM was wonderfully up to date on things. All right, she was a veritable dragon for chastity, for modesty—there were shrines all over the grounds, but one had to don special modest clothing, kept on hand, to get near them. No, the BVM had several messages, such as the allegation that 30,000 priest in the United States were Communist spies. Then we got to the Vatican II reforms, which were heresy, of course. Instead of the mass in the vulgate, the mass should have been given in Latin, as Jesus had done.

Jesus gave mass?

And in Latin?

But such trifles were easily brushed aside. As were the scoffing of the ostensibly faithful. For Mary Ann van Hoof had gone much further. She announced the dates on which the BVM had graciously agreed to come, though she preferred to make invisible appearances. And then, van Hoof had gone further: she claimed that she suffered the stigmata on every Good Friday after some point. Of course, nobody had seen the stigmata, since she suffered it, in the way of the BVM, invisibly.

But how she suffered! She writhed in her bed, she shrieked, she yowled as the spikes were driven into first her right hand and then her left. Then it was her feet, and we could all see the sinister in invisible hands driving the nails them. At this point, van Hoof would be howling, twisted in pain, sweating, even in the cool April afternoon.

At last she pulled off her greatest feat: she announced that the Virgin Mary—sorry, that’s the BVM—would be stopping by on August 15, 1950. And so great was her fame that nearly 100,000 people had crammed into her farmyard, and all were waiting for the miraculous event.

And did she disappoint—either van Hoof or the BVM.

Ah, for those who could see, she did not. For van Hoof appeared at the theatrically correct moment, and shouted to the multitude to lift the faces and gaze upon the sun!

There were those who reported being blinded.

There were those who saw the sun spin.

There were those who saw nothing.

I knew, of course, into what camp I would have fallen. For even as I sat and listened to the wonderful stories—and they were to be wondered—I knew that I would have seen nothing, and believed nothing. That said, however, I didn’t know why, since the word hadn’t been created. Why name something that didn’t exist? It was only later that I could say…

…that I was gay.