It was the first Tuesday morning of August, after morning prayers and Mass, when I walked into the kitchen and saw Sister Catherine standing at the sink. It was my job to wash the dishes; being a novitiate makes one eligible for the most sought-after chores. We are not a monastic Order, so along with everyday housekeeping, there is the work of running the school. Those suited by education and temperament, taught the children, others served in more administrative capacities. And, as with any elementary school, the summer months can be as busy for the teachers as the rest of the year.
Smiling a bit mischievously, I stepped as quietly as possible into the kitchen. For un-examined reasons, I thought to sneak up on Sister Catherine, seeing how she appeared to be staring out the window. I decided to set the plates and glasses on the counter without preamble, you know, kinda surprising her. Without moving, Sister Catherine said, “Sister Margaret, you’re looking somewhat stressed. When was the last time you went for a run?” Her reflection in the window smiled with more feeling than I could recall ever witnessing in my face-to-face encounters. Before I could answer, she continued, “Wait, I believe I know the answer! Not since June 3rd.”
I was having less trouble believing that Sister Catherine knew the date of my last run than I was accepting the sly humor that changed her words into italics, the laughter implied. I started to reply, “There are 7 cases of text books that were delivered yesterday and they need to be …”
She turned with surprising quickness and in the manner of helping an elderly aunt get from the table to a comfortable chair on the porch, walked me by the elbow, to the door to the dining room. “I believe Sister Cletus and I can manage the dishes. We promise not to break too many. Now go upstairs and put on those … running shorts, that your friend, the detective, gave you and get some fresh air!”
I turned to Sister Cletus, who was sitting at the kitchen table writing a shopping list. Without looking up from the yellow-lined pad, she said, “Best that you take her up on her offer. Blue moons are a touch more common than Sister Catherine offering to take over your chores.”
It was past mid-morning by the time I ran down the long driveway to the stone pillars that marked the border between the convent and the outside world. The sun was completing the last of its upwards rise towards noon. Any lingering night-mists had long-since joined the non-existent clouds in the clear sky. Once through the gates, I turned right and headed east. I reminded myself it was August and not early June, when last I went for a run. I kept an eye out for cars of beach-goers and speeding bicyclists, whose attention tended to be up the road and not on the road. The stream of humanity swelled as we got nearer and nearer to the ocean. Like those unfortunate baby sea turtles, focused only on their destination as they cross a lethal sandy beach in order to reach the welcoming ocean.
As my body found its rhythm, legs and heart synchronizing, I was free to try to quiet my mind.
My summer was a very busy time, busier than I’ve been for as long as I can remember. First and foremost was the training that was my novitiate. It was not simply learning the history of the Order, it was not merely prayer, meditation and religious instruction; it was embarking on a path to a new life. Though involving much study, the process was more of a joining than it is was a learning. All the women of the convent shared themselves and their stories, in order to help me find my own path from the secular world to a life of the spirit.
Although the pace of study eased a bit in summer, it still filled most of my days. As it must. Of course, I was also working on getting my Masters degree and there was the matter of my ‘special project’. Few were the hours not committed to work and study.
It was my ‘special project’, my social media campaign to stop the foreclosure of my mother’s house that was most taxing, both mentally and emotionally. What twisted my stomach into painful shapes was that in order to accomplish what I set out to do required that I become the girl I left outside the stone gates the night I was welcomed into the convent at St. Dominique’s. What woke me at two in the morning and distracted me in the middle of the simplest tasks was the ease, the naturalness of letting myself become that person, that other Margaret Ryan. She was everything I was not. Rather, she was everything that I no longer am. I could still keep her at bay, under control, but that was becoming increasingly difficult as the demands of the project grew. The more successful my efforts, the stronger and more persistent was her presence within me.
I couldn’t discuss my fears with Sister Bernadine. Chicago, and the immediate aftermath, was still too raw a wound. Although she never spoke of it, it was clear the Mother Superior felt responsible for getting me involved in a matter that not only threatened my life, but caused me to risk my Calling. I refused to put the burden of my struggles on her. She pulled me back into the safety of the Order when it seemed certain my old life would force me to walk away. I refused to be so selfish as to ask to be saved again.
Oddly, the one person who was aware of my online activities and yet provided a measure of support, was Sister Catherine. The people foreclosing on my mother’s house were also trying to take the home of one of her pupils. Sister Catherine never spoke about my past or how difficult it was to call on the skills from a time in my life I very much did not want to face. But one afternoon she appeared in the library door and as I started to shut down all the different screens I had up, she waved her hand in a way that said, ‘Don’t stop what you’re doing on my account.’ As it happened, I was done with what I was doing, which was to set up an automatic telephone campaign aimed at the politicians susceptible to a grassroots petition. I turned in my chair and looked at her.
She touched the crucifix she wore around her neck and seemed to withdraw to a place distant not only in space, but in time. In a tone that sounded almost as if she were praying, she said, “Family is everything. Not because of the people who are in it, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters. What makes family everything is you. Family is the you that’s not limited by the physical. You are not simply a member of a family, a mere component part. Family is a part of you. As much or as little as is appropriate to you as a person, to you as you develop. A person does not require a family, however a healthy person finds and nurtures a family.”
We sat in the summer-quiet school library and neither of us spoke. She continued to hold the crucifix and I felt closer to my new life than my old. It was only for a moment, but there are things in life not measured in seconds and minutes.
I ran the obstacle course that was the Crisfield Town beach. I felt good that I wasn’t winded and could speak as I passed by Morris Richmond. He stood, as he had every morning that I reached the halfway point of my morning run, at the edge of the water. I noticed that he stood without fishing pole, his constant accessory through my Spring-into-Summer runs. No doubt out of deference for the children who ran up and down the wave-stroked beach. Instead of holding a pole and pretending to fish, he held a worn-edged copy of the book, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’. I was willing to believe that even this might be a prop to avert well-intended interruptions. A half-past middle-aged man, leather sandals, too-long greying hair and a far-away look in his eyes would be a major temptation to the mothers and their companions to point and wonder. The yellow Labrador who had been as constant a companion as his fishing pole was further up the beach, teaching a group of twelve-year-old boys how to catch a frisbee.
“Suppose the person you once were did some very bad things. But had also acquired certain skills now necessary to help good people. Its like there is an orphan inside who can help but to ask is to invite her into my life again.”
I wasn’t sure if Morris would remember the way we used to speak to each other, a statement exchanged for a statement. Today it was more of a direct question than it had ever been. It didn’t always make sense. But then it didn’t always have to.
I turned at the halfway point and waving to some very surprised looking pupils from the year before, I headed back towards the parking lot and the road home. Morris stood as still as he had been when I passed him on my right. I heard him quite clearly as I passed him on my left. His was a thoughtful voice, as if we were sitting in a quiet study and he’d discovered a passage in a book worth sharing,
“We are the sum of our days. There is no subtracting any of the days that came before, in the hope of making our past self more acceptable to our current self. If we try to ignore or deny who we were, how can we possibly hope to be who we are?”
I ran back to the convent.
“Don’t hurt it!” Violet McKenna, all five foot, three inches of her, chased after Matthew Ryan from the vestibule, down a side aisle. A modern-day Marlin Perkins, the housekeeper’s whispered voice was urgent with concern for the well-being of the small flying creature. Father Ryan was more concerned with keeping the animal moving along the side aisle, where the ceiling was not too much more than a broom’s length above their heads. Well, his head, at any rate.
“Did you bring that burlap sack?” the young priest asked, never taking his eyes off the corner where he last saw fluttering wings. He regretted not taking the time to pick up some gardening gloves. He was working on his next sermon when, with a sudden knocking, the woman burst into his study. Given to a tendency to exaggerate, she launched into a plea to, “Save the wee creature.” Deciding that to follow directions would be less tiring than to try to get more information from the woman, he followed her to the back of the weekday-empty church. Holding the straw broom over his head, he kept the thing between the wall and the statue of St. Francis.
Now, less than six feet away, the sound of fluttering wings was decidedly more ‘leathery’ than usually accompanied the low passing of a robin or starling. Stepping into the transept, the bird flapped it’s decidedly smooth wings.
“Can you get it to fly into the sack?” Matthew reflected on the likely tenure of the small woman to his left and the decidedly non-avian animal just over his head. He did the math of who he would have to listen to for the remainder of his assignment to St. Agatha-James and decided the bat needed to be in the bag.
A prayer to St. Francis seemed to do the trick. With a wave of the broom-end towards the sack, the bat proceeded to roost on his left index finger, which held the burlap open. Father Matthew Ryan felt a sting at the same moment he was able to make a fist of his left hand, which allowed the open sack to collapse around the bat, trapping it inside.
Burlap bag in one hand, he turned and walked down the aisle towards the vestibule. Mrs. McKenna preceded him, holding the broom, its yellowish straw head above her head like a processional cross. He smiled to himself and immediately frowned at the welling of blood between the fingers of his clenched fist.