“Tell me what your project is about. Spare me the tech-jargon. What are you doing and what is it you hope to accomplish.” The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s swiveled the high-back leather chair 180 degrees away from Sister Margaret Ryan. The tall bay windows were open, the scent of salt air sat quietly on the window sill and pointed towards the Chesapeake Bay.
“Well, it’s not such a big deal. Started a Facebook group, joined a couple of financial rights groups. Wait,” with a smile that failed to repress the slight lip curl of a smirk, the younger woman continued, “Oh, and I may have started an online petition against illegal foreclosures. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did that too. Getting some good traffic.” Her voice carried a subtle, grating tone, like a barely heard radio outside of a church during a funeral. The effect a result of an obviously rehearsed explanation combined with a nonchalance that danced on the edge of insolence. That Sister Ryan was accustomed to being called before the head of the convent was reinforced by her posture. One would be forgiven for characterizing it as slouching in her chair. The dark face of the Mother Superior darkened further; a non-verbal warning clearly wasted on the young novitiate, who glanced around the room, the embodiment of youthful boredom.
An unconscious smile flickered across Margaret Ryan’s face as she identified the rare and exotic woods used in the room’s parquet floor. She was certain the very dark strips that formed the borders with geometric precision was ebony. Such luxurious architectural details were common in many of the older buildings at her former college. Radcliffe University was nothing if not luxurious and old. Her reminisces were interrupted by a quiet voice.
“I really don’t believe you’re taking this matter quite as seriously as you should.” Sister Bernadine had not moved, yet for the intensity of her words, she might have been standing on top of her desk, staring down at the young nun sprawled in the plain wood chair.
Sister Margaret glanced towards the door. Like the spasm of a pinched nerve, she felt an unpleasant jolt, somewhere between her heart and her brain. Sister Bernadine was staring at her, with an expression that managed to convey both anger and concern and said, “Lets begin again, shall we?”
Sister Ryan pressed the palms of her hands on the edge of her seat and the soles of her feet against the floor in an effort to sit straighter. She glanced down at her habit, the skirt bunched and disheveled, gave up her efforts and looked at the other nun with a hopeful expression.
“Perhaps you misheard me, Sister Ryan. I said, ‘Lets begin again, shall we?’ That means you have not yet entered the room. And it certainly means that you’re not sprawled out in that chair, like you had nothing better to do.” The older woman’s smile remained unchanged.
A feeling of danger re-established its grip in her stomach. The young nun managed to stand and walk to the office door. Despite being a large, ornate brass fixture, her first attempt to grasp the doorknob failed. The second time was the charm.
Disorientation accompanied her out into the empty corridor. From somewhere within, an archly gleeful voice whispered, “So she thinks she can play with our head, does she.”
Sister Margaret Ryan stood still, much like a rabbit frozen in the middle of an open field, the hawk circling in the sky and a fox standing at the edge of the surrounding woods; no motion was good motion.
“Some time this afternoon, Miss Ryan.” The Mother Superior’s voice didn’t so much overcome the barrier of the heavy wood door as it reverberated through it. Her words were high fidelity through the door, a 100-year-old stereo speaker.
Directly across from the entrance to the library were double doors that opened out to the courtyard. The corridor ran left and right, window lined and brightly lit; to the left, an archway that led to the convent, to the right, through a set of fire doors, the school. At the moment, a weekday in August, the only sound was that of lawn mowers, advancing and receding as they ate the green grass that lead to the Bay. Nothing moved inside the building. Margaret Ryan reached for the doorknob.
“A word of advice, Sister Margaret?”
Her leg muscles tensed in the most basic of human thought, fight or flight. Glancing to her left, Sister Margaret Ryan saw a small section of the darkness that filled the arched entrance to the residential wing begin to move. The shade-in-the-darkness rearranged itself into the shape of a woman. An old woman. A square of dark grew light and Sister Cletus appeared. Even down the length of the corridor, the nun’s eyes seized her attention like a mother cat lifting one of her kittens by the nape of the neck.
“The path to a life in our Order is not always a straight one. It is not a particularly smooth road. For better or for worse, some who arrive here are fleeing a battle within themselves.” The nun turned, the light tones of parchment flesh and deep blue eyes sank back into the daytime dark of the convent hall. The old woman’s voice slipped from the dark and lightly touching the young nuns, whispered, “I’d knock first, if I were you.”
Sister Catherine stepped into the living room of the Avila home.
Roanne Avila put her phone on the coffee table like a half empty pack of cigarettes and shyly looked at the nun, who sat patiently on the dark blue sofa. “Thank you for coming, Sister Catherine. I just don’t know what to do. None of her friends have seen Patrice since they all left the beach yesterday. She told them that she was going to ride her bike home. Should I call the police?”
Sister Catherine felt fear creep over the cushions of the couch and tug at her habit. Like someone reaching for a light switch in a dark room, her hand found her crucifix and tried to steel herself for what she would see with the lights on.
I waited a full three seconds after I heard, “Come in.”
As I opened the door I felt like I used to, back in my college days, when our sensei clapped his hands to begin a sparring match. I loved the martial arts. I loved the dance-like movements of the kata. I loved how I felt after a workout. Sparring was an essential element to training; it was, after all, a martial art. In every match there comes a point when one combatant (or two) knows that victory is imminent. I always hated that feeling. A powerful voice pulled me out from my past.
“Come in. Sit down. Listen to me.”
I walked through the door, sat in the single, plain wood chair and waited.
“The Bishop called me yesterday.” Without preamble, Sister Bernadine began, “He believed that I thought it was a friendly, ‘stay in touch with the flock’ call. I did nothing to dissuade him. However, just before he ended the conversation, he said, ‘I recently had a parish priest in my office. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned a sister in the middle of her novitiate, down there in Crisfield. He mentioned her name, ‘Maryellen’, or ‘Maryanne Ryan.'” Sister Bernadine made a sound that the look in her eyes made redundant.
“Obviously, I was supposed to correct him. That way it would’ve been me who brought you into the conversation. Our Bishop has that approach to his approach to others.” It occurred to me that I should nod or do something to indicate that I was listening, but my rebellious side had crossed her arms and was kind of pouting.
“Be that as it may. I told Bishop Ellerby that you were making good progress in your studies. I also let him know that you were engaged in a number of activities online, including earning a Master’s degree in Education.” She waved away the look on my face that reflected my surprise at how she knew about my efforts to get an advanced degree in less than four months, and continued, “I told His Eminence that I had complete faith in you and that you would do nothing that would embarrass us. Or cause problems for our Order or the Church. He pretended to be satisfied with that and that was the end of our conversation.”
I felt like throwing up. Sometimes throwing up provides relief, but at a price. Like when you’re in bed, feel something crawling up your leg and instantly crush it. Its only when you get out of bed and pull back the blankets do you pay the price. Seeing the overly-appendaged splotch of spider does nothing to enhance your relief.
“I am responsible for the women in this convent. All the women. Tell me what it is you’re really doing online.” The Mother Superior surprised me, yet again, by turning her chair to the windows behind her and Chesapeake Bay beyond.
“I promised my mother I would keep the bank from foreclosing on her house.” The simple statement felt right. Unfortunately there was no agreement, acknowledgment or indication that I needed to elaborate on my answer. A younger, defiant voice in my head added, ‘in terms that she’ll believe.’ That scared me. A lot. I glanced at the door.
I looked up. Sister Bernadine had turned in her chair and was staring at me with an expression both intimidating and protective.
I started to say something about how I would promise to stop. Almost immediately, I decided it was better that I make her understand how important it was and how I almost had the parent company on the ropes, that they were just about to give up and leave my mother alone. The intensity in Sister Bernadine’s dark face locked the words in my head. Hers was the look of a person hearing another’s thoughts. Nothing like a late night talk show mentalist act. More like two people playing a duet, reading from sheet music. Disapproval flashed across her face as I thought about lying, and even now, there grew a look of gentle but amused sorrow.
Quietly, almost as if to herself, she said, “Do you know what it is to be responsible for other people?” I stopped fidgeting, captured by her voice. Her eyes were focused on a place not anywhere near the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s, “Most believe that being responsible for others means having the power to tell them what to do. Some realize that being responsible for others, is to take on their problems, to accept the blame when things go wrong. This second group tends to do better than the first.
To be responsible for others is to place their interests before your own. Few people attain this level of understanding. The real secret, however, is much more difficult. It’s difficult because it involves you more than the people in your charge. It requires a willingness to project a sense of peace and confidence. It is this attitude within that helps those you lead to attain their potential.
This is not to ignore or deny your inner struggles. We all have them. And there are many people who will help you. But you are the only person responsible to God. You might ask another’s help, but only because it suits a certain purpose. There can be no asking others to do for you what only you can do for yourself.”
“Do you understand me?”
I was about to answer when Sister Clare opened the door and said, “Pardon me, Mother Superior, there’s a man here from the University of Maryland. He says he’s here to do a story about the young nun and success through online education.”
I was startled more by Sister Bernadine’s laughter than I was about the news of a visitor.