"Come along," Mother was urging us; "Sister Justina wants to take you around the farm. Rose, take Carol's hand." Carol was only two and a real drag; I was seven and had my own life.
While my father, the Benedictine Sisters' architect, spent the day with Mother Carmelita going over plans for the new barn the sisters needed to house their cows and prize bulls, Sr. Justina as usual was assigned the task of entertaining our family, showing us our favorite sights around the barn and convent at Clyde, Missouri.
"Wasn't it a miracle that Mr. Shaughnessy came to us just as we began praying for a Catholic architect?" Sr. Justina was retelling a favorite story. "He just happened to be visiting Conception Abbey to see his step-brother Father Malachy, and Reverend Mother heard about him. When we heard his name was Joseph, we knew he had been sent to us by St. Joseph." We nodded. We all believed in miracles, and we enjoyed the adulation of the nuns, who regarded us as their chosen family, a holy family. An article in Tabernacle and Purgatory, their monthly publication, had told the story of how Joseph had come to the convent with his wife and three young daughters. He was bearing the blond-headed blue eyed baby in his arms, whom the nuns quickly identified as "looking just like the Baby Jesus."
|We went first to the barn, looking for any new livestock, especially calves, which we could pet. I inhaled the pungent smell of cow dung. Sister Justina pointed to a tall steel container into which a farm hand was pouring milk from a bucket. "Will you have some milk?" While we were drinking, "the baby Jesus" ran ahead into the barn, with Sr. Justina flying after him. "A calfie, a calfie!" he cried, pointing at a new calf lying on the hay-covered concrete floor. We all stared in awe.|
"Do you want
to feed the fishes?" Sister Justine asked when our interest in the
calf was waning. She had a box filled with stale altar wafers. One of
the sisters' cottage industries was making and supplying altar wafers
to the various Catholic churches in the region. The fish pond was another
stop on our tour. She gave us each a handful of wafers. Kathleen and I,
having recently made our first communion, reverently took the unconsecrated
bread. It was only at Sr. Justina's urging that we would desecrate it
by throwing it to the fish.
time for Sister's prayers and our lunch, so we went back indoors past the
chapel where we heard the nuns chanting. The quiet halls, with spotless,
shining terrazzo floors and statues with fresh flowers, all perfectly cleaned,
all spoke to me of the devotion of these sisters to God.
Sister Justina escorted us down a gleaming halls--the "ambulatory" she called it--past marble statues and into the dining room where she ushered us to a spotless linen-covered table, seated us, then left to return to the chapel herself. . Mother sent us to clean up in the gleaming lavatory. Back in the dining room, we sat down at the chaste table. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught glimpses of the black-clad nuns leaving the chapel, heads straight ahead, arms folded up their sleeves, gliding noiselessly by, passing down the ambulatory, heading toward their refectory. I was awed by so many serious adult women keeping silence, going purposefully off to private duties, each seeming to know perfectly what was expected of her.
In the silence of
the dining room every move we made echoed. Kathleen and I were hushed
by Mother, who took Carol onto her lap. Glasses teetered. The convent
had no high chairs or even small chairs. We must have been the only children
ever invited into their dining room, which was probably reserved for visiting
priests, as the order was cloistered.
We heard the reassuring
rattle of Mother Carmelita's beads and her light step as she accompanied
my father into the dining room, accompanied by Sister Justina.
sat down and took Joe onto his lap. Two silent nuns hovered around behind
"Mr. Shaughnessy, you say the grace," the nuns deferred to him as head of the family.
"Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty,
through Christ Our Lord," he recited. "Amen," we all answered.
"And have you had a nice walk around the farm?" Mother Carmelita inquired.
"Yes, Reverend Mother; they fed the fishies and rode in the cart," Sister Justina replied on our behalf.
"And I saw a calfie!" Joe brightened as he turned his head up to Dad with the news.
"Splendid! And now we'll leave you to eat," Mother Carmelita terminated the conversation, reaching out for Sr. Justina and conducting her out of the room. No doubt in the refectory, the sisters would all stand and bow when she entered.
Two serving nuns in aprons quietly approached and placed white bowls of food on the spotless tablecloth: green beans, mashed potatoes, a platter of sliced roast, a plate of biscuits, a bowl of gravy, and a portion of butter shaped like a lamb. Food had never looked so perfectly prepared and presented. It was too perfect to be eaten. I felt as if I were witnessing a heavenly banquet, prepared mysteriously in a heavenly kitchen by silent holy nuns, served on that spotless white altar by the hands of angels.
lunch, all I could think of was how I wanted to visit the cell of St. Therese
of Lisieux. Statues of her were familiar to me from churches, but I had
really only gotten to know her through Clyde, which had a replica of her
cell. Therese became real to me.
After dinner Mother Carmelita came back to claim my father and Sister Justina returned to continue escorting us around. Mother took Joe and Carol into a parlor where she could let them lie on a couch and take a nap. Kathleen and I were too old for naps.
"Show us the reliquary chapel," I begged.
"And the body of St. Beatrice," Kathleen added.
Kathleen and I both secretly looked forward to these visits to Clyde mainly to see the private reliquary chapel. Sister Justina seemed fond of us and fostered our interest in the body of St. Beatrice. When Sister Justina took Kathleen and me into the private chapel, we felt we were accepted into the community. We felt as if we almost had to put on habits to be allowed in there. I was fascinated by the Benedictine habit, with its long black scapular, leather belt, black veil, beads, starched white wimple and collar. In the summertime, I always smelled the sour smell of sweat under Sister Justina's woolen habit. But the rattle of beads and the swish of the long skirt intrigued me. Kathleen and I often played dolls and had a Benedictine doll in full habit. I believe I once begged that we might have our own little habits to wear into the reliquary chapel. The sisters encouraged our interest, but we had to content ourselves with appearing in a Corpus Christi procession wearing our white first communion dresses and carrying flowers, with flower wreaths around our curls. We joined the nuns on that stately feast--there must have been a hundred--in solemn procession behind the priest carrying the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament.
The Reliquary Chapel
"Here's the jawbone of St. Paul," Sister Justina whispered reverentially. I stood on my toes to get a closer look. Underneath the gold filigree design and what looked like emeralds and rubies I could see a large brown fragment that could have been bone. "He was martyred in Rome," she continued. I stood aside for Kathleen to look and prayed to St. Paul to make me a martyr.
On we went, gazing at one ornate relic display after another--St. Lawrence, St. Augustine, Popes St. Cornelius and Cyprian, St. Catherine, St. James, St. Bernard, St. George, St. Gregory, St. Jerome--we had to figure out the names from Latin forms and Sister told us that word os meant bone. "Martyred by Diocletian," Sister Justina often shook her head saying, as if it had just happened within the year. I felt that I was in the eternal company of the Church Triumphant. In a special cross-shaped reliquary on a side altar, Sister took us to see a relic of the True Cross. We venerated the relic on both knees, following her example. Kathleen and I went through the entire chapel with her, but what we really wanted was to be allowed to gaze our fill at the body of St. Beatrice.
Sister Justina gave
us chapel veils and led us two privileged young sisters tiptoeing into
the holy of holies, the reliquary chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament
was permanently exposed. The chapel was in darkness except for the altar,
where, soaring above the tabernacle, surrounded by four marble columns,
there shone a large jewel-encrusted monstrance containing a large host,
which we knew was really the Body of Jesus. Two black figures knelt in
silence with arms extended before the altar of exposition. This order
of cloistered Benedictines was devoted to constant prayer for the souls
in Purgatory. Sister Justina turned on the lights so that we could see.
Finally, Sister Justina led us to the front of the chapel, before the altar of adoration. There, enclosed in a glass casket, lay the image of the saint. We bent our heads eagerly and peered under the glass, where, on silken pillows lay the glittering doll-like body of Saint Beatrice (which we later learned was not her real body but a wax figure encasing her bones). We gazed, fascinated by the rosy cheeked young girl lying there, wearing a richly brocaded dress, looking as if she had just breathed her last breath. We stared at her head. Her brown curls were encircled by a filigree band; her pretty mouth was open. We could see her little white teeth and pink tongue. Her glassy eyes had rolled back into her head and were fixed as though staring into heaven. Her pretty head had fallen back onto a silken pillow. Above the gold brocaded collar band, her long, prettily arched neck revealed the bloody spot our eyes always sought in fearful anticipation. It was eternally there--the blood encrusted stab wound that had taken her life. Drops of her blood appeared still fresh on her neck and were caught in a gold chalice beside the pillow.
We were enraptured
at her dress--a prettier dress than any we had ever or would ever know,
prettier than our first communion dresses, prettier even than any doll
dress, trimmed in gold, with seed pearls and precious stones. Gold trim
ran around her sleeves and down the panels of her skirt and around her
hem. Her dress was caught in with a golden belt. Her tiny feet were hidden
in two little shoes also trimmed in gold and jewels, resting on a small
body of St. Beatrice was our favorite object in the whole world. She was
always there, reposing under the altar, forever a little girl who was stabbed
defending her virginity (or strangled burying her brothers' bones.) Kathleen
and I couldn't get enough of her. We always asked for another holy picture
of her body to keep in our prayer books. We prayed to her nightly. Kathleen
took the name Beatrice as her confirmation name. I remained loyal to Therese,
the "Little Flower."
"Now, may we see the Little Flower's cell?" I begged Sister Justina as we left the chapel. The last stop on our pilgrimage would be the room where the sisters had recreated the Carmelite cell of St. Therese in Lisieux. Through the spotless halls Sister conducted us, our footsteps making so much noise that I wanted to tiptoe. We stood outside the tiny cell and peered in at the little white iron bed with the white mattress of straw. One chair, a night-stand with pitcher and basin by the window, and along the long wall opposite the bed, a large crucifix. In every room of the convent, the most prominent decoration was the dark crucifix against the white wall. Here in Therese's cell we could see that the saint's whole object of contemplation had been that crucifix. A statue of St. Therese stood in the corner of the room, in her customary pose with her brown cape, black and white habit and veil, holding an armful of roses. After seeing in the reliquary chapel the glory in clothes and stones and pearls that awaited those who offered their lives to God, I could see here in Therese's room the life we must live here on earth, the humble clothes and simple cell and furnishings we must use on earth to be given that golden dress in heaven.
mother will be waiting for you out in the pine grove," Sister Justina
apologized as she hurried us out out of the tiny cell. When we rejoined
Mother with Carol and Joe, another silent, smiling sister brought out a
plate of sugar cookies and a pitcher of sweet red drink. As the wind sighed
through the tall pines above us, we sat on benches and ate our "collation," as Sister Justina called it, of sugar cookies with raisins in the center.
"Rose, couldn't you have thought about someone but yourself for once?" Once we were unattended, Mother fussed at me for having delayed so long by adding on the tour of St. Therese's cell.
My heart sank. Of the exultation I had experienced in the chapel and in the cell of the Little Flower, she knew nothing. Her heart was hardened.
Sister Justina returned. "Mary Rose is so taken with Saint Therese. Maybe she would like to stay here overnight in one of the postulant's cells, and see how Therese lived? She could spend an hour before the Blessed Sacramet with the nuns."
|I saw in a moment of revelation that I would rather be with these nuns whose ways were so quiet and dignified, whose thoughts were so noble, whose aspirations were so pure, than with my family who were always bickering and squabbling. I envied the sisters their contentment and peace, their silence. My mother's critical tongue, my spoiled little brother, "the Baby Jesus" --this was not for me. It was clear to me that I belonged with the nuns, with Saint Therese and Saint Beatrice and the other perfect beings, not with my quarrelsome family. I longed for peace, for stillness, yet my home was turbulent. I belonged with these nuns who were quiet and contented and who made me feel ennobled and worthy, not with my mother and family who were noisy and discontented and who made me feel small and unworthy. These nuns were spiritually rich; though they wore heavy sour black habits, underneath their souls were covered in cloth of gold embroidered with pearls. My mother was spiritually impoverished; under her pearls and silk dresses, she was nude. I didn't want to be like my mother; I wanted to be like the nuns. I would stay with them, with Beatrice and Therese.
"Please, may I, Mother?" I begged. She nodded. My father was taking the family home that night and coming back by himself the next morning and could pick me up then.
was agreed that I would be allowed to stay and even spend an hour before
the Blessed Sacrament. My parents were willing. I must have been chosen
by these sisters as their little recruit even at the early age of seven.
Mother and Dad prepared to leave with Kathleen, Joe and Carol. I went off
with another silent, nameless nun who showed me to my cell in the postulant's
dormitory. I was given a white towel and washcloth and shown to a white
bed surrounded with white curtains. My cell had a stand with a white basin
and pitcher like St. Therese's. I was shown to the white-tiled bathroom
where I was given a white nightshirt.
Suddenly fear gripped my heart, fear that I would never get away, that I would have to stay here forever. I couldn't do it; I couldn't go through with it. It was too white, too perfect. I couldn't live in a perfect world. There was no color but black and white. I wept and begged the nameless sister to take me to my mother.