This short story is based on true events from my childhood. I've changed the names to protect the innocent.
I will make up sins, Grace decided, as she dipped her fingers into the marble basin full of holy water. She had no intention of confessing what she had done. I’ll tell father I cursed four times, she thought to herself, as she tapped her forehead with a wet forefinger, making a quick sign of the cross. Grace filed down the aisle and was still fashioning her list of fabricated sins as she stopped to genuflect. I’ll tell father I fought with my sister, she thought, as she slid sideways into the pew. The wood was cool against the back of her thighs. The deep roll of the oak lifted her knees slightly, so that the steel taps on the heels of her shoes clacked against the marble floor. At thirteen going on fourteen, Grace’s aura was quietly forming. Her radiance was stretching. She was destined to be a long tall drink of water.
It was Wednesday afternoon and Sister Mark had brought the eighth grade class over to the church for confession with Father John. Sister Mark was slim waisted; the color of burnt sugar. A curly afro exploded from the head piece of her habit. Her arms were elegant, befitting the music nun. With a conductor’s flair, Sister Mark directed Grace and her classmates to file into the pews. They were to leave a big space between themselves and their neighbor. “There will be no talking,” Sister Mark admonished. “This is a time to pray and ask God for his forgiveness.” Her words echoed off the marble pillars and wafted up into the ceiling frescos. The students filed into every other pew. There would be absolutely no chance of talking while waiting to confess their sins to Father John.
Grace landed in the third pew. She knew St. Bart’s church like the back of her hand, and could find something to marvel at from any vantage point. She scooched herself over, so that she was right in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Red prayer candles flickered at Mary’s feet. Grace lost herself in the flowered wreath adorning Mary’s head. She searched for the right words to make her introduction to God. Since yesterday, she hadn’t felt much like praying. She didn’t know what to say.
Resisting the urge to turn around to see where Helen was seated, Grace bent forward pulling up her green knee socks. Now, they’re level. Was Helen thinking what she was thinking? Was Helen also making up sins to tell Father John? Grace fidgeted, rubbed her nose and released a sigh as she closed her eyes. There was a sunbeam shooting through the panes of stained glass emanating from high above the alter, she warmed her face in the light. Cobalt reflections floated behind her eyelids. The sound of chain hitting a brass incense burner reverberated through her mind. The smell of frankincense carried her off to the dessert where she danced with Christ. The prayers still would not come.
“Boys and Girls, you should be reflecting on your sins and asking God for his forgiveness,” Sister Mark said, from the church aisle.
Grace’s mind continued to wander as she began going over her dance routine in the passion play. She had been picked to play Mary Magdalen. With grey smoke curling in the air, she would dance bare foot on the alter next Sunday. She would pantomime washing Christ’s feet with a purple veil. Frank Torres had been chosen to play Jesus. At 6ft. he was the tallest boy in the Eighth grade. He was also center on St. Bart’s basketball team. Frank had become a veteran at playing Christ. He was the only boy strong enough to carry the huge wooden cross down the church aisle, while affecting Christlike emotions. Peter Gianakos, another big Eighth grader, would play the menacing Roman guard who would pantomime whipping the Christ Frank and pressing down his paper mache crown of thorns, while Andrew Loyd Webber’s orchestrated Thirty-Nine Lashes blared from the church speakers.
That was Sunday; that was most days at Saint Bartholomew. It was 1973, and Grace’s faith in God was theatrical, magical and pure. She attended mass twice a week, her mother cooked fish every Friday and fish grits on Sundays. Grace’s love of God was all encompassing and joyful like that Coke commercial. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, I’d like to buy the world a Coke to keep it company...” The Ten Commandments was a household event where her family would gather in front of the living room television every Easter Sunday. Jesus Christ was Ted Neeley and Moses was Charlton Heston. All the saints were movie stars. Grace’s faith was a love-in.
There were Godspell-inspired mime masses, where she and her classmates would paint each other’s faces with hearts during Holy Communion. Peace, love and God was everywhere. My Sweet Lord played on the radio. Grace didn’t know who Hare Krisna was, but she loved singing “...My sweet lord...hallelujah...Hm, my lord...hallelujah...My sweet lord...hallelujah...” Catholic priests were cool. Bing Crosby really cared. Sally Field made being a nun a wild adventure. Nuns sang on the Ed Sullivan Show. Nuns were singing from hilltops and flying in the air. They played raucous acoustic guitar like Sister Janet Mead, who made a rocked-out version of The Lord’s Prayer into a hit song. “Our Father who art in heaven...Hallowed be thy name...Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done...On earth as it is in Heavvvvennnn!” Grace and Helen secretly wanted to be a nuns. They wanted to be singing nuns. They wanted to be music nuns.
At home, in her bedroom Grace sang duets with Jesus Christ. She’d sit by the record player singing, “I don’t know how to love him...what to do how to move him...he’s a man, he’s just a man...Well, I’ve had so many men before, in very many ways, he’s just one more....” Grace knew every word to every verse on the album Jesus Christ Super Star. She had practically memorized the liner notes and could sing all four album sides by heart. She could even hum the Overture. Jesus’s rocked out falsetto set something on fire inside her. She’d often burst into song while washing the dinner dishes. ”Sleep and I shall soothe you, calm you, and anoint you...Myrrh for your hot forehead, oh... Then you’ll feel everything’s alright yes, everything’s fine...And it’s cool and the ointment’s sweet for the fire in your head and feet....” So, when Sister Mark asked Grace if she and Helen would like to take on the special job of preparing the convent chapel for mass on Tuesdays after school, she felt honored. Cleaning the convent chapel was not as important as being an alter boy, but girls couldn’t be altar girls. It didn’t matter anyway, Grace still felt like she was on her way to becoming a Sister of Saint Joseph; she would be going into the convent.
On their first Tuesday at work, Sister Mark lead the girls up the walk toward the Convent. It was a 1950s modern one story steel, glass and stone building. A life-size statue of the Virgin Mary stood in the river rocked courtyard. Mary and a meditative bench were surrounded by a huge grove of mature fuchsia and purple azalea bushes.
Sister Mark led Grace and Helen through the mud room where rows of black galoshes lined one wall. There was also a coat rack with neatly hanging black rain coats. The girls followed Sister Mark through to the kitchen. Grace noticed a cookie tin placed at the center of the kitchen table.
“Would you girls like to have a cookie before I take you back to the chapel?” Sister Mark asked, as they entered the kitchen. “They’re oatmeal raisin; my mother made them.” She presented the open tin to Grace and Helen. The girls looked at each other to see who would reach first. “Don’t be shy. We have apple juice. Would you girls like some apple juice?”
Grace and Helen each took a cookie from the tin. “Sit down, girls,” said the sister, as she placed cups before them pouring the apple juice with a natural flourish. Her long fingers fanned around the bottle. Grace admired Sister Mark’s long fingernails. They were filed to a slender oval shape. She used her nails as picks when playing guitar.
“Sister Mark, do you ever polish your nails?” asked Grace.
“No, Grace, I don’t polish my nails. I don’t have money to buy nail polish.”
“You don’t have any money?” Helen sounded astonished.
“No, I don’t have any money. Like Christ, I am poor. I don’t own anything.”
“But, the cookies are yours, right? Your mother gave them to you,” said Grace.
“My mother sent them to me, and I offered them to all the sisters. They are here for all the sisters to share.”
“Sister Mark, do you have to share your Christmas gifts?” Helen asked, intently.
Sister Mark took Helen in with soft eyes. “Yes, Helen, I even share Christmas gifts.”
The sister, then slipped the braided leather key chain from where it was tucked inside her habit’s waist band. “This was a Christmas gift from my brother Luke, two years ago,” she said. “When I brought it back to the convent after visiting my family for Christmas. I placed it on this table along with all the other gifts our family members had given us. No one else needed it, so I was able to keep it for my keys.”
Without breathing, Helen asked, “Sister Mark, when you became a nun, did they cut your hair off like in the movie Trouble With Angels?
Sister Mark smiled, laughter danced in her eyes. “Yes, I did cut off all my hair. Okay, girls that’s enough questions for today,” she said, as she clasped her hands. “I want to take you back to the chapel to show you your new job.”
Suddenly, Sister Mark’s metal clicker jolted Grace in her seat. It clacked its signal for all the Eighth graders to kneel. Successive heavy oak kneelers began thudding onto the marble floor. Each boom lingered in the air.
“Quietly!” Sister Mark said. “Let the kneelers down quietly, boys and girls.”
On her knees, with her fingers folded in prayer, Grace began her act of contrition. “Bless me father for I have sinned, it’s been three weeks since my last confession. Father I...” Then her mind flashed back to the rows of white panties hanging in the convent laundry room. Grace and Helen made a curious dash down the long halls of the convent. As if on a recon mission, the girls split up, taking opposite sides of the hallway. The sand colored carpet muffled their steps. With hearts racing, they went about quietly opening doors. Grace was peeking in a small bedroom when Helen grabbed her by the hand pulling her across the hallway.
“Oh my God,” Helen whispered. “You’ve got to see this.” The two girls pressed their faces against the narrow rectangular window.
“Let’s go in,” Grace said.
She slowly turned the brass handle on the door, trying to avoid a loud click. They were in the laundry room. The warm smell of Tide and bleach was in the air. The girls were stunned by hanging rows of pristine white panties, various sizes: all the same. They hung silently upon a large wood drying rack. Grace spotted rows of neatly folded white bras on top of a waist high oak table. There was a lone crucifix on the wall, with one window to illuminate the unspeakables. The girls were transfixed by the nuns’ underwear. Grace imagined Sister Mark putting on a bra. She wondered if Sister Mark slipped both arms through the straps, fastening it in the back the way her mother did. Did she wrap the bra around her body, clipping the metal clasp in front then turning it around to slip her arms through? She wondered which of the white panties were Sister Mark’s. They all seemed way too big. Besides, Sister Mark was so vibrant and colorful. It was hard for Grace to imagine her wearing white panties every day.
“They wear grannie panties,” Helen snickered tugging on Grace’s arm. “Oooh, look at those huge ones. I bet they belong to Sister Francis.” The girls both slapped their hands to their mouths suppressing the giggles. “We better get out of here,” Grace said. Backing out of the convent laundry room, the girls turned themselves toward the hallway where the nuns’ bedrooms were.
Grace and Helen looked around and found the coast still clear. So, they adventured on down the carpeted hallway. Each massive oak door had a narrow rectangular window just like the door on the laundry room. They walked by each door peeking through every window as they made it down the hall. Every room was the same; a plain crucifix hung on the wall above each bed. “Can you believe they sleep on such small beds?” Grace said. Each room had a small oak dresser and desk. Grace took in the bare white walls. She thought of how her older sister Claire had posters of the Jackson 5 and Earth, Wind and Fire all over her bedroom and how she had written Elizabeth Barret Browning’s How Do I Love Thee poem on the wall. Grace was exulted in helping paint the flowers and vines around Claire’s self-styled calligraphy.
“There’s nothing to look at. How do they go to sleep at night without anything to look at?” said Helen. “We’d better get back to the chapel,” Grace whispered through a cupped hand. The two girls turned and walked swiftly down the hall leaving the newly discovered wing of the building behind them. Grace was startled and overwhelmed, as she and Helen made their way back to the convent chapel. She tried to process what she had seen. Is that how they live?
The convent chapel was completely plain and nothing like Saint Bart’s opulence. Grace took in the chapel’s modern configuration of straight lines. The Stations of the Cross were stark wood carvings; and the stained glass windows were abstract diagonal shards of color. An iron chandelier hung above the altar. It was a sculptural crown of thorns.
“Hey Grace, do you remember where Sister Mark said the lemon oil was?”
Grace followed Helen’s voice to the sacristy behind the altar. The girls stood surveying the seamless wall of sleek maple cabinets with discreet metal pulls. Grace and Helen set about looking for Windex, clothes and the vacuum when Grace reached into one of the cabinets pulling out a Ziplock bag. She held in her hand a large plastic bag full of small Communion wafers. The girls stopped breathing. While looking for lemon oil, Grace had found the bag of Heavenly Hosts. They stood there looking at the bag. Their minds flooded with confusion.
“Who made these, Helen? Where do you think they came from?”
“Wow, Grace,” Helen said with saucer eyes.” Which cabinet did you find them in? Are there more?” Grace pointed to an open corner cabinet. Helen reached inside the wall cabinet pulling out another Ziplock bag full of large Eucharists. They were the Holy Eucharists that the priest consecrated to celebrate Holy Communion.
“Look, Grace!” Helen said in a screaming whisper. Helen stood waving the bag and fingering its contents through the clear plastic. Gradually, her face went from incredulous to euphoric.
The girls stood there in silence. Finally, Helen said, “Let’s eat one.”
Grace locked eyes with Helen for a long moment. “God is in these bags,” she said quietly. If we open these bags, we will touch God.
“Let’s give each other Holy Communion,” Helen blurted.
Grace was hesitant. Something was shattering, walls were crumbling and her stomach was at the top of a roller coaster. With a deep breath, Grace opened her bag first. The Heavenly Hosts smelled like sweet stale bread. Reaching in, she took hold of one of the very thin wafers.
“Give me Holy Communion,” Helen said. Her strawberry freckled nose crinkled as she stuck out her tongue.
Grace solemnly placed a wafer on Helen’s tongue in the same way she’d seen Father John do countless times. “Body of Christ.”
Helen giggled, “Amen,” while pretending to chomp down on Grace’s hand. “I’ve always wanted to do that. Gimme another one.”
After taking one for herself, Grace offered the bag of Heavenly Hosts to Helen. The girls began popping them into their mouths, two and three at a time, filling themselves with crisp white Holy Communion wafers. A great feeling of dominion fell over Grace as she held the Holy Eucharist in her hands. There was no one standing between her and God. She was having her fill of Holy Communion. She was getting as close to God as she wanted and there was no one there to tell her she was not worthy because she was a sinner or a girl.
“I’m dying to taste one of these,” Helen said, as she opened her Ziplock taking out one of the larger Eucharists. She handed one to Grace. The girls marveled at the embossing.
“Oh, Lord,” said Helen holding the large wafer in the air like she had seen Father John do many, many times. “Please, bless Grace and me. We want to be holy. We want to serve you. We want to be music nuns.” They each broke their Holy Eucharist along the embossed outlines of the Chi-Rho Christian symbol. The girls crumpled the larger wafers into their mouths. Grace was exhilarated and satiated.
“I’m stuffed. I can’t eat anymore. I’m full of God,” she said. “Do you feel like you’re full of God, Helen?”
“Yes, I feel free.”
“I feel different. It’s like we’re blessed.”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know, but I think we did it. I feel really different now.”
“Do you think this blessing will last?”
“We ate a lot of God, Helen. This blessing should last us a while, I think.”
Sister Mark’s metal clicker signaled Grace’s pew to stand and file out toward the confessional. As Grace stood in line waiting to confess her list of fabricated sins, she finally saw Helen across the aisle. They shared a faint smile. When her turn came, Grace opened the massive carved oak door and entered into the dark confessional. The only thing she could see was the outline of Father John’s profile illuminated through the waffle screen. The velvet kneeler felt plush against her knees. Grace wondered what Father John would say if she told him that she had touched the Heavenly Host. She wondered what Sister Mark would say. After all, Grace and Helen had done something nuns weren’t even allowed to do; they gave Holy Communion. She wondered if Father John would be happy that she had found God in a most unlikely place and that she was beginning to understand how God lives inside her and how she is also sacred.
Through the waffle screen, Father John made the sign of the cross. Grace made the sign of the cross as she bowed her head saying, “Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been three weeks since my last confession. Father, I cursed four times...”
After Grace was finished with her list of made up sins, Father John said, “Now, if you make an act of contrition I will give you absolution.”
Grace recited the prayer, “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life.”
“Your penance is five Our Fathers and three Hail Mary’s,” said Father John. “ Your sins are truly forgiven. Go in peace.”
“Thanks be to God,” Grace said, as she blessed herself.
Grace returned to her pew. She dutifully, knelt down, bowed her head and began to pray her penance, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...” The Lord’s Prayer was light breath passing through her barely moving lips. “They kingdom come...,” Grace prayed, blankly. Then, during the fourth Our Father her prayer broke. “ Opening her eyes, and looking upward toward the stained glass window above the alter, Grace addressed God directly, “I have questions, God. I have so many questions. Will I see you again?” Without finishing her penance, Grace slid back onto the pew; her spine melded with the curve in the wood, as she exhaled her blind faith.