Bless me, Father
An aged nun sat watching the landscapers vacuum up the last pile of multi-coloured leaves into the back of a truck. She loved the clean, green, carpet-like lawns they left behind, and the natural mulched smell of compost that wafted through the air as they worked.
A young nun, Sister Paula, knelt at the front of the small convent chapel and buried her head in her hands. A few candles flickered at the foot of a statue of the Blessed Virgin, and a solitary light burned outside the confessional. Tonight, darkness suited her. She needed to close out the world and examine her conscience.
A few of the older sisters sat in a pew waiting patiently for Fr. Flanagan, Pastor Emeritus and convent chaplain. Every Saturday evening, on the dot of 6:30 p.m., he heard confessions. Same nuns, same confessions, same ritual - for almost twenty years. A row of frail souls seeking solace in God's sanctuary.
Sister Paula had never engaged in this spiritual exercise. At twenty-six years old, she was the youngest nun in the Mercy Order. In fact, according to the Mother Superior, she was the youngest nun in Ireland.
From an early age, Paula O'Hare thought she heard God's call. As a child, her mother introduced her to stories of Irish saints and encouraged her to pray the daily rosary. As a teenager, she showed little enthusiasm for worldly pleasures, and spent most of her time reading about the austere lives of those closest to God. At eighteen, she answered His call and entered the convent.
She achieved her degree from University College Dublin, completed her novitiate, and at twenty-four, professed her vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience. She built a strong reputation as an excellent teacher in Mercy Grammar School for girls and her examination results were among the best in the school. The pupils liked her and the senior students loved her.
A few weeks previously, she accompanied a group of twenty seniors on a cultural and spiritual development weekend in Donegal. On Saturday night, the girls helped her dress and apply her make-up. They refused to let her wear her dowdy casuals, and insisted she dress in a top and skirt they had purchased for her. When they all went to the local pub, they persuaded Paula to try a few white wine spritzers.
As the night progressed, a young man bought her a drink and asked her to dance. When the music slowed, Paula didn't resist the strong arms that pulled her so close she could feel his manhood. Even now, she could recall the warmth of his face against her cheek, the smell of his cologne and the sweetness of his breath. Before they sat down, he kissed her. A soft, passionate kiss on the lips that sent a jolt of emotion through her body like an electric shock.
The next day, some of the girls joked with her. "Sister Paula pulled the best looking man in the pub," Jane Mohan said.
"I know," Ann Kelly replied. "What a hunk."
"Did ya ride him, Sister?" Jane inquired, laughing, and giving her a friendly push.
"Girls, girls, I'm a Sister of Mercy, I must remind you. Please, now, enough of that talk."
"Well, may the sweet Jesus have mercy on us all," Jane said. "When I saw you, he was wrapped around you like he was gonna give you one right there on the floor."
"Now, now, Jane, be off with you," Paula said. "God, but you have the scourge of exaggeration about you. Sure it was nothing but a harmless dance and a peck on the cheek you saw."
"I know what I saw, Sister, but fair play to ya. I'd have given him the lash, I can tell you that much. A fair ride he'd have been too. Built like a Chippendale . . . . Oh, sorry, Sister."
"It's okay, Jane, sure it was nothing but a bit of fun. Now, let's leave it at that. Shall we?"
"Sure, Sister, that's grand," Jane said, hugging her. "It was only a bit of fun."
Paula's mind tortured her. The memory lingered and her heart refused to forget. For the first time in her young life, she experimented with her body and sought sexual gratification by touching herself. The sensation engulfed her from the minute she began to the moment her body shuddered to a standstill.
Tonight, she needed to confess. When the regulars had been dispensed with, she made her way to the confessional and waited quietly in the darkness. The priest pulled back the small wooden hatch, made the sign of the cross and invited her to speak. She got right to the heart of the matter.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I have been impure of mind and body."
The old priest tilted his head toward her. "How have you been impure of mind and body, my child?"
"I have had a sexual experience, Father."
"A man touched you?"
"All over, but mostly my heart."
"I see," he said, nodding, like he had heard the problem a thousand times. He thought for a moment. "Your heart is trapped, my child. You must free it. Then, you must follow it."
"How do I do that, Father?"
"Reflect on your vows. Ask God for guidance and pray for forgiveness. Speak to the Reverend Mother."
"I see," said Paula. "Okay. Thank you, Father."
"You're welcome. For your penance say an Our Father and a Hail Mary." He said a prayer in Latin, made the sign of the cross, and concluded: "I absolve you from your sins. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
Mother Frances sat at a huge oak desk in her study, dwarfed by a large crucifix secured to the wall behind her. Shadows from the flames of an open fire bounced off the wood-panelled walls and a small lamp sat on her desk. When Paula entered, she looked up and greeted her.
"Hello, Sister Paula. Please, have a seat. You wanted to speak to me?"
"Yes, Mother, I've a problem I need to discuss with you."
Mother Frances leaned back. "I'm listening."
Paula stared at the floor, then looked at her. "It's about my vocation, Mother . . . I'm having problems."
"What kind of problems?"
"I'm not sure. Lately, I feel . . . well, trapped."
Mother Francis smiled and sighed. "Sister Paula, my dear, you are so young. You haven't seen the things these tired old eyes of mine have seen. Men are attracted to you. I've seen the young teachers look at you - sometimes with admiration, sometimes with lust. God has blessed you with wonderful attributes. He has given you physical beauty, a kind and gentle disposition, and a strong intellect. You have used them well and I am delighted to have you as a Mercy Sister. But only you can decide how you wish to use your gifts. Let's start with the most difficult question first. Do you want to leave the Order?"
Paula thought for a few moments, then answered. "I'm confused, Mother. Right now I don't want to leave the Order, but I need time to explore my emotions."
"I see," said Mother Francis, rising and walking toward the fire. She stared at the flames, then turned to Paula. "How would you feel about a sabbatical? We have a convent just outside Philadelphia, in the United States. The Mother Superior there is a lifelong friend of mine. We entered the convent together. The Mercy Order has a wonderful school and a fine nursing home for retired sisters on a beautiful suburban site in Narberth. The weather is pleasant. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, with a beautiful spring and fall in between. I spent some time there many years ago. I could arrange for you to go . . . if you wanted."
"Oh, Mother, I would love if you could arrange something like that for me. I would be so grateful."
"Then consider it done. I'll call Mother Martha tonight. Come here to me, child." She wrapped her arms around her. "God speed my little one. Listen to His voice. Have no doubt, Sister, He will speak to you, and in a voice that only you will hear."
Sister Paula stepped off a bus on Montgomery Avenue and looked at two signs on either side of a driveway entrance. One pointed to 'Waldron Academy', the other, to 'Mc Auley Convent'. A hot June sun beat down on her. She had never felt such heat and she could never remember perspiring like this. She'd heard people in the bus refer to 'humidity'. What a word. Back home, people just said it was 'awful close'.
She stared at the two signs and thought of her favourite poem. She had taken the road less travelled all her life. For the first time, she felt the comfort of air conditioning in the foyer of the convent. Mother Martha, an expansive, portly nun, dressed in white, greeted her. They chatted about Ireland for a while. Mother Martha had been in the States for over twenty years. She made Paula feel welcome, explained her duties, and showed her to her room. The next day she began helping the infirm sisters residing in the convent.
Paula found the first few weeks difficult. She cleaned, worked in the kitchen and tended to the needs of feeble nuns. She thought about home every night. Her students, her friends, her mother and father, and about a boy who had once touched her. As time passed, memories began to fade. She took long private walks around the grounds in the evening, and every morning at 6:30 a.m., she prayed at the grotto with its life-sized statue of the Blessed Virgin. On Saturday she prayed later.
One Saturday morning, she heard the unmistakable roar of a commercial lawn mower beyond the grotto. The noise died off and footsteps approached. When she looked around, a young man knelt behind her. He nodded and continued to pray. Sister Paula blessed herself, and as she was about to rise, the young man reached out and placed his hand under her arm. "Let me help you there, Sister," he said, in a friendly voice with a thick Irish accent.
"Thank you," Paula said, surprised to hear such a familiar accent so far from home. "You're Irish?"
"I am, and so are you, by the sounds of you. Sister . . .?"
"Paula. Sister Paula."
"Hello, Sister Paula, I'm Marty. Marty Mc Manus," the young man said, stretching out his hand. She noticed the small scroll with his Christian name tattooed on his shoulder and couldn't help but comment. She pointed to it.
"Afraid of getting lost, Marty?"
He smiled. "God no, Sister." Then, without warning, he sang a line from 'Amazing Grace'. "'I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind, but now, I see'. What about you, Sister? Are you lost?"
His quick-witted response and air of self-confidence stunned her. "I might be. Maybe that's why I'm here?"
"Well, good luck to you. I hope you find your way. I gotta go, I've a lot of grass to cut." He pulled on a baseball cap and headed toward his machine. She stared after him, then made her way indoors.
A few days later, she sat on the wrought-iron seat overlooking the nun's cemetery. She frequently sat here in the evenings to meditate. From behind a headstone she heard whistling. When she went to investigate, she saw Marty Mc Manus on his knees pulling weeds from a grave.
"Hello," she said. He jumped and turned around.
"Jesus! . . . Paula, you scared the life outta me. Imagine meeting a nun in the nun's cemetery. I thought one of you had come back to haunt me."
Paula laughed. "You're safe enough. I'm very much alive."
He stood up, pulled a rag from his hip pocket, and wiped his hands. "You are, aren't you? You really are. Time for a break anyhow." He lifted a water cooler from a headstone nearby. "Do you wanna join me, Paula?"
"That's Sister Paula, Mr. Mc Manus."
"Whatever. Do you want to join me for ten minutes?"
Paula looked at her watch. "Make it five."
"Deal." He guided her over to the seat, took a swig from his cooler and began to talk.
"So, what's your story, Paula?"
"What do you mean?"
"Everybody has a story. What brought you here?"
"That's really kind of rude, don't you think? Asking me a personal question like that."
"What's personal about it? Everybody from home talks about what brought them to the United States. Do you wanna hear mine?"
Paula thought for a moment. "Okay."
"Then you'll tell me yours?"
"Mine's simple. I came over for a few years to make enough money to go back, build a nice home, and settle down."
"And that's it?"
"Why? Is that not enough?"
She laughed. "Well, I'm sure it is. In fact mine's not that different. I'm here for a break. To find myself, really."
"For God's sake, Paula. Find yourself? What does that mean?"
"It means taking time to think about the future. Time out, even. It's about trying to come to terms with God's plan and how one might best follow it."
Marty looked at her. "I think you got God's plan all wrong, Paula. Look at you. You're beautiful. Let your hair down. Go out and have some fun. God didn't make you that beautiful so you could hide away in a convent somewhere. Live, Paula. Live. God wants you to be happy. If you're not happy after you've really tried living, then you'll not need to go chasing after yourself . . . or trying to find yourself."
"My, what a counsellor you are. And how do you propose I do that?"
He smiled. "Do they have lockdown in the convent? If not, get out and about. Try socialising. Mix with people. It's not that bad you know."
He looked at his watch. "Well, anyway, nice talking to you. I gotta go. I've a little more to do before I call it a day." He jumped up. "I'm sure I'll see you around."
With that, he took off.
Paula cared for the older sisters every day. She prayed, meditated, and strolled around the grounds when time permitted. She made one concession in her daily routine. Instead of praying at 6:30 a.m., she waited until after breakfast, hoping she might meet her friend.
She couldn't help but listen for the sound of lawn mowers, or scrutinise the length of the grass; or wonder when the hedges needed pruning and the graves tending.
One evening, as she set on her favourite outdoor seat, she felt a hand on her shoulder and a familiar voice. "Paula, how've you been?" Her heart jumped.
"Marty! How are you?" she exclaimed, trying to temper her excitement. He sat down beside her.
"Well, tell me; have you found yourself yet?"
Paula nudged him. "You're scoffing me, Marty Mc Manus. Aren't you?"
Marty grinned. "You're right. I am." He hesitated for a moment, then turned to her. "Paula, would you like to go to the Mayo Ball on Saturday night?"
"Of course with me. Who else?"
"Well, yes, I would like to go, but I would have to ask permission."
"Well ask, and give me a call," he said, handing her his card.
"By all means, you can go to the ball," Mother Martha said. "Don't forget, our founder was the great Irish sister, Catherine Mc Auley. We named our convent after her. Go, have some fun. Enjoy yourself."
Paula had fun that night. After that, Marty stopped by the convent nearly every day to talk to her. They took long walks. He took her to dinner, to shows downtown, to the movies. When he asked her if she would leave the Order, marry him, and go back to Ireland, Paula did not hesitate. She loved him.
Mother Martha wished her well. The old nuns, though sorry to see her go, were happy for her. Her wedding was a small, but joyous occasion, marred only by a secret Marty revealed to her on their honeymoon. Before he had gone to the States, he was involved in paramilitary activity. On an active service mission one night, he and two volunteers were sent to ambush a British army unit stationed in south Armagh. When they arrived, soldiers had been tipped off and were lying in wait. His two comrades were shot dead and he escaped. Rumour had it, he informed. Time moved on. He assured Paula there had been a misunderstanding and the real source of the leak had been identified.
A few months later, Paula got pregnant. After dinner, one night, the doorbell rang. Marty answered. Three shots rang out. When Paula ran into the hallway, he lay gasping, in a pool of blood. One of the gunmen turned his gun on her. He shot her once in the stomach.
"Sister Paula, Sister Paula. Wake up. You must have dozed off," the young nun said, shaking her gently. The old nun stirred.
"Oh Lord, my child. I was watching the landscapers. I fell asleep. I dreamt."
"Yeah? What did you dream about, Sister?"
"I dreamt about entering the convent, fifty-two years ago. I dreamt about love and life and someone who meant the world to me."
"Another sister told me you came over from Ireland a long time ago. Is that true , Sister?"
"It is. It is indeed. How old are you, dear?"
Sister Paula stared at her. "And beautiful you are too. Very pretty."
"Not as pretty as you were at my age. I saw your photos. Come on, Sister. Let me help you up. It's getting cold. Do you want to go to confessions?"
"No, thank you. Tell me your name again."
"Beautiful name. I saw a film once. 'Agnes of God'. The nun lost her man and her baby."
The young nun shivered. "Imagine that, Sister. Imagine losing your man and your baby. How must that feel?"
"Are you sure you don't want to go to confessions, Sister?"
"I'm sure, Agnes. I'm sure. I haven't been there in fifty years. Help me up, please. I'm tired. Will they mow the lawn again this year, Agnes? Perhaps I'll have them tend the graves. Have you heard their accents, Agnes? Have you?"
"A lot like yours, Sister."
"Indeed they are, Agnes. Indeed they are."