Wednesday, March 02, 2016

breaking wills for God

Religious vocations require a broken will, a surrender to God’s will or the will of those instructing the hapless kids snookered into the religious life.

My mom said her mother gave one of her children to god so mom was going to give me to god. This meant I was supposed to become a nun. My mom had two sisters and one entered the convent at age 17, the day after my baptism. My aunt the nun had stood as my godmother. I had daydreams and nightmares about my parents dying  and then I’d have to go live in the convent with my aunt the nun. My other godfather was a grandfather so I always assumed he’d be gone before my folks.  I dreaded growing up in a convent with nuns, sure it would trap me into a life in the convent.

My mom had four sons when she decided to give me away. When she would tell me about giving me away, I always thought “why do you want to give me away, why not one of the boys?”  I never shared this thought with my mother, for she would have considered it back talk and my mother did not tolerate back talk. She punished me for speaking pretty much about anything. Children, she said thousands of times, should be seen but not heard. And my mom meant that literally. I used to want to respond to that too. How the heck can an adult reasonably expect a child to be seen and never heard? And I longed to ask her if she had any interest in what I thought but I never dared to ask. Mom seemed to take that children should not be heard as a central tenet of her parenting.

I hated my aunt the nun, blaming her choice to become a nun for my cursed vocation.

Then my aunt the nun saved me.

Even in the summer vacations, I had to go to daily mass, our whole parish watching, or so it felt.  Our parish put out a weekly Sunday Bulletin. In that bulletin, they would ask the parish to pray for special things. One a month, the whole parish was asked to pray for my vocation.  I felt trapped. And mortified.  Catholic parishes did that when I was growing up, praying for vocations. The Church was already struggling to have enough priests and nuns and they seemed to think they could bully hapless younfsters like me into lifelong programming.

In the school year, there was a short mass at 8 a.m. I went to that mass every day for years.  I could get to my class by about 8:35, with school starting at 8:30. Any kid that went to mass was allowed to come in a little late. And we also were allowed to eat breakfast at our desk. In those days, Catholics had to fast at least three hours before receiving communion. Coming in late, eating my breakfast at school every day was a siren of shame, reminding all the other kids that I was holy and the object of what many of them thought was unfair special attention. A shy, mortified child, I never told anyone but my friend friend Tammy that I didn’t want to be a nun. There was no point telling my mom. My mom had an iron, unbending will. And my dad stayed out of anything having to do with disciplining his only daughter. I was the only girl with four brothers until my sister was born when I was 14.

Another aspect of my vocation’s curse was that I was given the honor of helping Sister Mary David, a nun I adored, clean the altar every day and lay out vestments for the next day’s mass.  I actually enjoyed this work. I enjoyed being alone in the cavernous but silent church sweeping the huge marble-floored alter. I got to know many nuns because of this work and my vocation. I knew all the priests better than most kids because I was in the church an hour or more every day after school.

In the summer vacation from school, there was only one daily mass at 7:00 a.m. so every damned day of most of my childhood summer vacations, from age 7 until my aunt the nun saved me when I was about 12,  I went to summer mass at 7:00 a.m..  That mass was held for the nuns, who sat altogether in two rows of black burqas. They invited me to sit with the but I pretended I was too shy to sit with them. The truth was I held myself apart from them, desparately hoping I might yet escape my vocation. Thank goodness there were later masses during the school year. Most summer days, it was just me and two rows of black gowned nuns, with the veils and everything. No one else ever went to that weekday summer mass.  I now wonder why Catholic nuns more or less adopted the equivalent of burqas.  Nuns wore those black and veiled robes until I was in high school, when nuns began to wear regular clothes. I could still spot a nun, even a mile away. I usually can still spot any Catholic religious person to this day.

In 1998 to 2000, I was in a Masters program for organization development. We had some classes that only met for one weekend and many of these weekend classes attracted students from other departments. In one of those weekends, I got paired up with what was obviously, to me,  a Catholic priest. Actually, he was a brother and lived in a cloistered place but he was let out for school.  During our first break, I asked him if he was a priest. He was flabbergasted. “How could you possibly know?  I am not wearing a collar, no crucifix. How do you know?”  “I don’t know what to tell you, Father,” before he corrected me to tell me he was a Brother, “but I knew the first second I saw you.  I went to Catholic school K-12 and I can always spot a priest or nun, current or former. It’s just obvious.”

And that reminds me of the time I took a class in college summer school and Sister Francesca, who taught second grade at my old Catholic grammar school but had  not been my teacher, came up to me in the student lounge. She came up to me and asked me if I was one of the Fitzpatricks from St. Gall’s. She said “I am Sister Francesca” and she was going to go on but I interjected “I know. I spotted you from across the hall, as soon as I noticed you, I knew you were Sister Francesca.” She looked around, as if trying to see what in her outfit gave her away.  “How can you tell? I am wearing regular clothes,” she asked.

“I don’t know what to tell you Sister, but I can always spot nuns.” Then she sat next to me and asked me to pick off any other nuns in that student lounge over our lunch break. I nailed them all. Sister Francesca announced that she was going clothes shopping and buy more interesting, less plain outfits. She had sincerely believed that she passed for a non-religious vocation person.

One time my aunt the nun visited us in Chicago, while I was still living with the curse of my vocation clouding my childhood. She lived in Colorado at the time and almost never visited us in Chicago. We usually saw her in South Dakota when we all visited our grandmother.  When Jody arrived for that rare visit, Mom said “you two have a lot in common, why don’t you go to mass together?” So we did. We went to 7:00 a.m. hot summertime mass. We sat in the row immediately behind the two rows of nuns in black robes. Jody, by then, was wearing street clothes but not the nuns at my grammar school. Not yet.

After that brief mass, and they were thankfully very brief in the summertime, held mostly to fulfill the nuns requirement to attend daily mass, Jody suggested we stay in church and talk.

Jody, my aunt, said, when that brief, perfunctory daily mass was over,  “Let’s sit here and talk” I was scandalized at the idea of talking in church. I noted, glancing all around anxiously,  that all the parish nuns had left and no one was in the church but me and my aunt the nun. Feeling very anxious, I agreed to talk to my aunt the nun in church.  When I hesitated, glancing around for permission, Jody had said it was okay to talk in church, that we would whisper. And besides, she pointed out, no one else was there.

“Tell me about your vocation.”

I turned very red and could not speak. I was ashamed, unable to choose which lies to tell her because I knew I had no vocation. I was afraid to lie to a nun and I as afraid to tell her my truth.  The nuns said one heard their vocation, a call from god. 

I had never heard God calling me to become a nun. I was quite sure of that missing detail. 

So I sat there, blushing, awkward, ashamed.

Jody cajoled me, speaking as tenderly as she could, saying “Come on, you must have some questions and I am your aunt. And your godmother. You can share your questions with me.” And she imbued her voice with love, or so I heard it that way. She was a stranger to me and in my misert over my doom, I hated her, seeing her as responsible for my trap, my destiny in a nunnery.

“Well,” I began, stammering and wringing my hands with my dress’ skirt, “I have one question.” I spoke haltingly.

Go ahead, ask, my aunt the nun gently urged me.

“I am worried about how they cut all your hair off like in the book Bernie Becomes a Nun. Before she takes her final vows, nuns cut off all of Bernie’s hair. Do you have to keep your hair all cut off forever?  I hate short hair.”

My mom had given me a book that was written for very young girls. It had one photo on each page with one sentence explaining the photo. I saw Bernie. I saw Bernie in church praying. I saw Bernie talking to nuns, then talking to nuns about becoming a nun. Then she became a novice and I saw her take her novice vows. On the penultimate page, I saw Bernie preparing to take her final vows around age 14. Her hair was almost completely shorn off by the nuns who had trained her. Those nuns then dressed Bernie up in a white bridal gown. By that page, there was a small class of novices preparing to take their final vows. Then I saw Bernie marching down the aisle to her doom, to become a bride of Christ. The book didn’t have to state what I knew:  for Catholics, marriage is forever, even marriage to God. The page that haunted me was the page of Bernie being scaled arbitrarily with her hair not a bit style, merely all shorn off, like a boy’s haircut.

That was over fifty years ago. I feel much love for Jody whenever I remember how she responded.  I saw her suppressed her laughter at my words, although I didn’t really ‘see’ her laughter until years later. Then she said “If that is your only question, I don’t think you have a vocation, Just forget this nun business.”

“But my mom says”, I began. I was thrilled but aware of my mom’s rigidity, her unbending will.

“Ill deal with your mother.”

And she did, behind closed doors. I heard her for I stalked them outside mom’s closed door.

“Mary Ann, honest to goodness, leave that child alone. Leave her be. She doesn’t want to be a nun. Leave her be.”

And mom did drop the nun thing.   

My mom dropped her pressure on me.  My luck had turned, to my happy surprise, when my aunt the nun saved me. My mom moved on to my Irish Twin, my brother Joe, ten months younger than me.

Mom did more than pressure Joe. She enrolled him in a seminary boarding school for seventh grade, age 12, without consulting him. Training to become a priest at age 12, just imagine.  Although ballsier than me, Joe also felt her pressure and agreed to spend half of his seventh grade – age 12 – at a residential seminary for future priests. He agreed to give it a try. Looking back, I wonder if Joe thought boarding school would be an adventure because I knew my brother Joe was never going to be a priest. I did not say this to anyone, except maybe Tammy, my best friend.

So Joe left in the fall he was in seventh grade, I in the 8th,  for some boarding school seminary in Michigan.

A priest brought Joe home, unannounced one Sunday afternoon, after several weeks and solemnly asked to speak to our parents. The priest had not phoned ahead, just arrived at our doorstep with Joe, and Joe’s luggage.

Joe and I eavesdropped. Of course.

“You son does not have a vocation. He cannot return to our seminar”

At that seminary, all the boys, twelve years olds and up, had to get up, kneel on a marble altar floor and pray on their knees from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. Kneel and pray for an hour before breakfast. Joe would not do it. And when the priests yelled at him, my ballsy awesome brother Joe would say “There is no fucking way I am going to get up at 5 a.m., hungry, and pray on my knees for an hour before breakfast. NO fucking way.”
I believe, but don’t quite know, that his profanity shocked them more than his refusal to pray, Until Joe got kicked out of that seminary after a few weeks, I had never heard anyone say the word fuck out loud.  My brothers probably used some profanity with other boys but they had it drilled into them that they could never, ever use such language in front of a girl. In my dad’s whole life, I never once heard him use profanity. I am not like my dad. I love to use profanity now.

The priests had tried many things to break Joe. They made him knee before the whole school all day, with a piece of wood running across his arms and shoulders, made him hold up that wood, like a piece of the cross. Sometimes he had to kneel while holding up that board. And he always endured his punishment in front of the school as everyone else ate breakfast. They actually would withhold breakfast from Joe. They made him do it every day for weeks and occasionally they would ask Joe is he was ready to knee and pray at 5 a.m. Sometimes he had to kneel and hold that wooden beam in front of each of his classes.

Every once in awhile, a priest would give Joe the opportunity to repent and just do what they wanted, which was to rise at 5 a.m., kneel on a marble floor and pray for an hour. Joe argued that he would pray for an hour but not without having breakfast.

When he was offered opportunities to repent, Joe’s answer was always the same: no fucking way. Once, that priest, told our parents, Joe had said “I’ll fucking starve to death before I get up at five fucking o’clock in the morning and pray while hungry. No fucking way.”  Joe had also, shrewdly in my opinion,  wondered aloud if starving a child was legal, the priest told my folks.

Mom gave up on giving any of her children to god.  I still wish I had had Joe’s balls when I was 12.  My sister was born not longer after Joe’s failure at that seminary. If Joe had been 12, I was 13 when Joel bailed on his vocation. My sister was born when I was 14. I remember waiting, with some anxiety for my baby sister, to see if mom would try to give her away to God. Mom never did make that play. And I often wondered, but never dared to say to my mom, “Why aren’t you trying to give Margaret away? Why me but not her?”

Joe proudly bragged about how he had stood up to those seminary priests, who were expert at breaking boys. He was proud to be unbroken, unbowed. He wore his eviction from seminar as a badge of honor. I was proud too.  He loved it when people asked him what happened because he loved describing how he kept saying ‘no fucking way’ to priests. In our very Catholic world, just saying fuck was a sin. Saying it so baldly to priests with authority over him was almost incomprehensible. If I had not heard the priest tell the story, I might not have believed Joe when he told it over and over. With pride.

When he had been a baby, then a toddler, my mom often sang “Dear little Joe, kind little Joe, he’s the nicest little boy you will ever know.”  I had always felt that way about my dear little Joe. He turned out to be a very big kid. By the time he was three, he had told our brother Chuck, then age five, that if Chuck ever laid a hand on me or Joe again, for Chuck was a bully and beat us smaller kids regularly, he would beat Chuck black and blue. I was impressed. Joe really was only 3 at the time he said that but already bigger than Chuck. Bullies area cowards.  My brother Joe does not have a cowardly molecule in his being.  I guess Chuck was impressed by Joe's assertiveness because he never hit me or Joe again.  Chuck went on to beat up newer siblings, doing so even in his college years, with our parents still never saying a word of criticism, giving tacit approval in their denial.

I was glad my dear little Joe had escaped that seminary. And proud of how he had gotten out.  I was proud he had had the guts to keep saying ‘no fucking way’, provoking the priests perfectly.

Except for one brutal, vicious beating when I was 7, my mom never physically struck any of her children.  She had lost her mind the day she beat me 100 times with my dad’s leather belt and she had not lost her mind because of me. She took it out on me because as the only female in the family besides mom, I was low man on the totem pole.  There were many times I wished my mom would have struck me instead of talked to me as she did. They didn’t have boarding schools for 12 year old girls with a vocation. If they had, I might have done as Joe did and tried on boarding school to see if it was an improvement over our unhappy home.

Joe once told me, in his perpetually genial way, that he might have toughed it out right up until college because it was a Jesuit seminary and he thought it would help him get into a great college,  although no fucking way was he ever planning on becoming a priest. He said “anything to get away from her, you know?”  I did know.  And Joe got accepted into Yale, even without the Jebbies help. No one could believe it when Joel turned down Yale because he could go to a state university without any student loans. Yale asked him to take out some loans.

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