“Sister Theresa, what time does the new applicant arrive?” Sister Pauline asked politely, to avoid Sister Theresa’s wrath. For a Franciscan, Sister Theresa could be entirely uncharitable, even to the abbess herself.
“Oh you old cow, I’ve told you twice already!” Sister Theresa replied, throwing the bread dough she’d been kneading into a large wooden bowl, as if the water, flour, salt and yeast had purposely annoyed her. She punched the dough down a few more times, then covered the bowl with a kitchen towel to let it rise. In an hour or so, she would form loaves of rye bread to bake for the monastery’s supper. Timed perfectly, the bread would be on the table, piping hot, served with butter, ready to be eaten just after the night prayer and close of exposition. A cast iron stew pot simmered on the stove behind her, full of diced leeks, potatoes, and ham.
“If I could remember what time you said, I surely wouldn’t trouble you,” Sister Pauline added, patiently, momentarily wanting to push Sister Theresa’s face down into her wooden bowl.
“So, 4:00 p.m.?”
“You’ve knelt down next to me for the exposition of the blessed sacrament of the rosary for the past two decades, Sister Pauline. I think you know well and good that it ends at 4:00 p.m.”
“I’m going to pray for you, Sister Theresa.”
“We pray for the world, Sister Pauline. And I am in the world,” Sister Theresa snapped, slamming a kitchen drawer.
“Much to our dismay,” Sister Pauline muttered, turning on her heels and walking to her office to wait for the new applicant.
“What do you know of the contemplative life?” Sister Pauline asked the young girl, who nervously straightened her skirt. Her legs were bare, her sweater tight, her face heavily made up. She had a pierced nose and eyebrow, but her eyes were kind. “What do you know about joining a Poor Clare cloister?”
“I know that I leave the world. I don’t get to talk. And I get to pray to God.”
“That’s right. You get to pray to God a great deal. We are devoted to prayer, as well as penance and manual work. You will be joining a sisterhood of 20,000 Poor Clare nuns throughout the world.”
“We have to skip meals and go barefoot and grow vegetables.”
Sister Pauline stifled a laugh. “We occasionally fast to show our obedience, but most of the time, we eat quite well.”
“So, can I sign up?”
“It’s not the Army, dear. There are lots of steps before becoming a nun, especially in the Franciscan tradition.”
The young girl looked disappointed, but Sister Pauline had a list of questions to go through.
“Have you graduated high school?”
“Are you over eighteen?”
“Yes, sister. I turned eighteen last month.”
“Do you attend mass regularly? Are you involved with your home parish?”
“Yes, I am, sister, but I don’t like the new priest. Father Macmillan retired and the new priest’s eyes are too big. He’s very loud, and he cries during the Eucharist.”
Sister Pauline nodded. She knew the type.
“Are you in good health?” Sister Pauline hated this question. It seemed like prying, but the cloister was very small and there was much work to do. She had seen many would-be nuns leave the order during their first year as a postulate. Whether it was a change of heart or Sister Theresa’s bad temperament, she had never been quite sure. “We need to ensure you are healthy, both physically and mentally . . .”
“Physically, yes. And I am mentally stable as far as any girl my age is,” she wryly replied, shrugging her shoulders.
Sister Pauline conceded her point.
“Are you prepared to make a vow of poverty?”
“I’m already there, sister. I don’t have a car. Heck, I don’t even have a bank account.”
“Noted. Are you prepared for enclosure? Can you see yourself pledging to a life of solitude?”
“Being alone sounds really good right now,” the young girl answered, flat, without emotion. Something in her voice gave Sister Pauline pause.
“It takes six years to join the monastery. After three years, you may take a religious name and be clothed in the habit. Then you may make temporary vows.”
“Could I wear a veil as soon as possible?”
Sister Pauline looked startled. “Why?”
“I hate my hair,” the girl replied, holding out a long frizzy strand.
Who doesn’t, Sister Pauline thought. In hindsight, wearing a coif, wimple and veil definitely made dressing for the day much easier. As a teenager, Sister Pauline herself had spent endless hours with beauty products and hair dryers and curling irons, attempting to get her wavy hair to behave. But that was another life, when she was Jenny Maldonaldo.
“And after six years, you may choose to make solemn vows. A wedding ring will be placed on your finger, and you will be a permanent bride of Christ.”
“I’d like that,” the girl smiled. “Do you like that?”
“Do I like what?” Sister Pauline asked.
“Being married to Jesus.”
All these years and Sister Pauline had never really considered it. “Yes, I do. I mean, there’s not really a son of man to compare to our Lord and Savior.”
“Tell me about it,” the girl said cynically.
“So, have you felt the invitation from God? Have you felt a gentle, persistent yearning to give your whole life to Him?”
“Well, yes. I mean, I think so. How do you really know?”
How do you really know, Sister Pauline thought. She didn’t have an answer for the girl. She quickly glanced down at her next question.
“Do you have warm and loving relationships with your family and friends, but feel drawn to surrender to the Divine will?”
“My parents are okay. They don’t know I’m here, but I think they’ll be all right with it.” The young girl fidgeted, looking down at her feet. “I mean, it’s better than the alternative.”
Sister Pauline put her questions down and looked at the girl, full in the face.
“Are you prepared to take a vow of chastity? That means for the rest of your life you are a Bride of Christ. We become spiritual mothers to countless souls.”
The girl began to cry. Sister Pauline reached over to pat her shoulder.
“In all my years of being an abbess, I have met girls who want to help the world or girls who want to run away from it.”
The girl sobbed harder.
“Christ wants brides who run to Him, not from someone else.” Sister Pauline handed her a box of tissues.
The girl blew her nose. Sister Pauline wondered how that worked with a nose ring.
Sister Pauline escorted the girl to the front door of the monastery. A sour-faced Sister Theresa swept the front stoop, just as they approached.
They stood together to watch the girl walk to the bus stop.
“Was it a boy?” Sister Theresa barked. “It’s always a boy.”
“Appears so,” Sister Pauline sighed. “Boys have been turning girls to nunneries ever since Hamlet.”
“Nice young thing,” Sister Theresa replied, uncharacteristically complimentary. “In three or four months, she’ll forget all about him.”
Sister Pauline nodded, but disagreed with Sister Theresa entirely.
Some boys stayed in girls’ hearts going on forty years now, their memory just as vivid, just as bittersweet.