There is a nun here at this Catholic retreat center who wears a gray pinstriped skirt, a white blouse, and a black habit and I think is French, or maybe Spanish. She is old and small and moves slowly and has a wide forehead, and she stands right up close to the tall reading-room clock to see the time. She stands there and stares and then adjusts the hands on the white plastic clock she carries in her purse. She moans while she does this, frightening and sepulchral and tender.
This retreat house is, like many others, quiet and a little unreal, its flowers almost too bright and fluttery amid fresh mulch. Outside, the lawn is profoundly green and rolls downhill to a cliff overlooking the Potomac River. There is a woods and a Stations of the Cross and a fine chapel for prayer. As a Jesuit in training, moving toward priesthood, I am delighted to spend my eight required days here in this spiritual fantasyland, and I don’t know if I could take one minute beyond that.
There are also icons and statues and tabernacles and altars, and yet perhaps the most profound image I can contemplate is this nun, who herself is mournfully contemplating the time on a clock twice her size. I want her to pray for me. I want to come up with some reason to need help, so she will offer prayers to God on my behalf. I almost wish upon myself a vocational crisis — some bright, spiritual girl in a distant college town, or in the too-frequented outskirts of my dreams, intruding into my somber meditation here on the river. I almost wish for this so that the nun may pray to keep me strong, and I will feel the effect of her prayers like poured concrete around this life I have chosen.
I don’t believe it is just a romantic notion that leads me to ascribe such power to this sister. I am fairly certain her power is real. First of all she is old, which means she has stayed in the order. She has stayed. Why? I don’t know. Duty. Obligation. Not wanting to let people down. Resting in the Lord. Bliss, service, fear, harmony, fulfillment. Whatever the reason, she is here.
And, as my dad said more than once when sizing up the prom date of one of his fidgeting, slick-haired sons, “She has an open face.” The nun’s face is not radiant or pleasant or cheery. It is just open. It hides nothing: a face that fits into its surroundings cleanly and is easy to look into from all sides.
She walks as if she commands any room she enters, because she does. Her humility inversely dominates any space she is in. I am certain she would be appalled at the thought that she could or would dominate a room, which only makes her more dominant.
She wears a brown nylon over her right hand, giving the impression it has been broken or is deformed or for some reason is out of commission at this time and maybe will be until she dies. Because her hand is hidden in this unmajestic way, it almost seems as if she were hiding a sacred wound, some lesser stigmata she is too humble to reveal to a world anxious to pounce on any sign of the freakishly mystical.
Is it unfair to heap all this grandeur on such a woman? Maybe she was fierce and brutal in some classroom. Maybe she didn’t call home enough. Perhaps she kited funds from a retirement account or spent a good part of her days avoiding the sisters she couldn’t stand. Maybe she gardened poorly. Who knows? I can’t imagine any of it. Whatever she did or didn’t do, she has left it all behind. She is just this. And what is this? Perhaps the best I can say is: she just sends something out.
And lastly I am certain of her powers because of the way she allowed me, when we met at the beverage station one day at lunch in what was perhaps the high point of my retreat, to open the little creamer for her and pour it into her coffee. Then she let me open a second creamer and pour it for her. When she reached for a sugar packet, I started to take that too, and she said to me in English, “I can pour the sugar myself,” and walked away.
So I want this sister to intercede for me. But what shall she pray for if there is no vocational crisis? (And there isn’t, except in the way that any religious vocation is a kind of crisis.) Maybe she can pray for what I do. As part of my training — “formation,” the Jesuits call it — I work at a high school on an Indian reservation, where I’m the campus minister and also teach religion and help put on plays. But when people ask what my job is, I usually say that I drive a bus. Because I do drive a bus. Many of the teachers do, taking the kids all over the Dakota prairies. I drive a school bus down the gray roads, and sometimes I say the rosary while I drive and imagine that the snow covering the stubble in the cornfields is like the Virgin Mary protecting the world, protecting me. Or I notice that the cows in a pasture, though spread out over acres and acres, are all facing the same way, every last one with its back to the road, and it feels meaningful, as if they were all staring in awe at something, confounded; as if they were praying in pious formation. But they are not praying. They are just cows. It is I who am praying, driving the yellow bus to a junior-varsity basketball game. I feel maybe this nun, in her overpowering humility, would appreciate all of that and offer her own prayer. The kids need to get there on time, she might say, and point to her white clock.
Or, better yet, maybe I need her prayers for “interior freedom,” as my Jesuit teachers call it: being free to live out of the Holy Spirit and not the lower spirits of envy, comparison, and pride. I need her prayers so I won’t go around in the shadow of the Jesuits who’ve come before me, the ghosts of many wonderful priests and brothers I’ve heard about: Such a great listener! You never felt so listened to! He made everyone — all the kids, the faculty, everyone — feel like they were incredibly important! Even kids he was disciplining, as he was disciplining them, knew they were loved by this man. I need the freedom to find my own way of doing this, despite all the wonderful departed priests crowding my darkened brainpan.
Now I am on this retreat, after a year at the high school, to chew on the work and the life. I am here to let prayer and silence fill the hollow places inside me, so that teaching sixteen-year-olds on the plains doesn’t become a thin and fleeting experience but somehow etches itself deeper into me. I am here so my life will get soaked more thoroughly with the deluge of the past year. The hope is that my actions may become somehow more real to me, more deeply felt in looking at them than they were even in the doing, like emotional moments in movies — in particular, films about gutsy, underdog high-school sports teams.
I am here with Jesuits from all over the country, all of us in the middle stage: no longer novices but not yet priests, working for a spell “in the vineyard,” as some might say. (Officially we are called “regents” — a term used by the Society of Jesus that means, roughly, “You will teach high school.”) I am proud of these regents, these vinedressers, these men. If you are looking for an exposé by a discontented seminarian, you will have to look elsewhere. I like being in this outfit. They are for the most part “regular guys,” which is a somewhat prideful way we talk about ourselves: Regular guys who lift weights, write blogs, and make mix CDs of songs by famously unknown bands. Guys who won’t be caught in a chapel every minute of the day (said usually with a hint of bravado). Guys who can knock back a few. And it’s true, I like that we are men composed of flesh and blood and doubt and beating hearts, and not merely incense and smoke and wordy Thomistic propositions. Regular guys afflicted with a passion for reading who, when there is free time, head to isolated corners with magazines or newspapers. Solitary men who may have to rehearse once or twice before saying to another brother, “Hey, want to take a walk?” Regular guys in a bookish sort of way. But still.
One was an army sergeant who fought in the Gulf War and then became a medical doctor before joining the Society of Jesus. Another used to clothe and feed the mentally challenged. Another played a lot of ultimate Frisbee. One man wrote speeches for a congressman, and another entered the order at age twenty-one and on his bio, under “work experience,” wrote, unironically, that he’d had a paper route. What they all have in common is a weakness: an inability to say no to a deeply imprinted call — a call to poverty, chastity, and obedience, strange virtues that had to be flushed out from their hiding places, shown to us, and somehow made desirable. We’re men who, for the most part, had good jobs and degrees but were brought low by something many of us hadn’t really asked for, and to which we all eventually yielded. In the end concession and surrender may be our greatest accomplishments.
I want all of these men to stay, but many don’t. Their weakness leaves them, I guess. I don’t really know. Most of us on this retreat are six years into a decade-long journey toward priesthood, and many of our brothers have left us along the way. When someone departs, it seems those left behind hunker down and wonder if they, too, can bear out this life — which is maybe why I said a religious vocation is always a kind of crisis. A number of those who’ve departed were my good friends. They are now married or have partners. They work as youth ministers, study law, teach kids, run retreats, fight for the poor. They are good men doing good things, often in the Church, but they’ve left our brotherhood. I’d like a little pity for this, but who has pity to share regarding such matters when there are so many far more tragic stories of people leaving? A freshman once told me that, during her eighth-grade graduation, her father had sat in the car in the parking lot and drank. Geographically he was not far from the ceremony, but by all appearances he had long ago left the precious, fractured territory of his daughter. And now she, at fifteen, was beginning to drink heavily, to leave herself by the same soaked, numb path that her father had left her.
So I try not to spend a lot of time carping about the departures of my dear Jesuit brothers. Staring at the nun in gray, on the other hand, baffled by the simple fact that she is still here — this is something I could, or maybe should, spend a great many hours doing.
I hope she discerns that we unfinished Jesuits are worth her prayers — not because we are going to go out and do mighty things for the Lord and set the world on fire, nor because we are mortified holy men who pray with discipline and deep reverence. I want her prayers because we were all taken by the hand and led on this odd, precarious path — with good healthcare and fine schooling — and none of us who remains has had it in him to wrest free and run in the other direction. But we need help. I don’t know how to put it any more simply. I am tempted to go up to the nun and grab her by the shoulders and bark into her guileless face, Out with it! What is your secret? Why do you stay? How did you get the way you are? Where does the peace come from? Name the coordinates, the latitude and longitude of where you stood to be drenched by God with such grace, to have this serenity, to be able to overpower a room with the nothingness of you.
I am afraid she would merely say, I prayed. I worked. I tried to give my life to God. These things I already know about. I fear that they are all it is: holding out, keeping on, building a bridge to the holy ether stone by stone.
I don’t always subscribe to prayer as a cure for everything. Perhaps I am not mortified enough to do so. I do know, however, that other people believe prayer is the answer — this sister probably being one of them. If we become what we look at, then perhaps I may be given a truer purpose simply by watching this nun; staring confounded, like the mysterious cattle all turned in one direction; comparing myself not to the priests in the cemetery but to the wounded bird of her, a figure in black and gray filled with what I don’t have but what I at least can see.
One day at lunch, after putting her empty tray away, the nun came back to her place at the table and prayed silently. I assume she gave thanks for her meal. I expected it to be a ten-second rote, though sincere, prayer. But she stayed longer: moment after moment, really praying, likely in thanks for that cup of corn chowder, the cold white macaroni salad, the BLT, the ice water, maybe even for the little packets of apple jelly. This prayer was serious business: her hands folded, head lowered, eyes closed. A heavy prayer poured on the minor affair of the meal like buckets of water on a tiny garden plot. And me watching, hoping it would not end.