When I was about seven years old, I watched an old black and white movie called the Song of Bernadette (1943) with Jennifer Jones and decided I wanted to be a saint.
Shortly thereafter, the road to holiness was set in motion as I started attending a Catholic School run by the Spanish Carmelite Sisters of Charity.
I was the new girl, a very chubby second grader, in just purchased uniform – white shirt with Peter Pan collar and a blue plaid skirt. My teacher was Sister Angeles, a rail thin nun in a starched black habit with the palest of skin stretched over tight cheekbones, and dark eyes that would flash at a misbehaving student.
This was my first exposure to a woman of the cloth and to a lifestyle I didn’t understand. She and the other nuns absolutely fascinated me.
The whole “Bride of Christ” thing unnerved me; her patience and kindness enveloped me; her quick discipline to students obviously not on the road to sainthood, like myself, scared me.
I studied her.
Curiosity eventually overcame my shyness and in one of those rare one on one moments, I asked her why she had become a nun. She told me that she was visited in a dream by God when she was a young girl and her path became clear to her.
I continued to work on my sainthood. I really tried not to yawn at mass. I helped my mom around the house. I tried to be kind, not swing my cats by their tails, and ignore the mean girls that called me “fatso.”
On occasion, a student would be awarded a small silver medallion with a picture of Mary and baby Jesus. I thought these must have been minted at the Vatican and blessed by the Pope himself. I coveted one of these valuable trinkets and was quite disturbed when I happened to see a baggie full of them when I peered into her desk drawer. She never gave me one.
I coveted. I spied in my teacher’s desk. But most of all, I couldn’t stop fighting with my brother who was 16 months older – who plainly didn’t understand the mission I was on. I started thinking about the hard planks she must sleep on. I thought about not being able to marry Rock Hudson or Gene Kelley. My mission to sainthood started to fall apart.
Then, I started worrying that Jesus might visit me in a dream and ask me to become a nun. I fretted for weeks before I went to Sister Angeles to confess my fears.
She sat me down. And in her Spanish inflected voice, she told me not to worry so much. That every one of us had a special job to do in life. For her, it was to become a nun. For me, she didn’t know. But what she did know, beyond anything, was that the biggest sin that we could all make, was not fulfilling the gift that God had given us, to do that special job.
Simple right? Nothing new. The same message addressed by almost all religions and parents throughout history.
But for a second grader, coming from a bride of Christ, her words stuck in my heart, like thick frosting stuck on a beater.
I started attending public school my freshman year and also left the church at that time; eventually considering myself somewhat of a “spiritual agnostic.”
The moral of this story could certainly be “Watch out what you tell impressionable young girls,” “Hey, religion at an early age really does make an impression,” or “Who knew? Jennifer Jones, seductress to sainthood.”
However, I believe this experience and the learning that I received from Sister Angeles that year and throughout my time at Catholic school – is not another bad ex-Catholic story. What it gave me, was an acceptance that every one of us, no matter our zigs and our zags, has something totally unique and special to offer the world. Some folks might not know it – which is too bad, because when I have ran out of all confidence and questioned myself and my choices, I could always reach back and find this.
Thank you Sister Angeles for giving me this gift.