Sunday 24 March 2013

Letter to a nun

Dear Sister,

First of all, I have to ask you to forgive me for rifling through your things. I didn't mean any disrespect. I'm not (normally) the kind of person who goes around looking through a woman's private belongings. It's just that I happened to be walking past when I saw the boxes. A huddle of boxes along the kerb in front of the house. Big boxes stuffed with books and papers. Up and down the street people had dumped their unwanted things on the kerb – sofas, swing sets, garden furniture, broken suitcases, old children's toys – because it was the allocated day when the council trucks come  and take it all away. 

And there, Sister, were all your boxes. Not broken furniture or toys but books about music, liturgy, the Roman mass, the poetry of Jeremiah. So you see, my curiosity got the better of me. How could I help myself? I'm the sort of person who can't enter a house without staring at the bookshelves; so how could I walk on by without stopping to peer into your boxes? 

That's how I came to be there on the path outside your house, stooped over your things, examining the contents of your life, the things you had thrown away. I picked up a book. You had written your name in the front, with the letters "O.P." after your name. So you are a Dominican, I thought, a nun. 

I thumbed through a printed collection of medieval music manuscripts. I opened a pocket-sized edition, very old, of The Imitation of Christ. I picked up a somber-looking volume on theology and music. Nearly every page was underlined and annotated. I noticed one paragraph in particular that had attracted your attention: "What is needed is a new theology of music to provide a sound basis for the use of music in the liturgy today. It would be based on both scripture and tradition and would seek to find its origins in the apostolic Church. It would question why the Old Testament psalm remains the essential Christian song, and it would develop the 'new song' symbolism inherited by Christianity from Judaism and attributed to Christ." Beside that remark about the psalms, you had pencilled a shrewd, skeptical little question mark. 

Sister, I was getting to like you.

I went to another box. Liturgical materials. Prayers. Sheet music. Church bulletins. Notes from various retreats. Scraps of ecclesiastical business printed on folded green paper. The Church, the Bride of Christ, the mystical Body of Christ – it all seems pretty humdrum once you start going through the paperwork, don't you think so, Sister?

Then, deeper in the box, the photographs began. Photographs tied together in neat bundles. On each bundle, a name. A strip of negatives attached. Hundreds of photographs. They were spilling on to the ground. Embarrassed, I stuffed them back in the box, but more fell out the other side. Down there somewhere was a well, a fountain of photographs. I saw children, weddings, old people, a bundle of pictures of the same person across time – the baby, the schoolboy, the university graduate, the young couple with children, the old couple, the old man standing alone. Your collection of lives, all assembled here in one place, here in these cardboard boxes by the side of the road. 

In the next box I found your birthday cards. On top, cards with the number 80 blazoned across the front. Beneath those I saw cards with the number 70. I scooped up an armload of cards and saw, way down near the bottom, an older card with a picture of a faded birthday cake, the number 50 barely visible in faded silver. 

In another box I found your notebooks, your diaries, a thicket of hardbound journals, spiral-bound notebooks, curious handmade paper stitched together in hand-stitched notebooks. Perhaps from India, I thought. I picked one up, a cracked blue notebook, and flicked through the pages, wanting to see your neat blue handwriting but not to intrude on your private thoughts. My eyes caught on one sentence: 

"The door is not closing properly." 

I'm sorry, Sister, I read that part by accident. I didn't mean to read a word. Ashamed, I closed the book. (I hope you got your door fixed.)

Another box, filled with pictures. Curling paper posters that had been pulled down from your walls. The angel Gabriel. The annunciation. Adam and Eve. Some saint I'd never seen before. Cheap reproductions of Renaissance paintings. An icon of the Virgin, gold paint shining even down there in the corner of the box. 

Then under the pictures I found the little boxes. A cigar box with tiny notes and bits of string and plastic clips. A red cardboard box with pens, stamps, key rings, a smooth stone paperweight. A handmade box with candles, a fridge magnet, a tiny cast-iron sculpture. A square wooden box with jewellery, a ring, five brooches, a necklace, another ring, a broken bracelet, an orange stone. A rosary. Other smaller things, broken, inexplicable.

I'd had my suspicions, Sister, but not till I saw the jewellery did I understand what had happened. That some time after your eightieth birthday you must have died. I thought what it would be like to die like that, an old woman, a nun, no children or grandchildren gathered about, no one to reassure you that your years were blessed and that your name will be remembered. When you took vows and entered religious life, did you know it would eventually come to this? Did you see that a life devoted to prayer would have to be a life of obscurity, a life easily packed up in boxes and taken away, vanishing without a trace one afternoon? Will anyone remember you, Sister? 

I put your things back into the boxes. I thought: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us. I thought: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. I thought: God will remember you, Sister. God forgets the names of the powerful but remembers the poor. 

They have raked up the pieces of your life like old leaves, Sister, and piled them on the roadside to be taken away. But it is precious, every last bit of it, and God will forget nothing.

I hope you don't mind, Sister, but I have salvaged a few of your things and taken them home with me. I took a candle that had burned halfway down and the wax was very beautiful. We will burn it tonight, my wife, my children and I, while we share the evening meal. I took a postcard with a Leunig picture. I took your stone paperweight, no bigger than a thumbnail. Sister, I will give it to my daughter. She will love it for the same reason you did, because it is so small and because it looks like a tiny frog. 

I took one of your books too, a book of poems. The first lines in the book are by Longfellow:

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.


Seth Heringer said...


This is beautiful. Thank you for honoring this sister... Tonight I will remember her also.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. I'm glad you shared the story. Renea
Des Moines, Iowa

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