Sometime during my elementary school years, one of the years after the toothless second grade and before breast buds, at a time when I thought that liking or thinking about boys too much could get you in “trouble” whatever that meant exactly, I wanted to be a nun.
It must have been around the time of fourth grade when my parochial school chums and I were embarked upon a full year of studying the lives of the Saints in preparation for our Holy Confirmation the following year. I understood Confirmation to be the important act of “confirming” our Catholicism, proving that in addition to our Baptisms over which we had no choice, our now mature minds choose this path for ourselves.
Anyway, I liked the Saints. They were brave and scary–fighting lions, getting stabbed lots of times, hanging out in the desert all by themselves, losing their heads… They were glamorous too. Mere children seeing visions, having the whole world take notice and make pilgrimages to their magic spot, being revered for their special piety. These children were my heroes.
I especially liked Saint Bernadette. I saw a picture of her and she had brown hair like me. She was an oldest sister like me, too. She was strong and brave and held on to her special secrets. She only told the Pope and he wouldn’t tell anyone. Then she got to be a nun.
Since I plainly knew it wasn’t a good idea to think about boys, I got really carried away with fantasies about Bernadette and her siblings. I began to think that if I prayed a great deal and acted real pious, maybe I could earn that special kind of attention. However, being an older sister, I knew that to get any real attention for anything, you couldn’t wait around for someone to notice. You had to specifically ask for it.
So, one day, during recess, I rang the rectory door bell and asked to speak to Father Brown. We arranged ourselves in his office. He on the working side of the desk. Little old me in a big leather visitor’s chair on the other side. There was a lot of paper. I explained my quest for holiness; my desire to spend my life in devout servitude; my commitment to never liking boys; and my attraction to wearing the really neat outfit of a nun. In fact I shared with him that I wanted to enter the convent now and I hoped he would help me. “The world’s youngest nun.” I liked that idea a lot.
In hindsight, I’m amazed he didn’t laugh out loud. He probably called all of his priest buddies the second I was out the door. “Hey, Father Jones! You’ll never guess who was just in my office! The world’s youngest nun!”
But Father Brown gave me his sincere attention. He said he thought it was wonderful that I found my vocation but that if I left my family for the convent now, they would miss me and would be sad.
“I don’t think so,” I pleaded. After all, there were two other kids to keep my parents busy. It couldn’t hurt to ask.
Father Brown wouldn’t budge.
I cried a little.
Instead, Father Brown suggested that I could get started on the path to nunhood by giving up my recess time every Wednesday to the service of the Lord. And so, every Wednesday for the remainder of the school year, I earned “brownie points” toward my convent goal by vacuuming and dusting the sacristy area.
I was real grateful at first. A few other nun wannabes had already been given the assignment so they showed me the ropes and where the priests kept the magical holy things every church needed to be a real church of God and not just a fancy building. I did my chores and I stared at the statues of Jesus with his bloody palms, and the paintings of the Madonna, who was a virgin, a woman who had been very careful not to like boys too much.
But after a while, after dusting these icons dozens of times and finding chips in their paint and uneven brush strokes, after seeing our communion stacked up in boxes like saltine crackers, and after plowing the noisy Hoover around the sacred relics a few hundred times, these embodiments of holiness began to lose their charm. By the time the school year was ending, all the other wannabes lured by the warming weather and recess, and boys I presumed, had abandoned their posts, leaving me to Wednesday cleaning chores on my own.
I needed a test to see if this holy stuff was going anywhere. I needed to see a beam of light, some mysterious smoke, a statue crying real tears or bleeding! I needed a vision. I needed a sign. Something from God, The Virgin Mary, or little baby Jesus, or even a Saint to let me know that I was indeed worthy of nunhood and that I should keep this cleaning junk up.
Of course I couldn’t just wait around for the holy family to know I needed this sign. I had already been watching carefully for weeks. So, on the last Wednesday of the school year, after completing my tasks and putting away the Hoover and the dust rags, I stood in the sacristy, in front of the alter, facing the choir balcony and said the dirtiest most awful word I knew, “shit.”
I waited. Nothing happened. My profanity in the holiest of holy places evoked no response. No bolt of lightning. No sudden cold breeze. Not even a whisper of smoke. It was over. My dream of becoming not only the world’s youngest nun, but a nun at any time in my life, was dashed. And as young people do, I quickly moved on to a new passion—baseball. I even thought it might be ok to play with the boys a little bit that summer.
By Elaine Carol Bernadette Maly
(This essay was featured on WUWM’s Lake Effect program in 2012.)