Son of a Nun

April 23, 2007

We reached for the coffee pot at the same time.

“Allow me to pour for you,” he said, filling the orange Fiesta mug I’d brought from home. This was my second cup. I’d spent my time with the first in an alcove on the third floor, watching a deer take a meandering stroll up from the thicket in the south lawn and across the parking lot to the east side of the property. I’d planned to do some contemplative knitting with the second.

He read the slogan on my shirt. “Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. That’s Robert Frost’s invention. Are you a writer?”

I said I was a fiction writer spending two and a half days with her manuscript between two retreat programs.

“Have you read Anne Tyler?” he asked. And I was ushered into the priests’ eating area to await the rolling out of the breakfast spread while we talked about Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott, my two most important models for fiction writing, both of whom are associated with Baltimore, where he served for many years as a hospital chaplain. “I’ve read everythig they’ve written,” he said. “I’ve met them both.”

Father Henry, my new friend, will be 83 in June. He was 16 when he made the decision to become a priest and enter the Society (the term the Jesuits use to refer to themselves), 18 when he arrived at Wernersville to begin his training, 29 when he left to set the world on fire for the Lord. His father died near the end of that time, and his mother, having lived out God’s call to marry and raise two fine sons, sought a new vocation as a contemplative religious. She joined a community, professed her first vows, and attended Henry’s ordination in her habit. “I’m a son of a nun,” he said.

He talked about his association with Father Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit who spent twenty-two years in Russian prison camps before being released in exchange for a Russian couple being held by the U.S. for espionage. Father Ciszek lived his last years at Wernersville, and there is an active cause for his canonization. “I’ve shaken hands with someone who is going to be a saint,” said Father Henry. “That makes me a third class relic.”

After breakfast I set to work on my fiction, inserting an elderly parish priest who’s just failed his driver’s test into a scene. (“I was nervous and not really comfortable yet with my new intraocular lens implants,” Father Henry told me about his recent experience with this. “I’m going to appeal!”)

At lunch I was again invited to the back table. Father Henry drew on his long service as a hospital chaplain to talk to me about family dynamics in the process of death and dying as well as the conflicts that can arise among people who are supposed to love and support each other, subjects at the heart of my novel. A younger version of Father Henry made it into my afternoon work, a fresh-faced curate trying to mediate between siblings who each believe they should be the one to make decisions about the disposition of the remains of a recently-departed relative.

By dinner I was counting on another conversation. We tackled cosmic issues over our basmati rice and cheese blintzes. What do we make of the events in Bart Township and Blacksburg? Is there any such thing as an unforgivable act?

“I pray every day for nearly a hundred people by name. May I include yours from now on?” he said as he drew a card and a pen from his pocket. Deeply touched, I said certainly he could, as I would speak his name in my own devotions. But I also told him that I had prayed by name for many years for the happiness of an old friend with whom I had lost touch, only to find recently that the friend has endured much sorrow and felt little happiness in all that time. It would be foolish, Father said, to try to dismiss the confusion such a circumstance has engendered in me. “Keep at it anyway. We can’t know this side of paradise what any of this means. Sorrow in the world does not reveal to us a cruel God. Rather, it hides from us the God of love, but only if we let it.”

I have two more meals before the House fills up again with retreatants and I am caught up in another program with another group. You can bet I’ll be at the coffee pot tomorrow. Knitting can wait.

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