Three Sisters & the Puritan
by James L. Sauer
Archives. That’s what brought us together. The room was full of librarians, registrars, and other academic life-forms. We moved toward the beautifully arranged luncheon tables and were seated. I was sitting with three sisters. No, they weren’t related. They were nuns, three old nuns: human relics of Catholicism as it was a generation ago. After preliminary announcements, grace was said, and the waiters began to serve the meal.
The food was excellent. The first course was a soup, a tasty vegetable in a clear broth.
Seven schools had been part of a grant feasibility study on archival cooperation. Participants had included six small Catholic institutions, and one Evangelical college. I represented the Bible-thumpers.
My company was delightful.
The first nun was Sister Harmony, eagle-like, with piercing eyes. She had a Jesuitical streak—a clear, argumentative, analytical sense, but with a lovely smile that put one at ease. There was a kind of romanesque quality about her, an aristocracy of manner. I had a feeling that given time we could reconcile anything with a dialectical recipe so common in theological circles.
On learning that I was a Presbyterian at a Baptist school, she leaned over and said: “During our ecumenical week, an Indian girl showed us her little god made of wood. It was the god of wisdom. She prays to it every day. She said she couldn’t imagine not praying to a god.” She smiled knowingly, as if she had just given a decisive argument for the existence of God—and in a sense she had. But I must admit, she seemed rather ambivalent toward this idolatry. Sister Harmony embodied the special chameleon nature of the Roman church: always the same, always ready to adapt, tradition and syncretism ever blending. Sister Harmony was Scholasticism, Counter-Reformation . . . and alas, Inquisition, all rolled into one person.
Sister Peacefulness, recently retired, was a small and happy woman, full of stories, jokes and plays on words. She was feisty poetical Catholicism at its best. An American, she had a strangely European middle-class spirit of hard work and joy, politeness and gemütlichkeit. German, Irish, Polish, French, Ukrainian, English—it didn’t matter what her ethnic background was: she incarnated them all. She chatted on with a lively reason and entertaining manner. She was the romance which was Rome, the pious cavalier spirit of Chesterton and Belloc, as well as the stolid activity of Tolkien and Newman.
The second course was a salad. I had French dressing on mine. Rolls were passed.
Sister Say-That-Again, the oldest of the three, had hearing problems and failing sight. She had a kind of ancient, bedrock peasant look. She drank her wine amiably and made commonsense and good-natured replies to the questions. For all I know she had a doctorate in philosophy. Yet in another sense, she represented the average unlettered Catholic: generally a good joe who doesn’t know much about about theology, or the gospel, or the Bible, or Church doctrine for that matter, but does love Jesus. Can’t hear or see too well sometimes, but understands duty, and knows how to obey. She just keeps on going. That also is Rome in a nutshell.
And plopped down among them was a bearded Reformed Evangelical. While each sister reflected a type of once vibrant Catholicism, I was the Puritan Pilgrim on the road to the Celestial City. I smiled and joked and quoted Scripture and shared anecdotes and listened seriously and laughed freely and in every way enjoyed my time with the three sisters of the Holy Family.
“We’re having problems with new vocations. Fact is, there aren’t any,” said Harmony.
“Young girls don’t think of such things. It’s all money. They’ve got to have their car. Yes, they’ve just got to own a car,” said Peacefulness.
“What’s that?” said Say-That-Again, who after being apprised of the vocational crises, put in her two cents. “Nobody wants to sacrifice. They don’t understand sacrifice.”
“What are you going to do?” I chimed in. “There’s a demographic crisis looming, isn’t there?”
They all just shrugged their shoulders.
“There was just be fewer of us. Lay orders will be started. They’ll put a sister in charge of a platoon here and there. It’s the same with the priesthood. I don’t know what they’re going to do. It won’t be good.”
We talked of television, violence, materialism, family life. When I told them that I had six children their faces lit up. They all leaned forward as if to get a clearer vision of the creature before them. I thought they were going to make me an honorary Catholic. Six children. A Protestant. Didn’t I practice birth control? Six children—it was a miracle!
The third course was the main meal: steak, potato and asparagus. Another glass of wine was poured.
And the conversation went on. We talked about education, bilingualism, Canada, libraries, mystery stories. We spoke. We ate. We drank.
And as we sat and looked at each other, Rome and Geneva, I am sure there was a kind of amiable communion, an understanding of the heart, a unity of spirit. Strange though it may seem, there was a type of affection. We seemed so close yet so distant. I felt there was a puzzled, quizzical expression in their gaze. No doubt they were thinking, “Now here’s a fine family man, a Christian, a believer in the old virtues, a polite man, a traditionalist . . . but he’s an Evangelical! If only he’d understand authority—if only he were a Catholic.” While on my part, I thought, “These are fine pious ladies, lovers of Christ, people who understand the passion of giving their lives to their Maker, people who understand moral order. We’d make wonderful allies if we could just agree on the justification of the Cross.”
A sister passed me the last bread roll; I filled her glass with a little wine. The dessert was vanilla ice cream topped with fruit. After coffee, we settled down for the presentation on archives.
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“Three Sisters & the Puritan” first appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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