Not having grown up in any church, my introduction to nuns came from a documentary about Mother Teresa. I watched it so many times that my VHS player ate the tape probably out of exhaustion or the same, incomprehensible disinterest friends displayed when I tried to get them to watch with me. What could possibly be more romantic than taking a vow, walking away from familial ties and cultural expectations through the streets of Calcutta to find Jesus in the face of any hungry, homeless, lonely stranger? Sorry world, Casablanca pales in comparison.
A year into my studies at seminary I tried to talk about Mother Teresa with the only person I thought would understand: my new mentor Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel. At the improbable age of sixteen Norberta also took a vow of poverty and service to the poor as a Third Order Franciscan. She advocated for tenants, ran a homeless shelter for decades and became the only moral authority no local politician would dare cross publically. That’s why while sorting through bags of clothing donations one morning I told Norberta about how Mother Teresa wouldn’t accept second-hand anything because she only wanted gifts that represented sacrifice. Norberta rolled her eyes.
Not long after that I met my second in-the-flesh nun: Sr. Betty Ann Dartch. Un-swayed by a snowstorm that blew into town on an evening Rosemary and I had been invited to the convent for dinner, Norberta sent Betty Ann to pick us up. We stood by the curb in front of our fifth floor walk-up beside snow piles the size of as 3rd graders and watched for our ride. A limousine turned the corner, stopped across the street and our Pulitzer Prize winning neighbor Anna Quinlen immerged from her brownstone dressed for some fabulous soiree. The limo driver jumped out, escorted her in and off they went. About ten minutes later a 1980 something Chevrolet station wagon with faux-wood paneling pulled up in the slush puddle next to us. The window rolled down and a voice from the driver’s side bellowed, “Hiya gals- get in!” We climbed over an ice covered trash bag into the back seat.
At the convent over Asian Chicken Salad and several rounds of a board game called “Is the Pope Catholic?” Bette Ann told us all about her last trip to Atlantic City where she won a hundred and thirty dollars playing slots and she kindly offered to get us a complimentary room at The Tropicana. Registering my surprise, Betty Ann quickly figured out that I was no fun what-so-ever so she changed subjects. She told us about her prestigious job with the Franciscan Health Care System and later about her huge crush on Richard Chamberlain, especially in his role as Fr. Ralph de Bricassart in the 1980s bodice ripper telemovie, The Thorn Birds.
Months later I wound up at Betty Ann’s studio apartment armed with Scrabble and lunch to visit Norberta as she recuperated from an illness. Every wall was covered with photographs of Betty Ann receiving medals from Rotarians, recognition plaques from the Exalted Ruler of the Elks, city and county resolutions in honor of her service. The apartment was so small it looked like a shrine. Norberta rolled her eyes at this too. Turns out that no matter how unlikely the pairing, religious sisters are bound to each other just like any siblings.
Betty Ann eventually left the convent when her call to ordained ministry and the church’s stance on homosexuality became too painful to ignore. Norberta reported that when asked by two of her closest guy friends, Bette Ann bought herself a nice dress and married them to each other. Richard Chamberlain wept for joy in Thorn Birds heaven. Not long after that Betty Ann was diagnosed with some terrifying, virulent cancer and died. Rosemary and I cried. When Betty Ann Dartch left a walking party in nun shoes disappeared with her. I miss her brand of loud, self-congratulatory, recalcitrant holiness even now.
After the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last August and years of avoidance I finally read Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I wanted to understand how, given the right circumstances, ordinary people become monstrous. It’s terrifying, true and like a fault line it could open and swallow us at any time. Even so, I’ve had to re-learn, many times over, that if I give my undivided attention our collective crimes against the each other and the earth for extended periods of time the only crops I wind up harvesting are shame and hopelessness. Also, like staring at the sun, evil makes me blind to what Arendt didn’t write about: the banality of good.
It’s that woman holding the elevator longer than I wish she would for a guy still a hundred feet away, it’s all those people waiting in long queues to donate blood, it’s everyone who wrote out checks to send under-resourced kids to summer camp on the same Sunday morning I asked, it’s a ride in a blizzard, Good is as common as dirt. I just don’t bother to think about it usually because it’s about as exciting as a station wagon with faux wood paneling, a lot more like Betty Ann Dartch than Mother Teresa and rarely even close to what I was looking for.
No wonder when we ask to see holiness Jesus points at sinners and seeds and tells us weird stories about neighbors knocking at your door at midnight or housewives sweeping and finding lost coins. It’s not at all romantic to imagine the Kingdom of Heaven at a Ramada Inn or a saint of God rotating your tires at the local garage, but unless you’re willing to see Jesus there you might not see him at all.
Your sister in Christ.