Changing habits: What I learned about nuns

Forbidden fruit: My fantasy life among the nuns

Not every nun was blessed with Audrey Hepburn's eyebrows, but a kid can dream, can't he?
Not every nun was blessed with Audrey Hepburn's eyebrows, but a kid can dream, can't he?

They say that farm kids learn about sex by watching their animals. As a suburban Catholic grade school student, my options were more limited. My meager education in the mysteries of the opposite gender came by watching— and fantasizing about— nuns.

I knew all the nuns at St. Bernadette's parochial school, but my greatest obsession was the young nun with the beautiful eyebrows whom I used to follow in the hallways. I also often watched for her during the longer recess at noon.

One day, hot on her trail, I got my wish: She spotted me roaming the halls when I should have been in the schoolyard. With a triple click of her clicker, she announced, "Stay right there, young man!"

A little bit of heaven followed, because I was able to observe the sister approaching me, robe and veil flowing to reveal the slightest suggestion of a female body beneath— a walking apparition to a second-grade boy.

Expecting a scolding, I was thrown off balance when she smiled and suggested I should be out playing with the other children. Had she recognized my affection for her?

Sinfulness of cleavage

In third grade I transferred to a Malvern parish whose school was run by the order of Saint Joseph. I was disappointed to find that its nuns wore high-top box veils, only slightly more sexy than a burqa, and singularly lacking in beautiful eyebrows. Mostly I remember their consternated looks and the way they always seemed to be wringing their hands. The St. Joseph nuns also talked a great deal about morality, the sinfulness of reading teen magazines, and exposed female cleavage.

Nevertheless, they were the only adult females in my daytime universe, so I loved performing tasks for them. I stayed after school and clapped erasers. Then I helped carry their overloaded book bags back to the convent after school.

Being invited inside their convent was always a treat. There I got to see the nuns pin back their veils and put on aprons while they cooked their evening meal. I heard the flush of toilets, the sound of laughter and sometimes music.

Although the Malvern mother superior railed against teen magazines, she was more forgiving when she sensed that one of the boys was playing with himself in class. The boy's beet-red face and fixed "O" facial expression elicited nothing more from Mother than a polite "Please stop that now!"

Attractive but unhappy

I entered adolescence in yet another transfer school with a different order of nuns: the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Here I fixed my spiritual ardor on another young nun with (again) dark, pronounced eyebrows, Sister Miriam Roberts.

Sister Miriam was the youngest and most attractive nun in the convent but seemed quite unhappy. I rarely saw her smile. My 12-year-old mind assumed she must be under great pressure, perhaps from the elderly nuns like Sister "Fish Lips," the thin, stern, ascetic-looking mother superior in wire frame Pope Pius XII eyeglasses.

The eighth-grade boys called her "Fish Lips" because her face resembled a mackerel. The similarity was so great that I'd study her lips and imagine them fighting a hook in the Chesapeake Bay. "Fish Lips" was a frail, reclusive old woman who left her dirty work to her assistant, Sister Honora, another elderly nun with a perpetual sneer.

Sister Honora's claim to fame was the way she'd pound her big gold nun ring on her classroom window while observing noon recess. Her cinematic sneer was enough to inspire dread even among the toughest boys.

Sister Honora's warning

When it become known that I'd be going to the new public high school after eighth grade graduation— not the Catholic school, Sister Honora approached me one day in the schoolyard.

"You are going to lose your faith," she said, titling her head and frowning in such a way that, years later, would make me think of Bell's palsy.

"I will not lose the faith," I insisted defensively, mortified that she could think such a thing about me of all people— a boy so obsessed with nuns that I had once even dressed up as a nun in white bed sheets and a pillowcase.

"You will," she said, contemptuously, dismissing me with a roll of her massive sleeve, which emitted an aroma of Jean Nate bath powder.

Seduced by James Joyce

The following year, in public school, where there were plenty of dark eyebrows but no nuns, I discovered a library of books to explore. Here I encountered the works of James Joyce, an Irish Catholic like me but certainly no defender of the faith. Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I found myself identifying with Stephen Dedalus, who rejected a vocation to the priesthood and the Church for a life of selfish detachment.

As so often happens with books, one text leads to another, and before I knew it I was in the middle of that vast lake of disbelief prophesied by Sister Honora.

Often during these "recess" reading sessions I'd leaf through the Jesuit magazine, America, and learn of the upheavals in the Church during the then in-session Second Vatican Council. The news reports convinced me that the Church was going through liberalizing changes very much like those that transformed Stephen Dedalus. Having grown up feeling like the Church and I were one, I took some comfort in that.

Long after high school, however, my thoughts often drifted back to Sister Honora. If she was still alive— certainly possible, since for all I know she may have been only 40 when I perceived her as "elderly"— was she still keeping the faith and the mystery of the pre-Vatican Church I remembered in all its age-old glory? Or had Sister Honora moved on with her life— just as I had (at least for a while), and just as the Church had? Had she left the convent, as did so many nuns and priests back then? Or had she become one of those nuns sporting lesbian feminist hairdos?

Most of all, I wondered: Who had disappointed her more—me, or the Church?♦


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