The White Lily Blog

Please Don’t Ask!

My credit union demands I put answers to secret security questions, and all of them are frustrating.

This particular firewall must be to protect the bank, not me. On the contrary!  If I’m ever accosted by bad guys demanding access to my account, they’ll probably have to kill me, because I won’t remember how I spelled the name of my First Pet.

It was a baby frog I tried to teach to sit upright in a tiny plastic rowboat in Granny’s washtub in the hot August sun, and I was too little to spell the name I gave it at the ‘funeral,’ after I forgot it and went for ice-cream and came home and it had fried.

These security questions must be composed by excruciatingly dull people, because their favorite authors never change, and they always know their father’s middle name. Listen, to know Dad’s last name is beyond some of us, and we hate to be reminded of it every time we do our on-line banking!

Consider the question that asks you to name your favorite teacher. “Who’s your teacher-hero?” As if that were easy!

I had so many good teachers. My dying God, we were rolling in them! I had Sister Patricia for 10th grade homeroom. She was old. I remembered her recently, but not for outstanding instruction. I remembered her because my stomach growled.

As homeroom teacher, she taught us religion, and then supervised us during morning snack. It cost a quarter. Sister Patricia observed that I, a scholarship student, had not taken any refreshment the first week. On Monday of the second week, she put a jelly doughnut and a carton of chocolate milk on my desk, and, collecting my folder on the Works of Mercy with her other hand, whispered, “Help me out, won’t you? I shouldn’t eat that doughnut.” She gestured at her waistline, well-concealed beneath the habit, the beautiful one the Sisters Adorers of the Most Precious Blood used to wear. It had a cape and an eye-socking crimson sash.  She made her offer sound like a reverse beatitude. Thou Shalt Assist the Dieting. It wasn’t charity, I’d be helping!

I helped all year.

On the other hand, Sister Clotilda, my geometry teacher in the morning and chorus teacher in the afternoon, didn’t seem like a hero. I don’t get geometry, and I always blame her. Geometry sounded threatening, the litany of things they thought they could prove! I always wanted to say, “I know you can prove that parallel lines will never meet, but why do you want to?”  

Sister never explained the practical applications of geometry, though. I’ve since learned the utility of finding the mileage to distant objects like the moon without actually having to go there. It’s a trick you can do with a tree and its shadow–proportions. But right then, the sight of little Sister Clotilda, with her sleeves rolled up to give her better reach, just meant trouble.

She also taught us music, last period in the big chorus room, with the wide windows looking over the graveyard. I stood on the risers next to my best friend Mary Ellen in her pop bottle glasses, and we gave our hearts to the haunting second voice of Silent Night. Sister never had to frown at me last period, the way she did third. Because of her, I can read music and harmonize anything. I know how to find do, just from looking at the treble clef. I’ve been in some choir or another all my life. It’s brought joy.

Sister Mary Pauline is a big contender. In her large sunny room on the second floor, she revealed the world of English literature. She carried her fine figure with elegance, and we imagined she had been a woman of prospects. Perhaps she fled to the convent with a broken heart! We suspected she knew a thing or two about love. “Love’s not Time’s fool,” said Shakespeare, “but eternal,” and Sister added, ‘like God’s love for mankind. ‘She liked an essay I wrote on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and read it to the class.

She took my side. When I told the truth about smoking in the drama loft and got suspended, she said, “Well done,” and informed me privately that the area behind the potting shed was safer. I hennaed my hair just before prom, giving myself an excuse not to attend, because I didn’t have a dress. All my outraged teachers were united against me. Sister found me hiding in the library stacks, and whispered, “If I hadn’t been born with red hair, I’d dye mine, too.” You couldn’t see her hair beneath the coif. I had to take her word for it.

She studied us with genuine interest. Once, I was typing intently in the press room of our school newspaper. Several girls were chatting with Sister Pauline, who was the sponsor. She turned from them to read over my shoulder. I was writing an article about integration, which would’ve been controversial at that time and place, East St. Louis in the late fifties, but not unwelcome at St. Teresa’s. Our school was attended by a small number of African-American girls and founded in Christ’s egalitarian gospel which offers a cross to everybody.

“You could do with fewer exclamation points,” she observed. She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “I pity the man who marries you,” she said.

It was the kind of statement that gives a girl character.

Graduation came. Unlike my friends, no one at home was discussing college. I didn’t know how to investigate scholarships and I couldn’t tell anyone how poor I was when I had spent four years hiding it. And I couldn’t stay home.  Imagine the sisters’ surprise when I applied to join their ranks, and my surprise that they accepted me. I was going to the motherhouse at the end of June, and there I would meet another teacher who changed my life.

There isn’t much packing, to enter a convent. The trousseau, as it was called, since we were Brides of Christ, was small–ten cotton undershirts, ten pairs of drawers, black oxfords, black stockings, black sweater, toothbrush, any color. The sisters would supply everything else, my letter said.

My mother fingered the sweater and sighed. My mother had no patience with girls who couldn’t figure out how to use what they had naturally to get ahead, the way she had. But she took me the hour’s drive into rural Illinois to the motherhouse, and let me out. Nuns made her nervous. I told the sister who answered the bell a lie about ‘an emergency’ and ‘it grieved my mother, but she had to go’ and joined the other postulants and families in the waiting room, until the Superior General Mother Mary Catherine opened to us the heavy interior doors that marked the cloister where only we could enter.

First we were clothed in the postulants’ habit.  Gone were the saddle shoes and circle skirts. Bouffants were tucked under short veils. Transformed, we made our official entrance in chapel for benediction, which was already filled with white-veiled novices and the retired nuns who lived in the motherhouse. Dinner followed, and then came recreation, and we could talk. Mother told us that we weren’t to have special friends, but to spend time with everyone. I wondered if I’d even want to be “special friends” with any of my fellow postulants, or they with me. We all came from schools of the Sisters Adorers, but there all similarities ended.  I was the only city girl. The rest were farm girls, two girls were awfully pretty, another had a withered arm.

I hadn’t realized the order had so many schools! Originally Italian, founded by a colleague of Maria Montessori whose humane teaching methods were written into the Holy Rule, the order had expanded to America from a German branch.

Then, after Mother’s introduction, we unpacked in the dorm. Each sleeping area, which closed at night with curtains, had a bed, crucifix, nightstand, and a straight-backed chair. I had the corner, with two windows all to myself. Outside, the moon was full; the motherhouse cross cast a long, straight shadow over the fields. Everything around me smelled wonderfully clean, the fresh white sheets, the curtains separating the sleeping areas, the rich land outside the windows. My postulant’s dress, the black oxfords and stockings, were laid out and ready for the morning. I felt safe. It was heaven, surely.

The next day we began our new routine: rise at six, meditation, mass, breakfast, chores, and then the schedule said, class. We met in the postulants’ classroom. Mother Dolores presided.

The order was pleased, she said, to be able to offer new sisters a university education. Our postulant classes would receive credit from St. Louis University. Next year, the novitiate year of intense spiritual preparation, we’d take only theology, but then, after our first vows, we’d live in the order’s house on campus and study, provided teaching or nursing was the apostolate the Lord wanted for us. “There are other paths,” Mother Dolores said, “but most of you will earn degrees.”

Degrees weren’t required to teach in Catholic institutions, at that time. So I hadn’t understood we’d take college classes, let alone from St. Louis University; in my circle, it was elite. I raised my hand. “What classes will we take?”

“Freshman theology. I’m certified to teach that. First year Latin, first year Greek, from Sister Madeline, who is a university teaching assistant working on her dissertation. Freshman English.”

Theology. Latin, Greek, English. No math. I can do it, I thought. “Your English class,” continued Mother, “will be taught by Sister Scholastica. She is our order’s first Ph.D.” Mother beamed.

Everyone loved Scholastica. She was the fruit of the Adorers’ hard work. Scholastica had gone to one of the order’s grade schools, then high school, entered the order and gone straight through university to her doctorate, graduating summa cum laude. She wasn’t even German. She was 100% American.

We postulants worshiped her. She was hardly older than us, but thinner. We didn’t know the word cool yet, but Scholastica was. She had Buddha beside the crucifix, and played jazz on a record player. Her office was filled with books and Chagall prints of floating brides, instead of bleeding Sacred Hearts. She called movies films and read authors to us we’d not heard of, Flannery O’Connor, whose protestant characters screamed, and J.D. Salinger, half-Catholic, half-Jewish, and charmingly dissatisfied with practically everything. And Scholastica could drive!

She gave us difficult assignments. We précised authors, summarizing every major idea while retaining the author’s style. We read Yves Congar who said we were all priests, and Teilhard de Chardin who said all matter had spirit and made choices.

They raised questions. Why worship Christ in the chapel when He lived everywhere? Or kneel in prayer while your brother goes hungry? The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience began to seem like privileges. In religious life, you needed shoes, you asked for them. You needed a degree, ditto. Was that poverty?

Scholastica brought young women from the University to speak to us from the chapel pulpit wearing power suits and high heels. We could end war and wear lipstick, apparently. We must do more than serve the poor–we must end poverty. That’s what Christ wanted, they said.

So, little by little, we acquired the flower-power spirit of Vatican II.  And one by one, we left.  All the postulants and novices, then professed sisters, first in trickles, then torrents. Sister Scholastica left.  

And I, too, disappeared into the whirlwind of the sixties.

I don’t know what happened to the others. I went into the world with love for the poor and a hunger for an ecumenical God. I looked for Him in everything New Age, but I didn’t find Him. I served the poor and fought poverty itself. I registered voters with Dr. King in Alabama and went to jail, sat-in for increased minorities’ admissions at San Francisco State and went to jail, demonstrated against the Vietnam war and went to jail, protested for union jobs on Auto Row and went to jail. I escorted draft-dodgers to Canada and pregnant girls to Mexico for their illegal abortions. I collected ballot signatures for the Black Panther Party, taught energetically in the poorest schools (for thirty-five years, as it turned out), and every Saturday walked the projects distributing socialist literature. And of course I was vegetarian.

But the Soviet Union fell. It turns out poor people don’t like communism. The kids I taught learned better grammar, but not higher virtue, and it ruined not a few of them. I married a guy and had four kids because he said he believed in freedom, and then I found out what he meant by it, which was freedom from me and the kids.  And I developed a good case of blood sugar from the vegan diet.

In short, I went out into the world, and the world kicked my behind. In trying to do good, I did harm.

Yet perhaps God was served in some small ways. I am hoping to ask Him personally at the Last Judgment, when I plea bargain. He surely must know I meant well. At least I never deserted the humankind He died for. Nor even yet. (That’s what I’ll argue!)

My teachers changed me, that’s certain. Who were the heroes? It will take my whole life down to the last drop to know that.

 Meanwhile, please, security guys, couldn’t you just ask easier questions? You could get a girl killed, ya know.

To those readers who were there: you will be able to tell I have telescoped some events. Also, that I lived in poverty while my ‘family’ enjoyed a position of no small power in our town, might surprise my classmates, but they could not know what transpired behind closed doors for the stepchildren of that family, and I was not about to let them know, either. Every child of alcoholics knows the game.

9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This was great! It seems you have kicked butt in the world not the other way around. You could always use “lord” as your password- it seems to have gotten you this far.:)

Comment by ahrcanum

The world kicked my butt, ahrcanum. You should take my word for it. I did much harm. I was trying to leave it kind of up in the air, but one of my teachers was not a hero, and most certainly neither was I.

Comment by thewhitelilyblog

Oh, Miss White Lily, your writing is so detailed and beautiful!
It looks like you’ve had a fair share of rough times and may have done things you regret along the way, but please tell me, besides our Blessed Mother and her Son Jesus, who has not?
It is obvious that the Lord has quite a plan for you and you’ve had quite a journey. He will use you how He wants to use you no matter what has happened in your past…so long as you are open to Him. (I keep reminding my own self of that!).
PLease continue to touch our lives…the lives of your readers…by your talented writing abilities. God has blessed you abundantly, and for that we Praise our Him, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. May he continue to stir your soul and give your the words to write.


Comment by swegfilda

My credit union (Michigan Catholic) asks for those too from time to time. It is because it does not recognize your computer or IP address. Usually there is a button to have your computer information registered. It then puts a cookie on your computer that it will recognize.

After that, it will not ask you for your information until the cookie expires, clean your cookies out, or sometimes when you clear the cache.

Comment by Peregrinus

Friend Peregrinus, I know you mean well, but the security question content was just a ploy to tell the real story, which is the tragedy of the Sisters Adorers and Vatican II. This is not a piece about computer savvy. It’s about the Church.

Comment by thewhitelilyblog

Dear Jan:

You just left a very kind comment to “Back from Vocation,” the piece I wrote for Busted Halo about not entering the priesthood. Thank you — and thank you for directing me to this story, which I really enjoyed.

Whether or not you realize it, you’re a celebrity. Okay, maybe not you, personally, but your demographic group, for sure. Ever since the Leadership Conference of Women Religious got into a Mexican standoff with the Vatican, everyone’s been wondering, “Who are these lady religious of the Baby Boom generation? What do they think, and why do they think it?”

Recently, Sister Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at Berkeley’s Jesuit School of Theology, wrote an article for National Catholic Reporter titled “Why They Stayed,” — the “They” being the small number of her peers who remained in consecrated life to the present day. You ought to write about why you left, and why you wish you hadn’t. It’s a huge issue; the more varied our sources of knowledge, the better off we’ll be.

Anyway, keep up the good work.

Max Lindenman

Comment by Max Lindenman

Max, if I consider the political agendas being advanced by those who stayed (see the piece on Sister Arlene Welding, who advocates for our new dispensation regarding the poor: kill them, page 2–don’t think she is an aberration; she is legion) I think maybe God let it happen to save me. Because Sister shows the naivete of those who never see political life from the inside, as I unfortunately did, never learn the lessons, never return to the Church, and is, in fact, unaware that she has left. But I learned, from the inside. There is nothing to save any of us but traditional, pre-Vatican II Catholicism, the full monty.

In fact, although everything I wrote in this piece is as it happened (and reveals, I hoped in writing it, the hints at the doctrinal issues at stake, which are the real reasons we left, and actually therefore there’s no need to elaborate further–you recognized those theologians we read in the novitiate as heretics, didn’t you?), I did not leave to pursue lipstick revolution, but because my alcoholic mother would not pay the very small sum required to be paid in full for every novice prior to vows–something like thirty bucks a month, but in my case it had accrued for two years without my knowing. The Church in Her wisdom requires a fee, or did at that time, perhaps to keep from being accused of buying vocations. When Mother Superior tried to get her to pay,through me in letters and then phone calls home, I was so humiliated that I left. Not very romantic or interesting, and still humiliating.

You keep up the good work, too! I love your writing.

Comment by thewhitelilyblog

I have been reading The Abbess of Andalusia, an examination of the spiritual life of Flannery O’Connor by Lorraine Murray, and it occurs to me to comment here, in the post about my life at Ruma in religious life. Murray addresses (and dismisses) a charge against O’Connor in her intense relationship with ‘A,’ a woman with lesbian experience, that Flannery was also gay. It occurs me to say that, as Sigrid Undset noted in her essay Letter to a Parish Priest (as I recall, it is there, without checking), the spirit of heresy in which we live and breathe maintains that celibacy is impossible, that all relations must be charged with sexuality, and so forth. In the context of Ruma, it caused me to remember writing about it in college once, the professor finished reading my work, and then asked, Where’s the sex part? When I looked puzzled, he continued, Well, clearly there has to be a sex part. Clearly you loved this supervising nun, this Scholastica. And I could not convince him otherwise, that there was no ‘sex part,’ there was only love. He couldn’t conceive it at all. At the time, I thought it might be because he was merely a man, one knows ‘how they are,’ and didn’t realize it was due to the influence of heresy, that denies the possibility of celibacy, of intense and non-sexual relations. What an impoverished world protestantism makes! One can easily understand Flannery’s charity without sexual inuendos, and there was no sexual activity of any kind at Ruma, none I ever saw in others, none I ever experienced. It truly was a safe place for a young woman without means or harbor, until it was destroyed by the spirit of Vatican II.

Comment by thewhitelilyblog

Dear Janet,

This is a beautiful and magnificent memoir, and I hope that you write a heavy tome about your experiences from your high school years to the day that you left the convent. It would earn you royalties, and be loved by many readers who thirst for laughter and the joy that follows pain. You have the gift of remarkable intelligence, plus wit and a zest for playful irony. All of your characters sprang to life and are very, very real to me. Your love for the Catholic Church comes through loud and clear, and I feel privileged to have walked down YOUR memory lane. Thank you. God bless you. I pray for you and I just wish that you were one of the 65 nuns I live with at our Mother House.

With Love from
Sr. Emily Gallery

Comment by Emily Gallery

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