The Deacon

If anyone had asked her, Sister Joan would have said that her daily half hour of prayer and meditation provided the most satisfying consolation she could imagine for a world that was random and violent and endlessly inventive in its cruelty toward the weak

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.)

NO romance had been attached to Joan Fitzgerald's entering the convent. She wasn't that sort of person, and she hadn't expected it. A sense of rightness had filled her with well-being, allowed her lungs to work easily and her limbs to move quickly, removed her from the part of life that had no interest for her, and opened her to a way of being in the world that connected her to what she believed was essential. Her faith, too, was unromantic; the Jesus of the Gospels, who was with the poor and the sick, who dealt with their needs and urged people to leave father and mother to follow him -- this was her inspiration. Yet when she thought of the word "inspiration," it seemed too airy, too silvery, for her experience. What she had felt was something more like a hand at her back, a light pressure between her shoulder blades. The images she had felt herself drawn toward had struck her in childhood and had not left the forefront of her mind: the black children integrating the school in Little Rock, the nuns in the Maryknoll magazine who inoculated Asian children against malaria. The source of their power was a God whose love she believed in as she believed in the love of her parents; she felt it as she had felt her parents' love; she believed that she was watched over, cared about, cared for as her parents had cared for her. She had never in her memory felt alone.
Her decision to become a nun, her image of herself as one, wasn't fed by fantasies of Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn. By the time she entered the Sisters of the Visitation, the number of candidates was dwindling and almost no one was wearing the habit except the very oldest sisters in the order; she'd been advised to get her college education first, and by the time she entered the order, in 1973, only two others were in her class. After twenty-five years she was a school principal in New York City and the only member of her class still in the order.

They joked about it, she and the other sisters, about how they'd missed the glamour days, and now they were just the workhorses, the unglamorous moms, without power and without the aura of silent sanctity that fed the faithful's dreams. "Thank God Philida's good-looking, or they'd think we were a hundred percent rejects," Rocky said, referring to the one sister living with them who was slender and graceful, with large turquoise eyes and white hands that people seemed to focus on -- which she must have known, because she wore a large turquoise-and-silver ring she had gotten when she worked on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Rocky and the fourth sister had grown roly-poly in middle age. They didn't color their hair, they had no interest in clothes, and they knew they looked like caricatures of nuns. "Try, as a penance, not to buy navy blue," Rocky had said. They seemed drawn to navy and neutral colors. They weren't very interested in how they looked. They had all passed through that phase of young womanhood, and sometimes, watching her Hispanic students, and the energy they put into their beauty (misplaced, she believed: it would bring them harm), Joan nevertheless understood their joy and their absorption, because she had been joyous and absorbed herself -- though she had wanted to make things happen, to change the way the world worked.

All the sisters she lived with had the same sense of absorption. Rocky, who had been called Sister Rosanna, ran a halfway house for schizophrenics and was now involved in fighting the neighborhood in Queens where the house was located. "They want us out," she said, always referring to herself and the psychotics as "us" -- believing, Joan understood, that they were virtually indistinguishable. Four days a week Rocky lived in the halfway house; the remaining three days she joined Joan and two other sisters -- Marlene, who directed a homeless shelter, and Philida, who was the pastoral counselor at a nursing home. They shared a large apartment -- owned by the order -- on Fiftieth Street and Eighth Avenue. They had easy relations with the neighborhood prostitutes and drug dealers, who were thrilled to find that these people, whom they called "sister," seemed to have no interest in making them change their ways.

They could have been almost any group of middle-aged, unmarried women who made their living at idealistic but low-paying jobs and had to share lodgings if they wanted to live in Manhattan, housing costs being what they were. But at the center of each of their days was a half hour of prayer and meditation, led in turn by one of the four of them. They read the Gospel of the day and the Old Testament Scriptures; they spoke of their responses, although they didn't speak of either the texts or their thoughts about them once they had left the room they reserved for meditation. This time was for Joan a source of refreshment and a way of making sense of the world. If anyone had asked her (which they wouldn't have; she wasn't the type people came to for spiritual guidance), she would have said that this was why she loved that time and those words: they were the most satisfying consolation she could imagine for a world that was random and violent and endlessly inventive in its cruelty toward the weak.

Unlike the other sisters, including Philida, Joan had always been too thin. When she thought about it, she thought she had probably become stringy, and her skin, which had tanned easily, was probably leathery now. Perhaps her thinness and the coarse texture of her skin were traceable to her anomalous bad habit. Joan was a heavy smoker. She'd begun smoking in graduate school, the education program at the University of Rochester. Her study partners had all smoked, and she had drifted into the habit. She had wanted to persuade them -- and herself, perhaps -- that they didn't know everything about her just because she was a nun. Nuns didn't smoke; everyone knew that. But Joan did, though she had tried to quit. The women she lived with didn't allow her to smoke in the apartment; they had put a bumper sticker up on the refrigerator that said SMOKE-FREE ZONE. And of course she didn't smoke in school. She went over to the rectory to smoke.

SHE was the principal of Saint Timothy's School, at Forty-eighth Street and Tenth Avenue. Once all Irish, it was now filled with black and Hispanic children. Joan was proud of what Saint Timothy's provided. She knew that she suffered from what one of her spiritual advisers called "the vanity of accomplishment." She knew she had a tendency to believe that she could do anything if people would just go along with her programs, and she made jokes about it, jokes on herself, jokes she didn't really believe. When she made her last retreat, which was run by a Benedictine sister, the nun urged her to contemplate the areas of life that were unsusceptible to human action, the mysterious silences of God, the opportunities for holiness provided by failure. She tried, for a while, to center her meditations the way the Benedictine had suggested, but then concluded that this was a contemplative's self-indulgence; she was in the world, she was doing God's work in the world. There was work to be done, and (was this what she had grown up hearing described as "the sin of pride"?) she could do it. She had long ago given up heroic plans and dreams, but she could make her school run well, and she could give to children -- who often didn't have it elsewhere -- a place where they were made to feel important, where things were demanded of them, but where they were valued and praised.

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