Praying for a Nun

September 2018By Michael Gessner

Michael Gessner has authored 11 books of poetry and prose. His work has been featured in the American Literary Review, American Letters & Commentary, The French Literary Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Kenyon Review, North American Review (finalist for the 2016 James Hearst Award), Oxford Magazine, Verse Daily, Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, and others. He is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Dame Consolation stands beside my desk. Her arms are crossed under her white scapular, and she has an understanding smile.

Although Boethius’s Dame is a personification of philosophy and its solaces, she is also a feminine form with human features, one I had met many years before I ever read The Consolation of Philosophy, which contains many of the old verities of the Church Fathers, found also in Plato, especially his Phaedo, an early source of the precepts of service to others, sacrifice, the suffering and purification of the soul, the soul’s immortality, the dignity of the human person, and the pursuit of the Good — the bedrock of Christian eschatology.

They were also evident in the daily life of Sr. Martin de Porres, O.P. (formerly Corinne Recker, 1928-1979).

Sister Martin, who taught everything a second-grader needed to know, or at least everything in the second-grade curriculum, had been standing behind me for several minutes with her arms folded under her scapular. Sister was young and tall and pleasant.

I was gazing out of a large classroom window at the leafy street below, daydreaming of the Flats.

“Michael, where are you?” she asked.

I told her. I said, “Sister, I’m on the Flats.”

“I see. And where might that be?”

It was too late; I had returned to my other world, and Sister never received an answer.

Whenever I wasn’t daydreaming, I knew when Sister Martin was near. I could smell her habit — the narrow piece of white cloth worn from her neck to her ankles, required of the Dominican teaching order, was heavily starched.

One summer, many years later, when I was trying to navigate the poetry of St. John of the Cross and bumped into St. Teresa of Ávila, I first learned of “the odour of sanctity” and how it is said to linger about holy individuals. Not having any other reference, I recalled Sister Martin.

In her classroom, reading was a reward. Once students completed their daily math workbook exercises, they could read anything they wished to read. Of course, a book had to pass “inspection,” and if a student did not have access to a favorite book, he could find one quickly in the school library.

Not long after the daydreaming episode, my mother received a telephone call. It was Sister Martin with her unanswered question about the Flats.

“It’s where Michael and his father go fishing,” my mother explained.

We fished in the winter months, went out far on the ice with shanty and spud. On the way, we passed small perch and bass frozen in wavy glass. They came to the shallow water late in the season for warmth, or food, and stayed too long, stayed until their bodies were too sluggish to return to the deep. As I stepped across them carefully, stiff in their clear winter tombs, I wondered if in the spring they wouldn’t wake, shake themselves, and swim out to join the other fish that were concerned about their whereabouts and had many questions to ask them.

While I was dreaming about the next fishing trip, I was still in class, and there was math to do. I completed in record time the most complex mathematical problems ever to confront the second-grade mind. The first to finish my workbook, I was at the head of my class.

Sister Martin was nearby. I could tell.

“Michael, I see you have finished the assignment. And so soon. Let’s have a look, shall we?”

She gave a kind smile, though it was a little sad. Sister knew what I knew, and what the other students didn’t know: that I had scribbled down any numbers that came to mind. We had done this before, and Sister was beginning to understand that the future of mathematics would go on without me, and so she did the next best thing.

She gave me back my book about sea adventures and pirates and how a boy with unruly hair might stow away on a ship bound for an unchartered island and buried treasure.

At the time, for me, this was simply an act of kindness. I did not understand its importance then, although through the years it’s become clearer to me. Sister Martin communicated a silent message: that she cared more for an individual’s intrinsic worth — and in my case, my reading interests — than what the individual could produce. In a few moments, in the time it took her to make her decision, she had taught me about understanding self-worth, unconditional acceptance, and trust. And I now know, after 32 years of teaching literature and writing, that Sister’s faith and compassion were not misplaced. As for mathematics, her influence remains beyond calculation.

For me to pray for Sister Martin would be presumptuous on many counts. Besides, if suffering purifies form (“whoever suffers in the body is done with sin,” 1 Pet. 4:1), then her earthly agonies as a middle-aged cancer victim for more than three years must be a mitigating, if not an exclusionary, condition.

I never saw Sister Martin after second grade. I have often thought that memory sculpts reality, and its reconstruction is its gift: Often, working at my writing desk, I will stop for some unexplained vagary as if waiting to be born, look out the window, and see myself praying for Sister Martin, praying for her Presence, for her dream of the ideal Good, for her Company.

*A special note of gratitude to Lisa Schell, Congregation Archivist of the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse, without whose assistance this column could not have been written.

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