It was a bright, clear morning in mid-November, and I was rushing to an auditorium at the recently renamed Notre Dame University of Maryland, the former College of Notre Dame of Maryland. I didn’t want to be late for a one-nun show about the life of a nun, the former Caterina Benincasa, better known as Catherine of Siena. I didn’t need to be so worried. There were plenty of seats, it being Saturday morning and all. The cool people were coming that night for sure, but I’m an early bird and appreciate any and all AM activities.
I found myself a nice seat right in the center of the auditorium, in my own row. Sitting in front of me was a group of white-haired ladies, amongst them a sister wearing a short veil. A nun at a one-nun show about a nun? Why on earth could I not get anyone to come see this with me? Their loss, I sighed. My daughter said she’d come with me just to stop me from becoming a nun, as if the condition were communicable. “Too late for that,” I said. “Besides, I’m just too contrary for that lifestyle.”
But inwardly, I thought, The kid’s got my number. Yes, I cherish fantasies of living in a cell on convent grounds, be-habited and with nothing but hours of writing and prayer on my daily docket. I tend to edit out the chores and nun-meetings and stuff like that. In my mind, a single light beam shines onto my forehead as I bend over my manuscript, knowing that God himself is providing the all-important Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat to my work.
I want, and have always wanted, nothing less than to be completely annihilated by God. What I have, mostly, is the mere “desire to believe.”
Of course, I already spend hours writing in such a manner, except that I have no official go-ahead from the Lord, other than the talent that I arrived with. When I am writing in the “zone,” so to speak, I do feel that indescribable “oneness” that is frequently attributed to the divine. Writing is a spiritual exercise for sure, so if my surroundings aren’t quite so picturesque (think laptop, bed, pets, drinking glasses, piles of books) at least the experience itself is peak-ish. So at least there’s that: work-as-prayer.
I had read about this show in my diocesan paper, the Catholic Review. In this and most other articles about Sr. Nancy Murray’s traveling tribute to the saint of Siena, the author notes that one of her brothers is the movie star Bill Murray, he of the bittersweet clown persona and bone-deep world-weariness. Ha ha ha, these articles seem to laugh. She’s a professed religious who does a play about a saint; he’s world-famous and rich. But who’s the wiser? I retort, inwardly. I feel annoyed on Nancy’s behalf that these comparisons must always be made, but I’m sure she’s grateful for the extra interest her famous sibling generates.
Sister Nancy arrived, walking down an aisle in full “Mantellate” costume. She began right away with the story of Catherine, who was the 23rd child of an Italian fabric-dyer. When it came time for Catherine to be married, she balked, since she had already promised herself to Jesus as a child. She cut her hair and burned her face with water at a hot spring, until her mother relented and let her join the Mantellate, a local order comprised of mostly widows. They thought it odd that a young, pretty girl such as Catherine would like to spend her time with the likes of them, but once they saw her commitment, they relented.
Catherine’s parents allowed her to live at home in a cell, if she would take on the work of the servants. So she worked day and night cooking and cleaning and watching her nieces and nephews, and spent her spare time in her cell communing with God. Sr. Murray did a lovely job portraying Catherine as a wide-eyed young woman whose only desire was to commune with God, but who was also living within the largeness of family life. Her relief at returning to her “cell”—a small desk on the stage with a flower and book on it—was palpable. Catherine, in prayer, held up a cross and demonstrated her “bridge to God” theory. I am not exaggerating when I say that I got a prickly feeling on the back of my neck when she did this—as if I realized for the first time that prayers actually go somewhere.
Then God told Catherine she needed to move into the world, as much as she liked her cell and family life. Catherine wasn’t sure, but began to visit the sick and dying with her fellow Mantellate. She began to preach, against strictures forbidding women to do so, as Nancy noted, seemingly nodding to the irony that she was also preaching as a woman in the guise of drama—and it’s still forbidden.
Much of the humor of Catholic women springs from situations like these, I think. Despite the fact that we are officially powerless in the higher echelons of the Body of Christ, we still manage to make our voices heard. Catholicism is shot through with amazing women: a great pantheon of saints, and excellent sisters and mothers and teachers and of course, our Queen up in Heaven. Recall how teenaged Joan of Arc got the King of France to grant her an army or St. Clare, who dared to leave her wealthy family, cut her hair, don a tunic and become a companion of St. Francis and founder of the Poor Clares.
I began to ponder Sr. Nancy’s more famous brother as I watched her. There is a resemblance, and one can hear the Chicagoan cadences of Bill slipping through Nancy’s Italian accent occasionally. Who’s happier? I wondered.
Then, I realized that what the world really needs is a movie with the two of them—Bill Murray in an old-fashioned priestly cassock, maybe with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, behind the wheel of a Cadillac Eldorado: Fr. “Cadillac Jack” Doherty. Perhaps Nancy is the principal of his parish school and slightly disdainful of Bill and his crew of Scotch-swilling, steak-eating, card-playing “gents”—macho parish priests who do things like take collections wholesale, drink, smoke and vacation in Hawaiian shirts and black socks. (At least that is how the book The Other Side of the Altar by Paul Dinter, a former priest, describes things.) And somehow Sister Nancy has to come to their rescue when they get into a tight spot in Mexico. “The Gents” is the title of this movie, and I’d like to see it pronto, Hollywood. It’s rated PG for religious cursing, alcohol abuse and extremely mild sexual situations.
It was a trick of the light, but when Sr. Nancy, playing St. Catherine visiting patients and blessing them, came and touched audience members on their heads, telling them “God loves you,” she seemed to heal whatever spiritual ills were troubling them in real life. I cursed myself for having nabbed a middle-of-the-row seat because I wanted nothing more in the entire world than for Sister Nancy/St. Catherine to touch my head and tell me that God loves me. The midday light flooded through the auditorium’s windows in such a way that her white gown appeared to glow. Maybe it wasn’t a trick of the light.
At the end of the show, St. Catherine reassured us that we all had a new friend in heaven, and that she had be watching out for us. My great boulder of disbelief budged a few millimeters that afternoon. Up the mountain. I have been reading Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset slowly for months, hoping to make the magic last, thinking about that beautiful, beautiful light, and feeling Sr. Nancy’s phantom, saintly hand upon my head, telling me that God loves me, indeed. The boulder moves, slowly, ever so slightly upward.