The memory of the little nun haunts me.
Several years ago I attended a Roman Catholic Mass, something I hadn’t done in years, to show support for a special occasion of a loved, young relative. I was also curious about what had changed in the Church, what was the same…much like a trip to a museum, in that regard, and Roman Catholic Churches are the repositories of some of the world’s best art and architecture. This church did not disappoint.
Before the “Mass” began, we were told that this date also marked the twenty-fifth “ordination” anniversary of one of the parish nuns. Let’s call her, “Sister John”. It is common practice for nuns to shed their own names for another, often, a man’s, when entering the convent, as well as to wear certain clothing, and to keep numerous daily “spiritual practices,” take “vows” of “chastity, charity, and obedience,” and so on.
I recognized the nun’s former name as the name of a girl a couple of grades below me in Catholic high school. She was, as I recalled, a petite, quiet, studious girl. She belonged to the “Sodality (society/club) of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. I did not know her personally. Yet, I recognized so much in how she comported herself in front of the congregation as she was honored that day.
As I watched her rigid, slow-paced, baby-step walk up to the front of the Church to be “blessed” by the priest on this occasion, I was triggered back, if you will, to how we, in Catholic elementary school, were trained to walk, genuflect, “bless ourselves” with the “sign of the cross,” stand reverently, heads bowed, closing our hands, palms flattened, turned upward, and carefully aligned in a prayerful pose. Our heads were to be bowed in “humility and submission,” as well. We were instructed to perform “just so” in order to achieve this ”spiritual discipline” skill set.
(Aside: I often say today that if I were teaching a room packed with forty or fifty elementary school-aged “Baby Boomers” as the numbers reached in the average classroom back then, I’d be a “drill instructor,” too, just for the sake of order! I’d make sure those kids had ample incentive to behave well. Religious obligation is a good behavior controller especially when linked to implied eternal, not just temporal, ramifications if violated. I know it worked on me pretty well. Usually.
But there was no humor involved in any of this, of course. Indeed, if not done correctly, there may have even been some kind of venial sin attached, with some amount of penance time in the fires of Purgatory in the hereafter, to boot. Even just the suggestion of same, in that heavily behavior-based religious system, was enough to work on our minds and psyches…keep us under relative control…)
To the outsider, Sister John’s solo, solemn procession up to the altar may have seemed either carefully scripted, like a rite or ritual or, piously affected.
But for me, a kind of sorrow tugged at my heart for her, and for myself in the “old days” in Roman Catholicism when I, too, believed I had to perform at this or that event, occasion, rite, or ritual, just so.
Indeed, I suddenly felt the same sorrow toward the others in the congregation, too, most of whom were replying to the definitely scripted words of the Mass as per instructions in well-thumbed Sunday Missals provided in the pews.
I wanted to run up on the platform, put my arms around the little nun who seemed anxious in her striving to play her part perfectly and was no doubt as sincere as she could be. I wanted to tell her, loud enough for the whole congregation to hear,
“Jesus died for you! He paid the price in full! You can’t, don’t have to act a certain way or perform all these rites and rituals in order to receive the grace provided FOR you by Jesus one and one-time-only sacrifice on the cross! And, dear one, you do NOT have to bow and scrape to a religious hierarchy that has implanted into your psyche and your spirit, to whit, that Jesus LIED when He said, as His death neared on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ I wanted to tell her—and everyone else–that there is now ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1), that, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus ‘ (Galatians 3:28)…”
(For a starter comparison chart on the differences between Biblical teachings and Roman Catholic teachings, see footnote 4).
But, of course, I didn’t.
She would have no doubt gasped, startled, and pushed me away.
No, that’s not right. She would know exactly what to do.
 Comparison chart comparing biblical teachings with Roman Catholic teachings : http://www.gotquestions.org/Roman-Catholicism.html