Lillian Gets A Letter
Lillian paced in the dining room as her uncle talked in the parlour with the Mother Superior of St. Margaret’s Convent in Sydney. Her bruise was still visible but not longer as vivid. She was dismayed to see how quickly it faded away but she resisted the temptation to pinch it in an attempt to make it last longer. She was grateful that she had not been confined to the rectory as she first feared. With the miner’s on strike her uncle had more pressing matters to attend to but made it clear she would be sent to the Convent as soon as it could be arranged.
As she paced she plotted. If he thought she would go into some cloistered life willingly he was mistaken. She would see to it that he regretted any further action to punish her in any way. She had hoped the sight of the bruise would result in his parishioners losing respect for him but other than being mildly surprised at it, they were mostly indifferent. No one had asked how it happened.
The women had been more sympathetic but even they were not shocked. It was acceptable to them that a man would raise his hand to a woman if her behaviour called for it. Even if than man was a man of God. Even if her behaviour didn’t call for it.
“Lillian if you would care to join us?” her uncle said softly as he opened the door of the parlour.
She stepped resolutely into the room. The first thing that hit her was the smell. It was of something unwashed but wet at the same time. It made her think of dogs coming into her house in Boston after the rain. She had to restrain herself from sniffing. She kept he face as placid as possible.
The Mother Superior was larger than she expected. She was nearly as tall as her uncle but with a more ample figure. Clearly the nuns ate well. Lillian had the impression that nuns were small, thin women in big black cloaks.
“It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Sister Claire. Sister Claire my niece Lillian McTavish.”
Sister Claire stood and took Lillian by the hand. Lillian shook the sister’s hand. The nun’s hand was as rough as hers. Nuns didn’t have soft dainty hands after all. The Mother’s nails were uneven, some broken along the edge. Her knuckles red, rough and the back of one was mottled purple.
“Happy to make your acquaintance, Lillian. The lilies of our community do both grow and toil. We spin not, mind you, but we make easy the lives of those around us. It is propitious that we finally have a Lillian join the lilies.”
The Mother gave a small laugh and pushed her wimple back. The dark habit framed her oval face. Her eyes were a clear blue nestled in creases. Lillian was used to wrinkles but these marks were deeper. The right eyelid was lower than the left.
“Thank you … Sister. Mother Superior?” As an adult Lillian had never been introduced to a nun before.
“Sister will do nicely if I can call you Lily?”
“Yes. Sister.” She hadn’t been called Lily since she was a child. Insisting on having her full name used had been one of the first things she was adamant about when she turned sixteen.
“Your uncle has been telling me that adapting to life here has been difficult for you.”
“At first.” Lillian stepped back. Her hands, now hidden under her apron, were restlessly squeezing each other. Would her hands look like the Mother Superior’s in a couple of years.
“Did you find it that easy, Father Patrick? When you first arrived at St. Agatha’s parish?”
“I was quick to adapt, Sister, but … well … after the seminary it was a bit … of a challenge to be amongst ordinary folks again.”
“It is so much easier for a man to adapt isn’t it Father. Particularly one who feels, as you have demonstrated, that it is a natural part of his calling. A sacred vocation.”
“Yes, but Sister Claire, we’re here to discuss Lillian’s future prospects.”
“I know that but I wanted to make it clear that we are all aware of the challenges any new life will present.” She smiled. “What is easy for one may not be as simple for another. Now I wish to speak with Lillian.”
“Of course.” Father Patrick sat in his usual chair.
“Ah …” He stood.
Lillian looked from Sister Claire to her uncle. She was amused at his discomfort. She had seen no one disconcert him this way since she arrived.
“Surely, you, of all men, must understand there are some things that require privacy.”
“Yes … uh … I do have matters to deal with at the church office. If you’ll excuse me.” He shook hands with the Mother Superior and left the room.
Sister Claire went to the window and waved to Father Patrick as he went down the front path.
“I had to make sure he was actually going.” She said. “before we spoke. I’ve learned never to trust a man.” She tittered and sat heavily in the chair the father had vacated.
Lillian was once again struck by the smell as the Mother’s habit unfolded around her. The hem of the tunic was dusty and frayed. The sleeve cuffs had been mended and there were square patches of a nearly matching serge on the elbows.
“I see you looking at my habit.” The Mother Superior said. “I know it has seen better days but those days have so full of grace I have found it hard to … replace it with a newer one. As you see I wear the double veil that represents my consecration to God.”
“Yes, I know. We had visiting sisters come to our school to explain some of these things.” Lillian served tea.
“Please sit Lily. There is no reason to be uncomfortable with me. I do have your best interests at heart.”
“Yes, Sister.” She sat in one of the side chairs.
“Father Patrick is most concerned about your position in life.” Sh reached over to take Lillian by the hand.
“I know that but …”
“Hear me then I’ll listen to your ‘buts.’ He wants to protect you from the temptations of the world that are around us all. You may feel this is unreasonable on his part but your past indiscretions make it clear you are not a girl who can be trusted to make the wisest decisions on her own behalf.”
“So he has told you about Mr. Dunham?” Lillian stood.
“Yes, but that is not most concerns him. It is the attentions of Mr. O’Dowell that causes him the most concern.”
“I told you no ‘buts.’ I have also spoken with Anthea O’Dowell and am fully aware that you have not sought such attentions. It has always been unfair to me that the pretty are blamed for how others respond to their prettiness. Yes, it is clear that often men are the victims of their own longings and hungers and it is up to us women to protect them from acting in unwholesome carnal ways. Their longings can be even more crippling than the chains that bound Christ.”
“How can we control hungers that we have not caused? Women have to live in this world with these men.” Lillian sat.
“Not necessarily so Lily. Which is why your uncle has asked me to speak with you today. He is concerned with your very soul. If you are incapable or unwilling to armour yourself then action must be taken.”
“Is that why you are in the convent Sister. To hide yourself from the eyes of men.” Lillian asked.
“We are the Brides of Christ. Some, to be sure, have hidden themselves with us, but most of our order does not hide. We have decided to surrender our human desires to confirm our dedication to spiritual fulfillment. We seek our protection from Christ so that we may work among His children. Although we are female, men stop seeing us as such but come to recognize us as emissaries of grace. Our very garment signifies taking on a new life in Christ.”
The idea of being protected from the unsavoury, and unwelcome, attentions of men appealed to Lillian. “I understand that it would be a blessing not to have to worry about pleasing mean or living one’s life at their beck and call. But if the price is to remove myself from the world around me I don’t know if I am strong.”
“What is it you have missed most of your life in Boston since coming here?”
“My family.” Lillian didn’t hesitate. “Being able to see my mother or father when I wanted to. To be able to come and go from my house as I pleased. To listen to my brother talking about his business affairs.”
“But those are sacrifices all women must make as we get older. If you married you would have to leave your family home, right?”
“Is there anything you don’t miss.”
Lillian sipped her tea and thought for a minute. “Yes! Here I no longer have to concern myself so much with how I look. There is no need to prepare my hair in the morning to do my chores, to face my uncle. I don’t have to select the right dress to wear. Those were things I once enjoyed, looked forward to, but now that I don’t, my life is much easier.”
“Then perhaps you have already heeded part of your calling?” Sister Claire said.
“To be a sister is a calling, an avocation. It is to be free of …. adornment. Father Patrick didn’t become a priest on a whim. He knew he was making certain sacrifices to serve Our Lord. Sacrifices he gladly made.”
“I understand that. Being here isn’t a sacrifice I wanted to make. How would he have reacted if the priesthood had been forced upon him?”
“What is that you want Lily? What do you see in your future?”
“I expect to return to Boston, of course. To return to my family. Their intent in sending me was to spare my father any embarrassment in his political career.”
“How long do think he expects to be spared?” She took an envelope out from a fold in her habit.
“I … I had hoped to be home before Christmas. For my bother’s wedding.”
“Father Patrick had two reasons he wanted me to talk with you. One was to get a sense of your willingness to consider our vocation. The other was this …” she handed Lillian the envelope.
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