A Practical Guide to Becoming a Nun

A new short story by Blair Hurley recommended by Electric Literature

INTRODUCTION BY ERIN BARTNETT

To have children is to take a leap of faith. A wise person (who may or may not be my own mother) once told me that when you decide to have a child, you have to accept that the child might acquire the traits you hate and fear most in yourself and your partner. You will love the child for the mysterious new individual they grow into, of course. But you will also be filled with moments of dread and terrifying recognition—you know what happens to people “like that” (like you). You will be able to do both of these things at the same time. 

“How Does a Person Become A Nun?” by Blair Hurley is a story about a girl named Molly who is very different from her mother, but in a way her mother recognizes. Molly’s mother and father are Easter/Christmas Catholics—religious in the sense that these traditions are how they learned to measure out the years. But Molly is devoutly religious. She is attracted to God and the poetry of prayer. Her mother is also devout, but to her own secular, feminist beliefs—protective of the expansive pleasures of being a woman and the power of owning your future. Religion threatens her daughter’s access to these wonders. As Molly grows up, her closeness to God becomes more concrete and threatening to them both: Molly wants to become a nun. 

Written entirely in the second person, “your mother” is the one who cries, “Why do you have to punish yourself to be good?” And “you” are the one who wants “to explain to your mother that you have a sensual life too: you are seeking a greater intimacy with God.” You, the reader, by way of Hurley’s lyrical prose, are lulled into identifying with Molly. But no, wait, of course, not youyou don’t want to be a nun, do you? The magic trick of this back-and-forth between recognition and alienation, is that you end up feeling, at the most intimate level, what it must be like to be Molly and also what it’s like to be her mother. 

Alternating between recognition and alienation isn’t reserved for those considering “the call,” or for parents and children. It’s a fundamental part of growing up, as “you” push and pull against the influence of the world—against the influence of your peers, against your own desires. It’s a fundamental part of being human, as you pray to be recognized by those who matter most to you as an individual, as one-of-a-kind. Reading is also like that—a push and pull between enchantment and disbelief. And this is where Blair Hurley pulls off one of the miraculous feats of the short story: the more particular Molly’s world becomes, the more it begins to reflect your own.

Erin Bartnett
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading 

A Practical Guide to Becoming a Nun

“How Does a Person Become a Nun? A Practical Guide” 
by Blair Hurley

There is a process to these things, phases to the journey that you’ll be expected to pass through.

Period of Inquiry

Start young. When you’re walking with your mother down the streets of Boston, clinging to her hand, stare at a gaggle of nuns going by, the arresting flutter of their habits, the graceful uniformity of them. Point. “What are they?” They look like the swans that live in the Public Garden, moving in one honking crowd along the bank, an ungainly grace in their steps. “They’re sisters,” your mother will say. You’ve always wanted a sister. Cry without understanding why.

It begins with a vocation, but that small inner voice, that question that can’t be put aside, that call in the night, can seem at first like the normal wonderings of childhood, the fears and pressures of an ordinary life. Say your prayers at night even though no one is making you. Ask God to bless Mom and Dad and your brother and the dog. It will become a compulsion, a list that gets longer every night, a need to protect everyone you’ve ever known, until your mother makes you stop. “They don’t need your prayers,” she’ll say. “Go to bed.”

When you begin to contemplate being a nun, your mother will know before you do. She’s always been grateful for your quietness and obedience. The way you wash dishes and bag leaves on the lawn without complaint in the late afternoon sun, lost in your own world. “What are you thinking?” she’ll ask, and you’ll startle; you were in the middle of a vivid daydream, but now you can’t remember what it was.

Watch the swift steady motion of her hands as she sews a hole in your father’s sock. Take up the next holey sock in the pile and learn to do it, too. Hum to yourself in the soft stillness of the room. Forget to turn the light on until it’s nearly too dark to see, lost in your own shadowed otherworld, a place you go when you’re allowed to be alone, until the light comes on and your mother stands in the doorway, telling you you’ll go blind.

Your mother will notice the dreamy way you gaze up at the sky in the outfield at softball practice. Even when you think no one’s watching, she, working in the next room, will hear the whispered prayers you say over your dolls. When you watch the Alien movie, and the creature kills with an empty nihilism, an inhuman grin on its long jaws, you’ll wake up shaking and sobbing with terror for weeks afterward.

Your mother will watch you make a witch’s brew of maple syrup, mayonnaise and rubbing alcohol in a cracked flower pot in the backyard, chanting a spell and anointing the dog’s head with it to protect him from evil.

Imagine you’re friends with Jesus. Imagine his soft brown lambish curls and doey eyes. He has asked you among all the girls to dance with him. By twelve you’ve been to school dances where the boys lined the walls of the gym, miserable and hating you for making them miserable. The girls stood around in whispering packs, or rushed to the bathroom en masse to apply glitter scented like baby powder to their hair. Your friends are mostly the shy Jewish girls from your neighborhood, the ones who like spending free period in the library doing crossword puzzles. You promised each other not to split up, but when the next song came on, half of your friends were suddenly gone, shimmying on the floor with strange boys you didn’t know. A boy asked you to dance once, and you put your hand in his clammy, cheeto-ed hand and suffered through a slow number, both of you looking away. The boys are always disappointments. 

From her office window your mother will see you dancing slowly across the yard in your girl shorts, your skinny white legs tangling. Already, you will seem very strange to her.

Normalcy

There will be a period of normalcy. You’ll fight with your older brother over who gets to play basketball. You’ll skip chores and lie and say you did them. You’ll have long games of catch with your father, and laugh at his clumsy Dad jokes, and squirm away from his hand ruffling your hair. You’ll buy gummy worms from the corner store even though she said no candy, and you’ll stash them in the back of your closet and eat one a day, parceling out the pleasure, until your mother finds them stale and hardening weeks later. You’ll sneak out of Debbie’s bat mitzvah with her to try her brother’s vape pen, sucking in the smoke and laughing, feeling wicked, getting caught and hauled back inside. Each of these small infractions will be in some way a relief. She’ll punish you, but with a sidelong glance and a smile, a look that seems to encourage your healthy greed.

She’ll punish you, but with a sidelong glance and a smile, a look that seems to encourage your healthy greed.

Period of Catechumenate

You’ll be fascinated with church, all that poetry and ritual that enters your life on occasional, haphazard Sundays. Listen wide-eyed to the sermons that bore other children your age. Think about the women rending their garments and weeping. Think about the star that guided the shepherds. Think about the Mysteries. Your mother never goes up for communion herself, but she’ll keep taking you and your brother out of a vague sense of obligation, fulfilling what she knows her own mother would want. She thinks of this Irish church in Boston as your cultural inheritance, and she doesn’t want you to grow up divorced from that long unbroken chain of unsmiling women putting oatcakes and potatoes on tables, making crosses over the soda bread. She likes the look of you in your lacy white First Communion gown. You’ll spin in your dress, delighted, imagining yourself floating like an angel. Try to tell her that sometimes you talk to angels, that now that the girls you knew are different, and you spend free periods in the library alone, they’re your most constant friends. Raphael is your favorite because he is a healer. When you had meningitis as a little girl and a dangerously high fever that threatened to cook your brain, your mother prayed to Raphael, and he protected you. When she tells you this story, in a half-laughing, shamefaced way, you’ll tell yourself that you now belong to the archangel. 

Once you’ll go to church alone to get a closer look at the plaster statue of Raphael. You’ll light a candle at his sandaled feet. There are many candles here, for people seeking healing; you’ll watch their tiny flames guttering in the dim light. Raphael carries a spear and a caduceus, the healing staff; his face is both warlike and strangely feminine. As you’re standing there, sending out a shaky prayer, a great crack will sound, and a shower of dust and gold light will fall from above onto the angel’s face; you’ll look up, blinking, and see a workman staring down at you from a hole in the ceiling where he’s been fixing roof tiles. “Be careful,” he’ll shout to you.

This is too difficult, though, to make your mother understand; don’t try.

Doubt

The truth is, all that chanting and incense has always made your mother uneasy. This illogical insistence that the host contained the body and blood of Christ. How could he exist simultaneously in all the thousands of bodies around the world, and why do we eat Him? She is a practical woman who washes and re-uses yogurt containers, who thinks every woman should know how to change a tire so she will not feel obliged to the first man she knows who picks up his phone. Her common sense forbids her from believing that there is room for God inside the wafer. There is no room for two truths to live together in her head.

You’re facing an uphill battle. Your mother will be worried.

She’ll ask your father, Do you think Molly’s getting too fervent about church?

He’ll shrug. He has been raised in the church the same way she has; it’s as routine as traffic on the Mass Pike. These are the ritual obligations that he has returned to again and again–the yearly christenings, weddings, and funerals. He’ll ask, How do you get too fervent? Is she going to start bombing abortion clinics?

Your mother will shake her head. Your father has a morbid streak of humor, and he likes making fun of your mother when she starts taking herself, or motherhood, too seriously.

Your mother will say, I just wonder if she’s becoming — too devout.

He’ll laugh. So, she’s a nice Catholic girl. What are you afraid of?

She could become a nun, your mother will say. She could lock herself away in a convent somewhere, and we won’t be able to prevent it.

He’ll laugh. “A nun? You’re serious?” He can’t picture his little girl putting on a black veil, covering her glossy brown bangs. Those nuns that educated him, that he sees occasionally traveling in packs through airports, all old ladies with carpet bags, are beings entirely separate from you.

And anyway, fathers don’t want to think about their daughters as sexual beings. They don’t think about it as missing out. They couldn’t be happier if that part of growing up never entered the story at all.

Your mother knows the threat is real. She has prowled through your bedroom when you were at school, looking for secrets the way she sought out your brother’s wrinkled magazines under his bed. In the back of the closet she’ll find a black leather Bible, like the kind you might find in a hotel room. She has fingered the tissue-thin pages, seen the red ribbon flagging the page, the underlined verse: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” She has cried, privately, at the thought that she has raised a daughter who believes herself a slave.

She has cried, privately, at the thought that she has raised a daughter who believes herself a slave.

What about evolution, contraception, women’s rights, gay rights? Doesn’t all that matter to you? Your mother will shout unexpectedly one day in the car, when you’re trapped in traffic with her. They do, of course they do. You tell her stories about nuns fighting malaria in Africa, nuns researching particle physics, nuns running AIDS clinics. It seems like nuns are the best of the Catholic church these days, marching for truth and equality, daring excommunication for giving pregnant mothers life-saving abortions against orders. They’re free from the old shackles of marriage and family and men. They’re the ones breaking down doors. I’ve heard that before, your mother will say tiredly. That’s the argument they always give the slave, to convince him that he’s free.

Your mother will show your father the contraband Bible. It’s not that it’s forbidden, exactly, but that you’ve hidden it, aware that your feelings about it are too confused and strong just to have the book on the shelf with your unicorn fantasy novels. Your father will undo his tie, smile good-humoredly. Your mother will be half-laughing, embarrassed at her sleuthing. “Our daughter is a secret nun,” she’ll say.

He’ll put his hands on her shoulders. “Would that be so bad?”

“Of course you’d say that. You don’t understand.” She knows that he can’t imagine a sexless life for their daughter as a deprivation.

She’ll learn that he won’t be an ally in her fight. But it’s he who makes her strongest case. His calm and steady love for her is what she knows you’re giving up. The tenderness in his hands, whether he is buttering bread or cupping her breast. He is a good man, their marriage is a good one. It pains her, to imagine your life, without that chance of happiness.

Your mother would not tell you this, but she thinks of herself as a sensual person. She likes putting her bare feet up on the dash while your father drives, walking naked and brazen out of the shower and painting her nails without a towel on. There were boys, and then men, that she knew. She used to be the kind of girl who rubbed the TV remote between her legs when no one was home. You don’t know this about your mother, but you’ve always sensed something bubbling and alive about her, a glowing warmth under her freckled skin, an extra delight when she curls her tongue around an ice cream cone. Unlike so many other mothers you know, yours wears her body without shame, allowing it to expand a little each year, becoming more generous.

Unlike so many other mothers you know, yours wears her body without shame, allowing it to expand a little each year, becoming more generous.

She’s afraid of everything you stand to lose.

Rebellion

There will be brief campaigns of prevention. A month or six months where you are forbidden from attending church or praying. You’ll have to do it in secret, whispering Hail Marys under your covers at night the way other kids hold books and flashlights. A period where, when the seniors are allowed to sign out from school for lunch at the mall, you run to a nearby chapel in the city, where a priest will hurriedly administer the sacrament. You’ll whisper out your confession in the warm wooden closet smelling of rose water, as if she could hear you even here. You’ll run your strange secret rebellion, and she won’t know until you finally break down and tell her, because you cannot keep things from your mother, you never have been able to. She’ll listen, sorrowful, and tuck a strand of hair behind your ear. Well, I guess it’s better than drugs, she’ll say.

You’re still not sure what you’re fighting against, or why this rebellion must go on. You’ll only know you have been raised to be suspicious of a certain way of being — and that is precisely what draws you in.

Why do you have to punish yourself to be good? She’ll cry.

You’ll think of the ballet classes you took as a young girl, and the horrible feet of the girls who were actually any good: cracked and bleeding, the toes purple and warped beyond recognition. Their feet were war wounds, badges of excellence. They showed them off proudly.

You want to tell your mother about the ecstatic dreams of Hildegard von Bingen, of the women saints who chose to die rather than marry, the girls who burned at the stake or were assumed in magical puffs of air, who felt a keen kind of joy in their suffering, in their choice. But of course, you can’t tell her this. There are ways in which you and your mother speak the same intimate language, and ways that you don’t speak the same language at all.

The Call to the Sacraments

There will come a night that your father is out of town and an old friend of your mother’s is visiting with his son, a boy who is sixteen like you, startlingly beautiful, with dark hair and eyes and long romantic eyelashes like a camel’s. He likes the same Ursula Le Guin novels you do. He’ll trace his finger along the spines of your books in your pink bedroom, nodding approvingly, and you’ll shiver as though his hand has touched you. You won’t be sure how you feel. Your mother will want to go out to dinner with her old college friend, they’ll order a pizza for you and the son, rent a movie. You’ll watch her throw her head back to laugh at something her old friend has said. The free arch of her back, her bare freckled breastbone. She’s trying to show you something about the pleasure you can get from the company of men. How they can surprise you, open up parts of yourself like turning a key in a lock. Don’t wait up, she’ll say. You’ll understand that you’re being left alone deliberately. Halfway through the movie, the sound turned low, your lips still greasy from the pizza, the boy will start kissing you and his lips will be very soft. You’ll enjoy the small click of his teeth against yours, the feeling of his tongue on your tongue. Your heart will start to pound. You’ll wait for a sign, anything to tell you what to do. A gust of wind will blow the shutters against the side of the house like a booming knock on the door and you’ll go stiff.

The boy with the soft lips and the long eyelashes will pause and look at you, really at you, for the first time. “You okay?”

You’ll wonder, idly, if evil is working through him, using this boy for its aims. Or perhaps it’s your mother who is acting now, hoping you’ll take the bait.

You’ll straighten, and still be on the couch watching TV when your mother returns. She’ll come in and quickly scan the room for signs of something, anything. Your Dad’s waiting in the car, she’ll say to the boy, and he’ll yawn and stretch, give you a courteous little handshake. The understanding that something could have happened, it came close. Your mother’s face is flushed.  You feel her eyes search your pale neck, then the top of your blouse for undone buttons. You’ll register the disappointment on her face, and coolly look away.

Period of Puriftcation

There will come a bright fall day in Roxbury, after graduating from high school, when the two of you tour convents as though they are colleges. Your father has made a few halfhearted visits with you, but it’s awkward for him, touring these spaces that men aren’t supposed to enter. “You know, there’s always time,” your mother will say, the hundredth attempt. “You could go to college first. Keep your options open.”

 “I know,” you’ll say, and smile brightly, to show her you are fine, everything is just as you wanted. Really, though, your heart is pounding. You’re approaching the broad iron gates of the Daughters of Charity, and suddenly you’re afraid to go in. Two sisters are approaching in their black and white habits, an old one and a young one, and in your plain wool dress, your black socks, your gold earrings that now seem ostentatious, you feel immediately like an imposter.

Your mother takes your hand, squeezes it. When you were little you had this secret code with her: when you were in a public place, in line for Santa Claus or crushed among screaming kids at a fair, you’d tuck your little finger into her hand and scratch the palm. And immediately you would leave the scary place. You know she is waiting for that signal, and you know that if you gave it she would instantly spirit you away, back into the life you know. Driving with the windows down. Bad movies. College acceptance letters. Trashy magazines. The uncertainty of getting a job. Buttery popcorn and long hot baths and sleeping in on Saturdays. Arguing with your brother over something too stupid to remember, all of you in the backyard on a hot summer night, the smell of cookfires and charcoal in the air, your mother laughing at your father, saying, You always burn the burgers. You squeeze back, and then gently drop her hand.

This chapel is grand and gothic, but the dormitory is an ugly, modern concrete block. Your mother can’t stand the thought of you living here for the rest of your life. She hates it already. But she knows she has to swallow the feeling down, eke out a smile for the nuns approaching, their hands folded neatly into their wide black sleeves. The older nun shakes hands with both of you, then back hers go into her habit. “We welcome those considering the contemplative life,” she says.

Contemplative. That doesn’t sound so bad.

You know that beneath the usual questions you have prepared about the novitiate process, the meals and charity works, your mother has two questions of her own: how do parents let their children do this? And what could they have done to keep them from slipping away?

The air is cold and blustery, wet dead leaves picking up in little eddies at your feet. Your mother is imagining her girl, you, rising before dawn in those chilly cement rooms, hurrying down a corridor in the dark for the morning prayer. She can picture a line of those novices, all in their matching uniforms, their black habits brushing the floor, perfect in their conformity. To her, these images are heartbreaking.

“Let’s have Sister Catherine show Molly the rooms, and I’ll take you to my office so I can answer some questions,” the older nun says. Your mother looks at you, rolls her eyes. She knows she’s being separated from you, so the waves of disapproval won’t roll off her in your presence, tainting your impressions. Divide and conquer. 

The young nun, Sister Catherine, beckons. “I’ll show you my cell,” she says, and then laughs, as if she’s suddenly aware of the word cell and all it evokes.

She’s small but busty, a petite curvy shape walking with a surprising sashay under her blocky black habit. A stray lock of blond hair wisping out from under her headpiece, a white band of cloth that’s wrapped snugly around her skull. The full forehead piece, she explains, is only for fully ordained nuns, and Sister Catherine is still a novice. “But I’ll be taking my vows next month,” she says, delighted at her own good news.

She leads you inside the dormitories, up a narrow winding staircase and down a hall streaming with sunlight. It’s not too different from any college dorm, really: shared bathroom at the end, small dark wood doors with small name plates. A crucifix over each door, tastefully small. “Have you thought about the name you’ll take?” she asks.

The question sounds surprisingly intimate: like asking what your new name will be after the gender confirmation surgery. The names on all the doors are the names of saints. “I can’t decide,” you say honestly.

Sister Catherine pauses and turns, that one lock of hair swinging before her face. “Don’t overthink it; just follow your feelings,” she says. “Take the saint whose story speaks to you.”

She shows you a rec room, with shafts of light dancing with dust, and outdated board games in a stack on a shelf; a music room with an upright piano and a line of recorders, like the kind you played in third grade, stumbling through “Eight Days a Week” and “Tequila!” There’s a low-grade panic in your chest as you imagine wiling away the hours on your recorder. “What do the — younger sisters do for fun? In their leisure hours?” you ask. You know there is time off, sometimes. You can picture your mother taking this in, the lameness of it.

Sister Catherine looks around. You’re alone in the dorms; everyone else is in chapel, getting ready for vespers. “Well. There’s this place we go. Do you want to see?”

She leads you down a back staircase, past the kitchen, and on into the basement. There’s a laundry room, a storage room, and then a tiny black door in one corner. You have to duck your head to fit inside: it’s the boiler room. An old-fashioned New England boiler fills most of the space, but there are folding chairs and cushions down here, a line of paperback books with shirtless men on the cover. A half-full ashtray, the smell of smoke in the air.

Sister Catherine covers her nose and mouth with her hand. “I hate the smell myself. But we have a few sisters who can’t quit. Sometimes at night — we come down here and talk. Just, you know. Blow off steam.” The boiler hisses, and you laugh, and she does too. Everyone, even nuns, have their secrets. You can picture the gathered few here, the girls who were cool in their school days or at least the coolest among the girls who eventually become nuns. Telling dirty jokes, reading their romance novels, putting their wool-stockinged feet in each other’s laps.

She leads you back upstairs to show you her cell. The room is bare, but light-filled: a simple cot and bedspread, a nightstand, a chest of drawers. A few family photos on the dresser, and a framed painting of Saint Catherine, a Caravaggio. She’s young, clutching a bloodied sword, her face fierce and luminous and nearly militant. Something sensual and knowing in her sidelong glance to the viewer, a bold invitation.

“She’s my matron saint, I really feel it,” Sister Catherine says, sitting on the bed. “The Romans condemned her to death on a spiked wheel, but she touched the wheel and it shattered. She is patron saint of libraries and all those whose livelihoods depend on wheels.” She smiles. “I love libraries. I thought I might be a librarian one day. But then — you know. The call.”

You sit on the bed beside her, listening to the quiet rush of air outside the window, traffic noise or just the breeze, trying to imagine this sound outside a cell of your own. You want to ask her how the call sounded to her, what form it took. Was it the sound of a voice in the night? Several times you thought you heard such a thing as a child, but when you woke it was always your mother, sitting by your bed because you had been moaning in your sleep. It was always her voice that soothed you back into darkness. You’ve been waiting all your life for a sign, an invitation.

You’ve thought a lot about Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval German nun who had ecstatic visions. It was like being hit with a thunderbolt of the divine, she said. The name is ridiculous, though. Do you really want to be Sister Hilde? Beside you, Sister Catherine is breathing quietly, letting your eyes wander around this plain concrete room and imagine yourself here. “There’s a sense of peace here, you’ll see,” she says. “We pray and sing together. We feel joy that doesn’t have any equivalent out there.” Her hand waves, indicates the world outside the room. The fingernails are nubby. Sister Catherine bites them, you can tell.

You nod. “I want that.” You want to explain to your mother that you have a sensual life too: you are seeking a greater intimacy with God. You’re so sure that’s what it means to feel love, purely.

You want to explain to your mother that you have a sensual life too: you are seeking a greater intimacy with God. You’re so sure that’s what it means to feel love, purely.

“You do, don’t you.” She touches your arm, leans in. She smells like sweat and honey. The nuns, you’ve been told, keep bees. You think, suddenly, that she might kiss you. There are these moments in life when someone comes close, when you think they might be prepared to share an intimacy you didn’t dream possible. You have to rise to meet it.

A part of you will want to lean closer to Sister Catherine and whisper, let’s get out of here. We’ll drink and put glitter in our hair. Kiss who we want because we feel like it. We don’t have to love God any less. There are so many ways to be good. There’s still time for us to be ordinary. 

There are these moments in life when someone comes close, when you think they might be prepared to share an intimacy you didn’t dream possible. You have to rise to meet it.

Instead you ask, stammering, “Do — do you believe in reincarnation?” As a child, you thought sometimes that you were Joan of Arc. Or Hildegard. Or Darlugdach of Ireland, who was tempted by desire and put burning embers in her shoes to burn the sin away from her body. Maybe the doctrines have it wrong; maybe you are Darlugdach, not just her spiritual twin. Maybe her story is yours.

Sister Catherine pulls back, offended. “Of course not. I’m Catholic.” It has been we all along, but now it is I.

Period of Mystagogy

“We’ll see the chapel now,” says Sister Catherine, with a new briskness. You can feel her doubt like a cold wind between you. 

Your mother is a slim dark figure across the quad; she’s too far away for you to read her expression, or for her to read yours. Sister Catherine is beside you, guiding you on the stone path around, but you break away, cutting straight across the damp grass. You know your mother has been interrogating the old nun, demanding answers about whether you will be well treated here, about whether you have the chance to be happy with this kind of life. You want suddenly to fling yourself into her arms like a child, have her shepherd you home. You want to hear her voice in the night. You’re still so young. You know you’ve been terribly bad, going down this path that might take you away from her. As a daughter, your life is never fully your own; it’s hers too. By handing it to God, you’re fencing stolen goods.

But when you get there, your mother doesn’t reach out to you. You don’t fully know it, but these choices you make are a reflection on her own sins. You don’t know it, but that night with the boy a year ago was really her chance to be out alone with the boy’s father, the man she loved in college. They kissed like teenagers in the car while it was parked a few streets away from the house, and cried a little, that life had brought them here. She never told your father. All the while she hoped you were kissing the boy back home, because it would make her own sins forgivable, and you’d be united that way.

“You could like it here,” she says. “You could make a life here, if that’s what you want.” There’s heroic effort in her smile. She’s not going to make the choice for you. There are many such times in the period of mystagogy, when we embrace the mystery of God’s plan, and walk uncertainly on the path.

The older nun has reached the two of you, and she looks stern. Your stockings are soaked. Already you’re breaking rules. You look down, a little ashamed. This is a feeling you’ll have to get comfortable with, you can tell. This life you want so badly runs on it.

“Would you like to speak with our priest?” she asks.

It’s just a meeting. A handshake and a conversation about the beauty of a life lived on principle. You can hear him now, a man old or young, explaining the rules you’ll be expected to follow, the rigorous training and prayer that lies ahead. He’ll sit with you in the chapel. You’ll be alone with him. The cool filtered light of stained-glass windows will fall on your heads and it will feel like it is time for your decision.

 “Well?” she says.

You wait a little, though, before answering. There’s all the time in the world, a lifetime of signs and symbols to read. Your mother looks away, leaving you to gaze at her sun-weathered neck, the dense pattern of freckles there that you know so well. You could have the same, someday. Or you never will. You look back at Catherine, her bright untroubled eyes. And you look back at your mother. You wait, hoping.

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