This is from the IRELAND Chapter, wherein Lucy Dantan, prompted by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, thinks back on her own low-rent Catholic high school days, her lonely lunches with classmate Faith Kopinski:
Lucy never had a chance with [a jock cool-kid] like Christian, and the only reason he alighted at their table that day in the lunchroom was because Lucy and Faith weren’t considered to matter in the popularity game; they were lower than unpopular, they were invisible, they were non-people and if he sat near them it was because he looked right through them… [In Sister Miriam’s class,] Lucy would stare at Christian unobserved and adore his long arms and legs and try to imagine what it was to be his girlfriend and what it would be like to kiss him or hold him and she would contemplate the canyon between her life and his and how easy it was for him to be him and how difficult it was for her to be her, the cold consolation of a shared baloney sandwich with Faith.
When the dreaded Sister Miriam droned on about the sins of the Magdalene, it was always Christian who put on a mock-innocent expression and raised his hand.
“Hey, Sister?” he’d ask. “What exactly were the sins of the Magdalene?”
And others would titter and Sister Miriam would say that Christian knew full well what they were —
“No, honestly … I haven’t read that part.”
And Sister Miriam could believe any ignorance of Christian, whom she detested for his careless limbs that were an offense to her, his swagger in the halls, his violations of dress codes, his loud laughing with the older boys. She glared at him with undisguised hatred for the sneering sixteen-year-old potency that mocked her.”She was a fallen woman,” she breathed at last.
“Fallen? You mean she fell down?”
More titters. And Sister Miriam seethed as he pressed her for the exact details of Mary Magdalene’s sin, capping it off with the unanswerable: “Where is it written in the Bible?”
For of course, it’s not. There’s not a word about Mary Magdalene being a whore. So Christian’s final wise-ass victory was to be in his own way smarter than Sister Miriam. And Lucy envied more than his handsomeness, more than his popularity, more than his self-love, his untroubled soul, his sinless, guiltless world. Oh to be transported there in arms such as his…
But, conversely, what chance did Lucy have of becoming a Bride of Christ in this environment? The damage wrought by St. Eulalia’s was terminal: Sister Belinda, so slow of mind and fat-the butt of a hundred jokes a day. The old addled sisters, the young Sister Hilda who was called Sister Hitler because of her disposition and it didn’t hurt that she had a mustache. The only fun nun was the tippling women’s basketball coach, Sister Victoria, always known as Sister Vickie, and her friend Father Kennedy, another lively boozer with a wild Irish love of practical jokes and malicious remarks about the nuns he was forced to work with … God, how did those two ever find their way into St. Eulalia’s? But it was the wretched, sour old Sister Miriam who was a walking advertisement for Protestantism, Exhibit A for Reverend Paisley — maybe even for Paganism.
Sister Miriam, the woman who counted Kotexes in the girls’ room dispenser, rounded up the girls and demanded to know who took one without clearing it with her first.
“I want you to know,” she lectured seriously, “that whoever took that period-napkin, that this is a terrible, terrible thing you’ve done…”
Lucy wasn’t sure whether she meant having a period or taking a Kotex, or both. Sister Miriam, the woman who got permission from the principal to go into the girls’ lockers, who read their diaries late one night and then cornered the girls with their confessions, their filthy, sex-obsessed, perverse disgusting words, read back to them, held up to the scrutiny of Father Doogan, who would look at the girls with pity for their damnable actions. God, what a war criminal she was.
Father Kennedy, full of life and intelligence, close pal of the pariah Sister Vickie, was Sister Miriam’s mortal enemy. Sister Miriam would sniff the merest hint of whiskey-breath on the man and either commence a moral lecture , announce that she was to report him to the archbishop — one assumed it was never a real threat — or attempt one of her more useless tactics, break into his history class, sit in the back and glare at him righteously.
Father Kennedy in good form was incomparable, a natural Dominican, always ready to be carried away with his own storytelling, not having read the source materials in centuries, trusting his own mind and what he remembered or thought he remembered but had rewritten and improved. He would be especially red-faced and florid after lunch, hitting the wine with Sister Vickie, and Lucy and Faith and the class watched him bellow about what a big fat pig Aquinas was, the man who preached everything in moderation! When the funeral came, how it took twelve brothers and a box six by ten to fit the obese doctor into. Fatter, claimed Father Kennedy, than some of the sisters at St. Eulalia’s! The class laughed and Father Kennedy, encouraged, continued to describe the fatness of Aquinas, doing a small imitation of Aquinas/Sister Belinda waddling about the halls.
And in the back of the room, her tissue out, was Sister Miriam quietly weeping, making a show of her sufferings. Until each child turned and saw her, until her tears were well recorded and at last a dense silence of embarrassment fell on the class.
“And what is your problem now, Sister?” the father would grumble, sobered and annoyed.
“Your soul,” she’d wail dismally.
And apparently her threat to call the archbishop had some predicate, for one week, as Lucy and Faith sat in their afternoon Church History class, Sister Miriam came in and stood regally, triumphal, in gloria, behind the podium: “Father Kennedy has been transferred,” she said richly, and the class inwardly groaned, sensing deeper despair when it became known that Sister Miriam, justified, was to be his replacement. The father, it was rumored, was exiled to a rough, impoverished boys’ school in Hammond, Indiana, to be a librarian, which was a demotion, a punishment; and not far behind was Sister Vickie, also shipped out. Maybe that beloved bit of schoolkid gossip concerning their affair had been passed on and taken seriously by the archbishop. Maybe it had been true.
So it was Church History with Sister Miriam, and out went the difficult learned texts, the City of God of Augustine, the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, gone were Pseudo-Dionysius, Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Basil the Great, Isidore of Seville. Sister Miriam decided the text should be St. Alphonsus de Liguori’s Victories of the Martyrs.
“Procopius,” she said, during the five weeks devoted to the Virgin Martyrs, “not discouraged by St. Agnes’s refusal to marry him, continued to pester her.” She read from St. Alphonsus: “Procopius continued with his ineffectual importunities until at last the saint, wishing to free herself from his unwelcome attentions, said to him, ‘Begone from me, thou food of death! I am already engaged to another and afar better Spouse. He is the King of Heaven, to whom I have consecrated my entire being.’”
Sister Miriam could partake of that high emotion. She sang out the refusals and rejections of the Virgin Martyrs’ suitors as if she had had the occasion to issue the very words. And how she luxuriated in the eventual martyrdoms, St. Catherine’s wheel bursting into flames before the inevitable beheading, the pincers and coals and grills and boiling pitch. And how when the Virgin Martyrs St. Lucy and St. Faith were mentioned, their namesakes, both red in the face, felt the glow of unwanted publicity as the class snickered at their God-ordained virginity.
“In 304,” Sister Miriam noted seriously, always happy to justify her martyrologies as histories, “Agnes achieved her glorious martyrdom.” She sighed heavily and delved into the book again: “The governor then thought to intimidate Agnes by threatening to have her sent to an infamous place to be there . . . dishonored . . .”
That must mean a whorehouse, thought Lucy, and dishonored means she was going to have to have sex. Deciphering St. Alphonsus’s prim phraseology naturally made Sister Miriam’s martyr-ridden history classes a good deal more sex-obsessed than Father Kennedy’s proper ones.
“But if any man approached her,” read the sister, “with an immodest intent … ”
F*cking, thought Lucy, stealing a glance at Faith, who, though devoted to Sister Miriam’s hagiographies, may have missed the baser points.
“… he became so overawed as not to be able to look upon the saint. Only one rash young man attempted to offer her a violence, but as Cardinal Orsi here observes, the impure wretch soon experienced the jealousy with which the Spouse of Virgins defends them, for a flash of lightning struck him blind and he fell dead upon the ground.”
Sister Miriam serenely gazed out upon the next generation of Catholic youth, so fresh-faced and interested, never suspecting that they were stirred to the depths of their percolating adolescence, imagining Agnes chained down spread-eagle in a whorehouse, the young man buck-naked and ready to give it to her, before Christ ruined it all with His lightning bolts. Lucy glanced at Christian, whom she always cast as the pagan suitor. A boy just primed to offer a Virgin Martyr a violence, she was sure.
Half an hour later, Agnes was at the stake.
“The funeral pyre was accordingly erected, the saint was placed upon it and the fire enkindled; but the flames respecting her person divided themselves on either side of her and consumed many of the idolators who were assisting at the execution… ”
Christian allowed himself a small, disbelieving snort.
As in all these stories, despite the lightning and blindings and miracles at the stake, the pagans persevered to behead the saint. Miriam here bleated the lines, moved by stifled emotion: “The executioner trembled to give the stroke but the saint animated him saying, ‘Haste thee to destroy this my body, which could give pleasure to others, to the offending of my Divine Spouse. Fear not to give me that death.”
Anything but sex!
Lucy once was talking to Luke, her Lutheran friend at [the University of] Chicago, who swore he wasn’t sure what a hymen was until he was in college. But no Roman Catholic would ever go in ignorance! Nooooo no no! As Sister Miriam lectured , the message came through: St. Agatha with her breasts sheared off, St. Dionysia watching her infant tortured to death, raked with scourges, the nun St. Febronia, her body as one wound, charred over a slow fire, her teeth extracted, St. Cecilia with her family massacred and herself put in an oven to roast and suffocate, St. Justina heated up slowly in boiling tar, St. Anastasia with her tongue pulled out, breasts removed by white-hot pincers, her every limb broken with hot coals implanted in her wounds, St. Faith, not even eleven, on the gridiron, and St. Lucy blinded and beheaded — but mind you, whenever the Virgin Martyrs were sent to a whorehouse or threatened with betrothal, angels descended, swords of flame appeared, men were struck blind and dead, the earth opened up, invisible walls were formed! The God of the Roman Catholics was quite clear on the subject: tear these pretty young things apart, any torture you like, but not the hymen! Not the precious, unbreakable hymen of blessed virginity! Lucy, one day while roaming the library at Loyola, pulled down Karl Rahner’s theological essays — the rebel Jesuit, always a step away from excommunication, one of the Church’s most progressive thinkers… and here, even here, was a consideration of the Virgin Mary’s hymen and the implications of its remaining unbroken as she delivered Jesus, the theological necessity of its remaining intact, in partem.
O Masculine Father, was there no escape? Men were fortunate enough to have souls, but Catholic women only this ineffable membrane into which all worth or damnation or redemption was focused.