When I was young I went to Catholic school. Most of the teachers in my school were sisters of the Dominican order. They wore habits in those days. A flowing white linen gown covered them from head to toe in pleats nearly ultraviolet bright. It crossed their foreheads at their eyebrows. They wore a black veil over their heads that descended in the back nearly to the floor. So covered, one could only see their faces from the eyebrows down and hands.
Their feet were shod in clunky black boots with 1/2" heels and most had two or three feet of rosary beads hanging from a white linen belt around their waists. On only one occasion as a student did I see a strand of hair peaking from beneath the vestments. As children, we all presumed they shaved their heads bald and had their ears removed, because we never saw any part of them beyond their smiles and their knuckles.
They signed their names with the suffix, O.P., for Ordo Praedictorum. They took vows of chastity, poverty, and devotion. Their lives outside the classroom were a complete mystery to us. We presumed they spent all their free time in church or washing their garments and they laughed when we suggested that, but never told us they did anything else with the exception of holidays when the younger ones would admit to having visited the families they'd left behind. Then, we students realized we'd never presumed they had parents.
They let it be known they were the teachers in the army of God. Later, when we were older, they let us know they were all the brides of God and dressed as such.
In a complimentary fashion, we students wore our vestments to class. I was made to wear black shoes, uniform blue pants, white shirt with red-white-gray plaid clip-on tie, and a uniform blue coat with the insignia of the school on the breast pocket. My hair was cropped short, never to be seen touching the collar of my shirt. We were to be a homogeneous class of learning humans under the tutelage of the overlords who existed beyond nominal social classification.
They smacked our knuckles with rulers when we misbehaved. Made us sit in corners and write repetitive phrases like, "I will not talk in class," or, "I will not tell jokes to John Harkins while Sister is teaching," hundreds of times. When they praised us we beamed. We formed strange bonds with them that transcended normal human relationships, and I suspect that if one were to analyze the reports of alien abductees and compared them to the relationship between a Dominican nun and a typical 16-year old high school male, one would see gross similarities. The mind games. The torture. The utter otherworldliness of their presence. The distinct yet distant feeling one has had a thorough anal probing with no physical scarring or detailed memory of the event.
They could read minds and did not hide the fact.
"What's black and white and read all over?"
"A newspaper, ninny. What's black and white and red all over?"
"A penguin rolling down the rear stairwell."
"Heh. Penguin. You mean Sister. Heh. I know."
"Master Owl. Come to my desk, please?"
"For your remarks will go back to your desk and stay after school. You will not be allowed to go home until you have written, 'I will not tell jokes about sister to John Harkins during class,' one thousand times with perfect penmanship. Any errors will result in deductions."
"I suggest you get started. It's already 2:00."
"I can't believe she heard that. Well there's the bell. Have fun. I have to go."
"I'll get you, Harkins."
Back in the late 60's things were changing. Vatican II had "just" happened and a lot of the older Catholic clergy were reeling under the near blasphemy of a mass said largely in English. Of guitars brought into church and strummed during the liturgy. Of women without hats. Next we'd be inviting Satan to give the homily at benediction.
The official Dominican stance seemed to be that these things were a passing phase caused by the mania of a pope reacting to world turmoil caused by hippies. But in private, the younger nuns giggled behind their hands and brought Joni Mitchell records to class to play during art period. We students took delight in their minor misbehaviors. They saw themselves as conduits of the real world. They would expose us to enough of it to keep our tiny minds on track with our growth into human adults, while sparking our interest in other aspects of the world.
By the time I was in high school in the mid 70's, the order was under attack. The force of change was riding over them like the Bonsai pipeline on a great surfing day. Other orders were abandoning the traditional habit for conservative street clothes. Most of the Dominicans voted to keep their traditional dress. When the schools dropped mandatory uniforms in favor of conservative dress codes, and our mothers started dressing us in jackets with wide lapels and Ban Lon shirts, the rift between our lives and the lives of the sisters widened.
They kept reaching out to us, trying to understand how being raised by hippies and being exposed to a world full of "I'm OK, You're OK," "Billy Jack," and "I Am Curious: Yellow," was going to affect us as adults. But even the comprehension of the existence of those things went against one or more rules they had in the convent. It felt like we were on a boat leaving a dock at some strange port in Lesbos or the temple at Delphi, waving to the near sexless women who raised us, knowing we'd never see them again.
In my sophomore year of high school my father took a job on the east coast, so I was going to have to move and switch schools. I'd been going to Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights, and had grown to know most of the teaching staff there. By the time I was 16 I began to relate to the younger nuns because I could begin to see them in my own classmates. Some of them were only five years older than me.
One such young woman taught for a while in my choir class. I had taken choir as a way to get out of a half semester of gym, which in Marian in the 70's, consisted of an eternal succession of dodge ball grudge matches between the boys in remedial math and the kids who weighed less than 100 pounds. It held for me all the enjoyment of a plate of liver and brussel sprouts. At least I could sort of carry a tune and singing random church music and easy folk songs got me closer to girls.
One day, Sister Marie came in with an album called Godspell. It seemed the hippies were at it again, transforming everything good in the world to an excuse for open sex and hallucinogens. Sooner or later the Bible was going to get caught up in their net of debauchery, and it had happened twice now. In Britain it took the shape of a new art form blatantly called the rock opera, as if the juxtaposition of Hendrix and Puccini could make that strange electric noise palatable. Jesus Christ Superstar had the order on its ear in conflict. The older nuns wouldn't expose themselves to what must be blasphemy in the extreme. The younger ones begged them to listen, for it was nothing more than an interpretation. And wouldn't it reach the younger people?
Then in America it came in the form of an off-Broadway show called Godspell, the passion of Christ interpreted by a group of Barnum and Bailey circus clowns tripping on horse tranquilizers.
Sister Marie Claire had become a noviate because of Godspell. Her elders did not understand that, and she told us so in the hushed voice of a shy woman burning. For Sister Marie Claire was a thin, short, mousey woman with a voice that could be drowned out by a dripping faucet. But she burned with the intensity of one so consumed with her ideal, her will could not be denied.
So she brought us down off our places on the choir platform. She showed us the record album cover and she explained the Gospel of St. Matthew and what these songs represented. She placed the needle on the turning phonograph record and we heard people howling. Harmonies. Young voices projecting--"Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
And Sister was nearly a roman candle with delight. Her black and white habit fluttering in the breezes she made jumping and swaying to the songs.
"See what they're saying?" she told us. "This is the way it was back then. It was just crazy and Jesus was a crazy man. It was all crazy. Don't you get it?"
Though we had always expected it, we'd never seen a nun in the midst of a psychotic episode. Most of us didn't know what to do. We expected Sister Judith Anne would descend from the principal's office at any moment and end the proceedings and haul Sister off to scrub the church marble with a toothbrush.
But Sister Marie Claire read our minds and knew what we were thinking.
"This is what you're going to sing. We're all going to sing this together. You'll see. Just wait. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop. This is what it was like for them. They had to keep going. They had to believe. This is how young people come to believe."
And she went to the piano and tapped out the notes. Taught the girls the soprano parts. Taught us boys the tenor, baritone, and bass parts.
There are events in your life which stain the mind and cannot be washed away by the thrill or pain of life. Mostly, we remember the horrors. They're easy. But I have in my mind, perhaps because I have eschewed my Catholic upbringing for most of my life, one autumn afternoon in the music room of Marian High School, a short nun playing and singing the part of Christ crucified, and it hasn't gone away.
"Oh God, I'm dying."
And then us in unison, "Oh God, you're dying."
"Oh God, I'm dead."
And we sang because the words were so strange, but we could not breathe otherwise, "Oh God, you're dead.
Oh God, you're dead.
Oh God, you're dead..."
You could hear the atoms of the earth spinning in the silence of the four beat rest after those words. Then her note to start Karen on her solo. And then all of us in harmony.
Long live God
Long live God
Long live God
And I remember asking Phil Goodrich between phrases, "What the hell does this mean?"
He shrugged. We looked at each other and wondered if we'd all be expelled. Surely, this was not Catholic doctrine.
But it didn't matter. Sister picked up the beat on the piano and the girls broke off the soprano part in counterpoint to our deeper voices.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord
And after a few rounds, the piano got louder, and we got louder. And the girls started dancing. And we, because not a one of us boys could dance, just hopped around in a ring around them clapping and singing, "Long live God," until the sound was coming out of our pores.
I don't remember when it ended. At some point the bell must have rung signaling we had to go to different classes. I remember humming and singing in the hallway leading from the music room to the rest of the school.
A few days later I left Marian. I moved to New Jersey and went to a school taught by nuns of the Franciscan order who had abandoned their habits. They were very nice. But they were simply not on the same astral playing field as the Dominicans. They could neither instill fear nor inspire us like those linen-clad women with the big boots. They could not read minds. They lived in normal houses. They wore sneakers. They reminded me of librarians.
Yesterday one of my kids asked me if I knew about a play called Godspell and I told them I did. I went to Borders Books and picked up the CD. Popped it into the Jeep CD player on the way home.
What the hell is it about music?
Twelve bars or so and I was 16 years old in my brain. I could see Sister Marie Claire behind the keyboard of the portable black grand piano, the girls in their conservative, dress code outfits, hair bouncing in slow motion, me clapping and hopping like a fool. It was crazy. We were crazy and we believed all of it. And the little me inside my head reminded me there was a time when I was a much less complicated mess of a person, and I believed everything. And I could be happy singing "Long live God"-- and not think, "God is immortal and omniscient and omnipotent, this is idiotic..."
I don't know if I got older, or what. But hearing it now reminds me there was and is still good in the world. Once I believed every blessed note of it.
Long live God. It's crazy, but what the hell else would a dustspeck mortal piece of cognizant dirt have to say to the eternal supreme creator of time and stars and everything?
Sister was right.