The front of the college chapel where I polished the floors
and spent considerable time while in the novitiate.
As a novice, I served meals to the community. I probably tablewaited about thirteen weeks during my novitiate year. I was supposed to wait on the head table of the prioress for two of those thirteen weeks.
Instead, I served only one meal.
Picture my first day. I’m serving the prioress and her six administrative helpers. They sit facing the other nuns, who are seated at three vertical rows of tables.
First I wheel the spacious serving tray with its bowls of food and coffee pot down the long aisle between two of these rows. I’m shaking nervously. Standing behind them, I reach between the seven nuns to place the hot food on the table. They pass the bowls and serve themselves.
Sound engulfs the silence of that cavernous room. Silverware clatters. Chair legs rasp the wooden floor. Wind soughs through the open windows. But no one speaks for they have not been given salutation.
This din of speechless sound diverts me. For a moment I gaze at the morning sunlight warming the courtyard cannas.
The prioress clears her throat. Quickly, I pick up the hot coffee pot from my serving tray. I almost drop it because my hand is trembling so. I reach down for the her cup, stand behind her, pour the steaming hot coffee, and shakily place the cup next to her right hand.
I’ve done it! I can do this. I can! I can!
I move to the left and reach forward for the second nun’s cup. She seems old to me for I’m only twenty-two—my body supple, my face smooth. She wears wrinkles and thick glasses. She’s slight and bent.
I stand directly behind her, hold the cup near the back of her head, and begin to pour her coffee.
Just then, I hear a western meadowlark through the open windows. Its fluty whistle draws my attention toward the courtyard again. For a moment only, I forget what I’m doing.
That’s when it happens.
I pour steaming hot coffee down her back.
She breaks silence and yelps. Who would have thought that such an elderly nun could shriek so loudly?
Her chair topples over. Serving dishes teeter. Food spills onto the pristine white tablecloth. Silverware clanks. An empty cup tumbles onto the floor and shatters.
I stand poleaxed.
I’ve burnt a nun.
I Have. Done. This.
I’m. Out. Of. Here. For. Sure.
The prioress immediately says, “Praise be Jesus and Mary,” thus giving the other nuns permission to talk.
The nuns answer, “Now and forever. Amen.” Then they begin to chatter among themselves. The room buzzes with astonishment over what I’ve done.
I want to run down the long aisle between two rows of tables—my veil flapping behind me, my knees churning—and hide in the novitiate closet among the brooms, dust cloths, mops, and buckets.
Instead, I clumsily try to swipe the liquid off the nun’s habit. She moves sideway to evade my fumbling hands. I kneel awkwardly before the prioress to make culpa for my carelessness. She sends me to the kitchen to get rags and mops for cleaning the table and floor.
Never again did I serve the prioress. I was an accident waiting to happen.
When I made culpa to the novice mistress that afternoon, she sent me to the college chapel to consider my faults.
The truth is, I spent a lot of time there while in the novitiate.