The sacristan happened to be the same nun who had given me my first convent haircut. We both liked and respected one another. I knew that the butch haircut was her way of trying to put the vow of obedience into perspective for me. Also, I think, she wanted me to stop trying to stand out so as to win the love of others.
Early in my convent years, I set myself the task of becoming a saint so as to assure that love. I thought, quite erroneously I now know, that saints were perfect in every way. So I aimed for perfection.
But always that inner voice counseling rebellion tripped me up. No one asked me to leave because I rebelled quietly. Often within myself. I never complained out loud but I muttered within.
No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t measure up to the standard I’d set for myself. And the truth is that I, myself, not the convent set this impossible standard. Being an assistant sacristan for a year kept me in the convent despite my failure to become a saint. It was in the sanctuary that I found peace from my tormenting mind.
The sacristan’s job was an important one. She took care of the vessels of the altar—the chalice, the monstrance, the paten. She saw to the washing and ironing of the altar clothes—those that draped the altar and those used within the Eucharistic Liturgy. She darned and aired the vestments worn by the priest. In addition she arranged splendid vases of flowers for the main altar and the two side altars.
The interior of the college chapel.
My obedience as her assistant was to help prepare the main altar for services. I also dusted both the numerous incised, marble columns that supported the altar railing and the fourteen carved Stations of the Cross that lined the side walls of the nave. Most importantly, however, I ran a polisher on the marble floor of the sanctuary and the thick linoleum aisles of the nave.
I’ve never been particularly strong physically, but that didn’t matter for this obedience. The polisher was a dream to operate. Lightweight and efficient. I ran it once or twice a week. Its motion—back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the smooth floor—mesmerized me.
While polishing, I could feel peace take root in the deep center of being. The silence of the Universe inundated me and I felt profoundly satisfied with where and who I was. In and of itself, polishing that marble floor became prayer.
Through many years, thousands of young women who attended the attached college went to Mass in that church. In the summer, the nuns teaching on various missions in the Midwest returned to the Mother House and prayed there.
All that prayer. All that graciousness. All that wholeness and holiness had left its mark.
It was there that I let go—for a little while—of my need to be a saint. To be different from everyone else. To be special.
It was there that the beauty simply of being human enveloped me.