SATURDAY READING: Saint Thomas Aquinas — Nuns, Prophecies, Communists, the Bomb, the Dread of Angels, Reason, Faith, and the Summa Theologica

Calmly, yet quite firmly, she asks everyone to leave the room but me.  I watch everyone else file out, some of them glancing at me as they go.  The last one to go out is asked to close the door.  He does so.  The door makes its little clicking sound, and then the room is quiet.  I’m sitting there with my sleeves rolled up and my hair combed as much as I can make it like Ricky Nelson’s, and for an aching long time it’s just the two of us, Sister Theresa and me.  She shuffles papers at her desk, and stares out the sunny window, her face perfectly serene, as though she’s forgotten me entirely.  She’s not an attractive woman, Sister Theresa; there’s just nothing at all appealing about her; not her face, not her voice, not her personality, not her mind or heart, even — certainly not her manner.  “These girls in their sunsuits,” she’d said only this morning, having got onto the subject of the approaching summer and what everyone would be wearing.  “Well, they aren’t sunsuits, they’re sin suits.”  This through crooked teeth, with a kind of relishing hatred; it’s something she’s fed on a long time, apparently.

Now, she rises slowly and comes toward me.  Maybe she’s learned of my plans for the priesthood.  (I have recently seen Gregory Peck in Keys of the Kingdom, and the plans include my standing on some hilltop with music in the background while I recite the Magnificat to the sun and wind.)  She takes my hand and squeezes it.  It hurts.

“Ow,” I say.

“Do you know what color your soul is when you’re born?”

“No,” I tell her, though I think I do.  And then I remember to say, “Sister.”

“This color,” she says, and puts my hand against her starched white wimple.  “And do you know what color your soul is now?” she asks.

Before I can answer, she puts my hand against the black cloth of her habit.  “This color,” she says.

I am in full agreement with her.  But I say nothing.  I know better than to speak unless asked to.  This is not the place for discussion, or anything like reason, and I know this without having a way to express it, quite.  I just know that there is no appeal, and nothing to say.

***

The nuns have a story about something the Blessed Virgin gave to those children at Fátima — a letter, the contents of which are so momentous that the Pope wept upon reading it.  And each succeeding Pope has wept to know its frightful contents.  These contents are to be revealed to the world in 1960.  At Fátima, the nuns have told us, the Virgin prophesied that a country called Russia would rise up and cause trouble in the world, and we know this is all connected to the famous letter, which is stored in some secret vault in the Vatican.

It has been said that during the time of Paul, Christians ever expected the second coming.  I expect it because I’m fourteen years old and adults are talking about it.  The Russians are playing with their bomb and their space toys on the other side of the world.  There are bigger and bigger explosions.  Last week, in this same CCD class, we were shown slides depicting, in lurid color and graphic detail, people falling into a flaming canyon.  A voice intoned, “Listen to the cries of the damned, falling into the everlasting fires of Hell.”  And we heard the tumult of a thousand voices, the screams of the punished — mostly, it seemed to me, the screams of women.  Then the little dull, echoless bell dinged, and the picture of Hell was obliterated in the small mechanical clatter of the slide changing, and we saw the drawn throne of God, with an Egyptian-stiff Jesus seated at the right hand (our left) all in glorious light.  The light, we were told, of Heaven.

I have no hope of Heaven, sitting in that small room with the nun holding my hand against the black cloth of her habit and staring at me with the eyes of an angry Godliness.

I never think of my religion in terms of reason.

“Now, get out of here,” she says, letting go of me at last.

Later, in the evening, remembering the cries of the damned, and worried about falling into Hell, I kneel in the dark of my room, feeling that the end is indeed close at hand — it will be 1960 next year — and I begin to pray, thinking about the stigmata, the miracles and signs, all the hoped-for proofs.  Perhaps such a thing might happen to me.  I am devout; my soul is troubled if it is not black as a nun’s habit; I am the battleground; I invite the moment, in a way, with that part of my mind that seems always to be idly speculating.  The room is quiet, and quite dark; and abruptly I have the sense of something hovering near.  There is an imminence, it seems, a deep pause in the darkness around me.  I have stopped breathing.  But it’s more than that.  Any second, it will happen — some gesture from the power and majesty.  I can feel it along my spine; it is here.  Here!

I have never moved more swiftly in my life.

I bolt out of the room as though it is on fire, or as if, to paraphrase poor old proscribed Boccaccio, ten thousand devils are after me.  I almost collide with my mother, walking through the hallway of the house with a basket of laundry.  “What’s the matter with you?” she says.

“Nothing,” I say.

“Well, look where you’re going, honey.  Will you?”

We proceed to the second article.  It seems that God is not altogether simple. . .”

The second of my two days takes place more than two decades later, though it is no more present or vivid than the first, since it occupies a place in that same wide, quiet province, the lived life that is behind me.  It is another sunny March day, 1982, and I am being honored at a gathering of writers in Charlottesville, Virginia, the second annual PEN/Faulkner Awards.  My second novel, Take Me Back, is one of the six nominees that year, and my wife, Karen, and I have been spending a lot of time with one of the judges, Walker Percy, and his wife, Bunt.  We have toured Monticello, and spent hours walking around the city of Charlottesville.  It is Walker who nominated me for the award, and who wrote the citation for it.  He says that some time after reading the copy the PEN/Faulkner people sent him, he discovered a complimentary copy I had had my publisher send him, back when the book was published.

“Somehow it got in under some papers on my desk,” he says.  “There’s always a lot of stuff piled up there.  Some of it has been there for years.”

I had the book sent to him because he is one of the writers I admire most in this world.  The fact that he likes my book means more than I can adequately say, and I know enough not to embarrass him by saying this out loud.  It is implied.

The night before, we stayed up late, with all the other writers, drinking bourbon and talking, though Walker did very little talking.  He rattled the ice in his glass, leaning against the back of a sofa, in this crowded room with dim paintings of nineteenth-century faces on the walls, and debating voices going on around him.  He sipped the bourbon, attending to everything.  I sensed that some of the other writers were trying to outdo themselves in his presence, performing for him.  I could feel it in myself when it was my turn to talk.  There was an argument about whether a historical novelist has a responsibility not to alter the facts as he knows them in order to tell his story or make his metaphor about history.  Walker seemed amused by this.  He smiled, sipped the bourbon, and rattled the ice in the glass.

“Telling the truth used to be a pledge of the whole self, of the very soul,” one of the other writers said.  “A bargain with God.  Telling an intentional lie in a circumstance of such an implied pledge was considered a violation of divine law.  A sure ticket to Hell.”  This was spoken in the tone of someone explaining the use of an antique tool.

Walker yawned, and excused himself.  I did, too.  Out in the hallway, he asked what I was working on, and I told him that I was having trouble writing anything at all.  I couldn’t convince myself that the problems of the characters I’d made up mattered.

“You might listen to a lot less of that stuff in there,” he said.  “It doesn’t pay to think too much about that end of it.  Sometimes I think it’s a little silly.  To be an aging man, still making up stories.  You shouldn’t worry too much about the theoretical end of it, though.”  He smiled, then headed off to his room.

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