I liked the taste of communion wafers pressed against the roof of my mouth. But nun cake was a big disappointment.
Once a week, Catholic kids were bussed to church school to attend first communion classes. Our teacher was a genuine nun, complete with a full habit and head piece. I was in awe. She had two names (like most of my cousins and me), except one of hers was a boy’s name–Sister Agnes Michael.
The first day of class she let us know what kind of miscreants she assumed we were.
“Keep your hands on top of your desks, so you aren’t tempted to reach inside and steal anything,” she ordered.
I never stole anything in my life (except for Snappy and a few carrots) and blushed red with humiliation at being treated like a criminal. I’m one of those people who, if someone thinks I’m guilty, immediately feels guilty. This is followed by looking guilty, which is how I appeared as Sister Agnes Michael eyeballed me while warning us about stealing.
During our first lesson, she stated that God had no beginning and has no end. What the heck? I could sort of see how something might not have an end, but no beginning? I waved my hand, questioned her statement, questioned her answer because it didn’t explain anything, and found myself sitting on a chair in the corner.
Memo to self: God’s holy servants do not appreciate being questioned.
The following week, I found out about original sin and black hearts.
“Every time you commit a sin, a black spot appears on your heart,” revealed Sister.
I pictured the spots as filling in around the outside first, then working their way to the center, as opposed to popping up willy-nilly. My chest weighed heavy as I imagined its tainted contents; a large version of the chocolate-covered cherries Dad bought, with the diminishing red cherry-part getting squished by my ever-thickening, chocolate coating of sin.
“Do mistakes and little fibs make gray spots?” I asked hopefully.
“There are no gray areas in sinning. There is right, and there is wrong. God can see into your heart and knows your sins.”
Well, that wasn’t good news. And the way Sister made the announcement, while her eyes bore holes through my chest, insinuated God squealed to her about my heart’s black-coating. I hunched over to shield my tell-tale heart.
My worries eased a bit when she revealed confession erases the black if we are truly repentant. Salvation. I could start over with a clean heart. And this time I’d keep it solid red with no black speckles anywhere. I’d never let the devil get me in trouble again. Hmmm, maybe I’d look good in a nun’s habit.
“Except for original sin,” continued Sister. “We all carry the burden of original sin.”
“Even little babies?” I asked.
She fixed her holy eyes on me. “Everyone.”
That didn’t seem fair. Why should I be stuck with a black spot for something Adam and Eve did a million years ago?
During our third session, Sister Agnes Michael offered us a special surprise if we memorized some verses for the next class. I was anxious to redeem myself and ensure a place in heaven, since I was on shaky ground for questioning God’s earthly servant.
Mom listened while I recited the verses, and corrected any mistakes. I looked forward to my next first communion class, wondering what my surprise might be. I hoped for candy or money, but knew it’d probably be something religious. I really liked Sister’s oversized rosary beads with a heavy cross that swung against her stomach when she walked, and hoped for a knock-off set.
Four of us stood at the front of our classroom to receive our reward. Sister served us a big hunk of leftover dried-up cake, cemented into a corner of a rectangular cake pan. I’m not talking about cake with a crusty edge. This nun cake was petrified.
Sister slid a small wastebasket into the coat closet and balanced the cake pan across the top. “It is impolite to eat in front of the other children. They will become envious and you will be prideful. Be sure to eat over the basket and pan, so there are no crumbs on the floor.”
We crammed in against the coats and she shut the door. Faint brown light from a high ceiling bulb illuminated us in yellow shadows. I chipped off a piece of cake and searched for a soft spot. Cake crumbs tumbled into the pan below. One boy shoved a hunk of surprise under sheets of paper in the bottom of the basket. I quickly did the same, and the other cake eaters followed suit. We buried the remnants of our reward and knocked on the door to be let out.
“Thank you, Sister,” we mumbled, and returned to our seats.
She removed the trash can from the closet, checked the floor for crumbs, and pulled a long cord to turn off the light.
“What kind of children are you that you’d waste food?” she demanded.
She found our cake. I sat wondering what possessed her to look under the trash, and then remembered her direct pipeline to God–who knows all and sees all. Sort of like the Wizard of Oz. Our class of secular lowlifes learned about poor starving children in Africa and ungrateful children in America.
I couldn’t wait to tell Mom about my crummy reward.
“Nuns are supposed to be holy and nice,” I complained. “Why is she so mean?”
I shot down Mom’s first explanation; that maybe the Sister thought the nun cake was good.
Mom explained, “No one is completely good or bad. The nicest people in the world aren’t perfect. And the worst people in the world often have something good about them. You have to decide if the good out-weighs the bad. If it does, then decide whether the bad is something you can live with.”
It was a lot to take in, so I concentrated on the first part; no one is completely good or bad. Promising news, since being all good was not in my nature. The chunks of good in me meant I still had a chance at Heaven, or at least Purgatory. I decided Sister Agnes Michael was more good than bad because she shaved her head for God (or so I believed at the time), wore ugly shoes, said a lot of prayers, and couldn’t help it if she was old and crotchety.
Lessons learned: Nobody is perfect, nuns can’t bake cake, and apparently God is a tattle-taler.
Now it’s your turn: Did you ever sit before a nun?
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