It was the summer of 1989 and I was conducting a weekend retreat workshop for Adult Children of Alcoholics at the Dominican Retreat Center in Albuquerque, NM. As the participants were checking in on Friday afternoon, I struck up an animated conversation with Sister Margaret Mary. Her pronounced east coast accent caught my ear as I tried to distinguish, was that Baltimore or Philadelphia? Indeed, she was a Catholic nun from Philadelphia, so we just had to compare notes about our lives there in the 1960s.
I had attended Catholic grade school from 3rd to 7th grade in Swedesburg, PA, a small suburb of Philadelphia. Sister Margaret Mary had grown up in Philadelphia and was several years older than me, so she was familiar with the Catholic school culture that I described.
I wanted to share with her all of my funny stories about the nuns, the ancient and kind parish priest, masses conducted in Latin, Polish, and English, memorizing the questions and answers in the Baltimore Catechism book, corporal punishment, May Processions, mid-morning snacks of soft pretzels and milk, $1.25 due every Monday morning to pay for the five 25 cent lunches per week, jumping rope every day at recess because we were not allowed to run on the asphalt playground, and making up sins for confession that weren't so serious as to warrant much more than the standard penance of three Our Fathers, four Hail Marys and one Glory Be thrown in for good measure.
Sister Margaret Mary laughed knowingly as she smiled with recognition at our many commonalities. It felt so good to find a kindred spirit. That is what we were to each other. Through the years, whenever I would meet someone new at a party or social event and find out that they, too, had attended Catholic grade school, there was an instant and mutual connection - particularly if we were of about the same age, and attended school before the rumored reforms of the 1980s. We would immediately sit together, knee to knee, and excitedly compare war stories. Yes, there were funny stories. And, as I was beginning to realize with Sister Margaret Mary, there was a dimension of "impromptu support group" to those kindred spirit connections.
Later that night, as I laid in bed recalling my conversation with Sister, I was barely able to recognize that there was a bitter tinge to the "funny" stories I was sharing. I realized, to my innocent surprise, that there was an angry edge to the telling of some of my Catholic school experiences. I got quiet with myself and looked deeper inside and sure enough, I found anger there. And that anger was tangled up in hurt. There was in me a composite 10 year old little girl who was full of sadness and having a harder and harder time denying her forbidden anger.
Off and on throughout the next day, while conducting my workshop, I realized that this hurt and anger was real and that I needed to address it. I knew that I didn't want that resentment any more.
Sister Margaret Mary was busy running the conference center. I found Sister Janie. Sister Janie was a young noviciate - a nun in training, if you will. She was kind and helpful and I just knew she would understand. During a break, I explained what I was realizing and asked if she might be available to meet with me on Sunday afternoon after the workshop was over. I believed her when she said she was happy to help me in any way.
We met at the appointed time and we walked out into the hot arid desert to find a shaded bench. I told her that I wanted to inventory every single Catholic resentment that I had been carrying all these years. I didn't want this toxic anger any more. She listened. I talked. And talked. And talked.
- the time Sister Camilla hit me over the head with the hard bound Geography book
- the time Sister Gabriel stood me in front of the class as an example of a ratty school uniform because the tear in the front had only been patched from underneath... I was humiliated...
- the many times the nuns said that the Roush girls would go to hell if their parents pulled them out of Catholic school and enrolled them in the public school
- being told to never "touch yourself in an impure place;" the human body was dirty
- being told weekly stories of children who had sinned during the day and then died in their sleep that very same night
- being called "white trash" and my very tanned best friend, Joey being called "black monkey" by the nuns... I didn't understand what "white trash" meant until I got to high school years later
- being made to memorize the meaningless answers to the Baltimore Catechism book questions
- no exposure to the Bible, just my Catholic Missal
- the incessant warnings about God's wrath and eternal punishment in a burning hell
- the constant implied teachings that I was bad to the core and had to be diligent on a daily basis to resist my sinful nature
- and perhaps most painful, finding out in high school, through Young Life (a Christian outreach for high schoolers) that God really did know me and love me all along and that my Catholic school had brainwashed me into self hatred and a terrified fear of a vengeful God.
This and much more poured out of me and I will be forever grateful to Sister Janie. Through my tears, I could see her face. Her look of anguish as she slowly shook her head in sorrow, healed my pain. She didn't speak words. She spoke heartfelt compassion with her face. She believed me. She never defensively tried to explain away or excuse the nuns, the church, the doctrine, none of it. And after it had all come out, my pain, the betrayal, the lies, my resentments about it all.... when there was nothing left to say... I dared to ask.
I don't know where it came from. I was just as surprised to hear it myself. A small and tentative voice inside of me asked Sister Janie, "I don't know if I can ask this or not, but,... could you apologize to me on behalf of the Catholic Church?" I couldn't believe the selfish audacity of my request. Before I could recover from the shock of my own question, Sister Janie quickly answered, "Of course! I am so sorry all of that happened to you. It did happen; I have heard similar stories from other people. I am so sorry and as an official representative of the Catholic Church, I do apologize to you and I ask for your forgiveness." Well, I burst into tears again as we held each other and sat on that bench together, - two women who had only met the day before. Finally. God was good.
I told Sister Janie of my intention to leave it all there, there in the South Valley desert. I had released all that anger and would not pick it up again. And now, I can honestly say that when I tell my Catholic school stories, that tinge of anger is gone. I smile a little smile for Sister Margaret Mary and for Sister Janie, and yes, even for Sister Camilla and Sister Gabriel and all those misdirected and wounded nuns who are indeed now, my sisters.
You know, I share this story as one example of how to recognize, address, and release toxic emotions that might have been living just beneath the surface for many years. It is important to know, though, that forgiveness is not an event; it is a process. I started a process that day. I did not snap my fingers and see that it was all gone. I declared an intention that day, which I followed up with conscious choices to not pick it up again in the form of re-living and ruminating. I disallowed myself the luxury of basking in my hurt and indignation. That is the only way to truly move on into the future, unencumbered by past baggage. One of these days, I will get back to work on the book I am writing about this very process. Until then, I hope you will share with me your experiences with letting go of old hurts and then enjoying the freedom of their release.
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