Two Nuns, Chastity and the Drowning Young Man

Not far from Flemington there is a cloistered convent of the good sisters of Saint Mary Magdalene. Sisters living in a cloister have chosen to set themselves apart from the rest of society, and have dedicated themselves to a simple life of prayer, work and community within the walls of the convent.  Sisters of this Order have pledged themselves to pray always, and as do all religious, to honor the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

As it happens, this convent is very near to the Raritan River, and so, on occasion, the sisters will walk along the river, often in pairs, as they chant their devotions. One balmy spring afternoon, just after one of those torrential ‘spring showers’ that we are wont to have in central New Jersey, two of the good sisters were strolling along the banks of the river which was rushing past them with three times its normal volume and twice its speed, struggling to carry off the drainage from the rains. As the sisters walked and prayed in silence, they noticed a young man in the river, obviously in trouble, going under for the third time. Without hesitation, Sister Visentia shed her outer robes, jumped into the river, pulled out the young man – who she soon noticed was quite, well, shall we say, unclothed – and administered mouth to mouth resuscitation to him to help restart his breathing.  Very quickly he was revived. He concurrently noticed his own nakedness and saw that the two women were Sisters from the cloister. Embarrassed, he profusely thanked Sister Visentia, covered what he could with his hands, and ran off down the river away from the convent grounds.  Sister Visentia put her robes back on, and the two Sisters continued their prayerful walk along the river.

Sometime later, after they had walked and prayed for a goodly while, Sister Septimus turned to Sister Visentia, looked at her accusingly and said, “How could you so callously break your vows without any hesitation or remorse? You tore your close off in front of a man, you touched his body in all of its nakedness, and you pressed your lips to his! And now you continue to walk and pray as if nothing aberrant has happened! Have you no shame or remorse? Have you no respect for your vows?!?”

Sister Visentia looked very calmly at Sister Septimus and replied, “Well Sister, I only did what was necessary to save the life of one of our Creator’s blessed souls. What could be greater respect for my vows, for the commitment of our community to honor the Creator’s work in all that we do? How could I let such a fine example of that creation be lost before its time? And, besides, my dear Sister, I put that young man’s body down a long time ago, right there on the bank of the river where I found him. Why are you still carrying his naked body with you all this time later?”

Why indeed. The letter and the spirit of the law, the letter and the spirit of our commitments and goals can at times seem to be in conflict.

I really like this story because it reminds me of the importance of remembering what is really important, the essence of our goals and commitments. It also reminds me of the importance of letting go; of the importance of forgiveness; of the self incrimination and futility of judging others. 

If I were REALLY doing a total rewrite of the story instead of the minor tweaking liberties that I took, I would have Sister Visentia turn to Sister Septimus and sing song: “I am rubber and you are glue, and whatever you think or say about me, bounces off me and sticks on you!”  But I guess that really doesn’t fit with the spirit of the story, so I won’t.  I will indulge in one more moral though: remember Fritz Perls assertion that 80% percent of what we see is a projection of our own stuff.  That should give us pause when we are ready to indict someone for what their words or actions implied.  Was it implied, or are we reading our own fear, guilt or suppressed desires onto the canvas of someone else’s life? Indeed, “I am rubber and you are glue, and whatever you think or say about me, bounces off me and sticks on you!”

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