Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia
In celebration of National Poetry Month, this blog will continue to feature guest posts by our published poets. This week we welcome Susan L. Miller with reflections, stories and poetry from her newly released book Communion of Saints: Poems.
My poem “Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia” was inspired by my friend Carol, the first nun I ever met. I converted to Catholicism in my late thirties in a parish in Brooklyn, run by Franciscans. Two of my priests, Santo and Timothy, were often referred to by our parishioners as “Mary and Martha,” partly because of Father Timothy’s extraordinary work efforts. Along with Wellington, our handyman, and a number of young men in our parish, Father Timothy remodeled an apartment behind the church. The apartment, he told me one day during a two-hour confession-turned-church-tour, would be for our sisters. He had drawn up plans by hand, showing the built-in bookshelves he would create in the living room, and despite the disarray of the project at the time, I could tell he had planned something very special. He was even using the original wood to recreate the floors.
When I saw Sister Carol’s grey veil in the side aisle of the church for the first time, I made a point of sitting close by. She remembers me greeting her by saying, “It’ll be nice to have some women here!” I didn’t realize at the time what good friends we would become–but I did have hopes.
It was also Father Timothy who suggested to me during confession one Saturday that Sister Carol needed help in the Religious Education office. He knew I was a teacher too, and I think he had hopes that I would eventually teach, but I started (and ended) my work there just doing simple data entry, registering children into their classes. Sister Carol spoke so quietly that I would have to listen closely to her–being a little hard of hearing due to garage band hours logged in my youth. She listened to me patiently as I ranted, often, about parts of Church doctrine that I found difficult to understand. I knew her family lived up North, that she had spent years in Assisi and Massachusetts, and that she cared deeply for Sister Mercedes, our eldest nun. She told me other stories. When I asked if she had ever had a boyfriend, she told me the one about how, in her teens, she had a crush on a friend of her brother. He had apparently planned their future together, but after she went away to college, “he found another young rose.” Sister Carol did things her own way: the office key was marked “U,” for “ufficio.” We laughed a lot. We spent many hours together. We had tea in the office at Christmas, and in the summer, once, she asked me to give her a haircut. I was a little terrified to do it, since I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair since college, when my friend Travis had traded a pack of cigarettes for a haircut. I figured that under her veil, very few people would see it if I made a mess of it, so I went ahead and gave it to her. The soul of charity, she thanked me, but she never asked me to do it again.
It also didn’t take long for each of us to admit to the other that we wrote poetry. I immediately encouraged her to show me hers, and brought poems of mine for her. Sister Carol was more reticent, but one day, she e-mailed me an attachment. When I opened it, a tiny poem was there–no more than ten lines. No one wrote this kind of poetry in my graduate school–this poem had taken a walk in the wintertime dark and distilled it into its essence. It was a lyric poem in the best way–concise, with a precision of language and image, and a mystery at its center. I’m not sure I even knew how to read a poem like that, though of course I had, many times. I wrote her back asking a bone-headed question about it. I think she was disappointed, though, as with the haircut, she was kind.
It was only later, when she posted it on Facebook the next winter, that I read the poem and finally absorbed it. She had editedit only slightly, but suddenly, it shifted into focus for me, and I understood what she might have seen and heard on that winter walk. Sister Carol may have been quiet, but I realized what power she had as a speaker, if only I could find the right way to listen.
Winter walks at night
Not under a scrutinizing glance
But under a benevolent sky;
Even if dark and cold surround,
Clear and calm ring out
And I listen and hear.
For a long time, I thought that friendship was challenging because we must learn to love people who make such different decisions than we do. I still think that’s a challenge, but I’ve also come to think of it as a gift. And poetry, like friendship, makes us listen, even if just for once, to the way the voice in someone else’s mind might sound.
(Poem reprinted with permission of Sister Carol Woods, S.F.M.A.)