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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Power of the Religious Habit: A True Story

By John H. Ballentine

Sister Z herself says that her habit is a daily reminder of her vow to God. Since a religious habit is a sacramental, it is an outward sign disposing the wearer (and others who see it) to receive graces.

St. Paul Visiting St. Peter in Prison by Filippino Lippi Capella Brancacci
Sister Mary Brendon Zajac, S.N.D., hails from a clan based in Ohio. I suppose that every Sister of Notre Dame deserves her personal Quasimodo, and for this one, I fit the bill.

Too many people are hesitant to relate to those enrolled in religious orders. True, nuns should be treated with reverence due to their special commitment and vows, and yet, like you and me, they are working out their salvation with fear and trembling. Unlike you and I, though, most of them are making great strides in sanctity because they usually keep Jesus Christ foremost in their minds—and rightly so, considering that eternity is forever, and this present life is short. Most of us are caught up in the distractions of the day.

We seem to be frightened of the idea of holiness. We get itchy and fidgety whenever we get close to it, as if suffering from an allergic reaction. We find it more comfortable to wallow in the muck of our fallen nature. This fright is silly when we stop to think about it, because we are invited by God, and to be as holy as he is. That’s why we call ourselves “Christians.”

I often kid Sister Z by telling her that I won’t put her on a pedestal, no ma’am. In fact, I’m her personal millstone. I plan on holding onto her cloak so tightly that I’ll be dragged along when she is lifted up to heaven. She reminds me that this idea did not work for Elisha, as he watched Elijah riding into heaven, and assures me that she will leave me her cloak. She knows that I, being weak and a great sinner, need at least a double portion.

Like all good brides, Sister Z follows her divine Groom’s instructions, and so she recently visited this social leper in his Virginia prison. Jesus descended into hell to preach to the souls there, after he died on the cross and before he rose from the dead. Sister Z came to this purgatory on earth to speak with me. At her visit, I had a chance to see just how powerful her cloak is. In fact, I was graced to witness one of God’s ordinary little miracles, the kind, you know, that happen all the time if you just keep your eyes open, or maybe I should say, if you look with the eyes of faith and keep an open mind.

Even though she is barely five feet tall, Sister Z drew everyone’s attention when she entered the large visiting room of Greensville Prison. It was as if a rock star had arrived. All eyes were drawn to her, and each person’s face held a slightly different expression. Some quickly looked away as if ashamed, others smiled, and some kept staring like little children. I suppose this is similar to what we will experience at the final judgment when we see Christ, face-to-face, instead of hidden in his representatives here on earth.

Their reaction was due to one small detail: Sister Z wore her religious habit. It is ironic that many nuns have given up their traditional habit in order to be more conformed to the world. Perhaps, they have rejected the habit to stress their individuality, but God saves a community of people, not just individuals. From the looks on people’s faces that day in the visiting room, it was evident that Sister Z’s habit conveyed to them something of the reality of the Incarnation, of the human linked to the divine, the subjective to the objective, the deeply personal to the institutional. The habit suggested that she was grafted onto the Vine, the supernatural cause of all natural beauty, natural life, and natural power.

Sister Z herself says that her habit is a daily reminder of her vow to God. Since a religious habit is a sacramental, it is an outward sign disposing the wearer (and others who see it) to receive graces. Even the laity can wear a habit in the form of a scapular, for a scapular is derived from a religious habit, and is also a sacramental disposing the wearer to strive for holiness in a particular vocation. Sacramentals, of course, are not to be confused with sacraments, which were instituted by Christ as efficacious signs pointing to, and actually conferring, sanctifying grace.  While sacraments work ex opere operato from the work that was performed through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, sacramentals obtain their effects ex opere operantis, through the action of the faithful, and the intercession of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit.

Tradition attributes this saying to St. Francis—that we should always preach Christ and, if necessary, use words. Christian witness speaks volumes without so much as a word. This approach is especially valuable in a politically correct society where people hardly listen to each other speaking because words have been so abused they have lost their meaning. Scripture states that the stars give witness to God’s beauty. During her visit, Sister Z was the rock’s star, a light reflecting the Son, and shining in the sight of everyone, as an eschatological witness to his glory.

I could see that many people were curious about why she was visiting a convict like me. They continually glanced at our table, their minds excited by the visible sign of her state of life. We two were an emblem of how the Church is comprised of both sinners and saints, and how—we hope and pray—the sanctity of the one rubs off on the other.

As Sister Z was preparing to leave, I noticed a cluster of female guards had also taken special notice of her. Just then, the ordinary little miracle occurred. There was one guard who was standing outside the group. Everyone who knew her agreed that she was an unhappy person. My grandma once told me there are two types of people in the world: happy people, and unhappy people who are happy only when they make others around them as miserable as themselves. This guard would often go out of her way to make prison even worse than it already was for the convicts. Nobody could recall a civil word coming out of her mouth.

This guard, we shall call her “Miss Merriment,” motioned for me to come over to her desk. “What is that woman?”  she asked and, before I could find words, added, “Is she a nun? I’ve never seen a nun in person before.” I replied that she was correct.

Other guards had gathered round by now, probably thinking there was a security problem. Little did they realize that their secure little world was about to be shaken. Miss Merriment drew closer to my face, and in an intimate moment, sheepishly asked: “Well, if she’s a nun, then why does she wear a wedding ring?” It was as if she were embarrassed to ask the question, as if she were pointing out that a woman’s slip was showing.

I smiled and said, “Why don’t we both ask her,” and I called Sister Z to the desk. Like a fan who first meets her favorite celebrity, Miss Merriment looked amazed, pleased, and tense, all at once, as I repeated her question: “Sister, why do you wear a wedding band?” Sister Z, resorting to words, explained that she was married to Christ. The other guards now gathered closer to the mother hen, so I was effectively squeezed out of the clucking circle. I was not privy to the conversation as Sister Z fielded other questions, but judging from what I observed, she must have done very well because quizzical looks were quickly replaced by accepting smiles. A few moments later, a female guard hugged Sister, and the others soon followed suit.

I was reminded of the woman in the crowd, with the issue of blood, who touched the hem of Christ’s garment. That sacramental did what no human doctor had achieved in many years of treatment—it healed her. The female guards continued to smile, and were constantly touching Sister Z after those hugs.  Miss Merriment suddenly cried out, “I want a hug, too!” God’s grace is refused to no one who asks for it. Sister Z smiled and embraced Miss Merriment. I thought of Father Damien on Molokai.

All of us watched as Sister Z exited past the steel doors, and crossed the abyss separating the convicted from the non-convicted. Miss Merriment caught my eye as she took off her glasses to wipe away tears. Elijah’s cloak had parted the waters. Sister Z’s habit had sinners parting with tears of repentance, the sort of sacrifice God loves.

This little nun was surely a powerhouse of faith, for sacramentals operate by the power of faith put into them, faith being a God-given virtue. While Sister Z wore her habit to remind her of her vow to Christ, her habit also brought daily conversions to other people.

I have seen Miss Merriment twice since this visit. I walked up to her a few months later and, to her astonishment, began talking with her as if we were old friends: “Boy, that Sister Z is a trip, isn’t she? She asks about you ….”

“Please tell her that I said ‘hello,’” replied the guard.

The second meeting found Miss Merriment coming into my band practice and, to the amazement of the other band members, engaging me in conversation. She told me how she was unhappy with her job. We talked for over a quarter of an hour. Afterwards, the band members looked at me as if I had grown two heads. “What was that? She actually acted human!” they exclaimed. I told them she was simply misunderstood and working out some problems. Sister Z’s sacramental was still operating. God wasn’t through with his ordinary little miracle.

Old habits are hard to break. We usually say this about bad habits, but the obverse of the coin must also be considered, since habits can be good. In this case, they are called virtues, and we are glad they are hard to break. Nuns who reject wearing the garments of their religious order will find themselves kicking against the goad. Wearing the habit is a good habit.

John Ballentine has been in prison for 24 years in Greensville Correctional Center, Jarratt, Virginia. He converted 12 years ago and has since finished his M.A. in theology, with a summa cum laude, at Catholic Distance University. He will receive his diploma this October 2013. It was in the course of his studies that John encountered Sister Brendon Zajac, S.N.D. who was one of his teachers.

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