In This Vale of Tears sample

In This Vale of Tears

Conciliar Series Book 2

Chapter 1

No going back

UNTIL THAT MORNING, Virginia Pearson had hardly noticed the ticking of the antique clock on the lounge room’s mantelpiece. An unnerving silence had descended on the house, and the ticking was now like a needle through her head. She glanced at the hall door. Her mother was in the kitchen at the other end of the house. At least, that’s where she had left her. But not a sound came from there. Her student brother had cleared out early to join his mates in the city. Her father had taken her younger brothers protesting to the bay for a walk. Why did they have to do that? What was going on? And why was Virginia all dressed up and sitting alone in the lounge room? She rose and walked down the hall to the kitchen. Her mother sat at the kitchen table reading the morning newspaper. She looked up.

‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing, darling?’ she said, laying the newspaper on the table.

‘Yes, I’m sure. I’m just a little nervous about it. That’s all.’ She tapped the table.

‘There is still time to reconsider. Perhaps you should reconsider—give yourself more time?’

‘No, it’s done. I have thought about it long enough. I have made my decision. There’s no going back.’

‘If you’re nervous, that might be a sign you have not thought about it long enough.’

Virginia looked at her watch. Another five minutes if he is on time.

‘No. I’m not putting it off.’

She returned to the lounge room and sat on the edge of the lounge settee. The ticking was now like two needles through her head. She started at the sound of the front doorbell. He was on time. As usual. She opened the door, and Philip Stevenson took her in his arms and hugged her gently.

‘What’s this summons for?’ he said, releasing her. ‘It sounds serious.’ He smiled and raised an eyebrow.

‘Come into the lounge room, Philip.’ She took his hand and led him to a single-seat lounge chair. She resumed her place on the lounge settee opposite.

‘Where’s everyone?’ he said, looking around. ‘The house is usually full of happy domestic noise on a Saturday morning.’

‘Philip, I have something important to say.’

The smile and look of affection faded.

‘Where’s your ring?’ he said, looking at her outstretched hand.

She glanced at her hand and lowered it.

‘It’s best to get straight to the point. For a long time, I have felt a calling. I think you have known …. It has become irresistible. I am sorry. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but I have thought enough. I must respond. I would not be honest if—’

‘Honest?’ he said, rising, his face pale. ‘To whom?’

‘You, of course,’ said Virginia, his unfamiliar expression causing alarm.

‘We had dinner at a smart restaurant a week ago. It was your wish. You could not have been more affectionate. We ended the evening with a passionate kiss. What was that?’

‘It was my farewell. It was to let you know how much I love you despite what—’

‘How much you love me?’ he said, looking down at her.

‘Yes, I wanted–’

‘Why didn’t you tell me then?’

‘Because it would have spoiled our last evening together.’ She rose and took his hand. ‘Please sit down, Philip. Let me explain–’

‘What’s there to explain?’ He shook his hand free. ‘Clearly, you have made your decision. You don’t want to marry me. That seems to be that.’ He took a step toward the lounge room door.

‘No, wait, Philip. Please don’t go. I want to explain. It’s not that I don’t love you. I just love–’

‘Yes, I know, you love God more. There’s nothing more to say, Virginia.’ He was now at the front door.

‘Wait, Philip. Don’t go like this. Be fair.’

‘Be fair?’ He had his hand on the doorknob.

‘Please, Philip, I couldn’t bear not giving you an explanation.’

‘You have made your decision. Nothing you say could make a difference.’ He opened the door.

‘At least take your ring.’

‘Keep it.’

He closed the door behind him and was gone. She sank onto the settee and listened to his car coughing and spluttering before jerking into life. His Morris Minor skidded in the soft dirt out of the gutter and drove away, the gears grating as he was late with the clutch. She trembled. He had never behaved that way. She had never seen his face so taut and pale. It was entirely unexpected. Dr. Philip Stevenson, recently appointed lecturer in the philosophy department of John Batman University, had always radiated affability and self-control no matter the problem. Problems were to be worked through rationally, he had told her when she had poured out her difficulties when first confronted with a classroom of sensitive girls. She brushed away a tear.

‘What’s happened?’ said her mother, appearing at the lounge room door.

‘He’s gone.’

‘It didn’t go well, then,’ her mother said, sitting down and taking her hands.

‘No. I don’t understand. It was a different Philip. He just wouldn’t listen. What am I to do? I can’t leave it this way. I must explain. He must give me a chance to explain.’

‘What did he say?’

‘What? I don’t know. I was so shocked. I can only remember his cold expression. Let me think.’ She thought for a moment. ‘He said there was nothing to explain. I had made my decision. It’s just not like him.’

Mrs. Pearson hesitated. ‘Perhaps it is.’

‘No.’ She pulled her hands away.

‘Perhaps he knows Virginia Pearson would not make such a decision lightly. For him, his reaction was rational.’

‘No.’

‘Your expectations were unrealistic. Poor Philip has loved you ever since you made eyes at him as a thirteen-year-old. What did you expect?’

‘Mother, please, you’re not helping. Besides, it wasn’t like that.’

‘Wasn’t it?’

‘No, it took a while before he was interested.’

‘Listen to yourself, darling.’

‘It’s not a matter for jesting, Mum. What am I to do? Mother Jerome expects us in three weeks.’

‘Give him time to get over the shock.’

***

SHOCK was not the word for it. Philip Stevenson, Oxford Ph.D., had to get out of there before he lost all composure. His hands struggled to start the car and put it into gear before it skidded from the curb to add embarrassment to the shock. He had not expected it for one moment. The dinner and her affectionate manner a week before had given him confidence she was ready to name the day. She had named the day all right, but it was not his day. He wanted to accuse her of deceit, but he could not. She had kept putting off a date for the wedding, saying they must be sure of what they were doing. Virginia was like that. She always wanted things to be perfect, perfectly arranged. That was a sign she had been reflecting, and he had not seen it. No, she had not been unfair as much as he wanted to think so.

As the car swerved and lurched around the road, seemingly not knowing where it was going, he realized he was in no state to be in the busy Saturday morning traffic. He drove to Brighton Beach and parked where he could overlook the waters of Port Phillip Bay. He and Virginia had often parked there for a kiss and a cuddle before they walked hand in hand along the bayside trail. The thought of sitting there in the same car in the same place with the same view forced him out of the car. He trudged along the path until he found a bench he and Virginia had never sat on. His feelings, stretched taut to breaking point, eased while the embarrassment at his reaction increased. But the easing of his feelings did not help. The opposite. He had to face the cold facts. Virginia had decided. It was contrary to everything he knew about her that she would change her mind. That was it, and he had better take care he did not succumb to pointless handwringing.

‘Hello, Philip.’

He turned to see Mr. Pearson standing behind him. Virginia’s brothers were taking the steps down to the beach.

‘I don’t want to be impolite, Mr. Pearson, but I’m in no mood for conversation.’

‘I understand.’ Mr. Pearson came round the bench to stand in front of him. ‘You have our sympathy. It was a shock to us, too. But you are aware of what Virginia is like.’

‘Yes, I know what she is like. She has decided.’ He stared before him at the misty blue expanse of the bay.

‘I would like to say something different,’ said Mr. Pearson, ‘something encouraging, but I must agree with you. It would be best to put it behind you. Distract yourself with your work. Who knows, it may not work out. Virginia might be disappointed.’

‘I doubt it,’ said Philip rising. ‘She would have talked it over with Mother Jerome.’

‘Yes, indeed, she has unending admiration for that formidable nun.’

‘That formidable nun would not have spared her if she did not judge her suitable.’

‘Yes, of course, you’re right. But you never know.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Pearson. I will take your advice and distract myself. Now, if you will excuse me.’

‘You are always welcome, Philip. Don’t forget.’ He offered his hand. ‘Let things calm down a bit and then come along.’

‘Thank you again, Mr. Pearson.’ He gave the offered hand a quick, firm shake. He noticed the two brothers on the beach looking up at him, expressionless, before he turned to walk back to his car.

His faithful Morris Minor knew where it was going now. He drove to his flat in North Melbourne, where he bagged all he needed for an extended stay in his Sorrento beach house. It was two months before university resumed, so he had time to blow his top in private. If ever he appreciated the gift of a bachelor granduncle to his favorite grandnephew, this was it. He wanted to get the hell out of the place. After stuffing his bags in the car, he drove to the university to collect his books and papers. While returning to the car, he heard his name called. It was Father Gorman, chaplain of John Fisher College, the university’s Catholic college for men, and chaplain of the exclusive John Fisher Society, with its self-important faith-science project.

‘Have you got a moment, Phil,’ said the priest limping toward him, a limp from a war wound. ‘We haven’t spoken for a while.’

‘Yes, Father, I have a moment, but I am in rather a hurry.’

‘I won’t keep you. I just wanted to catch up to see how you were. We haven’t seen since ….’ He stopped. ‘Are you all right, Phil?’

What was he to say? His glum expression would be evident to anyone, let alone to a dedicated priest uncannily sensitive to the troubled.

‘Well, things could be better, but I don’t want to bother you with my troubles.’

‘Phil, people with troubles, especially here at the university, are my chief concern. That’s what I am here for. You know that.’ He rested his hand on Philip’s arm. ‘I don’t want to pry, but if I can lend an ear, please don’t hesitate to seek me out. My door is always open. You know where I am in the college.’

Philip hesitated. He would hear in the end, anyhow. Everyone would hear in the end.

‘Virginia has broken off our engagement. But I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going down to Sorrento for a break.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Fr Gorman, after a painful pause and examining Philip’s face. ‘I thought you were so suited.’

‘So did I.’

‘I would not have expected Miss Pearson to have doubts at this stage.’

‘Me, too. It came as a shock.’

‘I imagine she is feeling some pain, too.’

‘I suppose she is.’

‘She would have a good reason for her decision.’

‘She does. At least, she thinks she does. She says she loves someone more than me.’ Philip could not help an ironic smile.

Fr Gorman frowned. ‘Do you mean …?’

‘Yes, Father, she thinks she has been called as she puts it.’

‘That puts a different light on things.’

‘I thought you might say that.’

‘I mean, her decision is consistent with the young woman I know—not that I know her all that well. But it is my impression.’

‘There’s not much you can do about it, is there?’ Philip gave a sign he wanted to move on. ‘It really finishes the conversation.’

‘I can help you understand what it means to have a vocation.’

‘Not now, if you don’t mind, Father.’

‘No, of course not, Phil. My door is always open.’

Thank you. I appreciate your concern.’

‘That’s what I am here for. God bless you. And don’t forget Miss Pearson would understand how hurtful her decision has been.’

Then why did she make it? thought Philip, knowing how unreasonable he was. He was not as zealous in his faith and religious observance as Virginia, but he knew enough to know he was being obtuse. But obtuse or not, nothing was to be done except drive down to Sorrento and sulk in his beach house for a few weeks. He would at least be out of reach of bothersome people with their bothersome questions.

***

Chapter 2

Submit!

VIRGINIA HAD spent the three weeks after her painful meeting with Philip putting her affairs in order. She returned anything of Philip’s to his parents’ house. She had no choice. Philip was still at Sorrento, uncontactable. His parents had heard from him just once. He had nothing to say to them or her and did not want to hear from anyone. He wished to be left alone. It was a peevishness unlike Philip. But she had to accept it, no matter how much it hurt. There was no time to dwell on it.

She packed up the presents she and Philip received on their engagement and returned them to the givers. All her clothes were packed away or hung protected in her wardrobe, which was firmly locked, the key given to her mother. The expense of her fashion tastes passed through her mind. Her private things were packed in boxes. It was wise not to give anything away. There was no guarantee she would be successful in her wish to enter religious life. The next eighteen months were to be a period of discernment. Indeed, she might not pass through the postulancy, the first six months of testing before she received the habit and entered the novitiate. She put her bank account and other financial interests into her father’s hands. If the awesome Mother Jerome decided against her, she must be able to enter civic life again with no material disadvantage. Her preparations, she informed her parents, were prudent. In no way did it reflect doubt about her vocation. Of course not, said her mother, patting her on the arm. She and her father understood her prudence. There only remained visits to her grandparents and aunts, and uncles.

On the morning of departure, she still hoped to hear from Philip, still hoped he would understand and call to wish her the best. But no call came. It was a sign of bitterness, not of understanding. Philip knew what it meant to have a vocation to the religious life. His upbringing, studies, and Catholic circles she and he had mixed in would leave no misapprehension. His hurt she could understand, but his bitterness she could not. She hoped and prayed he would rise above such unworthy feelings. The day came. The family, including her grandparents, accompanied her to the convent in Melbourne’s northeast, where she was to be received into the first stage of religious life as a postulant.

After Mass and the impressive clothing ceremony in the chapel where the young women received their habit of a black dress and black veil, the people and the newly clothed postulants enjoyed a lavish morning tea on the upper terrace overlooking the Yarra River. Then it was time for farewells and the families to depart, leaving the young women to the sisters’ supervision. Virginia was well acquainted with the procedures, having spent the last few years teaching at the order’s exclusive school in the eastern suburbs. Most of her fellow postulants were tearful as family and friends retired, some mothers with a lace hanky at their eyes.

Among the few without tears was a striking girl, tallish, slim, with long fair hair, an alabaster complexion, and a distant, uncertain expression. She had arrived with a somewhat uneasy couple who departed before the clothing ceremony, seemingly at her urging. A sister kept her company during the morning tea welcome. Afterward, when the families had left, Virginia could not help glancing at her while the postulant mistress organized them, showed them around the postulant quarters, and took them to their rooms on the upper floor. Others stared. The same thought seemed to be passing through their minds. What was such a striking girl doing entering the convent? There was, oddly enough, a second attractive girl among the twenty or so postulants, not so striking as the fair-haired girl but very prettytall and willowy. She was among the most tearful of the group, constantly glancing at two girls of the same age with whom she seemed acquainted and who seemed unworried by what awaited them. The two stared brazenly at the fair-haired girl. At the afternoon tea break, the young women introduced themselves.

The fair-haired girl was surprisingly particular about the pronunciation of her name. ‘My name is Aine O’Riordan,’ she said in a sweet voice. ‘Aine is a Gaelic name, spelled a-i-n-e, but pronounced “Awnya.”’ She lowered her head after her bold statement, which evoked a whisper from someone. The other pretty girl’s name was Jannie de Kam. Virginia had taught several girls from Dutch migrant backgrounds. She recognized a characteristic Dutch complexion and manner in Jannie, who, apparently encouraged by Aine, said in a light accent that her name, though spelled with a ‘J,’ was pronounced ‘Yannie.’ Jannie’s two companions were Margaret McGuigan and Elizabeth Parker. Miss McGuigan continued to stare at Aine no less brazenly, Virginia noted. Something other than Aine’s beauty seemed to attract her attention.

***

AINE O’RIORDAN stared out the car window at the Gothic tower reaching high into the blue morning sky. With yet another attempt to sort out her aspirations, she wondered what lay ahead of her in the convent of St Augustine, the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Suffering Savior. The tower seemed to sway as she gazed at it. She trembled and looked away. She looked back again. A face at the uppermost window? She focused, but whatever it was, it had gone.

‘Well, here we are,’ said Bill Huckerby. He glanced over his shoulder. ‘No need to be nervous.’

‘No, no need to be anxious, darling,’ said Joanne Huckerby. ‘It’s what you want, isn’t it?’ She reached over and took her hand.

‘I’m not really anxious, Auntie Joanne,’ said Aine. ‘It’s … I’m not quite sure what I feel.’

‘You’ll be right once you settle.’

‘It’s a beautiful spot,’ remarked Bill, ‘tucked away here in the bush and on a ridge overlooking the Yarra River. You could not have chosen better surroundings for religious life.’

‘No,’ said Aine, her eyes returning to the tower as Bill parked the car in front of the Gothic-style main building.

A sister hurried to them as they emerged from the car and directed them to the chapel. The postulants had to gather outside the entrance while the families took their place inside. They should make haste because the ceremony would start in twenty minutes. Only families were permitted in the chapel because of the unusually large group of postulants. Friends could join them for morning tea after the ceremony.

‘You don’t have to wait, Auntie Joanne,’ said Aine, fidgeting. ‘You have done enough. And you have a long drive back to Binawarra. It’s not really fair to have you wait around until after the ceremony. It might be a long wait.’

Bill and Joanne Huckerby were close friends of her parents, who lived in a northern suburb of Sydney. A month before, Paul and Moira O’Riordan had brought Aine to Melbourne for an interview with Mother Jerome and the postulant mistress Mother Cecilia but could not attend the clothing ceremony. Bill and Joanne had offered to collect Aine from the train and take her to the convent in northeast Melbourne the following day.

‘We don’t mind waiting, darling, if it helps you to relax,’ said Joanne, taking her hand and squeezing it.

‘No, I’m fine, now that I am here,’ said Aine, looking around at her fellow postulants as they arrived at the chapel. She turned her head away when she saw them staring.

‘Are you sure?’ said Joanne, glancing at Bill.

‘Yes, I’m sure. I’m all right now. And all this is unfamiliar to you, too. I don’t want you to feel out of place.’ She glanced back at the postulant group and noticed a young woman, older than the others, looking sympathetically at her.

‘All right, if you are sure,’ said Joanne, glancing again at Bill, who nodded.

‘Yes, I’m sure. I will be with the other girls,’ she said, looking at the mature young woman who now stood with her eyes cast down in contemplation. ‘We will all be in the same position.’

Without further discussion, Aine hugged Bill and Joanne, wished them a safe trip, and joined the postulants as they filed into the chapel. Her agitation eased as she became immersed in the solemnity of the ceremony. The postulants had their habit—a long black dress and black veil—solemnly placed in their hands, and they left the chapel to change. After relinquishing her everyday clothes and donning the habit, she returned with her fellow postulants. Though now bearing the full scrutiny of the congregation, she relaxed a little more. The common habit would shield her against unwanted interest. At least, she hoped it would.

Mass and the clothing ceremony took almost an hour and a half. Fortunately, she had prevailed upon Auntie Joanne and Uncle Bill to leave when they did. Making the Anglican couple wait around so long in the grounds of a Catholic convent would have upset and distracted her. When her fellow postulants joined their friends and family for a late morning tea, a sister collected Aine. She accompanied her while she received a cup of tea and a plate of cupcakes and found a seat near the edge of the broad parapet that overlooked the river below and the sunburnt fields beyond. The sister tried to engage her in conversation to put her at ease, but Aine was not so responsive.

‘I’ll leave you to sit here and enjoy the view,’ said the sister, giving up. ‘I have some things to do. You’re welcome to have a wander around the grounds. I will be back in a half-hour.’ As she rose to go, she added, ‘Don’t go below. The postulants are not to be there unaccompanied.’

‘I will be all right, Sister,’ said Aine. ‘I don’t mind being on my own.’

She drank her tea and ate her cupcakes while she admired the view of the river and the fields in the bright summer weather. Over to her right, the forbidden rocky stairway led down past two parapets bordered by gardens to a clearing above the river. The top of a grotto poked above the lower parapet. She turned to look at the postulants and their families and found people staring at her. She was about to turn away when she saw the friendly face of the mature young woman. The mature young woman seemed on the point of beckoning her, but a family member, apparently her father, took her attention. She rose, put her cup and plate on a nearby table, and made her way around the gathering to pass through an archway in the main building to the grounds at the front.

She strolled around the gardens admiring the shrubs, plants, and flowers, all the time feeling under observation, a feeling she struggled to resist. It was not the rude staring she usually had to suffer, but something else. She walked along the entrance avenue to the front gates. As she turned to walk back, she thought she glimpsed a face at the uppermost window of the tower, then a face at a first-floor window of the main building. She strained her eyes and focused but could detect no one. Had she imagined it? Did her fretful, overworked imagination deceive her? Eventually, people walking toward their cars signaled the end of the day’s reception. She hurried to join her fellow postulants, unable to shake the feeling that interested parties, whoever they may be, were still observing her.

Under the leadership of Mother Cecilia, the postulants spent the rest of the day, broken only by lunch and afternoon tea, being inducted into the convent’s routine and shown their quarters. Aine learned Virginia Pearson was the sympathetic, mature young woman. She put up with the staring, most of it furtive, except for the brazen eyes of Margaret McGuigan, a tallish solid girl, clearly straight from school. Margaret did not so much as stare as consider her with undisguised interest. The scrutiny became so insistent that Aine tried to give signs she did not like it, but Margaret remained impervious until she became aware of Virginia frowning at her. The schoolgirl met the frown, insolently cocked her head, and turned her attention to Mother Cecilia, who saw nothing of the interaction.

The day of reception finally came to an end. It had been demanding, even disturbing, and Aine was tired. Learning about the routine was not a worry. The attention she aroused and the constant impression of being under observation by unseen eyes left her unsettled. She climbed the stairs to the first floor with her fellow postulants, entered her cell, and placed her prayer book and rosary on the bedside cabinet. She fiddled with her rosary while listening to the soft footsteps in the corridor and the doors closing. She knelt, closed her eyes, and bowed her head. A few minutes later, she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and pondering the day just ended. The dark, the silence, and the subdued moonlight eased her spirits. Her eyelids drooped.

She sat up, clutched the blankets, and looked around. The beams of the half-moon struggling in a ragged night sky shone through the sash window, streaking her long fair hair. Shadows passed across her. She swung around, rose, and stumbled to the window. A flock of fruit bats glided over the river below, weaving through the moonbeams and shadows of the massive eucalypts along the riverbanks. It must be past midnight. She listened. Now there was nothing. The whispering had ceased. She crawled back into bed, took her rosary, and began murmuring her prayers. Her meditation was taking her away from the anxiety when of a sudden, she felt pinned down. Whispering came close to her face, close enough to feel the cold breath against her cheeks. There was a tug at her nightdress, then a wrench. She struggled, twisting to the side. The whispering pressed against her ear.

‘Submit!’ breathed a voice.

‘No!’

She put her hand over her face.

‘Submit!’

‘No!’

‘You will.’

The early morning light was creeping into the room when Aine awoke to find herself lying half-wrapped in her blankets on the floor. A burst of magpie warbling in the misty morning chill of the surrounding gum trees broke the silence. There was a sharp knock on the door. She froze and breathed out a response. The footsteps passed on. She got to her feet, steadying herself against the bed. Quickly completing her toilet, she slipped on her long black dress and veil and joined the silent shuffling line of postulants as they made their way from the upper floor to the chapel on the ground floor. The quiet rhythmical progression of the aspirant religious helped her settle as she took her place and walked in step. But as they made their way along the gusting cloisters of the ground floor, she thought she heard whispering, so inaudible as to cause her doubt. But there was something. A faint whispering flowed around her. Where did it come from?

Now eyes were on her. She should keep her eyes downcast but could not resist glancing around. Only the cold sandstone of the walls and cloister columns and the down-turned faces of her fellow postulants pressed around her. ‘Custody of the eyes,’ a soft voice behind her warned. She turned her eyes toward the sandstone paving, reassured. At the end of the cloisters, the postulants joined the novices issuing from their sequestered quarters and followed them into the chapel. As she took her place in one of the front pews, the postulant beside her leaned over.

‘Are you all right?’ came the same friendly voice.

A glance revealed Virginia Pearson’s attractive oval face and warm eyes. Aine nodded, conveying with her eyes her gratitude for the sympathetic inquiry. She felt a gentle touch from an elbow. The communal prayers began, and she became immersed enough in her meditations to forget the happenings around her. Then the singing of the hours started. She joined in. The terror of the night and the strange, insistent whispering passed from her mind.

After Mass, the community of sisters made their way to the refectory, where they were to eat in silence. Aine followed her fellow postulants and sat beside whoever happened to be in front of her. When the clacking and clanking of crockery and cutlery seemed to hold everyone in distraction, she looked around for Virginia. She hoped she might be sitting next to her. But, no, she sat at the other end of the long refectory table, attending to her breakfast with manners that said much about her. Aine would follow her example while she contemplated the life she had yet again taken steps to live. But her mind could not get a grasp on it.

The whispering had gone, perhaps into the noise of the refectory, but she still felt that eyes watched her, that they closely observed her. The furtive glances she could not help casting around discovered nothing. Wherever she looked, the eyes of the community kept their custody. Even the imposing Mother Prioress and her council of lieutenants sat expressionless at the front table with their eyes directed according to the Rule. Aine’s heart sank.

This was the third time since school that she had made a move to discern whether she had a vocation to religious life. Each time, and in a different form, inexplicable anxiety seemed to overtake her. Why? She felt she had a calling. She had always felt that God had reserved something special for her. There had been no desire for the things girls wanted and enjoyed. She had no interest in boyfriends, fashions, music—all those things that preoccupied the girls her age. Instead, she desired a life devoted to God, Jesus, and the Church, and to do God’s will, taking Mary as her model of humility, selflessness, and purity of mind and body. Then why the anxiety? And now, what did the night’s whispering and terror mean? This was something new, something deeper, some new obstacle.

Her mind turned to the nightmare. Was it a nightmare, though? It had to be, surely. If someone had been in her room, she would have heard the scuffling of feet. She would not have missed the door opening and closing. She would have felt the person holding her down. But there was none of that. She had felt the physical pressure of being pinned down but nothing else. She was not even aware of when the attack stopped, and the person had gone. Attack? Was it that? In the convent? No, what she had feared did not happen. It baffled her. It must have been a nightmare, a terrible vivid nightmare. She tried to console herself with the thought that it could not have been anything else. But she could not convince herself. She felt a strange unreality, as if dream and actuality were merging, and she could not know which was which. As instructed, the postulants made their way to their community room when breakfast ended.

Aine took notice of where Virginia sat and took her place beside her. Her friendly presence calmed the flux of her feelings. Virginia gave her a warm look and touched her arm encouragingly as if such a gesture were natural to her. Before long, Mother Jerome, the Prioress and Superior General of the order, glided into the room with the postulant mistress, Mother Cecilia. Mother Jerome gestured to the young women to resume their seats and then took her place in an armchair on the rostrum.

Everything about the prioress radiated confidence and authority. It was what Aine needed. The prioress welcomed the postulants, pleased the group of 1957 was the largest the order of the Sisters of Suffering Savior had ever received. It was just as well because young women subject to the influences of their liberal society required the right direction. During their training, a period of careful discernment, the postulants would review those liberal influences. The prioress paused and looked around the room. She let her eyes alight on Aine. A flicker of concern came to her eyes before she moved on. Aine did not see it. She concentrated too much on the prioress’s words as she spoke about Eileen Foley, the foundress of the Order of the Suffering Savior.

Eileen Foley was an ordinary young woman who devoted herself to Jesus in His suffering and death on the cross. She ministered to the destitute young women of the Dublin Slums. Her humility, selflessness, generosity, and community spirit laid the groundwork for the order’s work. Her spirit of love for the needy and downtrodden fired the ever-expanding group of young women joining the order. That spirit was to be the postulants’ model. Aine listened, overwhelmed by the purity of Eileen Foley’s faith and the selfless life she wanted to lead.

Their community, said the prioress, was based on the ancient Rule of St Augustine to which the sisters owed an interior assent. Such assent was fundamental. Out of their assent arose quite naturally the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Without those vows, the sisters could not commit themselves to the privilege of becoming the loving spouse of that same Divine Master. Mother Jerome rose but signed for the young women to remain seated. The period of postulancy, she continued, was a time of self-examination and breaking away from worldly attachments. Some may find that religious life was not for them. There was no shame in that. It meant Our Lord was calling those to some other life. She paused and looked around at the young faces.

‘Before I leave you to Mother Cecilia’s care, I must mention the organizational structure in which you will make your vow of obedience. Every four years, the professed sisters of our order elect a Mother Prioress and Superior General. The sister elected is given full organizational authority over our community. The person is designated; the authority comes from God. Therefore, your vow of obedience does not render an obligation to me as a person; it renders obedience to the Lord, whose duties I must fulfill.’

She looked around the room once more.

‘Some of you may not be sure what I am talking about. During your formation, indeed, during your religious life, you will hopefully come to understand. I pray you will understand if ever you are faced with a choice between the Church’s constant teaching on freedom and authority and views that are gaining increasing prominence in our modern world. I wish you all success in the coming months and pray that the Holy Spirit leads you in the right direction.’

Aine’s heart was full, full of the commitment inspired by the prioress’s brief talk and confirmed her desire to be a religious sister. She pushed aside the doubts and drove out the night’s terror and anxiety. As she sat down at the bidding of the postulant mistress, she dismissed the night’s fright as a nasty dream and foolish anxiety.

***

Chapter 3

Margaret and Virginia clash

VIRGINIA AWOKE to the bell that morning, looking forward to the first full day of their postulancy. Having completed her toilet, she left her cell to join her companions, shuffling in silence along the corridor to go down to the chapel for Mass. Aine came out of her room just before her, almost walking into her. A look of nervousness had replaced the distant expression, and she glanced around as they descended the stairs and made their way along the windy cloisters.

‘Custody of the eyes,’ Virginia whispered, leaning toward her.

Aine looked around at her and then lowered her head. She seemed reassured. Again, Virginia could not help being struck by the girl’s extraordinary beauty and the strange aura about her. As they took their place in a front pew, Aine again glanced around her, shifting on her knees and hunching her slight shoulders.

‘Are you all right?’ whispered Virginia, now responding to a look of panic on Aine’s face. Aine focused her intense blue eyes on Virginia and nodded. Her shoulders relaxed, and she bowed her head, closing her eyes.

After breakfast, Virginia found Aine sitting beside her when the postulants took their place in the community room, waiting for the prioress Mother Jerome. To allay Aine’s uncertain feelings, Virginia smiled encouragingly and lightly touched her arm, which seemed to have the desired effect. Virginia’s attention, however, was soon taken by Mother Jerome’s inspiring address. She listened, entranced, as the superior general spoke about Eileen Foley, the foundress of the Order of the Suffering Saviour. Eileen Foley was an ordinary young woman like herself who felt the calling to devote herself to Jesus in His suffering and death on the cross. Her ministry to the destitute young women of the Dublin slums was the way Eileen Foley acted out her devotion.

The power of the prioress’s words consumed Virginia. She was hearing about the life she wanted to lead, a life of service to others, the sort of service the great saints, men and women, had given to the ignorant and less fortunate. The dignity, authority, and warmth Mother Jerome radiated filled her with admiration. This imposing woman filled her with zeal to do the work of the community. To be directed, to render obedience to a woman of this sort, would not be a burden. This is what she wanted to explain to Philip. The love of the Gospels, the love of Jesus’s female companions, took priority over the love she had for him. Surely, he could understand?

***

AFTER lunch, Mother Cecilia led the postulants from the cloisters down a steep rocky stairway past two garden-bordered parapets to an open grassy area stretching to a ridge about ten feet above the Yarra River.

‘This is your first period of recreation,’ she said. ‘You are to use your time in accordance with the purposes of the period, all the while reflecting on the morning’s instruction. You are to become acquainted with each other, not as seculars—for you are turning your backs on that life—but as fellow religious. Be careful of the ridge near the river. And the steps down to the jetty are strictly forbidden to you.’ She then retreated to the next parapet, where she could read her divine office and supervise her charges.

The postulants separated into small groups, some chatting noisily. Virginia looked around for Aine, but the other mature-aged postulants, Rose Lewis and Kay Burgess, took her attention. While Kay talked about Mother Jerome’s address, Virginia kept her eyes on Aine, who stood alone by a wooden bench, looking around. It seemed she did not want to be with those laughing and chatting. Some of them stared rudely at her.

‘Just a moment,’ she said, interrupting Kay, ‘let’s include Aine, who seems to be on her own.’

‘O yes,’ said Rose. ‘I’m sorry. I did not notice.’

‘You’re not local, are you?’ said Virginia, joining Aine by the bench. ‘Your parents did not accompany you,’ she added in response to Aine’s querying expression.

‘No, I’m from Sydney. Close friends of my parents brought me. I stayed with them overnight so I could arrive on time,’ she said as if understanding Virginia’s curiosity. ‘They are not Catholic. So, I urged them to leave because they had a big drive ahead of them. They live near Bendigo.’

‘My name is Virginia, Virginia Pearson, and this is Rose and Kay if you have not remembered.’

‘No, I remembered,’ said Aine with a shy nod at Rose and Kay. Rose smiled warmly, and Kay regarded her with undisguised curiosity.

‘Come on, let’s take a stroll,’ said Virginia, moving away and giving Aine’s arm a short tug. They chatted about the morning’s activities and Mother Jerome’s address until they arrived near the ridge overlooking the river. Margaret McGuigan and Elizabeth Parker were at the edge, looking down at the dark green waters. Jannie de Kam hung back.

‘Go on,’ said Elizabeth in a loud whisper. ‘You don’t dare.’ They had not noticed the approach of Virginia and her companions. The threesome turned and furtively looked at the postulant mistress, whose attention was on her breviary. Margaret bent down amid suppressed giggles and picked up some loose stones lying near the edge. With a sly look, she threw a stone into the river. There was a plop as the stone hit the water. She threw another and another, smirking at her companions and raising her eyebrows.

‘Come on,’ Virginia said. ‘I imagine you’re not interested in that childishness.’

While Rose and Kay watched the young women, Aine followed Virginia to a nearby wooden bench.

‘I sometimes think it’s not wise for the convent to take girls straight from school,’ said Virginia. ‘Some experience of the world— Oh, I’m sorry.’ She glanced at Aine. ‘There are, of course, exceptions.’

‘I have been two years out of school. I worked in my father’s business while I contemplated my future.’

‘Really? I would have thought you were younger.’

‘I was a year ahead of the others in my class. My father thought I could start school early.’

‘You actually look younger than the girls there.’ She nodded at the group still at the ridge overlooking the river. Aine blushed. ‘Your father was vindicated if you passed through school without difficulty.’ She gave Aine a warm smile.

‘I was naturally quiet and studious, not academic, but enough to do well.’

‘Are you all right now?’

‘Yes, well … what do you …?’

‘You looked agitated this morning, pale like you had seen a ghost.’ She gave a little laugh but then, seeing Aine tremble, hastened to say, ‘You truly were upset, weren’t you?’

‘I was a little shaken by a bad dream. I have probably not settled yet.’

‘What sort of bad dream?’

The approach of Margaret McGuigan and her two companions saved Aine from further discomfort.

‘Hello, you two,’ said Margaret boldly, sitting on a bench opposite. Elizabeth and Jannie joined her, staring at Aine.

‘You’re from Holland,’ said Virginia to Jannie, drawn by her flawless ivory complexion and the shock of honey-blond hair bursting from under the black veil.

‘Yes, my family arrived two years ago,’ said Jannie, her accent now quite noticeable.

‘I had a few Dutch children in my classes, children of migrants. Do you three know each other?’

‘Elizabeth and I are friends from school,’ said Margaret. ‘We met Jannie at the Youth Club. We hit it off. We think the same way.’

‘And what way is that?’ said Virginia.

‘Oh, the teacher saw me throwing stones.’ Margaret smirked. ‘You don’t have to go all timid and silent just because you want to be a nun.’

‘No, I don’t suppose so. But we’ll have to develop habits of discipline to deal with a class of restless students.’ There was no mistaking Virginia’s meaning.

‘The girls in my class will have to watch out,’ said Margaret, mimicking the manner of a strict, old-fashioned headmistress. ‘I’ll be sure to learn ’em habits of discipline.’ Her friends tried to suppress smiles while she brushed her hair and veil back over her shoulders.

‘It’ll be an advantage if you can maintain your cheerfulness.’

‘We had an amazing teacher,’ Margaret continued. ‘Sister Andrew was always cheerful and enthusiastic. She made our classes fun—more like a girls’ club. It can’t be that hard.’

‘Depends on the teacher’s attitude,’ Virginia continued. ‘Cheerfulness and class order are not impossible.’

‘There were other nuns like that,’ added Elizabeth. ‘That’s why I’m here.’

‘Me, too,’ said Margaret, ignoring Virginia’s meaning.

‘No doubt the girl’s club carried the fun over to the youth club for the boys’ amusement,’ said Virginia.

Aine frowned and glanced at Virginia.

‘Not one bit,’ said Margaret with sudden vehemence. ‘Those stupid boys! It beats me how the girls put up with those ignorant dopes, let alone date them. Yuk!’ She shuddered and stood up. ‘We had much more fun at school with the nuns.’

‘Yes,’ said Elizabeth, standing in support.

Jannie, giving no more than a nod, rose, too.

‘Many people want religious sisters to be strict with their pupils,’ Virginia continued to prod.

‘I’ll be strict, too.’ Margaret resumed an air of playful defiance. ‘I’ll be the boss. But I’ll let my girls have some fun.’ She pulled a face that seemed to mean that she had said enough. ‘What made you want to become a nun,’ she said, turning to Aine. ‘I bet you had plenty of groping boys running after you.’

‘No, I didn’t,’ said Aine, looking away.

There was a brief silence as if Margaret and her friends expected Aine to explain. Margaret shrugged. ‘If you don’t want to talk about it …’

‘There’s nothing to say,’ said Aine. ‘After school, I worked in my father’s business while deciding what I wanted to do.’

The three young women looked at her.

‘I think Aine wants to keep that private,’ said Virginia.

‘If it’s a secret …,’ said Margaret.

‘What did you think of Mother Jerome’s talk about obedience and the governance of the order?’ said Virginia.

Again, Aine looked at Virginia.

‘I hadn’t a clue what she was on about,’ said Elizabeth.

‘She was talking about the justification for authority and the vow of obedience—important matters for those in religious life.’

‘I know we have to be obedient,’ said Jannie, ‘but what was the rest about?’

‘She just wanted to say she’s the boss,’ said Margaret. ‘Just like at school, we’ll get lines if we muck up.’ She grinned at her companions. ‘It’s no different from school, really. And we’ll work out ways to get around it, and have some fun, too. Do you remember the sly digs Collie used to make about the unbearably strict Mother Superior?’ she said to Elizabeth. ‘Hilarious!’ They both giggled.

‘And who is Collie?’ asked Virginia, tilting her head.

‘Sister Columba was our chemistry and physics teacher,’ said Margaret, again ignoring Virginia’s tone and turning to Elizabeth. ‘She was a lot of fun, wasn’t she?’

‘Does the name Leo XIII mean anything to you?’

Elizabeth and Jannie swapped uncertain glances and looked to Margaret.

‘Who’s that?’ said Margaret. ‘My Irish background has not given me much respect for royalty.’ She turned to Aine. ‘You have a double-barrel Irish name. How far back does it go?’

‘My grandparents came from Belfast.’

‘Belfast? You’d be full of it, too. Do you know who Leo whatshisname is?’

‘He was a pope.’

‘A pope?’ Margaret could not hide her surprise.

‘Pope Leo XIII was perhaps the most influential pope of the last hundred years,’ said Virginia, raising a finger. ‘His social encyclicals laid out the Church’s social teaching in precise detail. Subsequent papal announcements have taken their lead from his work. Mother Prioress’s comments on the nature of authority are drawn from that teaching.’

‘Oh,’ said Margaret, looking to the side and making a face.

‘Are you familiar with the encyclical Rerum Novarum?’

Elizabeth and Jannie said nothing. Margaret turned to Virginia and frowned.

Rerum Novarum,’ continued Virginia, her finger still raised, ‘known by its English title, “The Condition of the Working Classes,” was a seminal commentary on the clash between the ideologies of capitalism and socialism. His Holiness pointed out that neither ideology could provide the solution for society’s ills.’

‘Well?’ said Margaret, pulling another face.

‘You really have never heard about it?’

‘What if I haven’t?’

‘Your Collie did not mention it?’

The unrelenting poking and prodding would succeed in the end.

‘She was our science teacher. I was her best student,’ said Margaret, her eyes flashing.

‘Are you familiar with any of the Church’s social writings,’ Virginia continued to goad.

There was no response from the three friends. Margaret’s playfulness had gone, and she glared at Virginia.

 ‘I wonder why you are here,’ said Virginia.

‘Keep wondering,’ said Margaret. ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re not the postulant mistress, so you can keep your lectures to yourself.’ She got up. ‘Not only was I the best science student, but I was also the school’s dux.’

‘You will not resolve your problems by running away to a convent.’

‘You’re one of us,’ said Margaret, chin raised and looking down at Virginia, who remained seated. ‘If I don’t know about some dead and forgotten pope, I know what equality is. Solidarity and sisterhood are more important than knowledge of some dry historical fact. You deal with your own problems and forget about those you imagine I have.’ She walked off, with Elizabeth and Jannie following.

Virginia watched them go. ‘I suppose you’re wondering why I was lecturing them.’

‘Yes, I was,’ said Aine. ‘Many Catholics are unaware of the existence of papal encyclicals, let alone know what they are about.’

‘You’re right, of course. But you would think those who want to enter religious life would have a little idea.’ She paused. ‘Well, have you heard of Rerum Novarum?’

‘Yes.’

‘From whom?’

‘My father. He’s involved with other men in fighting the communist threat in the workplace.’

‘Ah yes, good for him. Mine too. It’s a big struggle. It proves my point, though.’ She stood. ‘Come on, let’s walk. I hope you don’t think I’m in the habit of wagging my finger. It’s only naughty irritating schoolgirls who provoke me.’

They walked in silence to the far end of the garden.

‘Let’s linger here for the moment,’ said Virginia, turning to walk along the fence. Aine followed without speaking. They came to a rocky grotto built against the parapet embankment. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was high up in a niche. Below on a ledge midway from the ground was a statue of St Bernadette kneeling. Virginia stopped and looked up. Her expression underwent a change as she gazed at the statues.

‘I asked Margaret and her friends why they were here,’ she began. ‘The truth is that each of us is faced with the same question.’ There was a long pause before she continued. ‘That may seem an unnecessary question. One becomes a priest or brother or sister because one is religious. But that’s an unthinking view. Plenty of people are faithful and virtuous Christians without it entering their heads to join the religious life.’ She threaded her arm through Aine’s. ‘Let’s sit down.’ They sat on a stone bench facing the grotto, Virginia remaining thoughtful. ‘Can I tell what’s been occupying my thoughts since I arrived here yesterday?’ she said.

‘Yes … of course.’

‘I was going along minding my own business,’ Virginia resumed. ‘I came from a good loving Catholic family, never questioned my faith, always attended to it; I left school and went to teachers’ college, passed my exams, and started teaching; I had close friends and was popular with my students. Everything looked laid out before me. Soon I would get married, have children, and live happily ever after. Then for some unknown reason, I picked up a dusty book lying on the library shelves at school. It was St Augustine’s Confessions. Its first paragraph changed my life forever. Are you familiar with it?’ Aine shook her head. ‘It’s about our inclination to recognize God’s majesty and inscrutable wisdom. Only sin blinds us to it. God has made us for Himself, and we cannot be happy until we rest in him.’

‘Reading the Confessions was the start of my reading about the role of reason in defending and adhering to our Christian belief. I had help in this–a lot of help.’ Philip’s cold, pale face flashed before her mind. ‘I won’t go on anymore about it—and I didn’t mean to begin. I’m such a big mouth.’ She shrugged and glanced at Aine. ‘Anyhow, my reading found its way to papal writings. There, I found my calling to serve God and, in serving God, to serve those suffering and less fortunate. That’s why I’m here.’ She paused. ‘Can you see now why I persisted in challenging Margaret and her friends?’ She did not give Aine a chance to answer. ‘I get so irritated by the superficial and cavalier attitude of …’ and then, trying to rid herself of the sudden irritation, ‘Your feelings about being called came from a different source, didn’t they?’

‘I’m afraid I have never thought much about it … I mean in the intellectual way you said,’ replied Aine. ‘My understanding of Our Lord’s life and death and the example of His spotless Mother drew me. The perfect offering of one’s existence to God … I could not refuse.’

‘You’re not familiar with the Church’s great philosophers or their arguments supporting the Church’s doctrinal teaching, are you—St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, for example?’

‘No, if you mean reading their works. I know about them as saints, as examples of Christian living. The sisters spoke about them.’

‘You know about them the same way you know and admire such saints as St Francis of Assisi, St Therese of Lisieux, St Maria Goretti, and others?’

‘Yes, they’re among my favorite saints.’

‘You know these saints are known mostly for heroically living the Gospels’ message and not for any philosophical work?’

‘Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’ve never thought about that.’

‘You know, too,’ Virginia continued, ‘that you’re contemplating joining mainly a teaching order of sisters despite the order’s hospitals and homes?’

Aine hesitated. ‘I understand your meaning,’ she said at length, blushing. ‘I should think more about it. Unfortunately, I let other things get in the way.’

‘I don’t mean to confront you the way I did with those silly schoolgirls,’ said Virginia, missing Aine’s meaning, ‘but it’s something for you to consider. Your commitment to the religious life is obviously strong.’

‘Thank you. But I haven’t had an easy road so far, I have to say. I have been very indecisive.’

‘You must expect that,’ said Virginia, still missing the signs. ‘It’d be strange if you didn’t. I don’t expect to sail through, either. None of us can be sure we are suited. We are here to find out.’ Virginia stopped and considered the pearly unblemished face looking at her. ‘Was that the cause of your anxiety this morning?’ Aine’s face tensed. ‘Is it something more than that? It is, isn’t it?’ She took her hand. ‘Don’t worry. We’re in this together. If I can ever be of support—a conversation, a kind word—one glance is enough.’

‘Thank you, Virginia. You are kind.’

‘Come on,’ said Virginia, standing up, ‘I’m too serious again. And I don’t mean to lecture, although it must frequently sound like I do. I’ve always got into trouble for airing my opinions.’ She gave a helpless laugh and walked closer to the grotto. ‘You know,’ she said, looking up again at the weather-worn statue in the niche above them, ‘this is what I like about our faith. It’s the specific concrete narrative; it’s the humanizing of some difficult abstract teaching. Before us is the story of the simple faith-filled peasant girl who received apparitions of Jesus’s mother. It’s also about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, something that needs to be understood and explained to bemused outsiders. Let’s kneel before this beautiful narrative and pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us through the next six months.’ She felt Aine’s hand slip into hers.

***

AINE reflected long on the clash between Virginia and Margaret. She found Virginia’s undisguised aggressiveness towards Margaret odd and the disproportionate challenge unnerving. Without any discernible preamble, she had goaded Margaret with comments and questions that displayed her thorough ignorance of papal teaching on social questions and then questioned her motivations and presence in the convent. The schoolgirl Margaret, uncowed by Virginia’s naked aggression, told her to mind her own business. Virginia persisted. Margaret would not solve her problems by running away to a convent. Margaret invited Virginia to solve her own problems before she turned to the imagined problems of others. If she was trivially ignorant of some dead pope, she certainly knew what comprised genuine solidarity and sisterhood. Gathering herself up to her full height and mass, she marched off with Elizabeth and Jannie as her supportive retinue.

It was strange. Virginia was otherwise composed and friendly. Her attractive, open face and bright, confident eyes added extra warmth to that friendliness, despite her sophisticated manner. Margaret and her companions were a little frivolous and cheeky, but it was the first full day of their postulancy. Everyone needed time to settle in. Besides, there were many girls with high spirits, like Margaret and Elizabeth. She had seen enough of them at school. As a teacher, Virginia should know that. She suspected Virginia saw more in Margaret’s behavior than she did. She foresaw continuing friction. Jannie de Kam, though more subdued, evidently admired Margaret McGuigan’s self-assured, outgoing manner. Margaret and the pretty, willowy Dutch girl made a strange combination.

Virginia then raised questions about her understanding of a vocation with the Sisters of the Suffering Savior. Indeed, they were questions about her misunderstanding, but they were gentle and sympathetic in contrast with Margaret. She was grateful for her new friend’s support, but it did little to ease the disturbing anxiety she had so far experienced in her search for the right religious order. It occurred to her that her anxiety might have been partly due to a presumption she would have her yearnings gratified in the first religious congregation she applied to.

And there was something else. The last thing she expected when the Huckerbys dropped her off at the convent was the beginning of a warm friendship. But it happened. Her immediate clicking with Virginia was like no other relationship she had experienced. It would be a support in the coming months, support she anticipated needing. She feared the strange, ominous sounds, never far away, and the heavy atmosphere would continue to haunt her. The tense clash between Virginia and Margaret, though, signaled something else. The clash amounted not just to a difference of opinion or outlook. No, it heralded a vital unyielding clash, drawing surprising and uncharacteristic aggression from Virginia. It was a response to Margaret’s perverse ideas of religious life, which she expressed with unshakable confidence and mocking impertinence. Fresh out of school, Margaret showed no regard for Virginia’s seniority in profession and maturity. Indeed, respect seemed foreign to her. The hints of her Irish nationalism, with which she had unpleasant experiences, also did not augur well. Finally, Margaret’s interest in her, an interest unlike the attention she aroused in the others, unnerved her.

End of sample

***

Writer … and still in the fifties