Virtue is in fashion.
Moral tales have replaced cat books as a publishing phenomenon. Politicians talk about values and restoring a sense of shame to society.
It used to be that sexy was good. Now good is sexy.
Of course, if you ever came under the sway of nuns, you don’t need to read “The Book of Virtues,” “The Moral Compass,” “A Call to Character” or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
The good sisters’ parables still burn on your brain, perhaps because they swore they personally knew the “bold, brazen pieces” in their stories.
Here is an exemplum verite that the Franciscan nuns at Nativity grade school in Washington, D.C., told my brothers when they were preparing to take their First Communion:
There was a wicked little boy in the grip of the Devil. When he went to Communion, he did not swallow the Host, but deliberately concealed it in the corner of his mouth. He went to his hideout with his gang, put the Host on the ground and hammered a nail through it. The Host spurted blood. The boys ran back and confessed to the priest, and were good forever after.
The Sisters of the Adoration, a French cloistered order with imaginations that Hitchcock might have admired, told my mother’s Junior Sodality this one:
There was a boy whose father, a diplomat, was transferred from Washington to a hardship post in the tropics. The boy had been taught to say three Hail Marys before he went to sleep. But one night, he was very tired and got into bed before he remembered. He forced himself to get out, and just as he knelt down beside the bed, a snake slithered out from under the pillow - where his head had been a moment earlier.
“Even I didn’t believe that one,” my mother says.
My sister still trembles at this cautionary tale from Nativity:
There was a boy who knew he was supposed to make the Sign of the Cross whenever he heard a siren. But one day he heard a siren and defiantly didn’t bless himself. When he got home, his house had burned to the ground.
In high school, the stories were designed to chill young libidos. Besides the usual warnings about not letting a boy take you to a restaurant with white tablecloths, because it might put the image of sheets in his head, there were also the heart-stopping “true” stories:
The nuns at Holy Cross Academy told my sister this one:
A girl at school got a crush on a priest and pursued him. The priest left the church and the two married. Their first child was stillborn.
At my high school, Immaculata, the Sisters of Providence told this one:
A girl finished high school, dreaming of becoming a nun. But at a graduation party, she kissed a boy in a game of Spin the Bottle. She got syphilis and her life was ruined.
Not all the sisters’ stories were designed to inspire fear. Some were designed to inspire hope. This is the one that touched me most deeply.
A 16-year-old girl journeyed from Ireland to Washington, where she knew no one. She trudged all over town, but couldn’t find work. Tired and hungry, she stopped in St. Paul’s Church and spent her last dollar offering up a Mass for the soul in Purgatory closest to Heaven. Afterward, she was standing on a corner, when a handsome young man came up. “I understand you need a job,” he said, handing her a card with an address on 16th Street, in the Gold Coast neighborhood. “If you go here, the lady of the house will take care of you.”
The girl walked over, rang the bell, and asked the maid if she could speak to her mistress. A sad-faced woman came downstairs and expressed surprise that anyone had suggested she would need help. Disappointed, the girl was turning to leave when she noticed a huge oil painting over the fireplace. “That is the man who gave me the card,” she said, pointing. Startled, the woman murmured, “That is my son who died some years ago.” She took the girl to her heart and raised her as her own daughter.
Reader, I am that girl.