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Confession, dedicated to a fighting nun


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A few years ago I received a letter of encouragement from Sister Evelyn Mattern, whom I had never met. There was something I'd written that she endorsed, I can't recall the subject. I'd always been an outspoken admirer of the tiny, fearless regiment of Catholic activists, some of the last true friends of the poor and the peace-loving. Sister Evelyn--a tireless, resourceful champion of children, migrant farmworkers and all voiceless underdogs--was the soul and backbone of that religious community in North Carolina. She offered me kind words and a compliment far too rich to accept: "You must be wonderful," she wrote.

No, it's you who are wonderful, I thought--through the eyes of the rare individual of real excellence, all flawed things look their best. I didn't write back protesting that I was a common struggling sinner, nothing more. But I always hoped to sit down with her some day and talk honestly about how hard it is for most of us to live up to our own moral standards, far less the example set by someone like Evelyn Mattern. This conversation, which I envisioned as a kind of confession, never occurred. When I read that she was dying of lung cancer, I made some notes for an essay I thought I might call "Confession to a Nun, Dying." If it seemed to work, I hoped I'd have the courage to send it (sans title) to her, along with a note expressing my sympathy and my enormous respect for the life she chose to lead.

In October she went home to Philadelphia to die. A few days after she left North Carolina, my stepson died suddenly, at 33. In the midst of our mourning, long before I'd been led to expect, Sister Evelyn died, too, leaving me with my familiar burden of regret and stillborn good intentions.

But the need to confess remains. Disfigured as I am by the sin of pride, I respect only moral authority, bow only to moral superiority as I perceive it. The notion of an earnest Catholic confessing his trivial sins to a pedophile priest makes my skin crawl. So Sister Evelyn is still my choice. I still think it's appropriate, especially so because--as a friend declared to general applause at her farewell celebration--her church had been "foolish" to deny her a priesthood.

Never mind, then, that the other half of this confessional appears to be empty. The disadvantage is that I'll never receive the benefit of her wisdom and good will. The advantage is that I can't embarrass her, as things stand now--the best of us are invariably the most self-effacing. And now I won't make her uncomfortable if I seem to find fault with her church and her God.

I'm no Catholic and have no experience of confessions, except second-hand from my friend Ben Harte, a fallen Irish seminarian on the fast track to hell who used to wear clerical collars and impersonate a priest in the confessionals at St. Patrick's Cathedral. (Ben didn't think people's confessions were funny or pitiful--though I often did, as he related them. He claimed this sacrilege "helped to bridge the distance between God and Ben.")

I never believed that any priest, by virtue of collar or cassock, was one candle-wick closer to God than I am. But the symbolic force of confession depends on the conviction that your confessor stands nearer to the Light than you do; no one but an unassuming moral giant like Evelyn Mattern could intercede for a churchless heretic like me. I don't need her to negotiate with a higher power, exactly, but to channel for a higher wisdom--and to intermediate with death.

Forgive me, Sister, for I have sinned. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, only Greed and Envy, cut-rate sins of the underimaginative, have failed to leave deep wounds. Sloth and Gluttony I fight to an honorable draw. Time is taking care of Lust. But Anger and Pride, often indistinguishable, mock my most virtuous resolutions. They cloud my judgment and destroy my peace of mind.

Can any foot soldier learn to love his enemy, or is this a gift reserved for the moral aristocracy? There wasn't a cause Sister Evelyn fought for that I don't endorse. I never failed to deplore injustice, never mislaid the credo that unites religious action and honest journalism--"Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." But the pursuit of justice--of common decency in public life--sets us in conflict with individuals whose selfishness and cynicism are the shame of our species. Unlike Sister Evelyn, I never failed to hate them vigorously. If these too are God's children, as the virtuous urge me to remember, perhaps God should have had a vasectomy.

And why can't I separate the clean, well-lighted anger of political commitment from the morbid, obsessive anger of personal outrage? I take all injustice personally, but abandon all perspective when the victim of injustice is me. Case: A man I know went through a period of stress and mental confusion and decided that I had wronged him, though I had not and told him so. He lives his life in public and circulated this lie as widely as he could. Entreaties and even legal threats failed to muzzle him. Friends assure me that he is a sad case whose paranoia harms no one but himself. And yet I've come to hate him intensely and wish him ill.

After a year of sorrow and misfortune in my family, I resolved that it was time to declare a general amnesty--forgive everyone, even this self-appointed enemy of mine, and start over. I can't do it. My anger is a foot taller than my compassion. The list of people I've harmed is a very short one; the list of people I've freely forgiven ("as we forgive those who trespass against us") is shorter yet. My acts of Christian clemency--like my enduring good works--could be listed on a playing card, written out with a magic marker.

Evelyn Mattern, of course, would have protested that she was no saint, that she made her own confessions of human frailty. But she had a saint's patience and a saint's purity of purpose. What set her apart and above? The easy answer is that she had a saint's faith in God, a faith I never achieved. Even as a child I couldn't believe in a god who sees and thinks like human beings, and interferes in our affairs. An all-powerful, hands-on god would have too much to answer for, beginning with terminal cancer for Evelyn Mattern. And ending not with kindergarten bombers or serial killers, but with my excruciating memory of a small soaked dog staked out shelterless in a cold rain on someone's front lawn in Yanceyville. Sparrows can fall like hailstones for months, by my observation, without setting off an alarm in heaven.

It's an ancient argument. The faithful deplore our shortsightedness, we roll our eyes at their rationalizations. But there's compelling evidence--impressed on me most powerfully when I visited the late Philip Berrigan in his jail cell in Edenton--that the personal faith of the Matterns and Berrigans sustains them through trials few agnostics could endure.

Renowned for practical solutions and quantifiable results, Sister Evelyn was also an intellectual, a poet and a self-described mystic.

"The mystic can see God with the eyes of love," she wrote in Why Not Become Fire?, her book published in 1999 with artist Helen David Brancato. "Despite the presence of evil in the world, the mystic believes that the universe is ultimately friendly." Subtitled "Encounters With Women Mystics," the book also argues that mystical experience, which rewards patience and spiritual solitude, is more accessible to women.

From my place here in the confessional, I testify to the truth of that. To see God with the eyes of love is a miracle, but to view your fellow man with the eyes of love and the patience of the saints is a greater one. Perhaps patience is the keystone of all useful compassion, and love without patience--without infinite tolerance--is impotent. And perhaps testosterone and patience are incompatible.

On the causes dearest to Evelyn Mattern--economic justice, peace, the environment--I'm proud to be labeled a radical, as she was sometimes labeled by people inside and outside her church. The oppressed and afflicted could always count on my voice. But it's one thing to acknowledge their claim and take their part, quite another to love them as Mattern did, in all their sweaty, cantankerous, gullible, passive, perverse, ungrateful and uncomprehending humanity.

To love not only the helpless and heart-rending, but those G.B. Shaw called "the undeserving poor"--that's the test. To help those who refuse to help themselves, in full knowledge of all the avoidable ways they harm themselves and each other. It's hard--hard to see working people without unions or health care, without security or leverage of any kind in the big-dog economy, voting prejudice instead of self-interest and marching blindly behind any scoundrel who waves the flag. Item: In Ashe County, N.C., inhabited chiefly by the low-income people who suffer most in this top-heavy economy and lose their children to this cynical new war, I found a hand-scrawled poster for a professional wrestling event titled "Flag Fight--American GI vs. Muhammad Ishtar."

It's hard to live with the logical discrepancy between the 5 percent who might conceivably benefit from the policies of Washington's current junta of corporate pirates and parasites and the 50 percent who vote for them. When 35 million Americans live in poverty, when four million families report chronic hunger in a nation of pandemic obesity and obscene luxury, it's hard to forgive comrades who squander their radical sympathies as thought police and verbal vigilantes, providing precious grist for the right-wing spin mills of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

It's hard, in short, to love the world as it is instead of the way you think it ought to be. Hard for me. But never hard, if her friends tell it true, for Sister Evelyn. What set her apart, they agree, was her organic, unconditional solidarity with the most miserable and unpromising people, her unaffected enthusiasm for humanity's raw material.

"She sees grand causes through the faces of real people," marveled her old accomplice, the Rev. Collins Kilburn.

How did she manage to love them so? Perhaps only persons touched directly by God can help without judging, serve without scolding, view the slow progress of the human race without wincing. Of course they're very rare--"our own living saint," one friend called Evelyn Mattern--and we only flay ourselves with invidious comparisons. Attracted to mysticism, Mattern must have believed in divine justice. Yet she fought as if she believed, with me, that the justice we fight for is the only justice we receive.

But this was a confession, not a eulogy. I plead most guilty to the sin of Exasperation, Anger's querulous, high-pitched little brother, a rose-colored rather than a cardinal sin. In Dante's nine-tiered hell, he must have reserved a chilly balcony somewhere for the exasperated. If it's primarily a failure of patience, and gender is a mitigating circumstance, I'll enter any plea that reduces my penance.

But there's another matter, another sin. They say Evelyn Mattern "radiated a contagious joy and a definite, deep-settled peace"-- a joy, a peace beyond the reach of those who do not find the universe friendly? In a poem my brother sent me once, Jorge Luis Borges speaks of "this shadow of having been a brooding man." The poem is called "Remorse" and it begins, "I have committed the worst sin of all that a man can commit. I have not been happy."

How many Hail Marys for that one? EndBlock


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