A Free Choice
“Sorry to disturb your prayers, Reverend Mother…”
The panic-tinged voice broke through her inner stillness, bringing Mother Superior Eva-Luke crashing back to earth. Once more, the flesh tugged at her, even as her spirit reached for liberation. She opened her eyes and turned to the anxious young novice.
“Yes, Sister Ruth,” the Mother Superior replied in well-modulated tones, lilted by a rich Southern accent. “What can I do for you?”
The flighty teenaged nun-in-training was known to catastrophize – something made less endearing by the many hardships of life in a desert mountain outpost.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, nested in the high valley of three mountain ranges, was remote enough to ensure that few tended to come there unintentionally. Yet the small, sleepy town was cosmopolitan enough to support three distinct cultures: the Native Red Indians, who dwelled peaceably at their fine Pueblos in this blessed land from time immemorial; the Hispanics, whose ancestors once brutally subjugated the Pueblo peoples, but now bring art and a flair for life; and the most recent arrivals, the Anglos, European immigrants and their descendants who swarmed into the lands west of the Mississippi at breathtaking speed.
Fleeing war-torn Georgia after the devastation of the War Between the States, Mother Superior Eva-Luke had sought peace in the desert. But when the high mountain splendor alone could not relieve the pain of her wounded heart, she asked for and received sanctuary with the Sisters of Loretto, taking the veil as the alternative to her abandoned dream.
She gave her life to Christ twelve years ago of her own free will, figuring she wasn’t doing anything better with it and He might as well make good use of it. Her nimble wit and innate kindness made her a natural leader and teacher for the young girls of the Academy of Our Lady of Light. It did not take her long to rise in the ranks. Being indispensable was a most effective way to remain distracted from the ghosts of what might have been.
Yet, these days it seemed like it was one thing after another. Burdened with multiple duties running both the convent and the girls’ school, it seemed Eva-Luke never got more than two minutes of solitude to perform her morning devotions before she was called upon to solve some crisis. While her position gave her a true sense of purpose and much satisfaction, she longed to shed the heavy mantle of responsibility and perhaps retire to a quiet hermitage in the desert somewhere...
The young novice eyed her uncomfortably.
“It’s that bum who’s been hanging around the chapel for the last couple of days…” the girl began. “He doesn’t seem to be harming anyone, but he stinks really bad. The sisters are all upset and don’t want to have choir practice with him smelling up the place again. He’s been there for three days already.”
Eva-Luke sighed inwardly at the ridiculousness of the crisis du jour.
She remembered glimpsing the raggedy man in the back row of the convent’s fine new chapel during mass. His tall, lean frame was stooped in melancholy, his once-fine clothes in filthy tatters. At the time, she had thought little of it, as the doors of Christ’s house are open to all, no matter what they have done or where they have been. It was not the first time that men down on their luck had sought shelter for body and soul in the calming atmosphere of the gothic revival chapel. He had not appeared to be a threat then, and did not seem one now. It seemed to her that the sisters were the ones in error if they could not find compassion for this poor traveler who had obviously seen better days.
“Very well, Sister Ruth,” Eva-Luke said with polished Southern grace as she stood from her bent rosewood and leather chair before the warm kiva fireplace. “I shall come see what I can do.”
A cool, crystalline blue sky greeted Eva-Luke as she stepped into the dazzling morning sunlight, the mountains standing politely to the east. Her heart soared at the freedom of the open sky, the sweet scent of pinon filled her nostrils. Once again, she remembered why she endured the numerous privations and hardships of the desert, so unlike the pampered plantation life in which she was raised, where submissive slaves fulfilled her every wish. This desert brought a peace to her soul that almost atoned for her past sins.
This is truly God’s Country, she thought as she turned her steps towards the graceful gothic chapel given to the Sisters of Loretto as a gift from the influential Archbishop Lamy. The play of light and color delighted her eyes and filled her soul with rapture for the natural beauty of this special place: La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi, the Royal City of Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.
She squinted up into the bright light to watch a lone hawk soaring above the scrubby pinon trees. The graceful spires of the small chapel punctured the cobalt blue sky, reaching for heaven in a perfect harmony of balance and beauty. She still thought of it as new, even though construction had been completed almost five years before, and the miraculous spiraling staircase to the choir loft finished some two years ago. As her gaze slid down the golden limestone building, so like the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, she noted the knot of black-habited women, milling in consternation outside the door.
“Reverend Mother, you’ve got to do something about that bum!” Sister Mary Job complained, as she rushed to the Mother Superior’s side. “The stench is unbearable! You’ve got to get rid of him.”
“Tell him to take a bath,” offered Sister Constance helpfully.
“Or better yet, to move along,” Sister Martha insisted.
“Now, why is a little sweat so distressing, Sisters?” Eva-Luke asked, with equal measures of admonition and humor. “Has anyone offered him assistance?”
The nuns fidgeted but none answered.
“This poor man is obviously in a state of spiritual and physical need, and all you do is judge him. Is that how you would treat Our Lord if he were that bum?” Eva-Luke challenged her Sisters to remember their holy vows to treat all as they would their Lord and Savior.“Would the smell of Our Lord revolt you so?”
Eva-Luke shook her head sadly, opened the door and stepped inside the sun-drenched chapel. Daylight poured through the tall clerestory windows and imported stained glass. Walking past the dark gold helix of the miraculous staircase to her right, the Mother Superior approached the huddled figure, seemingly lost in prayer.
As she breathed in, the back of the chapel was filled with the spicy-pungent scent of the man, which seemed somehow familiar to her, not at all disgusting. His manly scent was a bit stronger than what might be expected in polite company, but given the desert remoteness of Santa Fe, it was not entirely beyond the pale. Most of the Sisters were not from this area, and were used to more refined standards of personal hygiene than were often available in the wild west, especially for travelers. Yet now, he seemed in obvious distress as she approached, his urgent whispers hushed in the vaulted ceiling.
“I am sorry to disturb your prayers, my son,”she began quietly, as she slid onto the bench, near the kneeling man.
“You are no disturbance, Katie,” the man said in a rich baritone voice, with a hint of a southern drawl. He raised his head and gazed at her with blue eyes made brilliant by the angled light of the tall windows.
Eva-Luke gasped at the name no one had called her in over fifteen years…at the bonnie blue eyes she thought never to behold again. The familiar face of her long lost beloved was still handsome, beneath the layers of dirt and sweat, but creased with lines of care and humor she did not recall. Silver threaded through his once black hair, and salted his unshaved jaw.
“Jacob?” she asked with a trembling voice. “Is it… Is it truly you?”
He nodded slowly, his eyes drinking her in.
Eva-Luke looked down awkwardly, fighting the unseemly impulse to embrace the lover she had once wronged and thought dead these last two decades. But when she looked up, it was with the cool, yet compassionate face of Mother Superior.
“Jacob Spencer… How is it that you have come here?” Her calm voice belied the chaos erupting throughout her well-ordered inner world.
“I came here for you,” was his soft, yet hopeful reply.
Her eyes grew huge as his simple words sunk in. Jacob always went straight to the point – a characteristic she had both loved and deplored in him. She always knew where she stood with him.
“I didn’t know you had taken the veil until I after got here,” he continued, gazing on her with sad, hungry eyes. “If I had, I would not have presumed…I am sorry to have disturbed your peace, Katie. Knowing you, I suspect it has been hard won. I should have left long ago, but I had to see you…even if all my hopes were dashed.”
“Jacob…I scarcely know what to say! I was told you were dead, killed in the war.” Her voice trembled, her heart racing, even as she struggled for composure. “I never thought to see you again in this life.”
“I know,” he admitted painfully. “After our last quarrel, in which you defended our old Southern way of life, despite its unjust ways, I was in such turmoil that I joined the Union Army. I fought against my own brothers and cousins for what I believed was right: to free my fellow man. Although I was gravely wounded in the war, I managed to slowly heal, even though the doctors had written me off. It was the thought of you that kept me alive, Katie.”
He paused to take a shakey breath before going on. “I went back home to Atlanta after the war, thinking to find you and beg you to marry me, despite the past, but you had moved off west. No one knew where you had gone. So I made my way down to New Orleans, where I had fairly decent luck as a building contractor. I made a fortune, but all was empty without you. I tried to love other women, but none of them could hold a candle to you, my brilliant Katie!”
Eva-Luke allowed a small smile at his declaration, but practiced self-control still held her boiling emotions in check. She searched his dirty, unshaven face, seeking the young Southern beau who had courted and won the heart of the southern belle she used to be… in another lifetime. The quiver-thrill through her veins told her that her love for him lived still, despite the years she tried in vain to forget him.
“Finally, I could not stand it anymore and resolved to find you, despite our sharp disagreements, ” he explained, as his thumb unconsciously caressed the engraved silver ring she had given him so long ago as a token of her love. “I figured now that the war is long concluded, the question of slavery should no longer be a dividing wedge between us. It took me three years of constant searching to find you, but I had to know what became of you. I expected you might be married, possibly even have a family, but I never expected to find you the bride of Christ.” Anguish knit his fine brow.
Eva-Luke looked to the white faux marble altar, stricken to the core. She tore her eyes away before they could rise to the pale crucifix above the altar.
“Oh Jacob! I was wrong…I was so wrong!” The words bubbled of out her, unbidden. “You were the one in the right! It was wrong of me to defend a way of life founded on the misery of others. You were right – I could never have been happy knowing my joy was built on the pain and suffering of others. I was a fool and did not know what I was doing. I have spent almost twenty years trying to make amends for that horrible mistake.”
“I knew you would see the truth someday,” Jacob told her with an easy grin. “I am glad I am here to see it. You always had a good heart – that’s what I so loved about you.”
“Can you ever forgive my stupid pig-headedness?”she asked, her whole body tingling inappropriately with his proximity.
“Of course I can,” he said, as he lifted her hand and kissed it tenderly, as tears sparkled in his eyes. “If you can forgive me for abandoning you so recklessly. I shouldn’t have left without saying goodbye.”
“Oh yes! I forgave you long ago,” she breathed, as she stared deep into his eyes, realizing that this was the atonement that evaded her for so long.
“So, what comes next?” he asked intently, as he began to bend closer to her.
Suddenly self-conscious, the Mother Superior removed her hand from his warm grasp. Jacob straightened and cleared his throat nervously in the long awkward pause.
“I don’t know,” she began. “My life is here, all of these people depend upon me. I have responsibilities and commitments.”
“Of course,” Jacob soothed with accustomed Southern chivalry masking his true feelings. “I understand. You have made your choice and I respect that. Twenty years is a long time to wait for me… too long. I only wanted to see you one last time in this weary life, to make sure you are happy… and I see this life agrees with you. I would not dream of disrupting your world. Even though you may be Mother Superior to everyone else, you will always be my Katie.”
Eva-Luke sat stunned as Jacob rose, picked up his dusty knapsack and worked his way out of the pew. A war raged within her as he left the sunlit chapel, his footstep echoing off the high gothic arches.
Two distinct futures loomed, her decision now would determine the shape of her life to come. On the one hand, she could go on with her accustomed busy routine, comfortably distracted and solving the problems of others until she dropped. Here, she was doing God’s work, answering the call to educate the young girls of this most unique of cities. But that meant trying to forget Jacob all over again – a labor compounded by the knowledge that he not only still lived, but also still loved her.
Or she could choose a totally unknown future with this man she had not seen for over twenty years, forsaking her responsibilities and her vows. What would the Sisters say if Mother Superior ran off with the smelly raggedy man? She could imagine the dismay that would cause.
Yet, Jacob’s return to her from the grave was nothing short of miraculous. This man had been her one great love in her life, long assumed forever lost, and never to be replaced. Whilst she might be useful and perhaps even content in the habit of a nun, never would she know true fulfillment at the convent, without the man of her dreams.
Jacob or God: what a cruel choice!
Behind her, the sisters began filing in and ascending the spiral staircase to the choir loft, with soft whispers and scuffling.
Eva-Luke turned her eyes to the pale crucifix above the altar, then up to the deep-hued stained glass window. As her eyes fixated on the multi-colored bits of glass, her embroiled spirit cried out for guidance. Closing her eyes, she prayed fervently for an answer.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
A wave of peace washed over her, as she turned within. The small still voice within her assured that a loving God would never demand she choose Him over her beloved Jacob. She need not forsake one to gain the other. With a flash of insight, she realized that her vows to the Mother Church were not the same thing as her devotion to God. The Lord’s Providence was sufficient to allow her both to serve God and to have her heart’s dearest desire. She would just have to figure out a new way to make her contribution. The world suddenly seemed full of possibilities and miracles.
She knew that her work at the convent was done, this chapter of her life concluded. Her heart was ready for adventure, awaiting the opportunity to try its wings. Opening her eyes to behold the airy chapel, she realized that for the first time in over twenty years her heart was not burdened. She was redeemed in Jacob’s forgiveness. She knew what she had to do.
She opened the door to Loretto Chapel and stepped out into the brilliant sunlight. She turned and addressed the workman tending the nearby hedges.
“Carlos, did you see which direction that raggedy man went?”
The Hispanic groundskeeper stood respectfully to answer.
“Si, Madre. It looked to me like he was heading to the Plaza.”
“Gracias, Carlos. Please see to it that the leak in the roof of classroom two gets fixed before this afternoon’s monsoon arrives,”she said as she passed him.
She hurried her steps in the indicated direction, picking up speed as she spied Jacob’s tall form a few blocks ahead of her. Reaching up, she loosened the dark habit that had covered her wheat-gold hair for the past twelve years and pulled it off.
“Jacob! It’s me – Katie! Wait for me!” she called after him, as he stopped and turned to face her with a surprised smile lighting up his face. “I’m coming!”