Sister Justine Nadely--an historical monologue
As mentioned, I write every summer for the Candlelight Tours at Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, VA. These tours take visitors on a path through the cemetery and feature short monologues and scenes based on the lives of people buried there. I've worked up a bit of a reputation as having some of the more, well, progressive and aggressive pieces in the tour, which a fair amount of people seem to appreciate and which seem to get everyone, regardless of their taste for the pieces, talking.
However, last summer, I wrote this piece that did not get shown. I had a wonderfully honest and open and dialogic conversation with the staff of Candlelight Tours where both parties agreed to keep the piece on the backburner--I couldn't imagine saying anything other than what I'd said, and they understandably weren't hot to show a piece in Central Virginia where I implied all Confederate soldiers were sinners.
I went back and read it today in preparation for this summer's monologues. I still like this piece. I am not a Catholic--I’m not a Christian at all, even--so it was challenging to write from a nun's perspective. I am sure Sister Justine Nadely, though she was the youngest nun and nurse helping at the hospital in Lynchburg during the Civil War, wouldn't have said these things quite this way. But if I were ever going to be religious, this is how my religion would function.
Sister Justine Nadely (20-24) stands, almost at attention, or as if in prayer. Her "wings" sit atop her head, and her hands are out of her robe, and covered in blood.
Somewhere nearby, there is a basin full of clean water.
There are rights and wrongs. Beyond my church or yours, there are. I know this now.
War is hell, is hell here on Earth. I know this now, too.
I hadn't even taken my final vows yet. I was supposed to, in a year--but then the war came, and instead of waiting, they asked me to take them so that I could attend to the sick and the wounded as a Sister. I am not sorry I took my vows. I am glad to be a Sister, to be of service, to care for the poor boys whether they come to me in blue or in gray. God sees no color, except for, perhaps, red.
She does not look at her hands, but we feel her see them.
See, freedom makes man a moral subject. A man is free to choose his path, free to choose his next action, free to choose which side he does or does not fight for. I was free to become a nun, and I was called, and so I chose. The call went out, in the North and the South, and men chose to heed it. But there are still rights and wrongs. We ask ourselves three questions in the Catholic Church. Is the object chosen for your act a good toward which your will directs itself? Is your intention to do good? And what of the circumstances--what do they make of your choice?
Many of these boys tell me they had no choice, not truly. A call went out and they answered it, afeared of the scorn of their families, the loss of their community, the label of a coward. They did feel it was the right thing to do--the right choice. It is not my place to say who chose right and who chose wrong, which call was good and which was evil. That verdict has no bearing on the boy whose arm I try to keep on his body. I am here to save, to serve, to salve. I am not here to judge.
And yet--freedom and morality are inextricably bound. To be free, to be one of God's creatures, is to choose constantly between good and evil. Forgiveness is promised to us, of course--that is God's prerogative, to forgive us for our sins. But now, at the height of this conflict, in the depths of this misery, I see many who've forgotten the ending of that phrase: for our sins. Forgiveness isn't free. It costs. We pay for the forgiveness we will receive with the blood, sweat, and tears from our mistakes. My God is a benevolent God--and your Protestant God is no different. But it is up to me, up to you to make amends, confess your sins, and deserve the forgiveness that is promised to you.
Sometimes, in the morning, when I have a fresh batch of boys to tend to, I do not want to forgive, I am tired of forgiving. That is why I am not God, merely a servant, merely a Sister. But I do not claim to be God, and there are those who'd have you think otherwise, about themselves. No man is God, and yet here we are, caught between the shores of the North and the South, tossed upon the waves of Right and Wrong. Yet all we must do is call out to our God, confess, and come home.
I am a humble woman, a Daughter of Charity, a helper, an aide. It gives me joy to mend the wounds of a soldier, see the color come back into his face, blot his brow and catch a smile spread across his lips as he opens his eyes and sees a friendly face--mine. I am all these boys have, here at least, now at least, everything to them. And yet I am only human. If I chose not to attend to some of them, chose to turn my ear away from their please for help, chose to condemn some of them to death, and not some others--what would you say of me? If I decided that those with blue eyes were lesser than, were inferior, were fit only for back-breaking work and a lifetime of servitude--what would you think? Those decisions are not up to me, and so I do not make them. So would I go to war, to defend my right to make decisions that do not fall under my purview?
And yet, I must tend. It is not my position to decide who lives and who dies, no matter who is right or who is wrong, and so I tend. God is a shepherd; he, too, tends--no matter the color of skin, no matter the place in society, no matter who came from where on what Godforsaken ship. God tends to all, and loves all, and forgives all.
And yet, I cannot say this, or I will not be forgiven by those men who would have me fight for their cause. I cannot say this, or the town whose hospital I help support would turn on me, run me out as a traitor to their home. And yet, you look across the battlefield, at those who would oppose you, and you curse them for infringing upon your freedom--when you would fight to imprison another man. It is a battle that cannot and will not be won, no matter the victor--ultimately, God will decide. Ultimately, God will forgive--but you will have to ask for it, and to ask for it, you will have to confess to your sins.
To those of you listening, I say: repent. Though the tides of these currents might bear us this way and then the other, you know, in your heart of hearts, that this is wrong, that there should be no war. The same freedom you purport to bear arms in defense of is the freedom you deny another of your kind.
"If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." 1 John 4:20-21.
See God. Love your brother, whether he be black or white. Confess your sins. And you will be forgiven.
Sister Justine Nadely bends to the basin of water, and begins to wash the blood off her hands.
END OF MONOLOGUE