The first time Father Paul asked me to follow him to Bishop Shanahan Lodge after Sunday Mass, my right leg entangled with my left and I tripped. He stretched his long arms and caught me before I could reach the red soil of Nnobi. A wide smile on his face wiped off my embarrassment. As we made our way to the brick rectory, we passed what looked like a guard of honor mounted by lilies and hibiscus flowers. The scent of spring all around us made me feel I was on the road to Zion. It was soothing to my restless soul. The designers of the church’s walkway must have had a moment like this in mind.
Paul had always appeared angelic in my eyes. But that day, he looked set for rapture. I took two quick steps to keep up with one step of his long legs. His head brushed the tips of the pine trees along the walkway and, for the first time, I marveled at his height. His cassock swung to the quiet jingle of the evening wind. Wild aroma of mango engulfed us the way holy spirit does in Lent. From a distance, the bees buzzed, the crickets chirped, the birds sang melodious tones and colorful male lizards scuttled across the yard in pursuit of dull females. I had my bible in my left armpit, but it was under my right arm that I was sweating.
“Isn’t it a glorious day?” Paul asked.
The way he said it told me he was just trying to make conversation.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“God is good,” he said
“All the time,” I answered, straight from the prayer book.
“Blessed is the Holy and undivided Trinity.”
“Now and forever.”
When not sure what to say, I always relied on that phrase. The race to heaven was always about short-changing now in order to secure forever.
“These wonderful creatures of God are meant to fill the heart of the faithful,” Paul said, pointing at a dozen tropical trees around us.
“Yes, they are,” I said. My eyes followed his hands up a guava tree nearby and stopped at the site of a wasps’ nest. For a moment I could not blink.
It was men like Paul that made me join the convent at the age of sixteen. I still remembered how my Mama cried of joy the day I told her. Mama felt blessed that her daughter had decided to be a bride of Christ. It seemed like a long time ago, but it had only been six years. Papa wasn’t thrilled. Or maybe he just did not show it. After following the footsteps of his father to be the bell ringer at St. James, I was sure inside him there was joy that his only daughter had chosen to enroll in the ultimate service of the Lord.
It was men like Paul who won me over. Their holiness, their grace, and their sense of purpose were such a magnetic force I could not escape. Over the years, because of my father’s job at St. James, I had the privilege of meeting many of them. I shook their soft hands in reverence. I wanted to breathe in the air they breathed out. At age ten, I stole a glance underneath their albs when they sat down. I saw only pants. I was disappointed that angels did not reside inside the vestment. As I grew older, I became fascinated with rubbing my finger across their albs, for blessings and healings.
I remembered all this as Paul opened the door to his mighty home. He held the door for me to walk in. He had an eternal smile on his face – the kind of smile that made one feel the catechism was always right. The colonial rectory was bigger than it looked from outside. Its roof was built high up as if there was an attempt to take it up to the stars. A statue of Jesus and those of the apostles were lined across the stairways that led to the living area. Pictures of saints and angels were on the walls of the dining area. At the peak was the picture of the Pope.
Before I sat down, I glanced through the pictures of men who over the years had Paul’s job. It was an impressive collection of servants of the Lord, arranged in chronological order. It started with white men in black and white pictures to white men in colored photographs. And then down to black men like Paul. Theirs was arranged on a different row. A lower row. For the first time, I saw the photograph of John Cross Anyogu, the first priest ordained at Igbariam Seminary. His seminary was the same school that produced Paul. Looking at the pictures, it struck me that in a forest of men of vestment, Paul was as distinct as okazi leaf.
“So when did you know you wanted to be a priest?” I asked Paul as we sat down to share a bottle of Coca Cola.
“It was at the warfront,” he said.
“You fought in the war?” He looked too young.
“I just finished elementary school when the Biafran war started,” he said. “But I was well built to carry a gun. So I got conscripted.”
“That was it?”
“That was how I became a soldier at twelve.”
“Didn’t you show them your birth certificate?”
“Never mind. I forgot. Those were back in the days.”
“Even if you had one, nobody would care to look at it. As long as you can carry that wood carved in the shape of a gun, you are in.”
“The we-owe-you-a-gun wood?”
“Did you kill anybody?”
“With the wooden gun?”
“Were you wounded?
“I escaped unscratched.”
“How did you survive the war unscratched?
“I was lucky to be unscratched. But nobody survives a war unscathed.”
I paused and gave that a long thought.
“So how did God touch you?” I asked.
“He used the things I saw at war,” he said. “I went in a boy and came out a man.”
I shrugged. I watched Paul’s slackened face and felt his pain. He did not want to talk more about it. Instead he talked about life in the Lord. He was deep, inspiring, and open. At a point, he was confessional. He let me see his fears and his insecurities. His intellectual curiosity mirrored mine in so many regards. It strengthened me in ways I didn’t know were possible.
During subsequent visits, I could discuss a wide range of topics both of the church and of the outside world with Paul. He often talked about the documents of Vatican II and how the continuing changes in the condition of our time required continuous review of church positions. His favorite books were St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Pascal’s Wager.
“So do you believe in destiny?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Were you destined to be a priest or was it an accident of fate?”
“It was the will of God.”
“So God designed a path for you that took you to war as a child and exposed you to atrocities that brought you to Him?”
“I guess you can say that.”
“Just like our Lord saw Judas and picked him as an apostle even when He knew Judas would betray Him?”
“Judas could have chosen a different path.”
“If he did, who would have fulfilled what was written?”
“Any of the apostles could have fallen.”
“And if none fell,” I asked.
“Some men always fall.”
“I think Judas had no choice in the matter.”
“He was born to betray Christ, you think?”
“Yes. And I wonder why he was punished for fulfilling what he was born to accomplish.”
“You think too much,” Paul said after a long pause.
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I sometime think, to everyone his own.”
“But you cannot for our mission is to make sure everyone comes to our own.”
“Maybe I should tell you something a smart philosopher once said – twenty years from now, we will regret not the things we did but the things we did not do.”
Paul stimulating effect on me was similar to what pepper filled yam porridge had on a nursing mother. He viewed the destruction in 1901 of the Arochukwu oracle called “Long Juju” as the beginning of Igbo Christendom.
“The Igbo got it half right,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Paul asked.
“They believed in one universal God.”
“Yes, but they did not know Jesus.”
“They had their interceders, too. Like Long Juju, Ogwugwu and Udo.”
“But they cannot get to that God except through Jesus.”
By the fourth visit, Paul was sitting closer to me and no more on the opposite side of the table. Even though Paul had male and female servants at the rectory, I was beginning to do his laundry for him. He said his clothes felt better on his body when I washed them. My invitation to visit had become an open one.
“Sister Philomena,” Paul said to me as he walked me out the fourth time, “come around anytime it pleases you.” His infinite welcome was like sacrament. In no time, I began to feel as if I was having communion with the saints. I reigned with Paul. That was when my trouble with Sister Ruth began.
At first, I thought she was just jealous of my close association with Paul. So, I prayed for her. I asked Jesus to help her accept that I was the chosen one. I asked Jesus to find her an angel of her own. I tried not to gloat even when I felt like I was walking in harmony with Cherubim and Seraphs. Then she began to conspire with other sisters against me. When I approached them, they became silent. When I walked past, they spoke in whispers. One day, I confronted Sister Ruth.
“What’s infuriating you?” I asked her.
“What?” Sister Ruth asked.
“Why are you staying away from me as if I am a stinging ant?”
“I don’t know what you’re taking about.”
“We used to talk.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did I do anything wrong to you?”
“If I did, forgive me,” I said.
I was about to walk away when Sister Ruth called me. It was the first time she was calling my name in a long time. It sounded strange. Not like it sounded when Paul called my name.
“Do you believe in yourself or in God?” Sister Ruth asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you believe in God or in yourself?” Sister Ruth rephrased.
“I believe in both.”
“You cannot believe in both.”
“Because, like all mortals, you’re the opposite of God,” Sister Ruth said.
I gave her words a thought. I did not make sense to me.
“I don’t know what this is all about,” I said.
“One day you will,” Sister Ruth said.
The more I felt isolated, the closer I leaned on Paul. I reminded myself of what my grandfather used to say: “When an enemy kills a buffalo, his opponent calls it a sheep.”
Sister Ruth and I got to Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent in Amakwa-Ozubulu the same day. We did everything together. We supported each other during Novitiate. When we left the convent, we both ended up at St James Catholic Church, Nnobi. In the past two years, Sister Ruth had a cordial relationship with Paul’s predecessor. During that period, I was happy for her. She used to tell us how great it was to be close to a sanctified representative of the Lord. When Paul first arrived, she was the sister assigned to him.
For some reasons undisclosed, Paul did not like her. I, then, became her replacement.
One day, Mother Superior called me into her office. “You know you are young and bright,” she began. “But I hope you know also that there are a lot of things you still do not know.” It was vintage Mother Superior. She was always concise, direct, and most often a parable churner, like Agbala, the priestess. “Whatever you do, don’t pick your eyes with things meant for picking the ears.”
“Why are you saying that?” I asked.
“Because the throat that eats everything either falls into the trap of the living or of the dead. And a rat that fails to run fast risks its tail being burnt,” Mother Superior said.
Mother Superior was old and tired but wise. Lines of wrinkles gave her face an exotic look. The stories of her fierce past and accomplishments proved to us that she was now a shadow of her former self. Nobody we knew had been in the presence of the Holy Father but her. In her office wall hung an enlarged picture of her meeting the Pope. Though that Pope had since died, we knew that a Pope is a Pope. The changes in the church had left her disillusioned, but she hid her displeasure most of the time. All the sisters knew that she was just marking time, waiting for the Lord to call her.
I once asked her if the absolution of sins was permanent. And if permanent, could it be automated. Mother Superior looked at me with her piercing eyes and said, “Despite what you might have heard, an inquisitive fellow sometimes misses her way too.” For a great Mother in the Lord that she was, on her mahogany desk was this plaque with an Igbo proverb that said, “A palm wine tapper does not reveal all that he sees on top of a palm tree.” It always made me wonder what Mother Superior knew that she was not telling.
I had no difficulty during my Novitiate. I took the vows of chastity and of poverty with no reservation. I accepted the name Philomena because my commitment to Lord’s service was going to mirror those of Sisters de Louredes and Philomena, who lived a life of prayer, seclusion, and mortification with the lepers of Ogoja. I first deviated when I finished at the convent and decided to join the Daughters of Divine Love.
With Paul, another new feeling developed. It was something I had not felt before. In his presence, goose pimples crept across my belly. His zeal gradually smashed my resistance. It took weeks but, somehow, he freed me from my subservient training at the convent. He encouraged me to let my thoughts explore wide horizons. At first, it was scary. With his help, I began to enjoy it.
Paul was transferred to another parish weeks after Sister Ruth began to despise me openly. When Paul broke the news to me he said he would miss me. I cried, but I accepted that the Lord who brought him also took him and, if it was the wish of the Lord, he would bring another.
Before Paul left, we had a party for him. Members of the parish who all loved him came and showed their appreciation for the wonderful work he did in the parish and the surrounding community. His outreach program helped lessen the tension between the church and the pagan population around us. It was an emotional sendoff for everyone, especially me. He received numerous gifts, some of which he gave out to sisters; I got a gold plated bible.
When Paul left, I wrote him several times before he was sent to Rome for his Masters degree in theology. In Rome, Paul joined the order of the Jesuit.
Paul stopped writing.
Paul’s exit did not improve my relationship with Sister Ruth. Either she had gone far into her clique or I had gone into myself. I began to feel like a nun for sale. I began to wonder who would buy me and of what use I would be? I only knew how to weed and water, how to plant and pray, and nothing of use in the streets of the world. I had no doubt that I would be on sale for a very long time.
One summer day, Mother Superior called me into her office.
“Sister Philomena,” she said in a coarse voice, “I have selected you to go to America to further your studies.”
I was surprised.
“You have been granted a scholarship to study Modern European languages at Boston College.”
“What are modern European languages?” I asked.
“You will learn Spanish, French and German,” Mother Superior said.
“You are a bright woman and I want you to go out there and learn new things. When you come back, I want you to help improve the lot of our people.”
I was thrilled to be leaving behind the conflicting emotions of an old land where the new church was putting roots. I held strong that vow I made to Mother Superior to go home and make things better.
Fall had peaked. Crispy cold loitered around the compound of St. Steven’s church in Dorchester, Boston. Star shaped leaves of Sweetgum tree had turned purple, orange and yellow. At another end, the oval red Maple tree had turned into a burning bush.
“These trees are dresses in beautiful outfits with nowhere to go,” commented the first church member that came out of the church as soon as mass ended.
A group of Igbo women wearing sky-touching head gears and brightly colored wrapper streamed out of the stone-build church. Men in three piece suits, some in overflowing gowns, with red and black hat followed. Little children wearing the latest from Gap and Children Places ran into the parking lot filled with luxury foreign cars.
I have observed that on Sundays they came out to see God in their best. As I had done in the last three years, I joined other sisters at the exit to greet the visiting priests who had said the Mass. There were three of them and they came from Europe.
I shook each hand, just as I did when I was a kid. The penance of the priest had not left my psyche. I was surprised to notice a familiar face hidden by well-groomed, bushy sideburns. I looked deeper but was not sure who he was.
“Rev Paul?” I asked, humbly.
“Yes, who am I greeting?” he said in Igbo. Then, he quickly recalled. He pulled me close to him and said, “Oh, my sister, how are you doing?”
It was a great surprise. That evening, I went on a holy pilgrimage. I visited Paul at his cozy lodge in Brighton. It was a little apartment at one of Boston College’s guest houses. I was itching for an embrace and he gave me a long one. My emotion was pumping. In his arms, I felt I might explode. As our hearts beat in sync, my passion boiled over. He used his tender palm to caress my face. It sent a blazing sensation across my spine.
A belt of disarming weakness circled my stomach. It gulped down my strength in a way I never before imagined. Though my eyes were shut, an image of paradise began to revolve in my mind. His words became whispers in my ears.
“My body is sanctified,” he said. “Your body is saved for the glorification of the Lord through his closest servants on earth.”
It was delightful — the pounding heart, the eternal scent of his neck, and the overpowering draw of his cassock. As his cuddle became warmer and warmer, my pleasure expanded outside of my body. My heart began to melt like cold New England snow enveloped by a superheated air. My memories jostled around for treasures more delightful but knew nothing. Whipped clear of my soul was any sense of betrayal of a vow. In its place was a celestial sense of service and obedience. I was overcome by impotence. At the moment of doubt I recalled that great saying of his; that twenty years from now I would regret not the things I did but the things I did not do.
He was patient. He was gentle. His soft hands moved slowly. His fingers crawled on my body as if I was a chain of rosary. I thawed from within. His passion moistened my lips. My trembling veins were soaked in his dedication. From my eyes dripped tears of temptation untouched. The nibbling sound of his lips damped my thighs. As he began to tickle my nipples, I began to shake. My strangulation had begun.
His whispers became reckless. “Blessed Virgin Mary,” he called me. “Caritas Christ urget nos,” he said under heavy breath.
The temple of my yearning reached its first climax. I grasped for breath. I heard myself saying in Spanish, “Yo, la Peor de Toda.”
He was sweet even as he sucked my fingers. He squeezed my breasts so violently that it poured ecstasy across my body. He gnawed on my ear lobes. It heightened my appetite just in time for the last of my habit to drop on the floor. A picture of scintillation flashed across his face as he looked at my skin without a piece of cloth on. Intermittently, he pastured at my nipples and grazed at the wilderness of my thighs. He removed my Mercy cross and my ring and dropped them on the side table. He mumbled some inaudible words. In my ears, they sounded like private baptism.
I helped him yank his cassock off his neck. I unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. His skin was smooth and shiny. Tempest of sweat swelled around his chest. A hailstone of desire held my body at ransom. He crawled around me, incensing every part of my body with his tongue. Like a silent river suddenly dammed, I busted into Latin rhythm.
Qui tollis peccata mundi
I closed my eyes. With both hands, he held me a little up as if I was a censer. While his left held onto my chain, the right swung me forward. He swung to and fro for a deep and universal diffusion of the sweet odor of his incense. Invisible smoke of fragrant odor enveloped us and proclaimed my spirit of devotion. I felt my body levitating. I did not know when he sprinkled his holy water. I only saw him make the sign of the cross after he cooed, “I praise you. I bless you. I adore you. I glorified you. I thank you. You’re truly great. You will be exalted.”
For a long time, he took complete dominion over me. I quaked as consuming fire ate me up. My body vibrated like a rope perched on by a mighty eagle. I glowed from ear to ear. The only response I could give was a loud, “Hosanna in excelsis.” I swooned. I slumbered.
And Mass was over.
I saw Paul two more times before he returned to Europe. When he left, I felt empty like a balloon sucked dry of its air. I stayed up most nights querying myself on my twin-sized bed. It was hard to control my mind.
In his first email, he introduced me to Teresa de Avila. He sent me this quote from her autobiography:
“I saw close to me an angel in bodily form… not very large, but small; very beautiful, his face a flame, he must have been one of the highest angels…In his hand I saw a golden dart, long, the tip red with fire. This dart entered my heart many times and reached my insides; in drawing out the dart it seemed he was taking my insides with it; he left me all inflamed in great love for God. The pain was so deep that it made me moan; and it was so excessive the sweetness this unbearable pain plunged me into, that there was no way for me to stop, nor was the soul satisfied with any less than God himself.” Reading it made me wet.
He also talked about Boston as the completion of the unfinished symphony of Nnobi. It made me flashback. I remembered Sister Ruth. I remembered her five letters to me, none of which I had answered. I read them again and replied to her. I told her that I had forgiven her for being mean to me during my last days at St James Catholic Church. Then I told her that I met Paul in Boston. I did not tell her the forbidden story.
Two weeks later, I got this email from Sister Ruth titled, My Everlasting Wound, that made me cry for hours.
Dear Sister Philomena,
I bring you Calvary love in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I agree with you that 1 Corinthians 13. 4-7 should guide us always in things that pertain to love. I was trying to be patient but my pain could not let me. I was trying to be kind but I could only achieve it by showing repulsion toward you. I was not trying to be envious; rather, I was searching for a way to bring the truth to you. I was overwhelmed by my resentment for Paul that I could not bear the simplest thing.
Remember that I was assigned to help him settle in. He made sexual advances, and I pushed him away. He spoke of his body being sanctified. He wanted me to succumb as a show of obedience to the will of God. Because I have heard about priests like him, I refused.
One day he overpowered me and raped me. I was full of shame that I did not tell anyone. His sympathy line was that young boys like him, raised in warfronts, were turned to animals by the war. He said things he saw were still untold. He said that tried as he could, once the genie is out, it is hard to put back in, even when covered with cassock.
I discovered that I was pregnant. I told him and he arranged for me to have an abortion. I was devastated after. I resented him. I later told Mother Superior who wrote a petition for his transfer.
I did not want you to suffer the same fate, but I did not know how to tell you. I am sorry for the way I behaved. Forgive me. The Sister Ruth that you saw in those last days was not the same sister you knew at the Convent. The sister had walked into Paul’s parsonage and came out without her virginity and her dignity.
Each day, I pray not to face eternal damnation for all the bad ills Paul brought on my soul. Till today, I regretted why I did not run away the first time he fondled my breasts. He destroyed me much more than the damage I incurred when I learned that I was an illegitimate daughter of my father’s sister.
What I could not stand most was going into the confession booth to confess to him. It was my heaviest trauma. I was confessing to a man who confessed to me that he used to visit prostitutes in Onitsha but stopped when AIDS outbreak became widespread. That was when he began to abuse sisters.
I make these unpleasant disclosures for you to know that I did not despise you; but, rather, the devil was luring you. I could not fight back because I was only one woman, and I have no right of dissent. I also wanted to avoid a scandal because I will be the one to be dismissed and disgraced. And you know that I have no home to go back to.
I have returned to a life of prayer and contemplation. Please pray for me and ask for forgiveness on my behalf.
I read Sister Ruth’s email thrice and each time I cried as if I was reading it for the very first time. For strength, I recited Hail Mary:
I gathered my strength and drafted three different emails to Paul in quick successions. I did not sign my name on any of the drafts. Instead, I signed them in the name of Sisters of the Cross. Thereafter, I recited the prayer after rosary.
I had not yet sent any of the drafts out. Though the contents of the emails were different, the three had the same title: Shall I Tell the Pope?
(Shall I Tell the Pope is part of Okonkwo’s upcoming collection of stories, Tomorrow is Pregnant. It was originally published by Kwenu.com as The Leavening of Sister Philomena)