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A Tale of Two Nuns

In 1976, while the rest of the U.S. celebrated the Bicentennial, I was enduring The Year of the Tonsils. Those tonsils landed me in the Howard County Hospital twice that year. On the second occasion, the doctor removed the offending tonsils.

I only remember two of the nurses who worked the surgical wing, but I remember them as polar opposites. They both belonged to The Sisters of Mercy, who had been petitioned to take over the small Iowa hospital in the early 1900s. And that is where their similarities ended. Even their habits were different. The younger nurse looked like a first-year girl scout who hadn’t earned all the pieces of her uniform yet. But the differences went beyond their clothes.

The older nurse walked the halls like she was in charge. It’s likely that she was the head nurse, but her authority was lost on me. She scolded me when I showed fear of needles. She shook her head when I cried after eating a bite of post-surgery ice cream. And she didn’t seem friendly in the least.

The second nurse made up for all that. She called me sunshine and recognized me immediately on my second visit. She smiled all the time. In the evenings, she would come to my room to see if I needed a back rub. She was gentle and loving. On the day the doctor ordered the tonsillectomy, I looked forward to two things – eating ice cream and seeing the nurse who called me sunshine. I only made it through one painful bite of the ice cream, but my favorite nurse didn’t disappoint.

There was a time when I perceived the Catholic Church in much the same way as I perceived that older sister. The Catholic Church seemed bossy and unapproachable.

My experiences these last five years as a Catholic have shown me that I was wrong. Yes, Mother Church has authority, and the medicine she carries in her syringes brings healing and comfort.

But MotherChurch is also very much like that younger nurse. She may be 2000 years old, but she is constantly being renewed by the Holy Spirit. She has the wisdom of the ages, but she also has the spark and zest that comes from the Holy Spirit.

She is eternally young.

And, like the young nurse, the Church has thrown open the doors to me, invited me to come inside, eased my concerns with the touch of her hands – especially on nights when I have been lonely and afraid.

Mother Church supports me as I considered what the future might hold, just as that young nurse would smile when she caught me passing time at the nursery window and daydreaming about a far-off, more joy-filled hospital visit – one that meant birth and new beginnings.

I can learn a thing or two from these two nurses, and not just about what they teach me about Mother Church. They can teach me how to share our faith.

There have been times in these last few years that I have treated a few non-Catholics like the older nurse treated me, with a kind of know-it-all attitude.  I’ve offered the syringe of spiritual health to another and basically said, “It’s for your own good, so roll over and accept it.”

That young nurse may have only been in her first year. She may not have known how to do anything beyond smile and give a back rub. But she taught me about hospitality, that there’s much to be gained by gentleness and a sincere interest.

The young nurse can teach us one more thing. She was the new girl on the floor. She was humble and teachable. She knew that the sick did not come for smiles and backrubs. She made it easier for them to come, but they came to be healed. And so it is with the strangers among us.

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