The Great Unveiling

I never thought of nuns as women until the day Sister Julian caught me smoking

(Getty Images)

When my mother turned to leave me in the care of my first-grade teacher, Sister Angela Mary, it was more than I could bear. With trembling knees, I screamed, begging her not to leave me. She turned and looked back once, but with tearful determination, she continued her steady gait and disappeared up the stairs. I tried to run to her, but Sister had her arms spread wide and shadowed me like an NBA point guard. There was no escape.

I took my assigned seat and acclimated to my surroundings. Who were all these children and why did we all look alike? Girls wore plaid jumpers and a white short-sleeved shirt and boys donned navy slacks, tie and white shirt.

Nuns were frocked in black floor-length habits with a stark white wimple flanked with black veils. We never saw a smile or heard a friendly salutation from under those veils, only sharp instructions barked once and a slap on flattened fingers with a ruler if not followed. We knew instantly from Sister's stern tone and cold demeanor the summer days of unaccountability and running barefoot and untethered were over.

The notion of heaven and hell and the daunting responsibility of living up to God's expectations were overwhelming. I couldn't grasp the concept of fearing a God who loved me infinitely but would cast me into the fires of hell should I sin against Him. I was filled with doubt, guilt and shame–emotions 6-year-olds shouldn't have to contemplate.

I left Little Flower Elementary School after seventh grade, choosing instead a Catholic boarding school in Middleburg, Virginia, an hour from my home. Desperate to escape abusive parents and chaotic households, it didn't take my best friend Debbie long to convince me Notre Dame Academy for Girls was the answer and refuge we'd been praying for.

RELATED: My Son Is So Much Like the Father He Never Knew

Extolling the virtues of continuing my Catholic education at Notre Dame Academy for Girls, my parents enrolled me immediately. Like Debbie, I would be a weekday boarder and allowed home on weekends. We didn't choose boarding school to continue our religious studies: Middleburg is horse country. Debbie and I both had horses and they would be boarders too.

Notre Dame sat atop acres of lush, rolling Virginia hills and was everything we'd hoped for. After completing our homework and chores, we could ride until 5:00 PM. It didn't take us long to discover the Middleburg Hunt Trails, some of the best in the country. We smoked cigarettes, raced our steeds and contemplated life, laying in the shade as our horses grazed. Weekends found us home, partying with friends and fulfilling obligatory visits with parents.

Sister Julian, my math teacher, caught me smoking outside the barn one afternoon. Now face-to-face with her, I realized she couldn't have been more than 23. Extinguishing my cigarette and bracing for the lecture and punishment to follow, she said, "You know, I miss smoking." I raised my head in shock and gingerly asked, "You smoked?" "Oh yes, I did a lot of the things young people do. I wasn't born a nun," she said and laughed.

RELATED: There's Nothing Like a Mother's Love

I was instantly smitten. I'd never thought of nuns as women, each with a past filled with things "young people do." I asked the burning question we all wondered: "Why did you become a nun?" She told me God had always spoken to her and He was her path in life. "Do you ever doubt your decision?" I asked. To my surprise she replied, "Yes, actually. We all doubt our decisions sometimes, but never doubt God's love for us. We are all forgiven." Her words comforted me, easing my fear of God's fury and loosening the reins of reluctance I held toward His willingness to forgive.

She confessed she had a boyfriend at 15. "He was the sweetest boy and we dated for over a year but both knew my path was not going to be wife and mother, so we broke up. I still wonder what he's doing and where he is," she lamented, scratching my horse's withers. I had a newfound understanding and appreciation of the person residing inside the black and white frock which I had so long associated with confusion and fear.

As I hung my bridle, she told me she admired my tenacity, rebelliousness and passion. "Follow your passions and love life fiercely. And don't worry so much about what God is thinking. You'll be fine. And NO MORE SMOKING or you will feel MY wrath!" she said, whisking out the barn door.

Speaking with Sister Julian about love, life, doubt and faith in the barn that day helped alleviate my fear of God and his veiled messengers. I think of the leap of faith she took to confide in me and am thankful she too was a rebel.

The day I left Notre Dame, she sought me out. While hugging goodbye, she quietly said, "Ride like the wind, child, and never look back." Saddened I'd never see her again, I pulled her close and whispered, "Keep the faith, Sister."

Notre Dame is now a co-ed day school. The barn is dilapidated and there's a new athletic field. I sat on the fallen stones of the wall once surrounding the barn and was overwhelmed with appreciation for the freedom I found there with my friend, my horse and the unveiling of wisdom and wonder that remains with me today.