November is the Month of All Souls, when we lift up our beloved deceased. Today I am remembering Sister Maureen Michael, IHM–a former chemistry teacher at Archbishop Prendergast High School. Although I did not know Sister well enough to call her “beloved” (nor would most students have chosen that particular adjective), our one encounter made a sufficient impression on me to become a chapter in my forthcoming book, Finding God Abiding.
That encounter happened exactly forty years ago this week (most likely November 13, 1981), so it seems worth sharing in advance of publication.
Enjoy the sneak peek!
Finding God in the Chemistry Lab
I had never cut class before. Technically, I wasn’t cutting class; I was hiding in the lavatory trying to recover from a crying jag on my way to lunch. Nevertheless, in my Catholic, all-girls, nun-run high school, being anyplace other than where you were supposed to be was a dangerous business.
A perfect storm of woe had descended on me. The next day was the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death in a terrible accident, and my Algebra II teacher had just returned a test with a big “77” on the front. It was official: My fall semester math grade would not be high enough for Mom to let me try out for the spring musical. Could this day get any worse?
As I struggled to return my face to its normal color with a cool, wet paper towel, suddenly I found myself caught in the icy stare of Sister Maureen Michael, the gaunt, unsmiling chemistry teacher. Where had she come from? More importantly, Why couldn’t it have been a teacher who knew me?
“Come this way,” she said, and marched down the hall to an empty chem lab with me in mute, miserable tow. Unaccustomed to reprimand, I wondered if I might actually pass out. Then something unexpected happened.
Once in her lab, Sister Michael’s face softened. Her eyes grew sympathetic, and she asked, “What’s wrong, dear?”
This unexpected kindness unhinged me. It all came pouring out: my grandfather’s anniversary, the bad grade, the dashed plans. I wept through the whole story, uncertain what was going to happen next.
“I don’t think you need to go to the cafeteria if you don’t want to,” Sister said thoughtfully. “I’m sure you have homework to do. You’re welcome to stay here until the bell rings.” And that is exactly what I did; for the rest of the period, I read a book while Sister Michael graded papers. She didn’t effuse; she didn’t advise. She just gave me what I needed: a safe place to collect myself.
Decades later, I gave a talk on the very stage where I had indeed not performed in the spring musical. I told the students about my crying jag and Sister’s kind
–hearted rescue. Afterwards, a teacher who had been there forever told me something I had not known at the time: That year, Sister Michael had been fighting a losing battle with cancer. Throughout treatment, she had taught her classes, monitored the halls, and observed her girls. Seeing past the looming specter of her terminal illness, she had looked with compassion on my transient grief, and offered comfort from what must have been a limited store.
That brief encounter was a profound experience of what spiritual writers call “disinterested love.” Disinterested is not the same as uninterested; indeed, it is quite the opposite: passionate interest in another person, in the absence of any self-interest.
As a campus minister, educator, and human being, I have had countless opportunities to “pay forward” the disinterested love I received in my moment of adolescent despair. Some I’ve caught, and some I’ve missed, but I know this: Each new day offers a new chance to practice.