“A Christmas Tale,”

A Memoir by Gert Murphy

I looked down and noticed red poking through the tip of my sock. My near four-score, crimson lacquered toenail had worn a tear in the aqua fiber. I would have to darn it.

It made me think of the convent.

Earlier that morning, I had wasted 2 minutes and 16 seconds looking at a “precious” YouTube clip of “cute” dogs longing but looking away from people food. Again I thought of the convent.

It takes so little.

A friend called several weeks ago to alert me to a newly published book. It was about the convent — the very one in which I had spent nearly 6 years more than 50 years ago. (That’s why I throw around words like “score,” and I’m blessed to be able to do so.)

More memories swirled.

Although we had never met, I remembered the author, Patricia Colling Egan, as a really “cute kid” — a bubbly, slender, lively teen. She was a postulant/novice when I was a young nun in the House of Studies. I read that her stay in the convent was but two years longer than mine.

Her story tells of a creative, pleasantly pious, faith-possessed young woman raised in a bucolic and affluent setting. One reads of her spiritual insights and growth, awakenings, if you will, as she describes childhood and the years as a nun. She gently describes the bumps along the way.

A clearly more disciplined woman than I, she has crafted a memoir, interestingly naming names — even of the one bad guy she encountered! In her story, Mere Maitresse, the head of the novitiate whose name you never learn, has a soft northern Irish accent; in my unwritten memoir, I refer to her as Mother Caligula.

The author described a euphoric Christmas moment she had experienced while a young novice:

“I was so full of happiness as we walked to the refectory after the three masses that it seemed nothing more could be added. Yet, there in the snowy darkness, each face lit by the candle she held, were the Young Professed nuns, grouped around a large creche they had made themselves. ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,’ they sang, beaming and smiling like elves in coifs and black shawls. The creche with its simple terra cotta figures had been made by artists in the group, but the less artistic were also represented. Each  had made a sheep, many resembling deformed dogs, all reposing in the snow, seeming to whisper, ‘Joyeux Noel, petites soeurs.’ ”

She had written about me! Unknowingly, of course. She had given me a scintilla of those 15 minutes of fame that allegedly await everybody! Unwittingly! Albeit anonymously! For I was the one who had built that creche back in 1960, and the only flaw in her recollection was the name of the hymn.

In the year before I left the convent, I had the good fortune to be in college working toward a partial degree in art. I was living in a community of young student nuns. The sculpting course was so exhilarating that I wanted others to share in my joy, and so I proposed that we make an outdoor creche. While the major figures and crib itself would be created by the “artist” nuns, I suggested that the rest of the student nuns make the lambs or sheep that shepherds were tending.

Permission was given — for one always needed to observe those vows of obedience, along with poverty and chastity — and I lugged a mound of clay down to the House of Studies. Our days then were filled with coursework and silence, but during a pleasant Thanksgiving break, 30 young nuns set to work fashioning individual sheep for the crib. Their creations were varied: fist-sized ruddy lumps of clay, oddly shaped though lovingly crafted. Some sisters even molded smiles on what were sweet but unrecognizable sheep faces. Each person etched her initials on her piece.

During the advent that followed, the predawn risings and the grind of daily courses continued. The rituals of convent life were maintained, but heightened a bit because of the solemnity of the season. No mail was allowed, and all meals were taken in silence in pious preparation for the coming feast. In those weeks I saw to the firing of the sheep and crib figures and completed the construction of the creche, a sort of lean-to about the size of a doghouse, and I set up its empty shell on the lawn outside of the secluded House of Studies.

Christmas Eve was a welcomed wonder for all. After attendance at three masses at midnight, festivities would continue with a gala breakfast. Its spiritual aspect, for some, may have been heightened by the promise of the latest sleep of the year the next morning. Before the solemnities, a few of us went to the dining room and placed the sculpted lambs at the place of each sister. There each sat on a pile of whatever mail she had received during the preceding weeks. I stepped outside and arranged the major figures, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” (I hear those words as my mother used to cry them out in dismay at life — or at me when I was back at home), within the crib.

Following the glorious breakfast, we all processed (as in religious procession) from the refectory out into the night with each nun bearing her sheep. The simple pageantry, the holiday elation, the starlit night was Capra-esque. The scene became still more dearly quaint, as if in a Hollywood rendering of convent life, when in sweet nun voices we sang the lovely shepherd hymn “Transeamus usque ad Bethlehem.” Thirty lambs were added to the scene. The stars seemed to pulse and then hide as we sang, and a soft snow began to fall again.

The story remains lovely in its retelling. Nothing mars it all these years later. Not even the recollection of the sound of the next morning’s call from the mistress of the House of Studies. She was such a gentle soul that I can’t say she stormed in or shouted, but there clearly was a bit of stridency about it. That long-anticipated late sleep was ruined when she frantically knocked at my cell and bade me go out and fix the crib and remove the interloper.

The interloper?

Resting on the now snow-covered scene were 31 sheep! A newcomer had arrived and sat among the animals — oddly and similarly shaped, equally as unidentifiable and unrecognizable, but blatantly unique. No miracle, no visit from Santa. There was no need to check for initials. Merely and hilariously, just a frozen deposit dropped off by the local stray along with haloes of yellow dotting the scene. . . .

I really have to get around to writing my convent memoir. My spiritual awakenings have been slower in arriving; I too can describe heights and bumps and abysses in my experiences while there. The names I name are those of the innocent; in my story, however, Mother Goneril and Sister Anorexia and a Mother Attila add to the color and the blessing of it all.

Gert Murphy is a retired public school teacher who lives in Montauk.