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  • J.T. Knoll - Sister Beatrice learns to pray

  • Jesus said, “Suffer little children and forbid them not to come unto me; for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14

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  • Jesus said, “Suffer little children and forbid them not to come unto me; for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14
    There once was a boy who loved to laugh. Not only did he laugh at the usual funny things, like jokes the other kids told or Red Skelton’s antics on TV, he laughed when no one else saw or heard anything particularly funny.
    And even when he wasn’t laughing out loud, he’d most times have a smile on his face. Some people felt a little uncomfortable around him because of this. It was as if he knew something. Something they didn’t. And What’s more, it sometimes seemed he knew something about them that they themselves didn’t know.
    If asked why he was smiling, the most he’d ever say was, “Oh, I was just thinking of something.”
    Just the same, everyone the small Kansas town where he lived seemed to like him well enough. Everyone, that is, except Sister Beatrice.
    Sister Beatrice, who was principal of Sacred Heart Grade School and taught 7th and 8th grades there, had watched the boy all through his first six grades with a mixture of disgust and apprehension: disgust for all his smiling and laughing; apprehension about eventually having to have him in her classroom.
    For Sister Beatrice there was no room in the world for such foolishness as his. The world was a serious place. School was a very serious place. And anyone could see that the boy was not serious.
    “Wipe that smile off your face!” was the very first thing Sister Beatrice said to the boy in the fall of 1961 when he started 7th grade.
    The boy, who had watched endless hours of Danny Kaye and The Three Stooges on TV, slowly drew his hands across his face from left to right leaving an exaggerated frown where the smile had been — which cause the entire classroom erupted in laughter.
    “Shut up!” Sister Beatrice had screamed. “Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”
    The year progresses
    Sister Beatrice tried to control him and his antics in the classroom by various means — hitting his palms with her metal ruler, denying him recess, shaming him, and sending him to the Monsignor, just to name a few — but nothing worked.
    She even tried calling his mother, but, although his mother empathized with her, she was more concerned about his grades and reading levels, which, to Sister Beatrice’s chagrin, were very good.
    And it wasn’t just his smiling and joking that bothered her, his body posture in church was deplorable. Sometimes he’s stand on the kneeler and look around like a tourist. Others he’d half kneel and half sit, arms swinging loosely over the side of the pew, and stare at the altar with a smile on his face and a faraway look in his eyes.
    Page 2 of 4 - Once, when he was in just this position, Sister Beatrice went to the pew, shook him roughly and demanded, “What do you think you’re doing?”
    He flinched a bit, look up, smiling innocently and replied, “I was … uh… I was … praying, Sister.”
    Midnight Mass
    By Christmas time, Sister Beatrice was at her wits end. In fact, she was beginning to wonder if the boy had been sent by the devil himself to torture her. So, when she found out he’d been selected as one of the Midnight Mass altar boys, she was livid.
    Storming into the Monsignor’s office, she recited a litany of examples of the boy’s irreverent behavior as evidence he be removed. The Monsignor listened and nodded his head knowingly — but told her the boy would still be one of the altar boys.
    Afterward back at the convent, the other nuns looked at one another worriedly when the heard Sister Beatrice mumbling and stomping in her room.
    Old Sister Rose, the housekeeper, rolled her eyes and crossed herself before rising slowly and walking down the hall to knock gently on Sister Beatrice’s door.
    “WHAT IS IT?” Sister Beatrice shrieked.
     “It’s Sister Rose … are you all right?”
     “Yes,” she hissed. “I’m perfectly fine!”
    Christmas Eve
    On Christmas Eve, Sister Beatrice arrived at the church at 11:00 p.m. to make her usual last minute check on the altar and nativity scene before Mass. For Midnight Mass was an occasion when the church would be overflowing with parishioners and she needed everything to be perfect: altar linens starched and spotless; poinsettias properly placed; candles perpendicular; Holy Family, shepherds, wise men and animals all aligned. Perfect.
    At the center aisle she genuflected and was about to slide into her usual spot in the front pew when she heard it — a loud, gleeful laugh.
    She flew to the nativity scene where the laugh had seemed to come from and frantically looked for the boy in the surrounding pine trees. No one. Convinced he must be there, she looked again. No one.
    Praying for relief
    Sister Beatrice was startled when Mass began. For after hearing the laugh and not being able to find the boy, she had gotten out her rosary and prayed herself into a white-knuckle trance.
    Old Sister Rose, sitting beside her in the pew, noticed that she seemed pale and surprised as open bells rang and she looked alternately over her right and left shoulders.
    In fact, the stress of the past few months had been gradually taking its toll on Sister Beatrice. Combined with hearing the laugh and not finding its source, it had caused her to wonder if she was losing her mind — and she had been praying hard for relief.
    Page 3 of 4 - When, after taking holy communion, she caught sight of the confessional — which was located less than twenty feet from the nativity scene — she thought her prayers had been answered.
     “That’s it!” her brain screamed. “He was hiding in the confessional. It was him who laughed.”
    Finding the boy
    When the Mass ended she stopped by her pew for a few minutes to accept congratulations from some of the ladies on the beautiful altar and nativity scene, then hurried to the sacristy to confront the boy before he could get away.
    No luck. He was already gone. So she ran, mumbling to herself, around the back of the altar, intent on catching him, only to be met with the curious tare of the Monsignor as she rounded the corner to his vestibule.
    “Eh … Merry Christmas, Monsignor,” she said sheepishly.
    “Merry Christmas, Sister,” he replied after a long pause, before turning toward the door to leave.
    The minute he closed the door she began to stomp and hiss in frustration. Then she heard it again. The laugh echoed through the empty church and into the vestibule, freezing her in midst of her frenzy. But not for long.
    She raced back across the altar to the confessional, threw back the left side curtain and lunged in. Nothing. She moved to the right side and again lunged in. Nothing.
    Then she took a deep breath and opened the priest’s cubicle. Nothing.
    At that moment she heard it again. This time she was sure the laugh had come from the nativity scene.
    Looking for Sister Beatrice
    When sister Beatrice didn’t show for breakfast Christmas morning, Sister Rose went to her room to investigate. Not only was she not there, it didn’t appear that she’d been there all night, so Sister Rose pulled on her heavy black shawl and headed for the church with young Sister Helen following along a few steps behind.
    When they entered the side door of the church, they saw Sister Beatrice half kneeling and half sitting in a pew in front of the nativity scene with a faraway look on her face.
    Sister Helen waited by the door as Sister Rose started toward Sister Beatrice. A few feet before she got to her, she stopped abruptly, startled by Sister Beatrice’s spontaneous, gleeful laughter.
    When the laughing stopped, she approached slowly and touched her gently on the shoulder. No response. She shook her a little and said apprehensively, “Sister Beatrice?”
    From her place near the door, Sister Helen saw Sister Beatrice flinch, smile, and exchange a few words with Sister Rose before she turned back toward the door.
    Page 4 of 4 - Prayer
    “Is she all right?” Sister Helen asked Sister Rose as they descended the concrete stairs outside the church.
    “Yes, In think so,” Sister Rose replied.
    “Well … what is she doing?”
    “I asked her that same question,” Sister Rose responded.
    “What did she say?”
    “Praying,” Sister Rose said.
    “Excuse me, Sister, did you say she was …” Sister Helen started to ask — but was stopped short by the sound of loud, joyous laughter
    inside the church.
    When the last of it had washed over them, old Sister Rose slowly made the sign of the cross, smiled awkwardly at the wide-eyed Sister Helen and said, “Come Sister. It’s best we leave her to her prayers.”
     J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net
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