MhNTION NUNS in hospitals and I think instinctively of those last reels of old films 'lairs, when the aviator hero, shot down over north Africa (or was it Belgium?), finds himself being attended by tall, slim, silent sisters in huge white linen commies, the shape and nearly the size of sailing yachts, gliding noiselessly across the ward on invisible feet. If he were about to die, and the Blessed Sacrament was called for, there would be an ascetic-looking priest in a long lace cotta and a richlyembroidered stole (and a biretta), while somewhere in the background a choir sang "Mmmmm" (or perhaps "Ave Maria" in close harmony.
Those were the days. The cornettes, which must have made many of the chores of nursing uncommonly difficult, have gone the same way as the elaborate linen caps which sisters and nurses from the best hospitals used to wear, and, in many places. I am afraid. the silver buckles at their waists.
There is nothing like that about the hospital where Sister P does her work of mercy: a collection of ugly modern tower-blocks and innumerable "temporary" buildings. And there is nothing like that about Sister P herself; though she is an old-fashioned person. and belongs (I suspect) to an old-fashioned order. She wears a sensible dark blue mid-calf-length dress and a cap like a children's nanny (as they used to be). dark stockings and sensible shoes: sometimes she looks as if her feet hurt a bit. She carries a capacious leather handbag in the very shade of blue of her habit. and so she goes about the wards.
On Sunday mornings the hard-working Church of England helpers who come round early, offering to wheel beds or chairs into the chapel for their service. enquire helpfully if Catholic patients wish to receive a visit from Sister P. and Holy Communion. Late in the morning she appears. She is quite unperturbed by the work of a busy ward that is being carried on all around her: she too has work to do.
SHE 14AS HER OWN way of conducting a short service. which she has to repeat so many times in the course of the day. It is as if she has committed the whole thing, including her own words of comfort and encouragement, to memory: once she begins, there is no interrupting her.
Even as she draws the curtains round your bed she is saying "The Lord be with you and also with you"; for she makes it a practice to say all the responses with, or on behalf of, the patient — wearied, no doubt, by 35 years' experience of waiting for nervous or shy or forgetful people to respond. The result is like a great rolling tide of familiar liturgical language. It is not that she changes anything: 1 am sure that the words of the rite are strictly followed, but she does it in her own way.
Of course, like me, Sister P is committed to the objective efficacy, ex opere operato, of the Blessed Sacrament: she knows that it is not a visit from her that is important_ but she senses that the occasion will be an even greater consolation with the interpolation of a few old-fashioned pieties like "Holy Mary, pray for us", and if given in a way that neither encourages nor permits any intervention by the recipient. When I see the Parish Priest, I comment on how well she does it. He half smiles, half sighs: "Everybody says that. I don't know how she does it."
I don't mean to sound irreverent or impolite, for I am full of admiration and gratitude for Sister's way of doing things. but I can't help thinking that she is like a salesman who comes to your door and goes through a wellrehearsed spiel. She has complete confidence in the superiority of the "product" she has come to "sell": the action is a continuous one — even as she begins she snaps open her handbag to reveal a plastic sprinkler of holy water, a crucifix between two (unlit) candles and all else that is needed. At some point. as if by a miracle, there is a Theophany: a silver ciborium the size of an egg-cup appears, and there is the Blessed Sacrament. There is nothing routine about it, and there is no impression that Sister is not interested in you personally; but she knows that she has a job to do, just as surely as the man from the gas company when you report a leak. and she is not going to take the risk of indulging in pleasantries.
yi, COULD NOT possibly write down in a Rituale exactly what she does and says. Nor do I think that any mere priest could do it. It is Sister P's own way of obeying liturgical law. Yet I am reminded of something: take the words and the actions all together, and she has made out of them a "spell" — a "rune" — that has a potency all of its own. I spend a good deal of time being obliged to look at rubbish that describes itself as "Celtic Spirituality" — here is the real thing.
And this, of course, is real Catholicism: clear and certain when teaching the Faith, yet infinitely understanding of human frailties; precise and universal in the performance of her public liturgy. yet very homely and easy in ministering to those in need. It will be a sad day for the hospital when Sister P herself becomes too infirm to continue her works of mercy, which are both spiritual and temporal. So thank you, Sister, and God bless!