HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO HUG A NUN IN A CONVENT CHAPEL?
By STEVE DRESSELHAUS –APRIL 2021
Two years ago I met a man, a highly educated man, a PhD., the president of a conservative evangelical seminary in the United States. Meeting him was an honor, or so I had assumed. He is an active member and leader in a respected and very well-known church. The senior pastor of his church is famous–so famous, in fact, that he is on TV and radio, either preaching or being interviewed pretty much non-stop, or so it seems. I have met the pastor: he is a good man. As far as I know there is no overt hypocrisy, and no known skeletons lurking and waiting to jump from his closet. However, this pastor has managed to one-up Almighty God by doing something that not even God himself has ever done: he has gotten his name included in the title of a study Bible.*
As I was introduced to this seminary president, he heard my name; and before I could even say anything, he asked, “Are you related to so and so?” I happily responded that so and so was indeed a close relative, assuming I had a jump-start on developing a friendship with this erudite professor. Instead, responding to my affirmation, the professor said, “Godly man [my relative], but messed up in his theology.” Whoa! That was an unexpected deflator. Talk about a wet blanket. “Hey Bucko, your mom reads supermarket tabloids, and I saw your dad in the ‘Shoppers of Walmart’ video.” I wanted to respond this way —— but I didn´t. What I had expected to be a pleasant moment turned out to be an unpleasant reality that still bothers me two years later. It bothers me not because of the event itself; I can get over the judgmental arrogance of the man. What bothers me is wondering if there are times when I might not be just as arrogant as that professor. Claiming to be a follower of Jesus should mean that I am loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. Am I? Or am I like that ill-mannered seminary professor, assuming I have arrived at the pinnacle of evangelical enlightenment? Do I think I am always right? Am I a hater in sheep´s clothing without even knowing it? Do I spend my life criticizing, shaming and scorning other people for their understanding of religion or politics? Am I one of those negative Christians whose first reaction to anything new is usually “no”? I know I am tempted in that direction; but I hope and pray that God spares me from thinking I am always right and that I have a monopoly on understanding things correctly.
I am not a universalist. I believe in right and wrong, good and evil, in absolute truths, in revealed truth, and that redemption, needed by everyone, is freely available to any and all who seek it. So, while I am firm in my beliefs and try to live them, I do not feel I have earned or deserved the right to be smug, superior or arrogant as was the professor. Even as I write this I must be careful not to denigrate the professor and make myself look superior by saying or implying that he is inferior because of his arrogance. Do I accept his boorish behavior? No I don´t, not in the least, but I have to make sure I do not become his equal in that department. A simple test to see who I am and what I am like is to check what I post on Facebook. Am I critical of others or do I promote peace, beauty and unity? Do I try to make myself look smart by trying to make others look ignorant? Is building myself up and spreading my truths accomplished by tearing down other people and their ideas? Do I appeal to Edmund Burke and self-righteously think that I am not letting evil triumph because of my judgmental voice? Do I go full eruption when people use that very same Burkean principle against my causes? If scorn and criticism of different beliefs are my weapons of choice, I am indeed an unpleasant person. If belittling someone else for their beliefs is all I have to make my own beliefs seem wise and lofty I will never soar with the eagles.
Shortly after my unpleasant encounter with the professor, I met an elderly, very elderly nun in a convent where I was doing a personal retreat. In the pre-dawn hours, my favorite time of the day (yes, I’m serious), I was in the convent chapel praying and reading my Bible when the nuns filed in for their early morning mass. I am not Catholic, and my understanding of Catholic rites and rituals performed during mass is limited. Curiosity won out and I stayed; call it professional interest.
I was the only person under 80 in the chapel; and other than a well-past-retirement-aged priest from some Asian country who may or may not have officiated the mass in English, I was the only man in the building – it was a convent after all. Following the mass, one of the elderly nuns, using a walker, hobbled over to me, took my right hand in both of hers and smiled warmly, gently welcoming me to the convent. She thanked me for being at mass with them and expressed her desire that I join them again in the future. Her demeanor was so pleasant that I wanted to give her a big hug, but hugging a nun in a convent chapel immediately following mass felt to me like a lightning-bolt-from-heaven-worthy offense, a violation of protocol, and something that would take me one step closer to perdition; so the nun remained unhugged and my urge remained unsatisfied.
I am confident in and comfortable with my faith in Jesus and with my attempting-to-follow-Him journey through life. I occasionally tweak a few minor beliefs and practices here and there as my understanding of things changes, but I like what I believe – it makes sense, it works, it is practical, it gives hope in an increasingly hopeless world, it has given me a good life – one worth living and enjoying, and it energizes me as I make my small efforts towards the “reconciliation of all things.”** However, I couldn’t help but compare the kind and gentle nun to the arrogant professor, both of them professional clergy, and wonder to which of them I was most similar. In my beliefs I am much more in tune with Professor Bombastic than I am with Sister I-wanna-hug-her. Of these two, who behaved the way Jesus would have under similar circumstances? I never thought I’d say anything like this, but for the first time in my life I wanted to be like a nun.
*Fear of being struck with Old Testament-style leprosy or having the earth open up and swallow me keep me from even touching a Bible with a man’s name as part of the title, much less reading it.
** The full quote is “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20, NLT). Believing as I do that one day all things will be made right is what makes me the optimist that I am and gives me the energy and passion to keep doing my small part to make the world a better place today.