A Short Story, by Beverly Desoto Stevens
They are that rare bird, English Catholics. Susan’s mother had insisted on the church wedding to her first husband. Her mum wanted to ‘make things respectable.’ As far as Susan was concerned no amount of respectability could make her stay with her partying, abusive ex-husband. He was in the Queen’s Arms in Coles End, utterly stoned, while she was in court for the divorce.
Jim was nothing like her ex, though. He was a tall, dark and handsome civil engineer, well-paid by the local council. And at 29, Susan was still a charmer — small, lithe and filled with fun. Her eyes danced with mischief, and the rollicking good humor of her Irish ancestors. After a quick wedding with a hired preacher in a hotel (“We don’t need to be paying the Church any money for one of their divorces,” Jim had said) they settled in an ‘upper middle-class’ suburb of Birmingham.
She couldn’t get pregnant right away after all those years on the Pill, so she’d endured a year of intensive hormone ‘therapy.’ Two births quickly followed, a boy and a girl. She promptly commenced to take the Pill again afterwards, reasoning that there was no sense in endangering their financial well-being. Plus, Jim showed signs of impatience with the strain of caring for two little babies.
She spent the next few years blissfully caring for their family. But by the time the children were in their early teens, Susan knew there was trouble. First there was the porn she found on his computer, then the pay-for-sex telephone numbers on the bill. Confronted, Jim broke down and sobbed. He was a ‘sex addict,’ he said.
Susan knew there was trouble. First there was the porn she found on his computer, then the pay-for-sex telephone numbers on the bill.
Things didn’t get any better when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40. Shortly after her course of radiation was complete, Jim was arrested for the first time. A ‘sting’ operation had swept him up, along with dozens of other hapless men, in a porn-and-prostitution ring. As it was Jim’s first offense, he was let go with a stern warning. But the illness and the arrest had taken its toll on Susan; she slept in a separate room, and prayed that the nightmare would go away.
It was not to be. Over the next ten years, the internet sex business exploded. The third time Jim was arrested, the police came to the house. He was led away before the incredulous eyes of his 19 year old son and 17 year old daughter. This time, the judge was not so lenient. Jim had progressed further in the sex business, going from consumer to procurer, hustling girls younger than his own daughter for paying clients. He was convicted on seven felony counts of human trafficking, and sentenced to a minimum of twenty years in prison.
The judge gave Susan control over their finances, which helped them survive. Without marketable skills, she was reduced to stocking shelves in the local Boots pharmacy, at L4.92 (US$7.48) an hour. Their house was put up for sale.
Her son’s fury and shame erupted on the football field one day, and he was beaten quite badly in a melee sparked by his attack on an opposition team player. As he lay unconscious, Susan found herself sobbing uncontrollably in the ladies’ room at the local hospital, when the nun walked in.
Her son’s fury and shame erupted on the football field one day, and he was beaten quite badly in a melee sparked by his attack on an opposition team player.
There’s something about a sister in a habit, as any nun will tell you. People tell you their troubles – especially fallen-away Catholics in deep trouble.
Her excruciating story came out all in a rush. Through her tears, Susan wanted to know what she had done to deserve all this pain, she told the nun. Why did God hate her? She had wanted a family. Was that so bad? She had taken some shortcuts, okay. A marriage outside the Church. All that contraception. But what did the Church expect? That she be a baby-making machine? Jim would have never agreed to any of it, starting with the pre-Cana classes.
“That’s probably true,” Sister Mary Clare nodded, looking into Susan’s swollen red eyes. She handed her a Kleenex. “And then what would have happened?”
“If I-I followed what the Church said, I would have n-never married him.” Susan heard herself say it, as if in a dream. For a moment, she contemplated the truth of this. Her life would have been completely different, had she followed the rules.
Susan was an honest woman. This simple fact was crystal clear: she had married a man who scorned the Church, and everything the Faith stood for. And he had then proceeded to build their lives on his lies, and his addiction.
“Addictions are ways in which we sin, and sin repeatedly,” the nun said sympathetically. “They always involve the people we love, dragging them down with us.”
Susan nodded, looking down at the balled-up tissue she was clutching. After the agony of this sex business, she herself felt besmirched. She knew her children felt it too – smeared filthy with Jim’s sins, and deeply angry.
After the agony of this sex business, she herself felt besmirched. She knew her children felt it too – smeared filthy with Jim’s sins, and deeply angry.
It was from that day forward that Susan dated their recovery. Small steps back to sanity, beginning with her own trip to the confessional after more than 20 years away from the Sacrament. The priest was compassionate, listening carefully to her halting attempts to explain her life, between floods of tears that often left her unable to speak between wracking sobs. He taught her The Prayer. I renounce my will. I turn it all over to you, Mary my true mother, to lay at the feet of Your Son. Not my will, but His be done.
“For your penance, I want you to say this prayer at least three times a day, and I want you to visualize taking these great burdens off your shoulders, and laying them at the feet of Our Lord,” he told her. In the darkness of the confessional, tears streamed down Susan’s face as she watched his hand raise in the words of absolution. Afterwards, she knelt in the pew for a very long time, repeating the Prayer over and over again.
She felt cleansed, and at peace for the first time in years, strong enough to persevere through the annulment process from her first husband. She then obtained a simple ‘disparity of cult’ document for her marriage to Jim. A year later, Susan had a heart-to-heart talk with her children.
“The Church took very seriously what I – in my ignorant youth – refused to,” she told them. “This is because the Church understands marriage as a sacrament – not simply as an agreement between a man and a woman that can be dissolved at will. If I had understood that, I would have gotten my first marriage annulled after it was over – which would have helped me understand that both of us had gone into that marriage completely incapable of sustaining it. It would have also prevented me from marrying your father.”
The girl hung her head. “That means that I would have never been born,” she whispered sadly. Her brother looked away stonily.
“Yes,” Susan said quietly. Then she smiled and took both young people in her arms. “But God is always generous, and He gave me you – the lights of my life. You both were the greatest gift I have ever received.”
But Susan wasn’t finished. “That a marriage should be open to life turns sex into a completely different thing,” she went on doggedly, despite her children’s evident discomfort. “The Church understands the body with great reverence, as the ‘temple’ of your soul. Your body is not a ‘thing’ to be used – manipulated in any way for pleasure, or to produce babies. Your body is to be cherished, and nurtured, and rightly understood by your spouse, and you – because we are made in the image of God.”
‘The Church understands the body with great reverence, as the ‘temple’ of your soul. Your body is not a ‘thing’ to be used –manipulated in any way for pleasure, or to produce babies.’
In that year, Susan discovered Natural Family Planning. NFP required both understanding how her body functioned, and a little bit of restraint, and she wondered why she had never heard of it before. Though she had to admit, Jim would have never accepted such restrictions on his sexual ‘rights’ – just as he had accepted no restrictions on the sexual slavery that led to his prison cell.
Susan’s house was sold, and their belongings moved to a small apartment with cheap rent. Susan has found a job as a receptionist, and she and her children are slowly rebuilding their lives. Both children are attending Mass along with their mother.
As for Sister Mary Clare, she is glad that her habit gave her the opportunity to step into Susan’s life that day in the hospital ladies’ room. “We religious are a sign of God’s love in this world,” she says simply. “Our religious habits make that very clear.”
As for Sister Mary Clare, she is glad that her habit gave her the opportunity to step into Susan’s life that day in the hospital ladies’ room.