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I lived on the farm as a little girl. My father believed that binder twine and baling wire were indispensable. How could a man farm without them? In a Cloistered Convent, the whip, the flagellation cord and the chains were indispensable instruments. How could a Mother Superior carry out her Gestapo orders without them?
Sometimes our waists were made bare and a heavy log-chain was secured around them while several feet of it dangled to the floor. We carried it all day while we performed our duties. The chain moved with each vibration of the body, and this of course wore into the flesh. Soon the skin became inflamed and there was a burning, itching sensation. The skin wore off and we felt the pain of raw flesh against cold iron. At the end of the day we were badly bruised and bloody. The weight of that chain tired us also.
In the Bible. Mark wrote of a maniac named Legion who lived in a cemetery. He, too, was bound with chains and fetters. But his demonic power gave him strength to break every shackle. It was a weird. ghostly sight to see Legion with his body unclothed. Blotches of blood were on his face, arms and legs because he struck the tomb stones, trees and bushes. To have seen his wild eyes staring and to have heard his bloodcurdling screams as he walked or ran continuously like a lion caged in a zoo, would have made the hair stand on your head. Sinful men tried to chain him, thinking only of their own profession. Jesus came and liberated him, mind, soul and body.
Isn’t it strange that in a convent, little Nuns are chained to prove their love for God? In the Bible days, Jesus proved His love by breaking the chains and setting men and women free. In the penance chamber we had a table just long enough and wide enough to fit the human body. We were compelled to lie down with our faces upward. We stretched out our arms and legs so that our hands and feet extended over the edge of the table. Then a heavy log chain was fastened to each wrist and ankle.
After a few hours, the weight of those chains made one feel as though her brain would snap. The pain was excruciating, yet we could not move. We could not even change position. The log-chains held us down to the extent that we might as well have been nailed to the table. Again we were bruised and the skin was torn. For three days we suffered in this position. Perhaps you wonder why so many forms of penance lasted three days. I, too, wondered why. Perhaps it was because Jesus died and spent three days in the bowels of the earth before He arose and conquered death, hell and the grave. Too bad we couldn’t arise victoriously from our chains.
Death stalked through each room and cell and then laughed at those of us who could do nothing but stand by, and remarked, “Just a little while and I’ll be back for you.”
Hell, with its flaming and torturous fires of retribution, overflowed its banks and seeped into the convent to give us a foretaste of life hereafter. The grave? Ah, it would have been a peaceful thought just to dream of kind and gentle hands lowering your body to soft mother earth where lilies and roses adorn the casket lid. The grave that is cold and clammy, that separates loved ones from their families, was not as repulsive to a little Nun. Our daily walks were within the shadow of death and our graves were the lime pits. Our hereafter was a Hell with a sizzling, crackling fire because relatives forgot to pay the priest for mass to pray and thereby deliver our poor souls. We only had the hope of Purgatory due to our disobedience towards our superiors, which made us unworthy of heaven.
While I was in the dungeon below the ground, I heard screams and moans. I thought to myself that if the opportunity ever afforded itself, I would investigate that part of the convent.
One day Mother Superior became very ill. I was the registered nurse who was called in to care for her. I was instructed to give her certain pills every four hours. I read the label on the bottle and it warned they were very powerful. I came to the conclusion that if one pill for every four hours would make her well, then about a half dozen pills dissolved in one glass should kill her. After all, she had hurt and wounded so many of us. I was happy for the opportunity to retaliate. I also thought this would be a great opportunity to go to the dungeon under the ground beyond where I had spent so much time and see if I could find out where those screams and moans came from.
Twilight had turned into night and all had gone into their cells to sleep. I asked myself, “Should I give her the glass of pills now?” “No,” I thought. It would be better to wait until 1:00 A.M. for the simple fact that all Nuns rose at seven minutes before 12:00 A.M. and dressed. and then went to the chapel and recited the breviary for one hour. Then they returned to bed.
12:30 A.M. came, then 12:45 A.M. I got very nervous. I heard the Nuns as they tip-toed back into their cells. All was quiet except for the Mother Superior’s breathing and a little groan as she tossed in pain. I dissolved the pills into the glass of water and lifted Mother Superior’s head to give her the medicine. Her gurgling sound echoed like a waterfall. But it seemed like silence next to my beating heart. She swallowed the last drop and I put her head back down.
It was then that I became extremely frightened. What would happen to me if they found the Mother Superior dead? I got the stomach pump and tried to empty her stomach. I massaged her body, for already her pulse was weak, and she seemed so pale. I used what medical knowledge I had and did everything within my power, and slowly her pulse returned to normal.
She looked as though she were resting well and I figured she would have a nice, long sleep. I grabbed her keys and slipped from her room. I moved cautiously down the steps and moved past the familiar dungeon cell and beyond the penance chamber. I wasted little time at the entrance to the pit and headed in the direction from which I thought I heard those awful sounds during my dungeon days.
It seemed I heard a mournful cry that was familiar, but it was very distant. I stopped. Breathlessly, I listened. Was that not the same horrible cry? I could not lose my way. I understood there were thirty-five miles of under-tunnel passageways in this convent. If I ever got lost, who would find me? And what business would I have down here anyway? Then I saw rows of bars. It looked like a penitentiary with one cell block after another. I stepped closer and peered through the bars, and when I did, a shudder went through my soul. I saw human beings in chains. Some were standing, but most of them were slumped. They did not lay nor were set down because they couldn’t. Chains were fastened about their waists and about each wrist. When they could no longer stand because of lost strength they simply slumped over.
I counted approximately nineteen cells. Some of them made no noise, so I assumed they were dead. It looked to me as though the flesh had started to rot on a few of them. The stench nauseated me. Rigor-mortis had already set in some. At one end there were a few who still felt and thought. They intermittently gave forth the most blood-curdling screams. Others just let out a pitiful cry that would chill your blood and pierce your very soul.
I stood there trembling and finally managed to ask in a low tone, “Why are you here?” I received no answer. Then I asked, “How long were you here?” Again I received no answer. I wanted to help them, but how could I? I did not have food, medical aid, nor even a room with a bed to offer them. Although I had Mother Superior’s keys, and had opened the doors leading to this hellish place, how could I help these poor, unfortunate half-dead Nuns? If I found the key on the ring to open their cells, how could I have released the chains that bound them? Or still, what could I have done for them after I released them? I had no place to hide nor care for them. Not once did it occur to me to try and find the key that unlocked the outside gate. But even if I had thought of that, I could not possibly have carried those semi-alive, emaciated skeletons to safety. Death was soon to arrive and it was best for me to step out of its pathway.
Why were those poor Nuns placed in those chains and made to die a slow, agonizing death? I don’t know. I surmised it could have been the death punishment for continued disobedience. More likely, however, was the probability that they became mentally unbalanced through severe forms of penance. That was their Alcatraz.
With Mother Superior’s keys clutched tightly to my hands, I began the long trek back to my post of duty. I had seen all I cared to see and even more. I felt frustrated and wanted to run. But at the same time I wanted to linger. I seemed cold but yet warm. I wanted to cry and at the same time wished I had a stick of dynamite so that I could blow the entire convent off the face of the earth. I realized that I, too, was just another inmate and that if I failed to walk softly, chains waited for me. They could have very easily (and without much effort), taken down one of those skeletons and thrown them into the lime pit and made room for another Nun like me. So my boiling temperature descended to a lower degree. My anger subsided. I regained my composure and made my way back to the Mother Superior’s room to see if she was dead or alive.
She was still asleep when I arrived. After some time she awoke with a sigh. “My,” she said, “I must have had a long sleep.”
“Yes, Mother,” I replied. “You’ve had a very long sleep.”