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I have read of the uncivilized Indians of Ecuador, how they teach and train their children to suffer without crying or showing any emotion. Blood doesn’t terrify those Indians’ wee ones. They laugh in the face of pain and adversity. Along with our suffering in the convent as a penance, or for breaking a rule, or for refusing our bodies to a priest, or because of the jealousy of the Mother Superior, we may be required to test our strength or devotion to God and love for Mary. Many times this punishment is instituted as a warning and a deterrent to disobedience “lest a worse thing come upon you.”
Often times were made to lie on the floor while heavy weights were attached to our heads. Other times our hands and feet were fastened to a contraption whereby the hands and feet were drawn in back of our bodies until we felt as if they were drawn out of their sockets. This penance, along with the vise (which we shall later describe) may have been implemented to make us recant or say we were sorry for some evil we have spoken against the convent or our superiors. The pulley kept drawing back our hands and feet until the agony was so great we finally yielded and said we’re sorry.
The vise was a machine, or two pieces of metal consisting of iron or steel which opened wide enough to grasp a Nun; that is, a rebellious or disobedient Nun. On each end of the vise was a crank which Mother Superior turned. With each turn the steel or iron on each side of the Nun’s body was drawn together, gradually squeezing out her very life, and or, cracking and breaking the bones. This would occur unless the Nun cried out for forgiveness and recanted and said she was sorry. Then the Mother Superior may have released her before it was too late.
During the period of the Great Reformation, a live drama was portrayed of a beautiful young woman who chose death because she dared to let her conscience speak. During those dark days the Inquisitors burned to the stake, tortured on the rack, slashed heads from bodies with the sword, crushed with the vise, imprisoned and inflicted thousands of other heinous tortures on anyone who disagreed, even if it was a small doctrinal matter at stake.
Fox’s Book of Martyrs describes the full picture of wives watching husbands burn at the stake, babies snatched from the breasts of mothers and tortured while they watched. Some had their flesh cut from their bodies, layer by layer, while the Inquisitors stood by asking, “Now will you recant?”
On one particular day (and as on most occasions there was a huge crowd watching), the hired tormentors took the young man who had been accused of heresy and placed him in the vise. Slowly, but surely, the vise moved closer together with each turn of the crank. The young Christian was trying to hold out and stay true to His God, but the pain was greater than his faith. Finally he screamed, “I give up. I recant!” With that statement they released the vise and set him free. With looks of devilish glee and satisfaction they watched the young man writhing on the ground. The vise had injured him internally, probably crushing many bones.
The recantation, the surrender, had not given him his life, nor did it erase the pain. In a matter of moments, death summoned him home. As the crowd watched, a lovely young lady (not suspected as a heretic) began screaming to the dying lad, “Thou fool, thou fool — five more minutes and Heaven would have been yours!”
As she uttered that statement the tantalized Inquisitors grabbed her, “We’ll give you the same medicine, and see how strong you are!” Into the same vise they shoved her body as though it were a piece of beef or pork being shoved into a freezer. Mocking and jeering they turned the crank of the vise, only to pause and question, “Are you sorry? Will you recant and beg forgiveness for being a heretic?”
She replied, until the last breath and the sound of cracking bones ceased, “Never, never will I deny Him!”
Upon one occasion in the convent I was taken to a chamber to see and get a good look at a dying Nun. Before my eyes a Nun was strung up, her feet next to the ceiling, while her head hung toward the floor. Blood ran from her nose and mouth. She was not yet dead. however, she did not speak. The dripping blood and strung-up body was a witness in itself, without her spoken testimony. I was not permitted to ask questions. I was informed as to why I was allowed to see her at this particular moment and I was told it was a warning to me if I again refused to obey my superiors or refused to humble myself and willingly yield to every penance without murmuring or complaining. I was not to forget that I took a vow and therefore became the spouse of Christ (actually a priest, as he represented Christ). I, too, would be strung up by the feet should I forget! That would have been the end of Sister Patricia. (Remember, they took away my real name and gave me the name of Patricia).
One day Mother Superior summoned me to her room. There at the tables sat a half-drunken priest with a game of checkers. Evidently Mother Superior had played the game and it had reached the boring stage, and she felt she had more interesting work to attend, I was the unlucky Nun chosen to play checkers with Father Chateaux. I was an uninterested party, so it made no difference whether the red or black were mine. It merely added to my boredom to have to sit across from this so-called “Father” who was half drunk. His face was inflamed by alcohol, his bleary eyes were drooping and his nose was so red it resembled a strawberry. Every time he breathed the room reeked with alcohol. This in itself was contemptible, but something else was bothering.
Over on the other side of the room was a little Nun lying on a cot. Having tried to hide my anxiety, I played checkers fervently, that is, until Mother Superior left the room, and then I slowed up.
Father Chateaux said, “You don’t play checkers too well today.”
I replied, “No Father, I’m sick.”
With that I stood up and walked over to the cot. To my amazement it was Sister Cecelia, the one who, because of her fairness and beauty, I had feasted my eyes upon when she entered the convent a very short time before. She had such a look of innocence! I breathed a prayer, “Oh God, don’t let her live here and find it all a farce and have her life desecrated and debauched and her heart broken!”
Then I stood and looked into her eyes and tried to read the answer for which my soul searched. Neither of us spoke (that would have broken a rule of the convent), but her eyes spoke volumes, enough to last until eternity.
There lay a Nun I had secretly admired and loved. What had she done to bring her to this dying cot? I took the chance to reach out to her. After all, the priest was far too drunk to tattle or to speak intelligently to the Mother Superior about my actions.
Sister Cecelia broke out in a cold perspiration and beads of sweat stood out on her forehead. I took the sleeve of my habit and wiped away the perspiration. She lifted her eyes in a gesture of thanks and breathed deeply. That was all. The end came so beautifully. Neither mother or dad were there with a cool wash cloth to bathe her feverish brow. She had no husband or children to flock around her to lavish love or affection on her dying soul. But thank God, one time in twenty-two years, I had the privilege of standing by the dying and giving forth a ray of love and expression of sympathy, with the sleeve of my habit which served a wash cloth and a hand that was supposed to be playing checkers
I felt the death angel favoured her. I was so glad he came early to bear her soul away while she was still young and the beauty of youth and innocence remained.