Unraveling Pope Francis and the Mystery of the Absent Nuns

As I get older, I find that I know even less about everything than I thought I did, but in this case I’m pretty sure I’m smarter than the Pope.

Or more likely, he was joking in his voicemail when he asked what was keeping a group of Carmelite nuns so busy they couldn’t take his call.

They are Carmelite nuns. It was mid-day. They were saying the mid-day Divine Office, a prayer all fully professed religious must say every day or it’s a for real, straight up SIN. Like a serious enough sin that if one nun is a coma, the other nuns will go in and pray it with her, just in case.

Which is an extremely boring answer to an extremely interesting question.

To make up for inserting tedious facts into this conversation, I’m sharing the story of why if you had tried to call me, one Friday morning when I was a nun, I wouldn’t have been able to come to the phone. This is also 100 percent fact, but I think you’ll find it a bit more interesting since I was pretty much the world’s worst nun.

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This is me Sister Mercy, when I was a Missionary of Charity aspirant. Do I look innocent? I was trying.

This is me Sister Mercy, when I was a Missionary of Charity aspirant. Do I look innocent? I was trying.

“…every minute of our nun lives was spent scrutinizing our actions for selfish motives, or engaging in some type of manual labor or self-flagellation. I guess the idea was that if we just worked hard enough, and hated ourselves enough, we wouldn’t have much time or energy for any particular friendships.

“Particular friendship” is the convent euphemism for nun on nun action. The measures they took to prevent this type of behavior bordered on ludicrous. We were exhausted. We smelled awful. We wore multiple layers of complicated clothes. At 4:40 a.m. it was completely dark when the first bell of the morning rang to wake us, but we could only get dressed after we had pulled the top sheet completely clear of our respective beds and each nun had created a makeshift tent to cover every single one of our sexy body parts. Even our hands were supposed to be under the sheet. At that time of morning, who could have a lucid thought, let alone a lusty one?

But despite the harshness of our life, or perhaps because of it, I became more deeply in touch with my sapphic nature. The constant and close proximity to these other tough-ass nuns, united by a deep purpose and living life on the most basic level I found I was as horny as…well, a repressed baby dyke in a convent, I suppose.

When we were supposed to be meditating I’d be imagining a very fey Jesus wearing a pink chiffon scarf in addition to his hipster sandals and white robe and leaning me over just…so. One of Sister Milagro’s (our aspirant mistress) favorite lunch table conversation starters was, “How did you experience Jesus this morning in meditation sisters?” I was always stuck for an answer. Jesus was supposed to be our spouse, but I was fairly certain that didn’t include gender bending physical fantasies that might have even included a rear entry component.

Talking when I was supposed to be praying

Maybe if I would have talked less and prayed more, my convent experience would have been more successful. Maybe.

I wasn’t the only nun who dealt with carnal feelings that emerged out of our distinctly spiritual life. One morning when I was cleaning the upstairs bathrooms in the part of the convent that was used a homeless shelter, I was bent a the tub, scrubbing it with a tiny bit of steel wool. I straightened up to rinse my hands –the lye and Ajax combination that the nuns swore by was lethal to both lungs and skin– and felt a presence very close behind me.

It was Sister Maria Shanista, a professed sister with whom I was often paired for visiting. She leaned into me and whispered “Where is it? The woman’s one.”

I stopped scrubbing.

“The woman’s one?”

She pointed to an area near the middle of her body. At first I thought she was gesturing to the large crucifix the professed sisters all wore tucked into their waistband. But then she added, “People touch it,” she said, “and it feels nice?”

I didn’t want to admit that I had been touching mine to make it feel nice every spare moment I had since I’d walked in the convent doors. Sometimes even during the fifteen minute nap we took every afternoon. Even though we slept in a collective dorm with beds merely inches apart, I huddled under my seven blankets believing they concealed my actions.

I nodded in response to Sister Shanista’s not quite a question query.

“That’s a mortal sin,” she whispered., very very close into my ear.

I wasn’t sure if she was accusing me or asking me. Convent guidelines held that we were supposed to pray the rosary aloud whenever we were working in order to, “elevate our minds to God and help avoid useless chatter,” or, as in this case, to keep an aspirant from getting herself into even deeper shit than she was already in by preventing impromptu anatomy lessons.

I pulled out my rosary.

“The first sorrowful mystery,” I began, aware of the irony of my choice. The first sorrowful mystery, I thought, was not The Agony of Jesus in the Garden, but rather that this thirty-year-old woman did not know where her clit was.

BOX SORROWFUL MYSTERYAs I started the Apostles’ Creed, I realized could no longer see Sister Shanista’s right hand.

She had parted her clothing and was clearly groping around trying to locate the topic of conversation. Since we wore no less than four layers between our skin and the outside world, this was not an easy feat. She was close enough to touch me, and she reached over, grabbed my chin hard and made me look at her.

“Where?” she demanded.

“I don’t know, everyone is different. But it’s not far from where you pee. It feels different when you touch it than any other place on your body.”

And then, without realizing it, I made that two-fingered universal gesture for female masturbation which even if done somewhat hesitantly is a very good communicator of the type of touch one’s clit generally needs to provide immediate pleasure. Especially when you’re working with a very motivated learner, which apparently I was.

I watched Sister Shanista’s face turn pink in surprise and pleasure and I suddenly found myself sitting on the side of the tub because my legs were shaking. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I resumed praying the rosary.

I was not even through the first decade when Sister Shanista became completely silent, her whole body turned very red and her face took on a very specific countenance. That look was familiar, I realized, because she had the same expression when she took communion.

We made very awkward eye contact for several moments.

“For the love of Jesus,” she said, her face still very, very red.

“For the love of Jesus,” I agreed.

We resumed cleaning and praying the rosary, and never spoke of it again.

In the eyes of the Church, my actions were definitely a mortal sin. But my conscience tells me it was a corporal work of mercy.

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Want to hear more about my life as a nun? You can read Sunday Morning In the Convent, Mostly In Pictures right here. But for the whole hilarious sad and sometimes sexy affair, you should get your own copy of Freak of Nurture.

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Sunday morning in the convent, mostly in pictures

What I missed most:

Really. I would salivate as people walked by carrying bagels and the Sunday NYT. The bagels I could live without. The NYT made my heart ache.

Really. I would salivate as people walked by carrying bagels and the Sunday NYT. The bagels I could live without. The NYT made my heart ache.

What I was supposed to be doing:

Worrying about hell

Worrying about hell

And also:

This is supposed to represent "praying" not "being a creepy figurine"

This is supposed to represent “praying” not “being a creepy figurine”

And therefore spending more time:

"Examination of Conscience" = list of sins. Sometimes it gave me ideas. "Oh yeah, haven't done that yet"

“Examination of Conscience” = list of sins. Sometimes it gave me ideas. “Oh yeah, haven’t done that yet”

Instead I was always:

Talking when I was supposed to be praying

Talking when I was supposed to be praying

And daydreaming about:

Sharing Cheetos with pretty women showing cleavage.

Sharing Cheetos with pretty women showing cleavage.

Do you want to hear the full nun story? You should probably read Freak of Nurture. If you want do the ebook thing, you can have it in your hands/on your screen 60 seconds from now.

Freak of Nurture ON THE ROAD and now in Philly!

WHAT DID FREAK OF NURTUR DO OVER SUMMER VACATIONWe had a great time this summer with FREAK OF NURTURE! We started off with a standing room only (how ironic is that) kick off event at the Sealy Cuyler Funeral Home,

Bright green. Art deco. What could be better?

Bright green. Art deco. What could be better?

 

Kelli definitely dreamed about this moment when she was a nun.

Kelli definitely dreamed about this moment when she was a nun.

 

New York queer performance superstars Elizabeth Whitney and Lea Robinson acted out the 2011 The Year I Stopped Getting Invited to Parties.

New York queer performance superstars Elizabeth Whitney and Lea Robinson acted out the 2011 The Year I Stopped Getting Invited to Parties.

You can watch the extranormal bears telling the same story, here.

Then there a collective reading with a bunch of other amazing queer writers at Bluestockings in New York's lower east side. For that occasion, Kelli got so excited she wore a shirt with a collar!

Then there a collective reading with a bunch of other amazing queer writers at Bluestockings in New York’s lower east side. For that occasion, Kelli got so excited she wore a shirt with a collar!

Later in the summer, Kelli performed FREAK OF NURTURE the SHOW in Ann Arbor

Because Kelli needs a great big huge rainbow flay behind her to be MORE gay. Yeah that makes sense.

Because Kelli needs a great big huge rainbow flay behind her to be MORE gay. Yeah that makes sense.

There is really no reason for Kelli to be wearing those ears. None.

There is really no reason for Kelli to be wearing those ears. None.

Then there were the Topside Press events, with authors like Imogene  Binnie and Red Durkin in Chicago and then Madison, Wisconsin.  Where Imogene performed Red’s material, of course.

IMOGENE PERFORMS RED MATERIAL

Can you guess which story this is? Hint: it involves a surprising hare.

Even though she only got one photo of all the performers at Madison, Kelli did manage to take approximately a million photos of the feline art at the Madison venue which was called, appropriately enough, Java Cat.

One of over 1000 iconic cat images found on walls of the lesbian owned coffeehouse

One of over 1000 iconic cat images found on walls of the lesbian owned coffeehouse

 

And if you didn't think there were enough cat images, you could bring a photo of your cat!

And if you didn’t think there were enough cat images, you could bring a photo of your cat!

And then, a little trip down memory lane…

ME AND AIDAN AT READING AT MADISON

Kelli ran into a Aidan, someone Kelli has known since the 90s! They used to volunteer at the Catholic Worker Free Clinic in Phily. Aidan was a tween and volunteered with their dad, Kelli was fresh out of the convent. Memories!

And later Kelli headed out to Colorado State University.

Students sent to take notes. At a comedy show. It's a weird life to be sure.

Students sent to take notes. At a comedy show. It’s a weird life to be sure.

Kelli will be doing a reading/performance in Philadelphia on September 26th at William Way in Philadelphia, and again in Provincetown in October…and lots of places in between. For the most up to the minute schedule, sign up for Kelli’s mailing list. 

Want to bring Kelli to your school, workplace, college, coffeeshop, or a county fair near you? Check out her booking info.

 

They’re here!

For realz

For realz

Yeah it ain’t a pre-order anymore, folks. It’s an order. Get yours now. Or if you’re in New York City area, please come to the release party on May 18th.

AN EXCERPT FROM FREAK OF NURTURE IN HONOR OF HOLY WEEK, MY LEAST FAVORITE WEEK OF THE YEAR.

In order to embrace the suffering caused by life as a Missionary of Charity, our Mistress insisted, we should meditate on the sufferings of Jesus. Holy Week, the week in which Roman Catholics everywhere obsess about Jesus’ torture and death on the cross, provided a convenient opportunity to do this.

MC Holy Week is like a trip to Disneyworld, if Disneyworld had been designed by Marquise de Sade.

"I'm surrounded by women!"

“Woohooooo, I’m surrounded by women!” was the extent of my spiritual ecstasy.

 

We spent our time in penance and listening to endless and gruesome recitations about the crucifixion. We did the Stations of the Cross sometimes morning and night, each time starting with “Jesus is condemned to die/God through sin I crucify.”

Well that and bread and oil. Okay that was breakfast.

And breakfast. And lunch. And tea.

I agreed, yes, Jesus was being killed was very bad. But I didn’t see why we had to hear about it in such revolting and graphic detail. If you can imagine having a copy of the coroner’s report from an X-Files episode read to you while you were trying to eat dinner, you get the picture.

Oh the guilt mongering! During Holy Week we constantly chanted the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy, which involves saying “for the sake of his sorrowful passion” no less than fifty times. We were supposed to be remembering that Jesus died because of our sins, each of our individual sins.

 

It seemed both devastatingly depressing and hopeless codependent to me. If a friend saved your life by grabbing you out of the street just as a speeding car almost ran you down, you’d be plenty grateful. But if that same friend demanded you verbally acknowledge that fact a couple dozen times every day and then dedicate a special week to thinking about nothing other than that moment when they grabbed you, after a while you’d hate your friend. After a few years of that you might even wish they had let you take your chances on street, or at the very least told you what the expectation was going to be before they saved you.

KELLI DUNHAM CODEPENDANT JESUS

We also spent the week cleaning our already spotless convent. As we scrubbed the underside of a sink with a toothbrush, wiped imaginary dust from the doorjambs and disinfected the ceilings, Sister Milagro would ask “When we see things are neat and orderly, what does it remind us of?”

It reminded me of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it turns out the right answer was “God.”

I was continually confused by Sister Milagro’s questioning. It felt like I was the perpetual losing contestant on the “Who Wants To Be A Living Saint” game show. In retrospect, I would have done okay if I’d learned to rotate three answers: “God,” “The Virgin Mary” and “Because I suck as a human being.”

Holy Week was also when we were introduced to the book True Devotion to Mary, which is a book designed especially to pulverize self esteem. One section reads: “We are all more evil than serpents, more stubborn than donkeys, more stupid than oxen, more slothful than pigs.” Sister Milagros shared this portion with us in chapel one night and I fell over laughing. Something about the random animal comparisons and the bizarreness of the ritual just struck me as funny. Who said are oxen are stupid? By whose measure? Of course, the harder I tried not to laugh, the harder I laughed, and then my other group sisters started to laugh, and then we were all shaking with silent giggles.

Sister Lisa was seeking the face of Jesus. I was seeking...I don't know.

Sister Lisa was seeking the face of Jesus. I was seeking…I don’t know.

 

So after asking what was so funny, Sister Milagros just threw up her hands and said, “Very well sisters, just go to bed. You will not be able to keep Jesus company tonight.”

We were supposed to be having all night adoration of the Blessing Sacrament and as usual, we were exhausted. As I brushed my teeth, I confess I thought, “That certainly worked out well.”

New surprises came every day, each more unpleasant than the last. Especially memorable was the morning Sister Milagro lectured us about why, if we really loved Jesus, we would mortify ourselves by using the bathroom no more than once a day. This seemed so ludicrous to me, I thought she must be kidding. So I started to laugh. She was neither kidding nor amused by my reaction. She was even less amused when she overheard me whispering to another member of my group, “Great. Just call me Sister Mary Bladder Infection.”

Another rather unsavory surprise came as a result of the time we spent in the chapel. We knelt for prayer on the bare concrete floor for three hours and forty-five minutes each day. Because of this, we developed oozing calluses on our knees which would stick to our habits when we knelt, rip open when we got up, and begin oozing again. We explained to our mistress how this was wreaking havoc with our laundry which-of course-we washed by hand. She pointed to the crucifix. “What wound do you think you are making in Jesus’ tender flesh when you complain about spending time with him?”

My response might have been a tad sarcastic: “Oh, sister those wounds aren’t from us. All those wounds were already there. I guess they were made by the sisters who had so little love for Jesus they went to the bathroom twice today.”