A long time ago, when I was working as a custom cabinetmaker and doing murals as a sideline, I was hired to paint a religious scene in the lunchroom at a Catholic hospital in a rural Illinois town. Supervising me would be the half-dozen-or-so nuns from the order that had founded the hospital.
I was taught by Dominican nuns all through elementary school, and I still had a healthy respect for them bordering on terror. Back then, nuns outranked parents but were inferior to priests in God’s hierarchy of worthy people. They gave us ethics, values, beliefs and marching orders, and we dared not question any of it. They were clearly chosen for their formidable personalities and could reduce a school-age child to a pool of protoplasm with one glance. A decade or so later I wondered if they secretly taught their methods to the drill instructors in the Marine Corps. Boot camp for me was reassuringly familiar.
I hadn’t had contact with nuns for years, and now I would be dealing with them as one adult to another. Would they still give me Holy Cards when they were pleased? But since they wouldn’t even know if I was Catholic, they couldn’t make me go say a rosary or a good Act of Contrition if I screwed up. It was awkward at first but I eventually relaxed and found they were pretty normal people in abnormal costumes. Where were the battle-axes of my childhood? Maybe in the retired nun’s wing of the hospital?
They all liked the composition of the mural: Jesus, just off-center, standing on the shores of Galilee, with the twelve disciples, all gathered around a cook fire against a dramatic sunset. I was planning to do a conventional Jesus but they insisted they wanted something special, though they just couldn’t describe what it was. I kept painting around Jesus until I had the whole thing done except the central figure.
Things got dicey. The nuns got into a surprisingly vocal disagreement about what Jesus should look like. I realized that this was no trivial matter. They considered themselves “brides of Jesus,” as one of my aunts described her vocation, and I’ve read that they are inaugurated into nunliness in a wedding dress. I tried to imagine what would happen in a Mormon polygamist’s house if all the wives disagreed on what their husband looked like.
One nun saw Jesus as young and vital, another as wise and paternal, and another as fiery and commanding. They argued exhaustively about his hairstyle, beard and robe. A few snuck up to me while no one was around and slipped me a picture of their ideal. Soon I found myself in the uncomfortable role of referee. It wasn’t long before they were all miffed with me. What, I worried, should I do if physical combat erupted? What are the moral implications of wrestling a nun to the ground?
Finally the senior nun, and dominant personality, declared that she had a living model who she was sure would satisfy everyone. But as she headed for the nearest elevator, the younger ones huddled, mumbling about someone they thought she was sweet on; it was a very disturbing concept to my inner child.
“Sister Mary Severity,” as I thought of her, reappeared towing a tall young man by the shirt sleeve. He had a boyish face with short, strawberry-blond hair, a three- or four-day stubble of whiskers and a grin of embarrassment. He seemed confused and hardly spoke while she pointed out his salient features. Opposite them stood a phalanx of black robes with scowling faces framed in stiff white cowls, mumbling their disapproval.
“He’s the plumber working on the new addition,” said one.
I tried to point out to the good Sister that Jews of that era probably had black hair with maybe dark or olive skin. She reminded me that I had an artistic license and should not be afraid to use it. “Besides,” she said, “it’s our mural.”
The situation seemed intractable but I was temporarily rescued when one of the sisters noticed it was time for vespers or something, and they all rushed away. After a lot of hand-wringing, I could think of only one solution, so I finished up that evening and went home.
In the morning when the covey came to see the final product they found the tall figure of Jesus addressing his disciples with his back to the viewer. On the phone, Sister Mary Severity said it was fine but didn’t sound too enthusiastic. A check eventually came in the mail. I’ve since adopted a policy of never working directly for a committee, and I’ve updated my image of nuns and plumbers.