You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, but I pinky swear on Mother Teresa’s grave that it happened. When I was nine years old, my parents abandoned me at a convent.
Just dropped me off and drove away.
I know. It sounds like the discarded plot of Sister Act 7, but it’s true. I’m still not sure how it all went down, but I suspect my parents were itching for a date night at Steak & Ale. Either that, or my mom thought it would be the best way to encourage me into the priesthood.
Both are equally plausible.
Whatever the case, one Friday evening, duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I met my Aunt Margaret at a convent somewhere in central Oklahoma. She was a bona fide nun from Ohio, in town for what I can only assume was the ecclesiastical version of a student exchange program.
Even though my parents tried to soft-peddle the whole engagement by saying things like, “Spending time with your Aunt Margaret will be fun!” my nine-year-old self had seen Sound of Music and knew that a convent was no Chuck-E-Cheese. Sure, I had fond memories of her singing and giving me handfuls of root beer candies to keep me quiet during mass, but had never considered her for the role of weekend cruise director. I envisioned myself spending two full days in forced silence, praying a lot, and avoiding ruler slaps to the knuckles.
So, imagine my surprise when my convent sleepover turned into a rollicking episode of VH1’s “Behind the Cloister.”
Forgive me if I’m blending my nun encounters here – it’s all a bit of a blur - but one of the first things I recall upon arriving at nun camp was going to the kitchen, where one of the sisters stood in front of a bunch of hole-filled (but not holy) sheets of wheat cracker dough. They looked like a bunch of unleavened Connect Four games. It turns out these were the leftovers that had been discarded from baking the round wafers used for Holy Communion. When I asked about them, she explained what it was, handed me an entire sheet, and said I could eat as much as I wanted. Knowing how they ration the communion wafers in church (one per worshipper), I dove right in, chomping on a smorgasbord of Savior sandwich crust. Not because it tasted particularly good, but because I felt like some sort of edgy altar boy.
But the excitement was just getting started.
After stuffing me full of wanna-be Jesus crackers, all of the nuns changed out of their habits and donned blue jeans, western shirts, and cowboy hats. They drove me to a small town rodeo, bought me some candy, and sat me down in the stands to watch the proceedings. As the dust wafted into the bleachers, the sisters hooted and hollered at the barrel racers and bull riders, YeeHaw-ing in the name of the Lord. It was surreal. The only discernible difference between the nuns and anyone else is that they sported wads of popcorn in their cheeks in lieu of the Red Man tobacco preferred by the local women. We stayed out well past my bedtime, and I think I fell asleep in the car on the way back to the convent.
I rose early the next morning, a little unsure of where I was. I stumbled into the kitchen and had some non-sugary (sin-less) cereal to get my juices pumping. Once again, the sisters chose to deviate from the wardrobe norms, opting for sweats and T-shirts, informing me that the day’s adventure would be a trek to Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Once we had established our campsite for the day, we went on hikes, scouted for arrowheads, and played Frisbee golf. The icing on the cake – and what could only be described as a preview of the afterlife – was Aunt Margaret giving me access to a seemingly unlimited supply of Shasta soft drinks and generic-brand potato chips.
It was the weekend changed my little nine-year-old world.
To this day, every time I look at a nun, I silently wonder what’s behind the habit. Is she into improv comedy? Can she dance the Macarena? Is she a closet fan of WWF’s Monday Night Raw?
After my time with Aunt Margaret, anything’s possible.
I wish I could say that this experience has extended beyond my encounters with nuns and changed the way I see everyone I encounter. But sadly, that’s not the case. Too often I allow one thing to define a person for me. It’s ridiculous, I know. But what’s even more ridiculous is that we all do it.
Every one of us.
A few years ago, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov wanted to see how long it took people to form a first impression. So, they showed people photographs of random faces for a fraction of a second and asked the subjects to form an opinion as to the person’s trustworthiness, competence, likability, aggressiveness, and attractiveness. Not surprisingly, the judgments made in a fraction of a second correlated highly with the impressions of people who looked at the photos for as long as they liked. Secretly, I’d like to think that any nun faces scored well.
In a follow-up study, the researchers wanted to see if these first impressions affected our actions. In trial two, they again showed split-second images. But this time, unbeknownst to the subjects, some of the faces they judged were actually the frontrunners in major US elections.
So what happened?
Two weeks after the study, the faces people judged as more “competent” after viewing them for only milliseconds won roughly 70% of the races.
I’m sure none of this is surprising to you. Big deal, right? We are hard-wired for snap judgment. And, when you consider it, this is actually very helpful in life-or-death situations. If you’re being charged by a wild rhino or facing down an avalanche, you wouldn’t want to think long and hard about what is right or what is wrong. Such painstaking deliberation could mean the end of your existence.
But avalanches aren’t people.
And rhinos aren’t relationships.
With each passing day, I am starting to realize that the reflexes that save me in these life or death situations are a danger to me in my everyday life, keeping me from connecting with the Body of Christ. I sometimes find it incredibly hard to see beyond the superficial into the deep marrow of that which makes us all unique. And maybe you do, too? And I’m not talking about looks. I treat the entire human race as some sort of paint-by-numbers set. Taking a tiny bit of information and allowing it to color your entire perception of a person.
The article they share on social media.
The political sign in their yard.
The church they attend. Or don’t.
And it needs to stop.
Lately it seems that our shortcut world is Hell-bent on encouraging us to confirm the worst in others while ignoring the good. New math is all about simplification and division. The quicker I can pigeonhole a person, the easier it is for me to shun my enemies and find my friends. This all sounds simple in theory (like spotting a nun at a rodeo) but much harder in practice.
The truth is, God created us to be in community, and my pre-judgment of people only serves to separate me from the Family of God. Billions of us, give-or-take. With two ears to hear, hearts to heal, and arms to embrace.
So my prayer today is this: That I can recognize my snap judgment when it closes me off, and do my best to prove myself wrong. That I can be the one who looks for the good in a sea of negativity. Looking past my silly stereotypes to see the person underneath. In the words of 1 Samuel 16:7. Not seeing as mortals see, but seeing as the Lord does. Looking at the heart. My heart as well as that of my neighbor.
Breaking habits one at a time.
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