Prostitution in the towns is like the cesspool in the palace: take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place. – St. Thomas Aquinas
On Saturday afternoon Sister Magdalene Theodora filed quietly into the chapel with all the others of her order, just as she did every Saturday between Nones and Vespers, to make her confession. It never took long; after all, even the weakest member of a cloistered order could find few opportunities for sin. Theodora presumed that most of the confessions were like hers usually was: a short recitation of sinful thoughts, admissions of gossip and revelations of submitting to unorthodox acts in the performance of their duties, followed by a short penance of the Act of Contrition and a few Ave Marias, or at most a decade or two of the rosary. It would take less than an hour altogether, and then the priest would be off to prepare for the vigil mass at his own church.
But for some time now, she had held back one serious sin at each confession, then compounded the offense by taking communion the next day with that mark still upon her soul. She had no excuse other than fear; the penance was entirely at the discretion of the priest, and she had seen the terrible humiliation which could be meted out for the rare mortal sin. And since the particular canon law she had (repeatedly) broken left considerable room for interpretation, she wanted to be absolutely sure her confessor was sympathetic. When she first resolved to admit her crime three months ago, she knew that she could never do so to anyone but Father Anthony; but he had been there only the week before her decision, and not once after that until today.
Theodora wasn’t sure why Father Anthony was so fond of her in comparison with the other Magdalene Sisters, but it was obvious to everyone that he was (and the fact had generated some jealousy and more than a few unkind comments). Perhaps he reminded her of a favorite niece, or a girl he had once courted before entering the priesthood; unlike most he had not pursued that vocation directly after school, but rather turned to it after a distinguished military career in the 29th Crusade. He was, in fact, a highly-decorated flying ace, and Theodora had often thrilled to his stories of aeroplane combat in the Pacific against the ruthless forces of the Emperor of Japan. But even though killing in the service of God is no sin, he was pained by the thought of all the blood he had spilled and resolved to pursue the path of peace, entering the seminary less than a year after the end of the war. Perhaps it was this personal history which made him so kind and merciful; that, in combination with his obvious affection for her, helped to quell her fears about the possible outcome of her confession. Try as she might, she just couldn’t believe he would inflict a harsh punishment on her; he was more like a kindly old grandfather than a dreaded disciplinarian as Father Gerald had been.
The memory of the fateful day when she stood disgraced before that other priest suddenly intruded upon her consciousness like the unannounced arrival of the Inquisition, and the smiling visage of the beloved Father Anthony was crowded out by Father Gerald’s angry scowl. Though it had been fourteen years since she laid eyes on him, she still remembered every line of his cruel face, and the sound of his oddly high-pitched voice as he pronounced her a corrupting influence on the community. “Jack O’Connor was led astray by this young Jezebel, and now faces months of penance labor!” he shouted; “There is only one sure way to keep her from tempting other young men into sin, one certain method of turning her wickedness to a constructive end!” Her parents’ signatures were a mere formality after that, and she was whisked off to a St. Margaret’s asylum in New Amsterdam, over a thousand miles from the only home she had ever known. She wasn’t even allowed to see the baby; the kindly nun who ministered to her during labor assured her that it was better that way. Then after a brief convalescence, she was transferred to the convent where she would be trained for a life of indefinite penance in the Order of St. Mary Magdalene.
All things considered, it wasn’t such a bad existence; they ate well and did little manual labor, because their vocation required the maintenance of their health and beauty. And though they were reviled by chaste women and often made the butt of vulgar jokes, they heard none of it once they entered the gates of the convent because the censors allowed them only wholesome and uplifting books and films. And as the reverend mother and senior sisters frequently reminded them, they served an important social function by protecting others from the effects of what St. Augustine had called “capricious lusts”; by accepting men’s sin into their bodies and then doing penance for it every day of their lives, they played a vital role in cleansing the world of evil.
But there was one aspect of her situation which Theodora found almost unbearable, and it was that which had driven her into the transgression for which she now sought forgiveness. Despite the nuns’ assurances that her babies would go to deserving parents who had been unable to have natural children of their own, she was haunted by the memory of the babies – two more since the first – whose cries she had heard, but whose tiny faces she had never been allowed to look upon. She was obsessed with thoughts of what they might be like now; were they happy? Did their adoptive parents treat them well? Did they know their real mother was a sacred harlot, or had that been kept from them? She knew that it was possible one of her regular patrons might eventually marry her, thus freeing her to have children she could keep; in fact, there were two likely candidates and she might well see the outside world again within the next year. But she also knew that she could not stand to have another child ripped from her, and for a very long time now had taken steps to thwart the will of God in that respect. Though submitting to a patron’s urging for unorthodox sex acts was one of the minor sins they all confessed every Saturday, Theodora had for years carefully calculated her times of fertility and taken the lead with men she ministered to during those times; thus she had not only sinned herself, but had also tempted others who had sought her services in order to avoid sin.
She was unsure how serious her transgression was, but considering that seduction was the offense which resulted in her commitment to this life in the first place, she wasn’t going to take any chances. She had faith that God would forgive her; it was only the judgment of His priests she wasn’t too sure about. But she knew Father Anthony wouldn’t be overly harsh with her; when her turn arrived she glided into the confessional without hesitation, and though her heart leaped when she heard the little grilled window slide open, her voice did not tremble as she started the ritual: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”