by Jean Roberta
I’ve never really experienced religion first-hand. I was raised by parents who joined the local Unitarian Fellowship (this is a community of Unitarians without a resident minister) after leaving more orthodox Protestant churches when they were teenagers. Still, the ethic of denial that they were taught when they were young seemed to stay with them in secular form.
When boys began inviting me out, my parents warned me that boys liked sex. Presumably, this was something I couldn’t understand. Later, my mother advised me to go to a doctor to get medication to “cure” me from wanting “sex with men all the time.” I told her I didn’t want it all the time, just now and then. I said, “You know what that’s like.” Apparently she didn’t.
The message I got from all my grandparents was that sex was immoral except within marriage – and even then, if I were a normal woman, I wouldn’t like it. The message I got from men was that any past sexual experience I might have was much more disgusting than theirs. (And this was from self-defined sexual revolutionaries.)
My parents were threatened with Hell as the ultimate punishment for lust. I was threatened with psychiatric “treatment” and social ostracism. It seemed as if the disapproving God of old times was replaced in the mid-twentieth century by the “mental health” establishment and a general consensus on how women were supposed to behave.
The Puritan streak in North American Protestantism seems to prompt a belief that pleasure in most forms is self-destructive and contrary to God’s will. And that hard work is virtuous, not because of what it can produce, but because it numbs the mind, heart, and libido.
I’ve always wondered if the “wrath of God” that is so feared by so many could be a well-buried internal rebellion against self-denial. If there is a God, and if He/She is angry, the causes might be the opposite of what is usually preached from the pulpit.
Some people join religious communities and accept rigid rules to escape from “temptation,” the supposed corruption of the world. But the kind of spiritual seekers I admire don’t run from chaos, dirt, or human appetites – they work in the world’s worst slums, and try to bring comfort, not judgment or deprivation, to their fellow-beings.
My story, “The Battle Lost and Won” (in my single-author collection of historical erotica, The Princess and the Outlaw) is set in a vaguely medieval world that is dominated by a Church that seeks to control whole populations. Susanna, an innocent maiden from a large family, has entered the local convent as a novice to save herself from the Seven Deadly Sins. After an older nun offers her a shockingly carnal kind of love, and Susanna runs away, she is confronted by a supernatural being. Is her tormenter a demon or an angel?
Susanna is tested in much different ways than she ever expected as a sheltered virgin. She learns that children are sacred, even if conceived outside of wedlock, and that Christian charity can be expressed in a brothel. She learns that love is never an abomination.
This is the opening scene:
"Sister Mary Agnes."
The creamy, insinuating voice held a hint of mockery as it echoed off the high ceiling of the convent kitchen.
Everything else within the room could be identified and put back in its place. Cups, bowls, tableware, sun-bleached tablecloths, pots, pitchers and candlesticks waited patiently in the cupboards until they could be of service. Like penitent sinners, the dirty dishes from the evening meal were being scrubbed clean, dried and placed safely where they belonged.
Sister Mary Agnes enjoyed washing the dishes alone, when she could focus on her work and not on the presence of another sister. Everything about this humble task was satisfying, from the warmth of the soapy water to the caress of the young nun’s plain habit on the skin of her legs as she moved back and forth.
But someone else was in the room with her, and its voice was too androgynous to be identified clearly as that of a man or a woman. "Do not ignore me, Sister, at the risk of your immortal soul." The voice was not human, yet it reminded her of someone she knew.
The sister, who had been named Susanna by her parents, was armed against temptation. "Then tell me your name. I command you."
A chuckle rumbled and bounced from one stone wall to the one opposite. "'Beseech' would be a better word from your lips, lady. My name is Gabriel."
The sister was unconvinced, and she knew that demons have myriad different names to confuse the gullible. She lifted both hands from her basin of water and sprinkled each corner of the room, as if to cleanse the air. Water ran down the walls, left puddles on the floor, and soaked her habit in spots. "Tell me your true name, hell-spawn!"
"Do not toy with me, wench!" trumpeted the voice. "I am Gabriel, messenger of God. If you do not wish to hear what I have to tell you, I shall leave you at once, and worse visitors will come in my place. Doubt this at your peril."
Sister Mary Agnes was shaken, despite her determination not to show fear, and despite the timbre of the voice, which seemed to lack the masculine thunder of either God or the Devil.
Moved by some instinct she hadn't known she had, the sister looked into the water in the basin, and saw the amazing reflection of a smooth, shining face with delicately arched, cruelly sarcastic eyebrows above terrible dark eyes and full, sensuous lips that wore only the hint of a smile.
She was not convinced that her visitor was an angel, but she knew better than to continue to antagonize him (her?) unnecessarily. "Speak, then. I will listen."
"Susanna, you refuse the gifts that God has set before you. This is neither wise nor virtuous. You wish to be of service to all the other children of your Creator, but goodness requires courage and action, not cowardice and lethargy. You shall be tested three times, and much rests upon the choices you make."
The face in the water dissolved into wavering shapes. A faint hiss, like the sound of steam from a kettle, signaled the departure of the mysterious being from ordinary space and time.