Ms. Carpenter

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"The next appointment," announced Father Muratori implacably, "is a certain Ms. Mary Carpenter."
"Ms.?" said the archbishop. "Of what vintage is this Ms. Carpenter?" He accented the Ms. both times he used it.
His secretary shrugged. "Her term, Archbishop. I'd say she has at least a year to go before she's 20."
"Do we know her or what she wants?"
"What she wants is 'personal,' she says, and she looks vaguely familiar to me, but I don't think I know her."
The archbishop sighed. He prided himself on his accessibility, but it was Muratori's job to screen out the nuts from the people who really had something to say to their spiritual leader. He must think this Mary Carpenter was worth seeing, so there was no point in arguing with the dutiful but inscrutable young man about it. It was such a soft May morning with flowers in bloom outside his window. Tulips, he thought. He wasn't up to another confrontation with a feminist today.
Mary Carpenter was shown in.
The archbishop realized that Muratori was probably right. The young woman did not look like a nut. Dressed smartly in a gray suit with a plaid scarf at her neck, she seemed a presentable and sensible late adolescent girl. Still there was something slightly "foreign" about her. Her skin was almost olive in color, and her long black hair and deep brown eyes seemed to suggest the eastern Mediterranean. Carpenter was not a Greek name, but maybe it was a translation of something more clearly Levantine.
"Good morning, Ms. Carpenter," said the archbishop, emphasizing the Ms. ever so lightly, as he rose from his desk to greet her.
"Good morning, Archbishop," she replied, bowing to kiss his ring—an old church custom he found embarrassing. Her brown eyes spark led, and she showed a row of even, white teeth in a quick and somewhat imp­ish smile.
Then he recognized her. The world spun around him. He was on a crazy cosmic roller coaster. He quickly went back to his seat behind the desk and sat down badly shaken. Ms. Carpenter sat down across from him, a friendly grin lighting up her face. "You recognized me, didn't you?" She spoke delightedly, as if they were playing a wonderful game. Her voice was rich and deep, as though some­where in the background there was breaking surf.
"Yes. Do you read minds?"
She laughed. "No, not really, but I'm pretty good at reading faces."
"What I want to know is why you look exactly like I always imagined you to look."
More laughter. "But, Archbishop, how else did you expect me to look? Admittedly, if I were going to China—to cite the old example—I would have had to make certain other changes ..." Her laughter hinted at wisdom which teenagers didn't have. But then she really wasn't. ...
"How many changes did you have to make for me?"
"Surprisingly few. That's one of the advantages of dealing with a scholar who specializes in the area." The laughter was still in her eyes and smile. What deep dancing eyes. He amused her, she felt no constraint to hide the fact.
He was still shaken. "Would it be proper to offer you some tea?"
"Why not?"
He poured her a cup of Lapsang Souchang from the pot on the warmer. She smiled with surprise and pleasure when she sipped it.
"First time?'' he asked.
"Only for this brand. You are surprised that I would drink tea?"
"No reason why you shouldn't, actually. We have a doctrine that says you should be able to. But please spare me the shock of asking for one of my cigars."
Now the laughter was explosive.
"Well, it wouldn't give me cancer at any rate!" They laughed together. This was not a dream. Nor was he suddenly out of his mind, but reality was slipping away, like a fading TV signal on a rainy night.
"Uh, what is the proper title that I should use?"
"Oh, I have lots of them, but I think Ms. Carpenter is fun. We had a lot of laughs over that. 'Course you can always use my first name if it doesn't scare you too much."
It did. "Well, would it be out of order, Ms. Carpenter, to ask what you want—other than to sample my brand of tea?" Get down to business, yes that was the thing to do.
Her eyes widened. “A favor, Archbishop. What else have I ever wanted? I think my record on that is quite clear."
"A church?"
"Come now, Your Grace, you and I really ought to be beyond that sort of thing. Besides, they have already built one for me here in this country."
"A beautiful church then?"
"I have heard the joke, too, you know. Heaven forgive me, I laughed at it."
"Heaven forgive you? Surely that’s an inappropriate phrase?"
"Archbishop, you are a literalist, aren't you?" The same impish grin spread across her lovely face. She looked like he thought she should, but there was a hoydenish quality about her that did not fit his expectations.
"There was a time when you seemed to need beautiful churches."
"Not I, my lord. People wanted to build them, and that was all right. But I never needed them."
"They put up some fine ones, though."
"Yes, and I'm proud of them; but not many after the 14th century, don't you think?"
"Quite."
"Do I shock you, Archbishop?" Her voice was frank and unassuming.
"To be honest with you, you do surprise me."
"I don't seem to fit the image of an age-old human symbol."
"Oh, I'm not arguing with the symbol, Ms. Carpenter. If what you reflect is like what you are, then the cosmos is a better place than I thought it was..."
She actually blushed. "A very pretty compliment..."
"Yes," he continued his thought, "better, if a little wilder and more un­predictable, and..."
"Better make it good," she murmured.
"... and more filled with playful wonder." Grand larceny with some­one else's phrase, but under the circumstances... He was on the roller coaster again.
She clapped her hands like a child at a circus. "Oh very good indeed! May I have more tea?"

He poured the tea. "Now, as to that favor you wanted?"
"So businesslike—just when we were having such a nice conversation. Well, you don't need to look all that serious and solemn. I won't affect your budget at all." She was now a pretty fishwife in a market place, promising him a bargain. Oh Lord he was in trouble…
He put down the teapot with a clatter. "You did read my mind!"
"I told you that's out of bounds for me. I'm just a shrewd bargainer and a good reader of faces. You know my ethnic background." She leaned over his desk every inch the confidential negotiator.
"You know the cloistered convent up at Docksville?"
"Sure, there's three old nuns in it and one postulant. The order is being suppressed by Rome because it doesn't have more than a score of members all over the world."
"Don't close it down. Leave it open. I told you it wouldn't cost much."
"But why?"
"Now, my lord, you ought to know better than that. People don't ask me that kind of question." In her dizzying spin from mood to mood she now was playing the part of an Italian Cardinal.
"To quote yourself, Ms. Carpenter, you and I ought to be beyond that sort of thing."
"Ah ha, you catch on to the game too quickly. You also ought to know that my kind tend to make up the rules as we go along. Anyhow, I just know that it's very important that the convent be left open."
"Very important, to judge by the status of the messenger."
She shrugged in the ancient gesture of the Near Eastern negotiator. But her answer was 20th-century New York, "What can I tell you?"
''I've got rules I've got to keep."
"Bend them."
"Orders from Rome."
"Ignore them. The Romans won't know the difference."
"That sounds slightly seditious."
“I’m sure you won't tell on me." She winked. He wouldn't mind the conversation if she wasn't enjoying it so much.
"You do remember the story about the leper from the Hebrew scripture, don't you? I think we improved on it in ours, but you know the lesson. If I asked you for something big you would cheerfully do it, so I ask for something small and you hesitate."
''I'm not hesitating; I'm just saying I don't understand."
"That's the whole point. You're not supposed to understand. Besides if I hadn't come, you certainly would have closed it."
"I certainly would have. I can think of no good reason to keep open an expensive and useless convent. Neither can Rome." It was his most archiepiscopal tone, reasonable but firm.
"Keep it open as a favor for me, please?" There was a tone of pleading in her voice.
"How can I say no?"
"I don't take away people's freedom. You can say no by saying no. You can even make a good case that I have no authority to dispense you from Roman regulations. I am not, as you surely realize, a member of the curia."
"I can't," he sighed looking at his hands as he always did when he had to say "no."
"You won't keep the cloister open?" She wrinkled her nose in disbelief, "not even for me?" The girl was used to getting her way.
''I'm afraid I can't. I've got the Congregation of Religious in Rome on one side of me and the pastoral council here on the other side. And they both have decided to close it. If I had my way...."
Her small hand tightened, the knuckles turning white. Sparks flashed from her eyes. "Don't I have any vote?"
''I'm sure you do, but as you well know there are legitimate channels of authority in the church. We all have to go through them. I could arrange for you to talk to the chairman of the priest senate..."
She rose from her chair and paced back and forth in front of his desk. "Fine chance I'd have with them. They think I belong in a medieval monastery." She was angry … but she wasn't supposed to...
"Or a Portuguese basilica." He didn't know what made him say that but it was a mistake.
She turned on him, her face grim, her jaw set, her eyes now blazing! "Archbishop, you're a fool and a coward. You're not really a bad man as canon lawyers go, but you've balanced so many forces for so long that you've forgotten what you're supposed to be. You don't really want to close that cloister down. You never did...." Her dark skin had flushed a dusky rose in anger.
"How do you know that? I thought you didn't read minds."
She dismissed the quibble with an imperious wave of her hand. "Someone who does told me. You like the old nuns, you even believe that cloisters are a good idea. You have compromised so often that you can't follow your own instincts anymore." She stamped her feet impatiently. "Why don't you wake up before you waste your whole life?"
Shock and dismay must have begun to show on his face. She smiled faintly. "You're scandalized because I'm angry. I'm not supposed to get angry, right? Just a plaster statue to light candles for?"
"I am a little surprised," he mumbled.
"Sure, I should not have any human emotions at all, no strong feelings, no concern, you want to make me the kind of person who would be a good archbishop."
"That's not fair... I ..."
"It is too fair. I may grow angry, but I'm not unfair. You know that."
"Ma'am you have me trapped." She sat down in her chair again.
"That, my lord, is the general idea. To clear up this point: you don’t think someone would have been given my job unless she had powerful feelings do you? You don't think that I would lose those feelings ever, do you? What kind of a theologian are you?" Her anger seemed to be rising again.
"I just wish I could sign you up for a talk with some of my theological advisers. You'd blow their minds."
"No thanks. Archbishops are bad enough."

He played with his episcopal ring as he always did when making decisions. The flowers were still blooming in the garden outside. The sun was still shining. He could hear Father Muratori's typewriter. It was not a dream. Ms. Carpenter's theology was impeccable. He had never thought the principles should be taken that literally though. If people like her ... strange way to put it ... really cared desperately then ...
"Would you have really preferred me, my lord, without passionate concern?"
"No ... but the force of it surprised me..."
The same impish grin. "A lot of people are going to be surprised. Now tell me that you are going to fend off the Congregation and the Senate and follow your own good instincts about those poor nuns..."
"Woman, you are used to having things your way."
"Solid scriptural grounds for that too, Excellency." She knew she had him. "Well," she stood up, "it's been a pleasure to do business with you, Archbishop. Now I really must be going."
"Don't try to tell me that you haven't enough time."
"I've already taken too much of yours. You have so many administrative responsibilities." Now she was just plain making fun of him.
As he walked around his desk to see her out, he said, "May I be so bold as to point out that having persuaded me to break Rome's rules, you're in no position to say anything about the responsibilities of my office."
The laughter was like an old bell pealing across a French countryside. She knelt to kiss his ring. ''I've en­joyed this conversation."
"I guess I have too, though it will take me a while to get back down to earth."
"A nice pun, if unintentional. Goodbye, Archbishop. Till we meet again."
"We will meet again, Mary?" He finally got out the name.
She beamed. "I don't know the future any more than I can read minds. But, yes, Archbishop, I have a feeling we will meet again."
Father Muratori came into the office after Ms. Carpenter had left.
"Not a kook?"
"Oh, no."
"Didn't look like one. She want anything important?"
"Depends."
Muratori got the signal. He wasn't supposed to ask.
"I can't help the feeling that I've seen her some place before. Anyone I ought to know?"
The archbishop looked at him steadily. "George, you wouldn't believe it if I told you. Who's next on the visitor's list?"

This article appeared in the May 1978 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 43, No. 5, pages 17-20).