By Stephen McCutchan
David Benedict, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, could sense the student energy as he entered the hall at the University of Pittsburgh. A friend, Brother Matthew of the Newman Society, asked David to share in a forum about abortion with someone from Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
Brother Matthew greeted him, “Great to have you here.” He glanced around. “Sister Abigail will be here soon.” He smiled, “She seems to always run a little late. I think you will really like her. A first rate mind.”
“Matthew, I don’t want to offend anyone. With the Sister here, how open should I be?”
Matthew lowered his head slightly and looked at David with bemused eyes. “Believe me, Sister Abigail can give as well as she gets. Not all these students are Catholic. I expect you to be completely honest with your opinions. I’m excited about the evening.”
The door near the stage opened. “Oh, here she comes now.”
He moved past David to greet an attractive young woman mounting the steps. With the exception of her veil, she wore a business suit. David’s first thought was Wow, and he silently chastised himself for being inappropriate.
“David, may I introduce you to Sister Abigail. She is in charge of young adult education at Saint Paul’s Cathedral.”
David reached out his hand in greeting. “Pleased to meet…uh…you.” As their hands touched, David felt a jolt and was drawn to a pair of beautiful gray eyes. He also saw what started as a friendly smile on her face freeze for an instant, and she almost jerked her hand away. Brother Matthew, busy pulling out chairs for them, was not aware of their discomfort.
Matthew introduced them to the large crowd of boisterous students and turned. “Sister Abigail, we will begin with you explaining the Catholic position on abortion.”
David listened as she confidently articulated her belief in the absolute sacredness of life that begins at conception and should not be interrupted for any reason.
Matthew turned to David. “Your response, David.”
“The first issue is when does the soul enter the fetus, and it becomes a human life. Biblical Judaism held the fetus becomes human, or receives a soul, at birth when the body is able to breathe on its own. Early Christianity debated whether that happened 40 or 90 days after conception. For most of church history, the position is, as Sister said, that ensoulment begins at conception.”
“The prophet Jeremiah says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” Abigail said. “So according to Scripture our humanity began even before conception.”
“But that would mean even prior to intercourse. Should we let nature take its course from the first moment two people feel mutual attraction?” David asked.
A hoot came from the audience.
David, who had been looking at Abigail, turned towards the audience. “There should be no hooting and cheering in this conversation. I may disagree with the Sister on some points, but she is articulating a well established doctrine and deserves to be treated with respect.”
After about an hour, Matthew concluded the forum. David stood and turned. Abigail already had walked towards him. “Even though we disagree, I appreciate your support. It’s a complex issue.”
Again David saw her gray eyes observing him. Almost in a fog, he heard her thank Matthew, turn, and leave the auditorium.
* * * * *
For the next couple of weeks, as David focused on the various challenges of his ministry, he found his thoughts interrupted by the image of those gray eyes looking at him. Then, one day as he walked by a Starbucks near the university, he glanced in the window and spotted Sister Abigail reading a book and sipping her coffee. While he couldn’t see her eyes, he felt the same attraction. What the heck, it’s just being friendly. He entered the shop, ordered a caffé latte, and approached her. She sensed his presence and glanced up. Awareness dawned on her face.
“Hi, Sister,” he said, “We met at the forum with Brother Matthew a couple of weeks ago. Mind if I sit down?”
Her face reddened, but she quickly covered herself, smiled, and indicated a chair with her hand.
“So long as we are not debating abortion, I’d enjoy some conversation.”
“Actually I have another proposition,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow and stared directly at him with those disturbing gray eyes.
He regretted his choice of words but plunged ahead. “Sorry, I meant I want to issue an invitation. My church’s adult class on Sunday is studying what it means to be called by God. Would you be willing to come and speak to us about your sense of call to be a nun?”
“Sure,” she said, without any hesitation in her voice.
“Well, there is one other piece to the invitation,” he said. He felt his face flush and didn’t know why. Sometimes, he thought, you have to act on impulse.
“I was thinking about a week from Sunday. The class is at 9:30 in the morning. We worship at 11, and if you are available, I thought we might have lunch after the service.”
He focused on her face. There was a slight twitch and widening of her eyes. Then, as if she had processed several thoughts instantly and came to a conclusion, she responded with a disarming smile. “I think that would be fun, David. I’ll check with the Cathedral, but I don’t think it will be a problem.”
It was the first time she had called him by his name. He liked the sound.
* * * * *
Abigail enthralled his adult class with the description of her call to be a nun. He almost conducted the worship service on automatic because his mind was on the lunch to follow. He chose to take her to the Olive Garden.
As they were approaching the restaurant, Abigail’s foot caught on a rise in the sidewalk and she stumbled forward. Without thinking, David’s hands shot out, one around her waist and the other catching her arm. He felt her body tense as he pulled her to a standing position.
“Thanks,” she said. She blew some air out her mouth. “Those demon sidewalks will get you every time.”
When seated in the restaurant, David noticed Abigail looked everywhere but at him. She would respond to his questions, but he missed looking into those beautiful gray eyes. It continued even after the food came, and they were conversing about her class and his church.
Finally David asked, “Abigail, you seem very nervous. You are avoiding looking at me when you speak. Have I done something wrong?”
She picked up her napkin and put it down again. “No, David, you didn’t do anything wrong. I’m practicing a discipline called the custody of the eyes.”
“I don’t understand.” He placed both hands on the table on either side of his plate and tried to appear relaxed.
“Custody of the eyes is a discipline of not looking at anything that might disturb your singleness of heart. I knew, when I first met you, you disturbed me. I thought it would pass, but then you showed up at Starbucks. You invited me to teach a class. Then you asked me to lunch. . .” She fingered her napkin as if uncertain how to continue.
Now David was uncomfortable. He leaned in but avoided looking at her eyes.
“Abigail, in the class you spoke of your vow to be a nun as like a vow to be married to Christ’s church. The Lutheran Church doesn’t demand celibacy of its clergy, but when I became ordained, I chose to remain celibate so that I could be married to the church as well.”
“This is crazy, David. We met less than a month ago and have only seen each other, what, three times? This is not a romance novel. What’s happening?”
“I don’t know, Abby. Maybe we should try being just friends. Perhaps we should only see each other when others are around.”
Her right hand moved across the table until her hand crossed over and came near his left hand. She raised her little finger and laid it on his little finger. “Do you think a little pinky touch now and again would hurt?”
The hint of a mischievous grin competed with a look of pain on her face. “Is it adultery, David, to be married to the church and feel attraction to another human being?”
“We each made a vow to be married to the church, Abby. I want to honor that vow for you and me but also be open to the possibility God may alter our vows in a way that includes the two of us together.”
A waiter approached. “May I interest this lovely couple in some dessert?”
“No thank you, “Abby said. “I’m trying to learn a custody of a sweet dessert.”