Cups of Tea with the Queen of Heaven
By Peta Edmonds22 Oct 2015
The Sisters of Mercy first came into my life on the eve of the millenium. They were plain clothed nuns.
I had just got out of hospital and had nowhere to live when I came to reside at Regina Coeli, meaning Queen of Heaven, across the road from the old Children’s hospital.
I was battling psychosis and I felt like an endangered species.
I remember Sister Judy taking my hand in hers on a visit to the doctor, and how we sat in the waiting room under a portrait of the man who discovered lithium.
Afterwards, when I was numb from the diagnosis, she took me to a cafe and shouted me a hot chocolate and we talked, and she was like a tortoise sticking her head out from its shell.
The red carpet that adorns the hallways of that house was a far cry from the red carpet of Hollywood, yet for each of us who walked it, it became a special experience. The nuns that lived there then wore soft shoes, and their footsteps were so silent you hardly knew they were there until suddenly they were right beside you. They liked to collect lemons from the tree and flowers from the garden.
Some of us were mentally ill, and some of us were drug addicts, and most of us felt like old teddy bears kept in the attic, but they prayed for us, and marked the pages of their bibles with flower petals.
On Sundays we would all gather around the dining room table and eat from tubs of ice-cream, and we would lick our souls clean.
A conversation with a mercy nun was like a web a spider spun that would sparkle in the sun, catching our words and giving us cause for reflection. Their love was more than a Band-Aid, they gathered the crumbs of our souls and you could eat their smiles like the slices of fresh watermelon on the table. They had dogs for pets and wore boots and drove utes.
I remember once when I was in the middle of a psychosis there would come a quiet knock on the door, and an invitation to join the world. Sometimes it was just a smile, like the light under the door of a dark room.
In many ways the nuns saved my life. They didn’t mind that I drank the communion wine. There was mass on Wednesdays but it wasn’t compulsory. And when someone died the sky would be filled with rainbow balloons. They celebrated life. Theirs was a gentle mercy that touched our souls as if they were made of pollen.
Once the nuns picked me up when I was living in an overcrowded boarding house, too scared to shower, and brought me back to what had become my second home, providing me with towels and toiletries. Another time when I got really sick with the flu they took me in again and I slept in a single bed and they brought food to me and took me to the doctor the next morning.
They cared for stray animals that had been beaten, and rehoused them, and they cared for stray girls like us too.
Nowadays there are only two nuns left at Regina Coeli, which has become McAuley House. Sister Maureen, who likes to wear soft cardigans and loves making flower arrangements, and Sister Velda, who thinks the soul is like a nice hot cup of tea.
Once an old gentleman came to visit who had lived there 80 years ago when it was an orphanage, and it was amazing to see the look of wonder in his eyes as Sister Maureen and I took him on a tour. The place has had many incarnations, but what runs through it all like a streak of gold is the idea of mercy.
Mercy is mighty but can be tiny as a mouse. Mercy is a hot lamb roast when you’re hungry or a hug when you’re lonely, like a cup of tea that warms your heart and soul. The sisters of Mercy are gardeners, cooks, nurses, teachers, and taxi drivers.
I use to think I wasn’t deserving of mercy, until someone held their hand out in mercy, with strength in softness and the precious metal underneath a smile.
Peta Edmonds is a writer and volunteer at Jesuit Communications