Sister Mariella Gable’s life was spent spying on heaven, Sister Kristin Malloy, OSB


March 24, 1985

This was published in the spring 1985 issue of Saint Benedict’s Today, page 9.

As I reflect on 46 years with Sister Mariella, I am aware that some of you have not known at all the Mariella I knew so well. I ask her now, the Mariella who taught me to be concrete in my writing, never to use three words where two would do, to show instead of telling, I ask her to help me show herself to you.

Among my treasures is a snapshot of Sister Mariella ice skating on the rink between the grotto path and the ring-road in front of the old root cellar. She was happy on skates, and she loved crisp, cold air. She became my teacher in a freshman writing course. She was 41 that winter when not one of us in that class knew she was so young. What we discovered at once was that she could teach us to write, without a textbook could make us want to write, slave happily to revise, and to go on writing in the Graduate Writers’ Guild she established after our graduation. (I see her now, striding into the classroom with a rolled-up coif in her hand, a sudden flushed face, and the confession that she had just dropped our papers down the clothes chute.)

Sister Mariella became nationally known in the ’40s and ’50s for training young writers. She told the alumnae in Spring 1964, that it was Sister Claire Lynch who “needled” her into focusing on that goal. “Why doesn’t St. Benedict’s ever win any prizes in creative writing–national prizes that have great prestige?” Sister Claire asked her. Sister Mariella said, “The question filled me with rage.” And thus it was that I was a junior when she required us to enter the most challenging contest of all–that conducted by the Atlantic Monthly. Sure enough: Bernadette Loosbroek Taylor’s “The Hankie and the Sins” won first place. The prize included a scholarship for herself and her teacher to the famous Breadloaf School of Creative Writing in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Two years later she did it again: Mary Thomes Locke’s essay on St. Benedict’s, “These Gentle Communists,” won first place.

I speak for all those whose lives were changed by Sister Mariella. Hundreds of others would tell you this: she loved me; she shaped me; she never gave up on me. She helped me become what she saw I could be. Her response to me was a sign of God’s election. The tight love bonds between us were indestructible.

Had it not been for Sister Mariella’s course in Dante’s Divine Comedy, God would have had to find another way to lure me here. As we moved with her up the rings of the “Paradiso” and reached the moment in which Dante realizes, “In His will is our peace,” I became a pilgrim, forever caught up in the search for God’s will for me. It took me three years after the Dante course to realize that in vowed religious life, God’s will would be clear. After I had become her sister, she showed me, often, precisely what that great line meant in community life. I want to sing about her whenever I hear the Henry Adams line: “Good teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.”

Sister Mariella’s teaching was grounded in fresh, thorough, and impeccable scholarship. In 1950 she became the outstanding authority on Catholic fiction, focusing on what was revived in the Catholic Literary Revival and what is Catholic in Catholic fiction. Throughout the ’40s when she was the first anthologist to collect the best Catholic short stories to make them widely available, she was so frail physically that she did much of her work on her back in bed. Her introductions to each of her three volumes of stories, published between 1942 and 1950, remain a brilliant work of distinction making. Those essays became the core of a widely praised collection entitled, This Is Catholic Fiction. When I was in Ireland two years ago, I met one of her favorite storywriters, Bryan MacMahon. One of his first questions was, “Do you belong to the same community as Sister Mariella Gable?” “Yes, indeed,” said I. “Well,” said he (and I have this on tape), “I want to send very special greetings to Sister Mariella Gable for putting together an anthology many years ago called Many Colored Fleece, and I think that her introduction to it was one of the finest–let’s say, expositions–of the short story I have ever read. So I send her verrry sincere greetings; and if she thinks that her words have gone out into a void, let her think again; because she has influenced many, many people that she will never see or never meet.”

No wonder she long ago became my model, my mentor, and my friend. When she was not free to accept an invitation to lecture or write, she came to propose my name as her alternate, and thus began my own work in the short story. She knew she was a trail-blazer. In the copy of Many Colored Fleece she gave me, she wrote, “To Sister Kristin, to whom I hand the torch that I must now lay down.” Her vitality and her vision continue to energize me.

She waited until Spring to die, Spring and the feast of St. Benedict in whose honor she wrote one of her finest things, the pageant, during which this College formally inducted hundreds of first-year women between 1938 and 1962.

I could talk for days on Sister Mariella and not repeat. I would illustrate her passion for things blue, her sense of wonder, her delight in her flower garden and the woods, her exquisite gift for affirming her friends, her scathing honesty, her feisty spunk, her need of fresh air (stale rooms with locked windows made her winters a torment), her pleasure in racing to the woods where, in my day, she’d help us roast wieners as we huddled around a fire and read our stories. She walked to the Benedicta Arts Center the day before she went off to the hospital, never to return to this place which had been home since she came here at 15 as a candidate for the community. I would show you her compassion, her courage, her joyfulness and the high value she set on joy, no matter what she suffered.

About ten months ago, just after Sister Remberta had moved to St. Scholastica’s, someone suggested to Sister Mariella that she get her own things in order. Her answer was simple and typical: “Sister, I’m taking care of my soul. I don’t give a damn what they do with my room.” It has always been so with her. Her poem, “‘The Spy,” reveals what she was really up to:

I am a spy, and I have seen. . .
But first I must tell you
About the chinks and the keyholes
Where you may be certain of spying.
You know some of them yourself if you
Have ever lain on summer grass
To watch the smooth white daylight pass,
And seen the night come down the sky
Pouring gray wonder silkily
Through apple boughs that straightway bloom
With little stars and a full-blown moon.

But the stars
And the filigree of apple boughs
Against a satin sky
Are not the things on which you spy.
They are the signs
That the time and the place are as right for peeking
As down in the pasture by the granite rock
Where cool, damp, earthy smells come stealing
Out of the tamarack swamp when day goes by.

What was it I saw in the orchard and down by the swamp?

It was. . .
I ought to be able to tell you
I ran all the way back from the pasture
With my eyes shut
So that I could remember.
But I cannot tell you anything.
That it is why it is safe, I think,
For every keyhole and every chink
To be unstuffed and unguarded.
A daisy poising perilously
Is a keyhole open for those who see.
But you never can remember
What it was you saw.
That is why Lazarus never told anything when he came,
Back from the grave,
Nor Jairus’ daughter,
Nor the son of the widow of Nairn.

Some day
I shall go over into the strange land
That I’ve been spying on,
But then
I can never come back
And finish the first line of this poem

It was after she wrote “The Spy” that she showed me in Dante’s Divine Comedy what she expected to find at the end of her life-long spying on heaven. The words have lit my heart since the day 43 years ago when she made sure they would move all of us in her class permanently The vision of God she now enjoys is, in Dante’s words:

Light intellectual, full-charged with love,
love of true good, full-charged with gladness,
gladness which transcendeth every sweetness.

Mariella Gable, pray for us!

-Kristin Malloy, OSB