The power of a subordinate clause; one nuance within a sentence and everything takes on a different meaning. That’s the case in a brilliant but provocative novel, The Ninth Hour, by Nina McDermott.

She tells a story which, among other things, focuses on a group of nuns in Brooklyn who work with the poor. Times are hard, people are needy, and the nuns, who work mostly in home care for the poor, appear utterly selfless in their dedication. Nothing, it seems, can deflect them from their mission to give their all, their every ounce of energy, to help the poor. And on this score, McDermott gives them their due.

For anyone familiar with what goes on inside a religious community, McDermott’s portrayal of these nuns is both nuanced and accurate. Nuns aren’t all of a kind. Each has her own unique history, temperament and personality.

Some are wonderfully warm and gracious. Others nurse their own wounds and aren’t always evident paradigms of God’s love and mercy. And that’s case with the nuns that McDermott describes here. But, quirks of individual personality aside, as a community, the nuns she describes serve the poor and their overall witness is beyond reproach.

But then, after telling this story of faith and dedication, and reflecting on how today there are few groups of nuns who still live so radical a commitment, McDermott, through the voice of her narrator, introduces the subversive subordinate clause: “The holy nuns who sailed through the house when we were young were a dying breed even then … The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, faded from the world even then.”

Wow! “The delusion and the superstition it required …” As if this kind of radical self-sacrifice can only be the product of false fear. As if whole generations of Christian self-sacrifice, vowed celibacy and single-minded dedication can be dismissed, post-factum, as ultimately predicated on delusion and superstition. How true is that?

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