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Occasions of Sin: A Memoir by Sandra Jean Scofield


Rating: (Recommended)


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If you think the memoir genre is crowded with ghost-written vanity recollections of the golden days, spend a few hours with Sandra Jean Scofield’s memoir, Occasions of Sin. You’ll conclude, as I did, that this book provides a rare taste of the memoir at its very best. First, the writing is superb. Second, there’s a transparency that refuses to hide from readers recollections that are painful. Third, Scofield captures the time and place of her youth with a lens that transports us, and with stories that transfix us. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 4 (pp. 93-99):

I was learning that men are occasions of sin. Even boys are dangerous, because the morals of girls are fragile, like the shells of baby birds. At the Academy of Mary Immaculate, we eighth graders had a one-day spiritual retreat on an April day that came up hot as August. We sat in the school chapel, our heads steaming under wool berets. The visiting priest was a good-looking young man, but we saw him only as priest and waited for him to tell us something we did not already know, beyond the rote rhythms of Catechism.


I sat up, eagerly attentive. The year had been a threshold for me. I had inched my way past the childish, recitative practice of devotions, struggling to discover or invent a more personal practice of in~ faith, something that I thought of as “more real.” I had been influenced by the presence of a new hoarder, Bonnie, a senior girl from a farming town who was going to go straight into the Fort Worth novitiate in June. She already lived more like one of the sis­ters than like a student, rising earlier than the rest of us to go to chapel, and joining the sisters for Matins (morning prayers) and Vespers (evening prayers).


None of the other older girls had any patience with me, but during free time after supper Bonnie sometimes asked me if I wanted to play catch or shoot baskets, and when the weather turned cold, I was comfortable enough with her to sit and talk. By winter I had got up my nerve to tell her that I was frustrated because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do when I went to chapel at times other than services. She asked me why I went, and I said because I wanted the company She patted my knee and said that was fine, God had a big ear. She suggested that I talk silently as if I were on the phone, and then after a while she thought the phone would fade away and I would feel God’s presence and it would seem more natural just to say what was on my mind, know­ing that I was being heard. Then, she said, I would learn, in time,  that I could sit in silence with an open heart and listen. For what? I asked. She took my hand and squeezed it gently. I don’t know, she said. It depends on what He has to say to you.


Before long I became comfortable with the silence of the chapel and stopped thinking that something had to happen. It was such a beautiful room, just across the hall from the room where we studied. it always smelled of wax and something else, something I identified with the smell of the sisters. Once in a while Bonnie would come in and sit down beside me for a little while and then we would go out together. She made me feel less lonely. I wonder if I was a project for her, an act of charity.



We were divided at the retreat, boys and girls—this was the last year boys could attend AMI before enrolling in public schools—so all day we paraded past one another, alternating lec­tures, prayers, snacks, and silent recreation (walks around the periphery of the grounds). Segregation allowed the introduction of topics that might be inappropriate in mixed company. I don’t remember who explained this, hut there was no need to belabor it. A retreat was, by its very definition, special, with special rules, and this was our first experience on a higher plane; two days without boys would not bother us. Except for Denny McMurtry, who was smarter than any of us in math, any boy in our class could be best­ed by almost any girl. We worked harder; we cared more. We shed the boys with a sigh of superiority, then inclined toward Father’s instruction.


We heard about God’s intentions for women: marriage and motherhood, or the convent—nothing new there, My mind wan­dered. I counted weeks until I would go to West Texas and see my family. I played the piano in my head, feeling the pulse of notes in my fingers on my thighs. Then something the priest mentioned ignited me. He said, We have to keep our souls open like windows waiting for the breeze that will carry God’s call to us. He meant a religious vocation. God’s beckoning, he said, would come quietly, like a faint stirring of leaves. (Saints struck down in the road had been extraordinary cases, with minds so large it took a violent storm to knock them into humility and faith.) We mustn’t be too busy, our minds cluttered with thoughts of beauty boys, movies, or music. (Hair and makeup! His chin quivered with contempt. I can’t help wondering if he had some premonition of rock and roll. “Party Doll” would pound us in less than a year with its seductive lyrics: I want to make love to you, to von.) We had to keep our heads cocked in case we were called. He hastened to say that those girls who grew up and became wives and mothers would be embracing a holy vocation, too. (He said wivesnmothers, there could not be one without the other.)


I lost track of what he said during the rest of that session; I could not stop thinking of the open window. His very words—win­dow, stirring leaves—made my heart pound. It was the same feeling that came over me when I knew I had to write. A scrap of poetry (sorry rhymes), a story (fat with sentiment), such things sometimes arrived like a letter to my door. There had been times I had feigned illness in order to bundle up on my bed and scribble through the school day. This was the first time, however, that the inspiration had been for an essay. Oh, I was a good student writer, and I had hardly ever seen a red mark on my papers, but academic composi­tions were dutiful displays demanded by adults and evaluated by the absence of errors. This was altogether new. This was an urgent need to argue something, and my excitement came from the sud­den awareness that what I thought I had not thought before and maybe no one else had either. I did not yet have the concept of the muse; I thought God, in some mysterious way had whispered in my ear. I thought it was what you got on retreat. A party favor, for paying attention.


I decided to enter the diocesan essay contest. The topic was vocations and the deadline was a mere three days away. The prin­cipal had asked me every day for the past two weeks why I wasn’t entering. She said that Denny McMurtry had done so, and so had Madeline Laherty in the high-school division. The school was counting on me. I could only reply that I had nothing to say. Even though I had been professing for a couple of years now that I wanted to be a nun—specifically, a Benedictine nun, to please my mother— the topic of vocations had not interested me. Everything about it was so obvious.


In every graduating class there was at least one girl who fas­tened on the notion of the convent, someone pious who was known never to sass or disobey. Then, too, recruiters came from various religious orders once a year to talk to us about vocations (in the narrowest sense), and they were known to sway a girl who had not vet made up her mind. My classmate Mozelle Chambers, barely fourteen years old, had already sworn to enter the Ursulines four years hence, won over by an afternoon’s visit with a persua­sive advocate. Now, though, I thought that one might hear God’s call directly and that the call might be particular to oneself. To me. Like Saint Joan of Arc, called to dress like a boy and save France. Like Mother’s patron saint, Edith, a tenth-century king’s daughter who proved you could be beautiful—decked out in finery—and be pure and holy too.


The saint I knew and loved best was the recently canonized Maria Goretti, who as a girl only eleven years old had died defend­ing her purity in an assault by a boy from a neighboring farm. Of course I loved her! She could be me. She was a saint of my century Smitten like millions of girls all over the world, I had recently cho­sen her for my confirmation namesake. I had a clear picture in my mind of her heaped on the back of a farmer’s wooden cart. I thought that her holiness lay not just in her virginity (after all, I was a virgin and hardly holy at all), and not just in her violent death (people are murdered every day), hut in her generosity (I pray he will repent!), and especially in the way she saw clearly what she had to do. Her vocation had been martyrdom and she had wel­comed her bloody death. I am appalled now to remember thinking of this eleven-year-old peasant girl as capable of such self-aggran­dizing projection—in the moments of a brutal attack, no less!— hut not only was I immature, I was a Catholic girl in 1956 and was enthralled with the concept of holy purity. The hagiographers were pushing hard this child who had died for virtue, and I simply couldn’t conceive of a girl around my age being so good, so brave, and so full of conviction, that she would act without having to think about it.

I thought that what had made Maria brave was her belief that she had been blessed with her violent fate, as in~’ mother had been blessed with her afflictions. I loved that word, afflictions. (That night I would write Mother these thoughts, and she would answer that I had made her weep with pride and love.) Those brave, good girls who were martyred for their faith (Cecelia, Agnes, Perpetua) had been at that window when God called. Simple acceptance-­that was how you learned to do the right thing, even if you didn’t understand everything about what you embraced. Somehow acceptance became faith; your patience and humility got you God’s prize—bestowed, not won (Sainthood!). It was heady romantic stuff, a kind of Prince Charming story in which God himself came along to rescue you, not from death, hut from anonymity I was thrilled by the simple virtue of having a fresh thought of my own at age twelve. I wasn’t mature enough to turn around and evaluate it, too.


I wish there had been someone to tell me on the spot how naïve I was, that it is possible to do everything you are “supposed to do” and gain nothing. That Maria was a victim perfect for her time, an icon of Catholic sexual politics.


That a girl waiting for a prince—even God—is a person of no moral consequence.

Even a male reader will lose some breath when reading a sentence like the last one. Many women will find that Occasions of Sin will resonate with their own coming of age experience. Those women who struggle in difficult mother-daughter relationships may find solace in the pain Scofield experienced at age 15 when her mother died at age 33. All readers will come away from Occasions of Sin deeply moved, with some emotional drain.  

Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: of Sin.htm


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