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(Warning: this post contains Doubt "spoilers" and brief, non-graphic discussion of child abuse in the Catholic church.)

I fretted over “Recompense Delight”* more than any other fanfic I’ve ever posted. Writing it was a giddy, stay-up-far-too-late-typing style of FUN, but still I fretted.

For one, there was a relatively significant issue of historical accuracy:

Doubt is set in 1964, and “Recompense Delight” is set in ’64 and ’65. I realized—somewhat embarrassingly late in the writing process—that the NIV Bible I own and was using for the story came out in 1973. I tried to research which translations would've been favored by English-speaking Catholics in the '60s, and ultimately decided to use the King James version in spite of uncertainty as to which Bible would've been the pew Bible, so to speak. The language of the King James Bible is so intricate, and I like the sound of it.

The only part that really hurt was having to get rid of the NIV translation of Song of Songs 8:13. It was exactly what I wanted Sister Aloysius to say, and exactly the way I wanted her to say it:

13You who dwell in the gardens
with friends in attendance,
let me hear your voice!

I think it was the exclamation point that got me. Sister Aloysius has plenty of impassioned speeches in the movie, but there's a difference between passion and enthusiasm. She's subtle, and dry, and a lot of times she's the only one onscreen who understands her humor. In my story, her decision to quote from Song of Songs is a huge turning point. The line she chooses, coming at the end of a long and almost desperate dialogue between the Lover, the Beloved, and onlookers, is enthusiastic. She wouldn't talk that way on her own, but her quoting is another kind of communication.

In addition to the unabashed tone, the NIV translation leaves less ambiguity as to who wants to hear the Beloved's voice. (In King James, the "companions hearken to thy voice", and the request from the lover re: the voice is "Cause me to hear it.") It also suggests the situation of addressing someone who is a part of a group (such as James being a member of an order of nuns) and setting them apart.

Still, it wouldn't have done to quote from NIV when it wouldn't be around for another 8 or 9 years.

Another major issue was the subject matter itself. I didn't bend over backward trying to insert my own perspective into the story, but I did need to figure out two things: how do I feel about nuns having sex? How do the nuns in question feel about having sex?

For better or for worse (marriage pun intended), vows impact the function of our society. Human beings like to make promises. We decide what is right--committing ourselves to a church, to a lifestyle, to a legal arrangement with one person, to a contract of a particular duration at work, to a financial obligation during a pledge drive--and we try, with varied levels of success, to stick to it. A lot of good things get accomplished because people assign value to commitment. On the other hand, people experience a great deal of angst and fear and stress when they change their minds about these vows, or have trouble sticking to self- or outwardly-imposed expectations.

In "Recompense Delight," Aloysius and James watch--no, take an active part in--the way that an institution that shapes every aspect of their lives fails a child. From Aloysius' initial dismay at James' suspicions, it is obvious that many children have been failed in a similar way, in other parishes if not their own. No matter what has happened to Donald Miller, and no matter how successful he eventually becomes, he has been scrutinized by his peers and the school staff, singled out by the priest, and has been failed. James doesn't want to believe that the atrocity of child abuse could be happening, while Aloysius becomes absorbed in her certainty in just that. What they have in common, I think, is that they both abhor the idea of a priest taking advantage of a child's innocence and trust. At the end of the film, when Aloysius expresses her doubts (which, in my mind, are not doubts about Father Flynn's guilt but doubts about the functionality of the Church as a system of governing her own life and the lives of many others) James is compassionate even though I read her as a character who wants to cling to her trust in the Church.

In writing the story, I wanted to question the value of James' and Aloysius' upholding their vows of celibacy, vows made to an institution that--on the side of the patriarchy, at least--is neither flawlessly celibate nor committed to the integrity such vows suggest. If James and Aloysius love each other (in canon and in my story, they do) and have been let down by the institution within which they work (in canon and in my story, they have), why shouldn't they engage in a consensual relationship? At the same time, I struggled to communicate that nuns having sex is not the same thing as nuns abandoning Catholicism. James is so convinced that Aloysius is losing her faith in God and in the Church, but I didn't see that as the case. Yes, Aloysius becomes more critical of the Church, and I don't think she would have pursued a relationship with James had she not been so disillusioned by the events of the film. James grows to understand her critiques even if she's less apt to criticize, and she makes a decision that would certainly not have been upheld by the institution. Still, I think the idea that loving, consensual sex could ruin a person's ability to lead a faithful, virtuous life is about as ludicrous as ignoring all historical context when reading Leviticus 18:22 and using it to condemn homosexuality.

Of course, that's what a lot of people do. They find all the parts of the Bible labeled by a concordance as relevant to "homosexuality," and use those passages to justify their hatefulness and homophobia. Does Sister Aloysius do that, with her initial "love letters," even though she knows she wants to escalate her relationship with Sister James? Even while I was writing those scenes, I was torn. Aloysius believes in Hell--rhetorically, at least--in both the film and in my story. She and James both take intiative in heightening the terms of their relationship, but I do feel strongly that they both feel that they have chosen to sin.

There's pleasure in transgression, though, and I don't put it past Aloysius to enjoy (the consensual, carefully considered) transgressive quality of their relationship. The passages about "homosexuality" warn Sister James of a sort of worst-case scenario, but they also give them the space to address homosexuality. If James hadn't been reading Wilde, and if Aloysius hadn't thought to copy down the scriptures, there might not have been room in their lives for the topic of same-sex love to come up. Likewise, Psalm 125--and Esther, the book Aloysius loves--address the battle against evil in a way that James, being an intelligent but impressionable woman, can understand better than the confusingly immediate "battle against evil" going on right in their parish in the Bronx. And although the nitty-gritty specifics of Song of Songs might not be stuff a nun or their contemporaries--or me!--would find especially titillating in their own right, it is undeniably the "hot" book of the Bible. It would be a thrill to have that chapter personally recommended.

After all those unspeakable things are in the room with them, Aloysius asks "Do you want to go to Hell with me?" (Worst pick-up line EVER!) Hell, for her, is a possibility, but bringing it up in that moment is also a transgressive act of solidarity. She can't say "Want to go out?" like they're going to meet up for dinner and a movie this Friday night. If they want to be together, they don't have a lot of options. They can spend time secretly-more-together-than-they-look in common spaces, like the blue room. They can make love on a tiny bed, and confront the possibility that they are dooming each other.

I believe in God but I don't believe in Hell. Still, I imagine that Hell is somewhere, because I've heard so much about it. Does that make sense--not believing in something, but still operating under the notion that it's there? I have a lot of trouble imagining myself damned to Hell, and my biggest hope for these characters is that they, in spite of all the transgression and doubt and difficult decisions they have to make, can't truly picture themselves there either. They've been let down by an institution, by a priest, by a network of men, and to some extent by each other (because they had trouble communicating, and understanding each other's motives) they have each other, and maybe that will restore some of what they've lost. Faith dies without joy, I think. There's more to joy than pleasure, but pleasure has its place.

*After the fact, I kind of think “Recompense Delight” sounds funny. What I meant by the title was that love and sex and the sharing of oneself with another are delightful things, and that just as the sinners in Romans “receiv[e] in themselves that recompense of their error,” it is possible to compensate another person for lovely things, too. Unfortunately, it kind of sounds like a dessert, like Marshmallow Pineapple Delight, or something. Oh well.
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