Denver-based author Maura Weiler

(Courtesy of Barry Gutierrez)

This story originally aired on May 18, 2015.

When a painter puts brush to canvas, is it for the artist's enjoyment -- or the artist's bottom line? Is art made for the audience that might one day experience it? Or maybe it's for a higher purpose -- say, for God. 

Denver-based writer Maura Weiler's first novel tackles those questions. 

"Contrition" follows journalist and adoptee Dorie McKenna, who learns that her deceased biological father was a world famous artist. After receiving this news, Dorie makes another discovery. She has a twin, who has inherited their father's talent.

But Dorie's twin, Candace Wagner, is a cloistered nun. She dropped her birth name to become Sister Catherine and took a vow of silence. Sister Catherine also has no interest in sharing her art outside of the convent. In an effort to get to know her twin, Dorie tells the convent's sisters that she has felt a calling for the monastic life.

This is all a departure for Weiler. Her previous work involved working on Hollywood screen plays, and creating what she calls "trash art." 

Weiler spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt

Reprinted from "Contrition" by Maura Weiler with permission of Simon and Schuster. Copyright (c) Maura Weiler, 2015.

Walking toward the monastery, I stepped carefully to avoid the muddy patches of ground. Damp salt air rose from waves that spilled onto rocks far below, mingling with the cool rain and heightening the pungency of the anise and fennel that grew along the edge of the pockmarked driveway. I skirted the pothole, arrived at the gate, and peered through the bars. The drizzle and the distance made it impossible to see more than vague outlines of a building. I half considered ringing the nearby doorbell, but gaining entrance would mean interacting with a nun. Before I could decide, a diminutive sister who looked about sixty emerged from the murk carrying a pink umbrella.

A chill crept up my neck. I wanted to bolt, but my legs shook too much to carry me away.

“Can I help you, Miss...”

“Uh, McKenna. Dorie McKenna.” 

“Well, hello, Dorie McKenna. I’m Sister Teresa.” 

When I searched the woman’s eyes and found no flash of recognition there, I concluded Sister Catherine and I probably weren’t identical. I wondered if my sister told people that she was a twin or if she even knew it herself. Considering the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame her if she kept it a secret. I hadn’t told many people.

Sister Teresa offered her hand to shake. I reached over and grasped her right hand sideways with my left, pumping it up and down as warmly as physics allowed. I’d learned that attempting to shake with my weak hand led to a frowning revelation for anyone unaware of my handicap, not to mention jangling joint pain for me. The sister took my left in her right as comfortably as if that was how all handshakes were conducted. Nun or no, this woman was all right by me. 

Sister Teresa’s white wimple and black veil covered her head, neck, and ears. Rain-fogged, cat-eyed glasses framed her face, while a set of rosary beads and a massive ring of keys like the ones janitors wear hung from the knotted linen cord that belted her coarse gray habit. The only flesh exposed was her slender face and hands. She wore what looked like a gold wedding band on her left index finger. Who was she married to? God? 

“I heard your car coming up the driveway and thought I’d better have a look-see,” she said, pulling her cloudy glasses down her nose and squinting over them at me. “What brings you out on such a night as this?”

“I uh, well, um, wanted to stop by because...er...”

I bit my lip. Suddenly I was afraid to say that Sister Catherine was my twin. What if she didn’t want to meet me? I wasn’t sure I could handle that.

Sister Teresa waited for me to continue with kind eyes. Unnerved, I said the next logical thing that sprang to mind.

“Because I’m interested in becoming a nun,” I blurted.

I took a step back. Where the hell had that come from? The ruse rolled off of my tongue with an ease that suggested I’d said, or at least thought it, before. I cringed. The Comet had made me a little too adept at lying. Now I had offered a whopper. 

 “A vocation is a beautiful thing,” Sister Teresa said. “Fortunately, this is the right place. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time. We’re closed. Can you come back in the morning?”

“I’m headed back to Los Angeles in a few minutes.” I started to leave. “So I’ll come back another time.”

“Nonsense.” The sister took her giant key ring and unlocked the gate. “I can bend the rules for a new recruit. Come on in out of the rain and we’ll have a chat.” 

I glanced at my car. Too late to turn back now. 

The gate swung open with a haunted-mansion creak. Sister Teresa beckoned me with a smile and indicated that I should join her under the umbrella. Despite her attempt to put me at ease, I tasted the acrid tang of old fears as I followed her, and unconsciously slowed my steps to a principal’s-office pace. 

“’Course, it’ll just be me. All of the other nuns are sequestered,” Teresa said as the gate clanged shut behind us with unsettling finality. “As Extern Sister, I deal with outside business and visitors.”

So I couldn’t see Catherine even if I’d wanted to. I let out an involuntary sigh of both relief and disappointment.

“You’ll have to come back on Visiting Sunday and meet some of the other gals,” she said. “Get a wider perspective on our life.”

With that, the possibility of meeting my twin reemerged, as thrilling and intimidating as ever.

A large courtyard surrounded by the arched walkway of a Spanish mission building subtly revealed itself in the darkness. I followed the rattle of the sister’s key ring past shadowed trees and statuary and jumped when a red bottlebrush bloom grazed my cheek. I was grateful when we arrived at a narrow, blue door under an arch.

As we wiped off the mud from our feet on the doormat, I realized another bit of Sister Teresa’s flesh was exposed. She was barefoot.

Lack of the ugly-but-sensible footwear I associated with nuns didn’t appear to bother her. In fact, this woman seemed more comfortable in her own skin than most people. Her rain-washed cheeks suggested the dewy aura of an expectant mother. Despite her age, there was an undeniable, youthful exuberance about her.

Sister Teresa opened the door to reveal a modest sitting room divided by a floor-to-ceiling metal grille. Despite its elaborate decorative touches, the cold steel of penitentiary bars came to mind. Separate exits and straight-backed chairs on either side suggested a prisoner’s visiting room. The nun’s key ring now reminded me more of a jailer’s than a janitor’s.

“The sisters visit their families here in the parlor once a month.” Sister Teresa pointed to the visitors’ chairs and motioned for me to sit. “Vatican II said we could take the bars down, but we didn’t want to bother with the trouble and expense.”

“Don’t you find them oppressive?” I took a seat on the public side of the bars where we’d entered and shook off the shivers, relieved that she hadn’t led me to the church. The last time I’d set foot in a church was one of the worst days of my life, and the sitting room was unsettling enough.

“You’ll be surprised how quickly you forget they’re there.” The nun sat in the chair beside me. “I’d offer you a cup of tea, but we only have a few minutes to talk before Grand Silence begins, so let’s get right to it.”

“Grand Silence?” I asked.

“With the exception of the prayers of the Divine Office, we don’t speak between nine p.m. and six a.m. to allow time for contemplation.”

“Divine Office?” I repeated, a human parrot.

“We gather in the chapel seven times a day for prayer, beginning with Vigils at twelve twenty a.m. and ending with Compline at seven thirty p.m.” She picked up a copy of the daily schedule from a side table and handed it to me. “But enough about us. Tell me about your vocation.”

“I um, well...” My eyes darted around the room in search of something that might help me figure out what to say. They came to rest on a large painting of the Madonna and Child hanging on the cloistered side of the room. Bingo. “Ever since I became a Catholic, I’ve felt a strong connection with the Blessed Mother.”

I left out the fact that I wasn’t Catholic anymore. The extern smiled and nodded encouragement.

“I think maybe it’s because I never knew my birth...” I looked through the bars at the Madonna and Child again. The stylized figures and ethereal background gave the Biblical theme a distinctly modern patina, while the painting’s midnight-blue fabrics and daybreak-gold haloes warmed the cold room. The Virgin Mary’s expression suggested a serenity I wasn’t sure existed 
in reality. I felt myself relax. “My birth mother.”

“That makes sense.” Teresa nodded. “Mary is Mother to us all.”

“She is, isn’t she?” I said without shifting my gaze from the painting. Between researching my birth father’s work and being college roommates with an art major, I understood enough about paintings to know that this one was exceptional.

With her huge, almond-shaped eyes, long nose, and rosebud mouth, the Madonna appeared so tranquil that I wanted to trade places with her. I hadn’t been able to track down a photo of my biological mom, but I’d always pictured her wearing this same composed expression. My eyes flicked to the baby Jesus, whose face hinted at a sadness not shared by His mother. Seeing the Madonna holding the child on her lap, I thought of my mothers, the one I’d known and loved and the one I would never meet, and realized that no matter how tightly my adoptive mom held me, I’d never found peace. The baby in the painting seemed to understand. I saw the tension in His hands. His left hand grasped His mother’s for extra support, while His right hand...curled into a partial fist, with the thumb tucked under the extended index and middle 

I gasped and reared back.

“What’s the matter, dear?” Sister Teresa peered over the tops of her glasses at me.

“I have to go.” I stood up and fled the room. 

***

The drizzle swelled to heavy rain. It transformed the ground into a slogging, primordial muck that threatened to suck the shoes off my feet as I ran through the courtyard. I scrunched up my toes for leverage and managed an awkward, flip-flop gait to keep my loafers on. It wasn’t until I arrived at the exit that I found Sister Teresa had relocked the gate after admitting me.

The nun arrived a few steps later, her bare feet better suited to muddy conditions. In her haste, she’d left her umbrella behind and was as drenched as me.

“Are you sure you’re in a state to drive?” Teresa paused before she unlocked the gate. “You seem upset and the rain is blinding. I’d be happy to make up the bunk in the visiting priest’s quarters for you.”

“I’m fine, really,” I said, glad the rain obscured my tears as she turned her key in the lock and strong-armed the heavy gate open. “I’m sorry to make you come out in this mess.” I slipped through the threshold. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Be sure to come back again when you’re feeling better. God bless you, Dorie,” she said as she closed the gate behind me.

Already soaked, I marched straight through the giant pothole to get to my car. 

Sister Teresa was right. I wasn’t okay to drive. Even if I was, I didn’t trust my elderly Jetta on the winding road of a muddy cliff in the dark and rain. I couldn’t go home, but I couldn’t bring myself to return to the convent either, especially since it would mean dragging the nun out into the weather again. 

I searched through my bag, found a cigarette and then discovered no amount of shaking could produce enough fluid to spark my plastic lighter. My Jetta’s lighter had broken years before. Resigned, I curled up in the back seat of my car and closed my eyes in what amounted to an act of faith. The sleep that often eluded me at home wouldn’t come in a cramped car with a metal roof that amplified the storm. Then again, I wouldn’t have slept well anywhere that night. 

The painting haunted me. What were the odds that someone displaying work at the convent would depict a hand that looked exactly like mine? Had Sister Catherine painted the Madonna and Child? It was nothing like Rene Wagner’s abstracts, but wasn’t it at least possible that my twin was a painter like our father? I was a writer like our mother.