When I was in fifth grade, a stern Dominican nun made me a promise that she kept, and I have never forgotten it, or her.
During my first month in a new parochial school, my grandmother, to whom I was very close, died unexpectedly.
The following day, I would be absent, to attend the funeral and burial, but this day, I was in school, sitting at my assigned desk, when I began suddenly to weep uncontrollably.
Sister Mary Robert, the sister superior of the convent, beckoned to another nun to mind the class as she snapped her fingers at me to leave my seat and follow her. I was terrified.
As we walked away from the classroom, she asked, “What’s the matter, child?” Struggling for composure, I said that my grandmother had died during the night.
Her voice softened. “Ah, I see. Tell me about her.”
She listened attentively to how much I loved my Nana, how important she was to me, how I missed her. Sister’s long black rosary beads hung from her waist, slapping against the thick, creamy linen of her Dominican habit, and as she twisted them absentmindedly as all the nuns did, she asked, “Was your grandmother a Catholic?” I answered timidly, no.
Fifty-five years ago, in the eyes of a child, things were very black and white in the Catholic Church. The criteria for passing through the gates of heaven appeared quite clearly in our daily catechism, and I worried for my Nana’s soul.
“I see,” she said, “but she loved God and was a very good person?” I answered yes. “We’ll go into the chapel and pray for her.”
We knelt together as she prayed aloud for my Nana — already with God, Sister said reassuringly, despite Nana’s non-Catholic status. Perhaps Sister Mary Robert went out on a limb for me that day.
Her prayers for Nana were directed to Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus. She gave me a little holy card on which the prayer was printed, along with a picture of somebody’s notion of what Mary looked like.
“I promise you that whenever you say this prayer, the Blessed Mother will listen,” she said. “She will always hear you.”
I committed the prayer to memory that day, and recited it often in the weeks after Nana’s death, not knowing, at age 11, exactly what to pray for, but sensing the comfort it afforded.
Throughout my lifetime, I have repeated it like a mantra thousands of times, finding, as I matured, new and changing interpretations in its simple words. I feel its power even when I know I am powerless.
I have come to consider the prayer a channel through which my life passes, sometimes with the added attachment of a sieve, straining out the insignificant muck that clogs my mind’s drain.
Twenty years ago, I used to pray to find different paths, and even thought I was on them. Now I know that most of those paths simply lead to the one that’s already there, so I pray instead that I might have the insight to see it more clearly.
Recently, as I sat in church listening to the sermon, I was startled by its closing: “You never know who Jesus sends to touch you!”
It was a bold invitation to look more deeply at every person who comes onto your radar. I thought back to Sister, whose appearance in my young life gave me the gift of unflinching faith. It seemed the counterpart to Sister’s offering to a grief-stricken 11-year-old child; it seemed the grown-up version of her promise that was always true for me.
When I heard, many years later, that Sister Mary Robert had died, I closed my eyes and thanked her one more time, pleased that she might meet my beloved Nana.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.