Ballad of a Nun, a Bordello, and Mary

Gaia Orion, "The Virgin, the Whore, and the Sinner"

Gaia Orion, “The Virgin, the Whore, and the Sinner”

Spiritual Sunday

For a self-proclaimed atheist, my late father certainly wrote a lot of religious poetry. Here’s one I’ve always enjoyed, based on a medieval French fable (“fabliau”) about a nun who engages in a bit of extra curricular activity.

As readers of Chaucer know, the Middle Ages had no difficulty moving between the religious and the bawdy. At the end of the poem, the Scott Bates meditates on the lesson to be drawn. Ask yourself what you think the moral is as you read:

The Ballad of Thoughtful Love

By Scott Bates

Of a nun they tell in a chilly cell
In medieval weather
Who loved her Lady Mary well
But loved her freedom better.

When Spring was at its handsomest
She flew off like a swallow
To build a fair and warmer nest
In a busy town bordello.

Therein she lived for many years
Of fleshly fascinations
Till hungry little demon fears
Of deep incinerations

Restored her to her chilly cell
–Where nobody had missed her
Sweet Mary having played so well
Her role as pious Sister.

Which proves, I guess, a moral of
As well as one of thoughtful love
That saves much explanation.

My father noted that Spanish director Luis Bunuel used this story in the climactic scene of The Milky Way.

So what is its moral? Well, that we can be saved from sin, of course (“sin-sacrifice-salvation”). That’s an interpretation in line with orthodox Christianity.

We can also see the story, from a Jungian perspective, as articulating our different selves, the celestial and the earthly.

But here’s the moral of the last two lines: Mary so loves small people that she’ll cover for them and make sure they don’t get into trouble. Basic kindness ultimately saves the day. Or as the poem calls it, “thoughtful love.”

As I think about it, thoughtful love was my father’s religion. It can take one a long way.

A note on the artist: Gaia Orion’s captivating work can be found at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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