The Secret Life of Nuns
October 26, 2014 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Alex Mar writes for the Oxford American on spending time in a convent:
I traveled here, arriving just yesterday on an early flight, to answer a question that I’ve had for years: Why would a woman make the very specific choice to marry God? I’m imagining a certain kind of woman—let’s say a woman like myself, in her mid-thirties and smart and not hard-up and with a few options in life. Why would she choose to live with his many brides and very little privacy and pooled resources; to abandon any and all romantic partners, along with the possibility of ever again touching someone else’s naked body; to set aside every personal need and closely held ambition in favor of the needs of others? I wanted to understand who this woman was—call her a nun or a sister or a woman religious—and why I’ve harbored a fantasy about her since I was a young girl.
posted by frimble (17 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot to be said for simplicity and for surrendering control of making decisions to someone else. That's the appeal of the military, as well.

As for the no sex thing? Unless there's some changes tout de suite, the church's vocations are either going to be all third world, or nonexistent. The average age of a nun is 74
posted by leotrotsky at 12:46 PM on October 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

leotrotsky: "As for the no sex thing? Unless there's some changes tout suite, the church's vocations are either going to be all third world, or nonexistent. "

I thought us third-worlders were all about the sex? Especially us latin lovers from Catholic countries?
posted by signal at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

You miss my point. If you grow up in a country with poor governance, or frequent war, with few prospects, the trade offs involved with a vocation may be a much more appealing deal. I suspect the numbers bear this out, my anecdotal experience certainly does.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:09 PM on October 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Most nuns are former Mafiosi." - Father Guido Sarducci

/raised Catholic
posted by jonmc at 1:27 PM on October 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

That was very well written. My wife is a lay member of the Adrian Dominicans, she does a lot of social justice work with them.

The article certainly catches the flavor of the order... I've spent time at the Adrian campus, have been invited to dinners for the mission group she is a member of. As a well established atheist, it's an interesting experience for me but I've always walked away from those encounters a better person.

Thanks for the post to the article.
posted by HuronBob at 1:35 PM on October 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

I know someone raised in the U.S. who has been in and out of a Greek nunnery for a few years now. When she tries to explain the appeal, I think something is lost in the words between her mind and mine, but I agree that part of it seemed to be the freedom from making decisions, with the trust that the decisions made on her behalf were roughly acceptable if not ideal for her. I think another part of it was also a sense of contributing to a larger good and working to benefit those around her.

Last I heard, she had come back to the U.S. for a time in order to sort out how she felt about the religious part of it. I've never directly asked, but it sounded like she was an atheist, and after all this time they had finally suggested that maybe the religion was an important part of the lifestyle.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:39 PM on October 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's worth pondering how, if you want to live a life of service, there are few mechanisms for doing that which do not inherently disempower you. Additionally, if you want to live a life devoted to social justice, there are a limited number of ways to do that which are economically viable long-term. A progressive order offers those things.

The nuns I know are diverse, but the ones who stand out to me the most are strong feminists and fierce social justice advocates. The orders they live within are often managed more like communes or coops than the ways in which we traditionally think of convents. They are highly romanticised but at least in the Western world, especially in North America, they rarely match up to the Agnes of God expectation.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:48 PM on October 26, 2014 [14 favorites]

This whole "oh yeah it's so appealing because you don't have to think" line...well, that does not match up at all well with the nuns I have met. Nothing but thinking, those nuns - you seem to have quite a lot of time to think and to act on it when you don't have to raise children, manage a large amount of personal property, fuss around with hair and make-up and fashion, etc. Admittedly, I've met far more of the social justice nuns - and you don't want to cross them! - than the other kind. But I assure you, those are women who do think.

To my mind, the appeal isn't so much that one does not have to think about ideas, but that one does not have to think about babies, husbands, finding and keeping a job, retirement savings, staying in fashion, etc...many of the things which are, in fact, rather tiring artifacts of femininity under patriarchal capitalism. Sure, you have to deal with priests and, up to a point, with the Vatican - although it's worth looking at the current situation, which is outlined in the article - but one could decide that the freedoms from were well worth it.

Atheism and love of fashion keep me out of the convent, but I look at the lives of the radical nuns I've met and I can definitely see the allure.
posted by Frowner at 1:59 PM on October 26, 2014 [29 favorites]

Monastic life requires distance from the marketplace to function effectively. When the guiding order is an ideal, not the dollar, one ends up having to give up as much of the trappings of the marketplace as is possible. Towards that end, the vows of chastity and of poverty are central.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 2:32 PM on October 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

A very interesting article—I find the author too self-absorbed and too enamored of typical journalistic bullshit pseudo-contrasts ("I’m also struck by the fact that Kelly has chosen an area of focus that requires someone who’s taken a vow of chastity to talk about sex all class long"), but she elicited a lot of good stuff from these admirable women. Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 3:44 PM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you grow up in a country with poor governance, or frequent war, with few prospects, the trade offs involved with a vocation may be a much more appealing deal.

Your hypothesis would lead us to expect there to be a great many American nuns.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:41 PM on October 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is an article about the nuns that live cloistered in the Carmelite Monastery in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Lisa Ling also did an episode on nuns and women looking to become nuns in her series Our America.
posted by poxandplague at 6:54 PM on October 26, 2014

My dissertation chair (many years ago) is a sister of St. Joseph. She could take you down when it came to educational theory. Or the Ramones. Or any science-fiction since like the 1800s. To think of her as some flying nun shuffling around cleaning pots and studying hymnals makes me laugh.
posted by oflinkey at 8:04 PM on October 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Awww, my college rector was an SSJ. Sisters of St. Joseph represent!

I read her opening and I was like, "What ISN'T appealing about living in community with a group of committed, idealistic other women, freely pursuing service to others?" She says, "to set aside every personal need and closely held ambition in favor of the needs of others?" -- but service to others might BE your most closely held ambition! Sure, giving up sex (and money) isn't for everybody, but there are plenty of people for whom it's not a hardship, or for whom it's a totally reasonable sacrifice.

I lived in a women's dorm (supervised by a nun!) in college so to me being a (progressive) nun would be like, COLLEGE FOREVER WITH BONUS WORLD-SAVERY AND LESS PRESSURE ABOUT FINDING A BOYFRIEND!

But I've known nuns my whole life, so they're not so mysterious to me. And mostly they don't mind if you just straight-up ask them why they're a nun when it means they can never have sex and (in some cases) have to wear a habit, questions which I started blurting out when I was about eight, and now ask more thoughtfully in the form of, "How did you discern your vocation?"

My godmother's mother's BFF was a nun, God rest her soul, and my godmother's mother and the nun BFF were always off together handcuffing themselves to nuclear facilities or sitting in at segregated lunch counters and so on, and every now and then my godmother's father would come home and sigh and be like, "Your mom's off with Sister Joan and they've been arrested again so it's soup for dinner." The last time I saw Sister Joan we were at a family Catholic wedding and she beckoned me down to her (she was in a wheelchair by then), grabbed my collar, and said, "If you let the priest say 'man and wife' at your wedding [I was then engaged], I will come back and haunt you." I was like, "I KNOW, RIGHT?" (My priest properly proclaimed us HUSBAND and wife, so I am nun-ghost free.) Sister Joan and I were pretty simpatico and once I was majoring in theology in college, we spent a great many family events sitting together enthusiastically debriefing after whatever Mass we'd just been at, criticizing the priest's liturgical choices as theologically problematic or inadequately feminist. In whispers, of course, because people get all weird when they overhear you talking about The Top Five Hundred Things Wrong With This Funeral Mass.

(Although she had taken a vow of poverty she, like most nuns, had personal mementos and knick knacks of sentimental value, and she sent me one when she died, and it is in a place of great honor in my china cabinet. I happen to glance at it while typing my comment and felt like I had to include that.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:44 PM on October 26, 2014 [35 favorites]

When I was very young and still figuring out how things worked, my family were driving through downtown Pittsburgh one summer evening when we stopped at a light and a group of nuns crossed in front of us. I studied them closely: they wore uniforms and did not look happy, something I'd noticed at other times as well. I could not imagine anyone wearing head-to-toe black on a hot day voluntarily. I put this together with a few other things and asked, "are nuns drafted?" Car hilarity ensued.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:05 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Honestly, the idea that nuns could be among us right now without us knowing it is kind of terrifying to me as someone raised somewhat Catholic. There's stuff you're supposed to do when you see nuns! I could be missing it ALL THE TIME!
posted by corb at 12:00 PM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Living an Upright Life, as a Nun and a Coach
College Football's Coaching Nun Preaches Positive Thinking in N.C.A.A. Division III
posted by DarlingBri at 11:01 AM on November 21, 2014

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