Whatever happened to Villanova basketball star Shelly Pennefather?
August 9, 2019 8:36 AM   Subscribe

"She had legions of friends and a contract offer for $200,000 to play basketball in Japan that would have made her one of the richest players in women's basketball." Now "Sister Rose Marie will never leave the monastery, unless there's a medical emergency. She'll never call or email or text anyone, either. The rules seem so arbitrarily harsh. She gets two family visits per year, but converses through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, she can hug her family."
posted by If only I had a penguin... (68 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was a bit dismayed - although I totally understood - to read comments from people who said that Shelly was "wasting" her talents. She was exceptionally talented and skilled as a ball player, they seemed to be saying, ergo that's what Shelly should be doing.

However, it seems they didn't take into consideration the possibility that maybe Shelly didn't want to do that. Just because someone has an innate talent in something, that doesn't necessarily mean they would also want to do it. Maybe they don't want to. (Like someone at an old job I had said once - "if you're hung like a moose, that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to work in porn.")

Shelly was a phenomenal ball player. However, she had a different priority for herself and knew what would satisfy and fulfill her more, and she had the courage to do it. That should be celebrated.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:03 AM on August 9 [49 favorites]


you're hung like a moose

decapitated in the trophy room?
posted by biffa at 9:30 AM on August 9 [19 favorites]


She gets two family visits per year, but converses through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, she can hug her family.

Preventing any human from hugging her family is unjustifiable cruelty. The purpose of this rule is isolation and control.
posted by YoloMortemPeccatoris at 9:45 AM on August 9 [47 favorites]


Seems to me that she has two talents. One, she was a terrific basketball player. Two, she has a love for humanity. By her own words, she has no regrets. She is doing what she wants and what she is apparently good at.

People measure success in their own way. I came to measure success as being happy with one's life and one's life choices. When I was younger, I confess that success was a monetary measure for the most part. Now, it is an emotional measure. Sister Rose Marie came to her own conclusion early on in life and took a path that would give her her own definition of success.

Bless her.
posted by AugustWest at 9:53 AM on August 9 [8 favorites]


"We made the right decision," she told him.

"No regrets," he said.


Reading about her and the almost-boyfriend who became a priest: yep, there is a God.
posted by Melismata at 10:05 AM on August 9


The part where I really disagree with this is about how (paraphrased) praying is the most valuable, important thing she could be doing for humanity.

Getting out there and actually helping people would be the most important thing she could be doing.

And on the other hand, and not that it matters because of the above - what are the chances that some of those prayers are in support of the Catholic body politic about issues like being anti-contraception, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ?

The part about only being allowed to hug your family every 25 years is also really abusive and controlling.

If she was joining the Hare Krishna or Moonies or something we'd call this a toxic, controlling cult.
posted by loquacious at 10:25 AM on August 9 [77 favorites]


came in to comment but loquacious said it all.
posted by biggreenplant at 10:55 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]


The part about the family saying the rosary every night really got me. I grew up in a Catholic family, too. My mother tried to institute a nightly rosary. It was a dismal failure. Me and my siblings found it excruciatingly boring and rebelled. The problem is: feelings of piety entirely eluded us.

Although I'll never ever understand such feelings, first hand--and although I share many of biggreenplant's reservations--I have to admit I found this article deeply moving. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Transl3y at 10:57 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]


Whatever grace allows people to escape judging others is a beautiful thing to me. Thanks for posting.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:34 AM on August 9 [12 favorites]


The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.

...

"I didn't understand it at first," Perretta said. "But if you believe in the power of prayers, then they're doing more for humanity than anybody."


i just absolutely do not understand this. i won't say anything else because i don't want to offend people, and i am so envious of true believers.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:35 AM on August 9 [13 favorites]


The part about only being allowed to hug your family every 25 years is also really abusive and controlling. If she was joining the Hare Krishna or Moonies or something we'd call this a toxic, controlling cult.

It is my understanding that the Poor Clares lets you know that this is the case before you get involved and asks you to be sure you can do this, and does not hold it against you if you say "You know what, never mind", whereas the Moonies or Hare Krishna do not tell you upfront that you will be controlled in this way until after you're already there. So...I appreciate this sounds alarming, but the situations aren't quite the same.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:55 AM on August 9 [46 favorites]


According to the website of one of the Poor Clares Monasteries in MN, each potential nun must go through one to two years aspirancy; one year postulancy; two years novitiate; and five years in juniorate prior to taking their vows and committing to a life that includes such restrictions as living in a cloistered environment and not touching your family.

Cloistered, religious life is definitely not for me (and it sounds like it's not for many of you, as well)...but it doesn't sound like she made the decision on a whim. In fact, I'm kind of awed at how clear-eyed and joyful her decision was to join the Poor Clares, and I respect her choice of lifestyle. I get that it's not what society at large would choose to do, but it's her choice and she is not being held against her will.
posted by Gray Duck at 11:57 AM on August 9 [35 favorites]


Her mother joined, decided it wasn't for her and left as a teenager. It's in the article.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:30 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


She did not pack any bags because she took a vow of poverty.

Reading that was an "Oh... oh, of course!" moment for me. Although I do remember that the Amy Vanderbilt we had when I was growing up had a paragraph on suitable gifts to give nuns.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:33 PM on August 9


Thoughts:

-Life is messy, this seems like running away from it.
-Seems the height of hubris to think that YOU can save the world by praying for it.
-Jesus said to pull your cow out of the well even if it's the Sabbath, and decried empty piety. Interesting that Catholicism otherwise holds that works, not mere faith, are needed to get into heaven, but here's an exception.
-At least the friend is a priest, presumedly helping people.
posted by notsnot at 12:37 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]


Is she really doing that much less for the world than the average Mefite is? I volunteer a bazillion hours a year for good causes, but I also have three million times the carbon footprint that she does.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:40 PM on August 9 [18 favorites]


I'm a progressive catholic, so perhaps I have a biased view of this, but we could (and often do) make the same judgement about so many choices that women freely make, which alter their lives in ways we might not like, but it seems to me this is someone who has gone into her future with more clear eyed certainty than most of us will ever have. She is also free to leave if she chooses.
posted by RandomInconsistencies at 12:51 PM on August 9 [18 favorites]


Oh, she's absolutely wasting her talents -- be they on the court or in other venues -- because she's using whatever energies she has in the furtherance of an organization that has proved itself to be fundamentally corrupt.

Even if she felt "called" to ministry in some way, there are paths within that vocation where she could be doing some meaningful good in the world. She's chosen what is basically a self-indulgent path of piety and isolation.

So there's that.
And once every 25 years, she can hug her family.
Also, this is immensely fucked up.
If she was joining the Hare Krishna or Moonies or something we'd call this a toxic, controlling cult.
And, in fact, this is a toxic, controlling cult. That she knew it going in doesn't change that fact.
posted by uberchet at 1:13 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]


One can certainly question whether devoting one's life to prayer is any active help for the world and dislike the methods of the Poor Clares, but sometimes a calling or just path of life is as much a personal need as it is a choice. I ended up doing what I do because there are so many jobs and lifestyles that I either wanted nothing to do with in a decisive sense or couldn't handle dealing with in a reactive way.

Choosing poverty and prayer may not actively help, but it isn't going to cause much harm either, which can be it's own kind of help given how many of us work for companies that do harm or otherwise engage in unsustainable consumerism. While she prays, many of us will be debating the merits of the next blockbuster movie or "must see" tv show. That may seem more fun to us, but it's hardly more admirable or even any more sensible when it comes down to it.

I ain't got any strong religious feelings myself, but I see no reason to think this choice is a bad one for Pennefather or that it's even any of my business were it so. It's only that an article was written about her life that puts the notion of that life being open to public criticism in a way that most of us surely wouldn't our own to be.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:18 PM on August 9 [11 favorites]


Interesting that Catholicism otherwise holds that works, not mere faith, are needed to get into heaven, but here's an exception.

These sorts of regular devotions are absolutely, unquestionably "works" in the sense of Catholic theology--indeed, often historically regarded as the highest form thereof; I would gently suggest that if you don't know that, you're maybe not prepared to tackle this particular theological critique. (Additionally, the point of the cow story, at least from the Christian point of view, is that even working on the Sabbath (or another violation of a requirement of formal piety) is acceptable to save a life. Not that you should be performing nonessential tasks on the Sabbath if otherwise forbidden to work.)

i just absolutely do not understand this. i won't say anything else because i don't want to offend people, and i am so envious of true believers.

It's not a system I believe in in the slightest, but in theory, at least, it's a rather beautiful one. Disinterested intercession by the holy on behalf of the whole lost and sinning world. The degree of selflessness required to undertake such a devotion is staggering.
posted by praemunire at 2:54 PM on August 9 [19 favorites]


I spent a couple of years being fascinated by this kind of religious life. I got over it eventually though.

If you really believe that prayer has power, devoting yourself to this kind of life is really A Great Work. In 1979, I visited a monastery of cloistered Carmelite nuns in New Jersey. I got to talk to a sister at the turn for a while (The turn is the spot near the door with a rotatable holder, where mail or packages can be put on one side, then the whole thing turned so the person on the other side can get the delivery without having to see or be seen.)

That was the year we knew that Skylab was going to re-enter the atmosphere and fall. I've never forgotten how this sister told me that all the dates of the predicted reentry fell during the novena to Our Lady (or one of them - 40 year old memory is faulty). And they had all been praying very hard that it would fall somewhere so that no one would be hurt. When "the debris landed in the most unpopulated land on Earth" (Wikipedia quote), I thought about them.

I no longer really think that prayer has any real effect on anything, but sometimes I think of that sister and others like her.
posted by Archer25 at 3:20 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


So much for 'judge not lest ye be judged'

(Mefi does religion so well, truly)
posted by kokaku at 3:29 PM on August 9 [15 favorites]


The degree of selflessness required to undertake such a devotion is staggering.
Uh, no. It's incredibly self indulgent. These people are walling themself off from the rest of the world with all its troubles, and then somehow insisting they're making a sacrifice that will help us?

Nope. It's delusional and self-indulgent. Sure, maybe these people have found their place in the world and are happy, but in terms of actually helping people they're in the same league as the American Hikikomori from last week.
posted by uberchet at 3:34 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]


I grew up a diocese (Baltimore) away from Shelly Pennefather, and while I was in an all women's Catholic High School (run by nuns), her name was
all over the goddamn place
as an aspiration goal

It was kind of a friend of a friend thing - one of my teachers used to go to Mass with her mom, and man oh man, you could not get away from

"Well if you really want to do good for the world, you can't do more than this girl who gave up a basketball career and her college education to go devote herself to God"
"Well the material world is always going to tempt you, and if you cannot resist it, you can join the Poor Clares."

And oddly, this didn't come from our nuns! Ours were Sisters of Mercy - un-habited, un-cloistered, and by the standards of Catholic Nuns, pretty decent and cool. My Catholic Philosophy teacher and I had(have, she's not dead or anything) similar taste in music.

This level of devotion - both her family (saying the rosary every night, going to Mass every day? That's considered A LOT by your average Catholic family standard, and even a lot by the standard of my family, which was Unusually Devout - we did Mass every week and prayed at meals) - and her own - this is a lot, and this is aspirational by some standards in the type of family that I grew up in.

This woman was primed for this, she was setup and I promise you her family is metaphorically dining out with other over the top devout Catholics on the fact that THEIR daughter is a cloistered nun.
posted by FritoKAL at 3:49 PM on August 9 [17 favorites]


My neighbor is a former Benedictine monk. They are also cloistered to various extents (maybe all monks are technically cloistered? I'm not Catholic). He left the order to care for his mother and now had a beautiful shrine garden.

I feel like we have such a weird relationship with nuns compared to monks. I did a quick Google search for other monastic orders, even very isolated ones like the Carmelites, and profilesare all about what the monks feel like they have gained with seclusion, or else about declining populations of monks. I see few mentions of their families at all. But for nuns it is about how much they have to give up, how much deprivation.
posted by muddgirl at 4:12 PM on August 9 [10 favorites]


I think a cloistered life of prayer is beautiful because it's useless--it's such a radical rejection of capitalism and the cult of the nuclear family.

But for nuns it is about how much they have to give up, how much deprivation.

Because everyone knows that women need men and babies.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:24 PM on August 9 [20 favorites]


People do know that she can leave the nuns if she wants, I hope. They don't chain you up.

It is amazing to me that we are fine with all sorts of other contemplative lives bit not this one for some reason. And we also seem convinced that there is no way a person could come to this decision on their own as the right life for them. Or maybe it's just women we can't accept that from.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:26 PM on August 9 [23 favorites]


"They are also cloistered to various extents (maybe all monks are technically cloistered? I'm not Catholic)."

So, "monk" is a really imprecise (but not incorrect!) term in Catholicism. "Monk" simply means a member of a monastic community (in English, it only refers to men, but in other languages it can be men or women). Monks can be cloistered or not; and they can be fathers (ordained) or brothers (not ordained, equivalent to religious sisters or nuns). Religious sisters are women religious who have taken simple vows and are typically active in the world; nuns have taken solemn vows, and may be active in the world or cloistered. (The superset including both would be "sisters" or "women religious.")

Benedictines are typically considered a cloistered order, but they're not a strictly cloistered order and members are often active in the world. Poor Clares are about as cloistered as you can get. A lot of cloistered orders also include an open (or "mendicant") order, so you could theoretically start as a cloistered Dominican nun and move to being a religious sister, or vice versa, while remaining a Dominican the entire time. (Although moving from solemn to simple vows is kind-of a big deal and kind-of rare.)

In fact, the Poor Clares (OSC or PCC, mostly) are Franciscans; they have a very active non-cloistered arm of women religious in the US called the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi (OSF), who wear habits and run hospitals. (You can also, confusingly, be a regular man or woman, married or not, with children or not, and join the Franciscans as an OFS - Secular Franciscan Order, but in Latin - and live your regular life as a Franciscan in your regular house and stuff.) (For completeness, the men religious are OFMs -- Order of Franciscans Minor, aka greyfriars. There are some other sorts of Franciscans but those are the ones you'll mostly see in the US.)

In the US, people typically call them monks and nuns if they're in fancy habits, and fathers or brothers and sisters if they're not. Most don't particularly mind, although now and then you run into a religious sister who'll get real hot under the wimple if you call her a nun. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:39 PM on August 9 [24 favorites]


"People do know that she can leave the nuns if she wants, I hope. They don't chain you up."

Explain to me what a 50-something person with no work history, no social integration in the last 25 years, no grasp of current technology or culture, no drivers' license, no possessions or money, and limited skills other than praying is going to do to survive?

Then explain to me how someone like that who has lived inside what is basically a cult for the last 25+ years is likely to have the courage to go against what is assuredly something her family approves of, to go against what her entire social group approves of.

Even if she wanted to leave now, it would be painfully difficult. It isn't about 'wanting' to leave, it's about having a support network to hold you up when you do, and Shelly Pennefather does not have one, because her family and former friends are supporting this nonsense.
posted by FritoKAL at 4:52 PM on August 9 [10 favorites]


"Explain to me what a 50-something person with no work history, no social integration in the last 25 years, no grasp of current technology or culture, no drivers' license, no possessions or money, and limited skills other than praying is going to do to survive? "

There's, like, an entire Catholic apparatus for helping people who leave religious orders have a soft landing and easy reintegration into mainstream society. If indeed she didn't just becomes an OSF or OFS -- part of the same Franciscan order, but not cloistered.

There's not, like, an incentive to force people to stay in religious life if their calling changes. It's about people with callings answering that call; it's not about getting a high score for most nuns. When people lose the call, or their calling changes, they leave the religious life. Almost every practicing (or formerly-practicing) Catholic knows a few people who have. (Her own mother did!) You don't hear a lot about it because it's just not that big a deal. Can't tell you how many people I went to Catholic college with who had a mom who had been a nun, sometimes a cloistered nun, whose calling changed and they left and got married. Can't tell you how many of them had ex-priests as dads. It's a pretty common, everyday occurrence; it's not shocking when I meet someone in everyday life who says, "Well, I spent fifteen years as a nun before I realized God was calling me to something else." I just say, "Oh really, what order?" and they say "SSJ" and I say "Oh, my rector was an SSJ! What province?" and then we have a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-but-for-nuns gossip about who we know.

Most religious in the US have college degrees, and even if they're leaving Catholicism entirely, their order will help them find a position at a Catholic college or high school or hospital to support themselves while they transition back to secular life. Even many women who leave and become atheists will go back and visit their former sisters on the regular. It's not a prison, it's a chosen life, and people un-choose it all the time.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:03 PM on August 9 [53 favorites]


I am not Catholic. I am not a part of any organized religion at all. And I live my life on and around the internet, and cannot imagine a world that I would want to live in without that.

But after reading this article, and reading your comments, I am struck by this: how arrogant it is, and how wrong, for anyone to assume that this woman is the victim of a toxic, controlling cult, simply because she has made a free and informed choice that you (or I) would not have made.

I moved away from everything familiar to me, leapt headlong into a chasm of the unknown, a home that I bought sight unseen, so that I could live on the Space Coast and watch rocket launches. I had no dependents or responsibilities to hold me back, and I had a passion to follow, and so I did. People told me it was stupid, told me that I was making a mistake, predicted that I'd be miserable. I did it anyway, and I've never been happier.

Was it selfish of me to leave behind friends and acquaintances so that I could live my best life as my truest self? Perhaps. But I don't care. This is my life, it is the one and only life that I can remember having, and I will live it in my own way. And I feel like many of you - even those who don't share my love of rocket launches - would agree with my actions and judge them to be sound, would even go so far as to encourage others to follow their hearts in similar ways.

Why, then, is this different? Because it is religion? Because it is isolation? Because she turned down the chance to make a lot of money? Or maybe just because it is unusual, and unfamiliar, from what you know?

I left my old life and self behind to become the Wayward Plane, and immerse myself in a world of rockets and space. Shelly left her life behind to become Sister Rose Marie, and immerse herself in her faith and devotion. And I celebrate her choice - her empowerment, and her strength and certainty - because despite having nothing in common with her whatsoever, we are two of a kind, living our best lives, being our best selves, in our own separate ways, regardless of anyone else's judgement. Nobody else gets to determine what we're allowed to be. I know what is right for me. And so does she.

And that's awesome.

Anyway, that's my two cents.
posted by WaywardPlane at 5:44 PM on August 9 [41 favorites]


It's incredibly self indulgent.

Are you under the impression they're sitting around on the couch in there playing video games? Neither you nor I would last a month under that kind of discipline.

I'm an atheist. I despise the corruption and abuse of the Catholic Church. I'm at permanent war with fundamentalists of every stripe, which includes half my extended family.

In the bombed-out city I grew up in, the only white people were either (a) hardcore leftist Jews (bless 'em) or (b) white people who thought God was calling them to do this thing everyone else thought was ridiculous, which was not to run away from American racism and poverty and injustice. This thing most white professed liberals still don't dare to do with their families. It's powerful, this sense of a calling. That means it's dangerous. But it can also be transformative in a radical way a person without religious experience can't begin to know.
posted by praemunire at 6:49 PM on August 9 [21 favorites]


Were I to outlive my husband, I would consider a cloistered life, if I could find a hippy, pot smoking, filled with awesome women doing their own thing cloister. Basically, Crone Island, please.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 6:51 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


WaywardPlane - happy to take your two cents and multiply it by anything that makes you the richest person on the planet.

Because you are.

As is Sister Rose Marie.

And once I get out of my office and finish what I am doing - probably me.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 7:13 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]




Nope. It's delusional and self-indulgent. Sure, maybe these people have found their place in the world and are happy, but in terms of actually helping people they're in the same league as the American Hikikomori from last week.

I greatly value the existence of people who have found their place in the world and are happy, even if they don't seem to be helping other people.
posted by value of information at 7:59 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]


There are heck of a lot of comments in this thread that would have been deleted almost instantly if they’d been casting the same ill-informed judgment on any other minority group, but apparently it’s always open season on women. Do better, Metafilter.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 8:18 PM on August 9 [22 favorites]


Part of the support people get when they leave is actual money, either a pension lump sum or a monthly pension amount. In addition, there are homes provided for retirees who chose to stay in their Order, but are obviously not expected to work. There is no shame or stigma in leaving either, it really is very common.

It was really nice to have sisters and nuns around growing up - it was a demonstration of a career path for women that was not dependent on a man it was also a way to get free education when when so many women were denied that by their families. I know a few women who chose the religious life because of traumatizing abuse from men as children and teens and they chose a safe path to not have to put themselves in a position of vulnerability (which sometimes didn’t work out as predator priests exist...).
posted by saucysault at 8:56 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]


"There are heck of a lot of comments in this thread that would have been deleted almost instantly if they’d been casting the same ill-informed judgment on any other minority group, but apparently it’s always open season on women. Do better, Metafilter."

I know, but it's mostly been me modding this thread and I always double-hesitate to delete things criticizing Catholicism since I am (more or less*) Catholic and I don't want to show favoritism so I probably overcorrect and don't delete enough.

*I think I'm still Catholic but I excommunicated the hierarchy from me over the sex abuse scandal so I haven't taken communion in several years due to excommunicating them all; possibly I studied too much theology.

If we need to discuss it further we can take it to MetaTalk but that's mostly why the deleting hasn't been more aggressive.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:58 PM on August 9 [12 favorites]


This goes on in other religions too, people. Mount Athos is basically nothing but praying for the world, there are plenty of Buddhist and Hindu nuns and monks who are cloistered essentially and pray in seclusion for the world. It's not a Catholic-only phenomenon.

There's a bunch of like folk stories in Orthodox traditions to illustrate the theology about it - like how near a strict monetary a particular saint came looking for someone to teach him, and everyone was expecting the person to be one of the devout monks, and it turned out to be the wife of the nearby-village priest who was the most blessed and loving person in the entire place, and ends up being beatified as a local Saint, to illustrate how the laity/ordained distinction is not as important as lived practice and faith.

The other relevant folk talk was about some monks competing over who needed less food during a fast, with one going down to just crumbs of bread in the end, to show how hardcore they were and 'devout', and the visiting spiritual father sitting down and calmly eating a full meal in hospitality because he was hungry and needed the food. I think there's a variation on that where the kitchen monk who is illiterate and eats all the leftovers turns out to be the one picked as the most devout because he's the one continually praying while he does his duties, not the others who are supposed to be praying but are instead competing to be seen praying.

The whole thing in the folk tales is that these monks and nuns are seen as working hard and choosing like athletes to train at something hard that will eventually make them able to give good spiritual advice and help to their communities and the world, either through prayer or directly (through letters or talk). It's seen as a training camp that's very tough although rewarding.

You can pray continually all the time and be out in the world but it's really, really hard because you need time and concentration to spend on meditation and going through the entire psalter. Saying the entire full mass and prayers and things takes a long physical time. I make bread at home, and a few years ago I used to make bread for church services and it took easily 2-3 times as long because I had to also say all the long prayers during various steps and remember to do the appropriate fasting and there would be a kid interrupting so just making a loaf of bread would stretch to a full day. The nuns make the bread for us mostly now.

Are we all wasting time? Sure if you're an atheist. But a lot of us aren't.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:39 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]


"Part of the support people get when they leave is actual money, either a pension lump sum or a monthly pension amount. In addition, there are homes provided for retirees who chose to stay in their Order, but are obviously not expected to work. There is no shame or stigma in leaving either, it really is very common. "

And even if they leave on very bad terms, there's a network. My grandmother and my aunt were super-closely entwined with the Jesuits in the DC area for over 70 years together. Sometimes a young man would leave either before or after his vows, on bad terms, and not wanting the order to help him find a "landing place," and they'd generally put that man in touch with my grandmother, who would find out where he wanted to go, and then call her friends (long distance! when it cost a lot!) from when she was in the Navy WAVES in WWII and say she had an exiting priest (or not-quite-priest) who was looking to start over in San Francisco, and she'd buy him a train ticket and someone she knew would meet him on the other end and put him up for a month or three while he got his feet under him. If he wanted to go home to his mother, she'd just buy him the train ticket home to his mother. My aunt would just flat-out put them up in her house (she had a big house) while they sorted themselves out. In my (Catholic university) alumni club, I constantly get notifications for priests, nuns, and students who are moving to my area, or working here in a mission setting temporarily for a semester or a couple years. PEOPLE GIVE THEM CARS. Car dealers who are alumni just GIVE NUNS CARS. People put them up, feed them for a year at a time. Kids leave the house, parents start giving their bedrooms away to ex-nuns or to current students who are doing Alliance for Catholic Education or Jesuit Service Corps.

Two girls from my year in my dorm (we lived in the same dorm all four years) entered the sisterhood, one cloistered, one not. If my dorm network activated, and said, "Hey, remember Vikki, who became Sister Mary Elizabeth? She's leaving the order, she's currently in Mundelein, and will be out on September 12, is anyone near Mundelein?" We weren't close friends, we just exchange Christmas cards, but I would write immediately to her and I would be in Mundelein on September 12 to pick her up and I would put her up on my couch or buy her a fuckin' train ticket home to her parents or help her get to the next place she needed to go, no questions asked. And if someone from 10 years behind me in my dorm was leaving the religious life and near me, I'd go pick that person up and give her all the help I could. That's just how we roll. My parents never had an spare room until I was in college, but when priests or nuns who were friends of our extended family came through Chicago, my parents would put them up so they didn't have to pay for a hotel, and not because my parents were holy high rollers -- they weren't -- just because they were part of our extended family Catholic network, and that's just what you do, even though you then have to suffer through the priest offering Mass in your dining room and it takes FOREVER because they get all excited about private Masses and do extra-long homilies.

(Sometimes I attempt to explain to my husband why I have to go meet my uncle's wife's sister's husband's niece's daughter at O'Hare and help her move into her dorm and drive her to Target 47 times during move-in week BUT THAT'S JUST HOW CATHOLIC FAMILIES WORK OKAY, my uncle's wife's mother prayed a novena when I got my wisdom teeth out and she sent us a really nice wedding present even though I've never met her SO I OWE HER even though it's her daughter's husband's grand-niece but YOU GOTTA STEP UP. Some day when I die this nice young lady will be at my funeral and be like "she was my mother's uncle's wife's sister's husband's niece and she helped me move into my dorm 40 years ago!")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:25 PM on August 9 [15 favorites]


We are the broad church - and once upon a time - "catholic" - meant the broad church.

Here's my standard rhetoric - "How much would you pay to be exposed to two millenia of philosophy, ethics, culture, language and music explained by people who have studied often for decades in those historical traditions and literature?"

If you are happy to pay $25 to go to a concert or a lecture - why do you begrudge your parish priest $20 each Sunday?

Yes, we are fallible - but what gloriousness has our fallibility created.

And I envy the Buddhist nun who retreats and learns at her convent and does the sand mandalas. And my hope is that my tradition is treated with the same respect.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 11:44 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


I lost someone I loved very much to a religious (catholic) order. I agree with YoloMortemPeccatoris that Preventing any human from hugging her family is unjustifiable cruelty. The purpose of this rule is isolation and control.

I never saw that person again. They died. What we were told was "they died a good death". That's haunted me for years, I know what religious consider a good death: pain.
posted by james33 at 4:41 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


Those stories of how the Catholic community helps each other are great, they really are. I hope there are also stories of those same people going above and beyond to help total strangers in the same ways. Otherwise, Jesus' point has been missed.

I worked at the local Archdiocese in the schools office for three years. I always, always, felt othered because I wasn't Catholic. I was never fully let in, and that hurt. It was the major reason I left, because I liked the work I did and I believed in the mission (specifically, to provide educational and extra-curricular programming for children living in poverty).

So consider me suspicious of any group, religious or not, that cleaves so tightly to each other that there's not room for anyone else.
posted by cooker girl at 7:37 AM on August 10 [9 favorites]


Yes, us Catholics we all get together and embracing pain if we are religious! In fact, when or if we go to church we all chant 'let's all suffer and toss our children into convents!' We are all the same all over the world too. And our children even when they have gone out to the world and rejected it can only do so because we've brainwashed them.

I am a lapsed Irish Catholic with no good opinion of the church and who isn't even fond of nuns having been taught by them but this thread is so far into anti-Catholicism it could half be penned by members of the orange order.

(I will note we did a thread on some knitting being displayed by the Orange Order in NI that was all 'how lovely these old ladies are!' despite the fact that they are a self-professed order of bigots).
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:08 AM on August 10 [13 favorites]


Women choosing a life that doesn't include you really makes people angry, huh? I'm sure giving up their calling so they don't miss out on a twice yearly invitation to family dinner would be just as fulfilling though.
posted by sarahw at 12:22 PM on August 10 [13 favorites]


I have a dear, dear friend who is a Carmelite cloistered nun and has been since she was very young. Of course, she didn't have the same options as the young woman in the article - she was an Irish orphan, malnourished as a child and abused and neglected as foster child. She was barely literate when she joined. The malnourishment causes her bone problems in her old age.

Of course, she's not completely cloistered. My family visits regularly, with us all in the same room and we hug and she serves homemade cake and biscuits. In fact, we only know her because my very religious grandmother used to visit, as she had a habit of visiting priests and convents. They have a garden, with a pottery shed and a pond with goldfish. As a treat they sometimes watch David Attenborough DVDs.

Anyway, she is an old lady now, difficulty walking, all the issues that come with old age. And she got 24/7 care from the other nuns. It cannot be overstated the love and care that is within that convent. She has a real, deep, close family now with many members who love and support her. Sadly, she's recently had to move into a nursing home, and despite the rest of the nuns being cloistered they visit her every week. I can think of few better options for old age than a large group of women who consider you their sister.

Obviously, the order in the article is far stricter, but I am uncomfortable with some of the assumptions being made here, and I do not consider myself an active Catholic. Especially the assumption that anyone who joins a cloistered convent is any more self indulgent or selfish than the rest of us (in my experience they are kind, joyful people, even if they are wrong about prayer, and even just being family to other nuns can make a huge difference in their lives)
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:01 PM on August 10 [12 favorites]


Side note: I want to temper and explicate my comment above, because there's some valid things people have said that I want to identify and discern and refine my comment as not being about those things.

I am not anti-Catholic, but I am anti-dogma in general. I know a lot of people find solace and community with organized religion, but I have a lot of negative direct experiences with organized religion and abuses of theocratic authority. As someone queer I experience a lot of negative, hindering things in our culture that stem directly from Christianity (and patriarchy) as a whole in Western society and these are very real, oppressive things in my life that aren't just theoretical concepts.

I am not anti-prayer nor against the general idea that spirituality or the power of prayer. It's important, but so is real work.

In some circles of magic, the ritual and energy put towards a goal is only part of the solution, IE, you can cast all the love spells you want but unless you actually put yourself out there meeting people and doing the mundane things and real work of trying to be someone's partner, those spells are basically useless.

The ritual, prayer or magic is really there for reflection, to identify and determine what work needs to be done, or to otherwise prepare you for the work to be done.

I am also definitely, absolutely not against women (or anyone) doing their own thing, seeking a contemplative or quiet life, a life of poverty or a life of service. I totally support the concept of telling the patriarchy and it's expectations to take a flying fuck at the moon. But, yes, this is definitely a thing people - men, mostly - get irriationally mad about women doing for themselves, and this isn't what my criticism is about.

I also fully acknowledge that there can be real community and support in, say, a convent, and that historically this may have been a valid option for women to escape forced marriages, gendered violence and other terrible things. (But not all orders actually offer those things and were - or are - places of abuse.)

There have also been many, many terrible things that have also happened within convents or parochial schools and related functions. The Magdalene Sisters are just the start of these horrors. These horrors exist even today in active Catholic orders, often in developing or other countries where news about these things may have difficulty reaching Western audiences.

And I'm having a hard time accepting that convents or cloistered life anywhere in the broad range of Catholicism is feminist or pro-women when it ultimately still involves patriarchal rule and even oppression - let's just start with contraception, planned families and birth control - when essentially or effectively all of the Roman-Catholic organization still refuses to ordain women as priests or have any real, direct ecclesiastical authority.

I would have these criticisms about any religion or spirituality whether it was Buddhist or Islamic or pagan or pure chaos magick. I have actually had similar criticisms about those examples and more.

I wouldn't say I have it all figured out, but I would say I would like to live in a world that was not so utterly dominated by dogma and by organized religion in particular. I would like to live in a world where people had more secular community and behaved as, say, Eyebrow McGee's Catholic family but without necessarily supporting any religious group at all, especially one with so many documented abuses.

I'm not saying that the RC church has a monopoly on these kinds of abuses, either. I'm not singling this church out in particular.

So, yeah, I have a lot of difficulty reconciling all of this with being able to weigh this scale, or being able to separate the "this is good" parts from the rest of the bad and abuses of authority - mostly from men - that depressingly and all too often come hand in hand with religion in general.

I will also acknowledge I have a really difficult time discussing this topic well and can get pretty sharp or ranty and get up on my atheist/agnostic soap box. I struggle with not hurting people's valid feelings and beliefs about these things, and my intent isn't to discomfort or attack anyone in particular.
posted by loquacious at 4:04 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Imagine someone posting an article on tennis and the thread filling up with comments on everything that's wrong with rugby or how bad sport is. That's how frustrating it is to have abuses in the Magdalene systems brought up or Catholicism being called a "toxic controlling cult" when the context is a woman voluntarily choosing to enter a closed contemplative order.

If it matters, I'm an ex-Catholic atheist and in no way an apologist for the Catholic Church. But the way people have felt entitled to use this thread as a dumping ground for all their reckons on Catholicism despite very little understanding of the originating topic has not been great.
posted by sarahw at 5:51 PM on August 10 [11 favorites]


Those stories of how the Catholic community helps each other are great, they really are. I hope there are also stories of those same people going above and beyond to help total strangers in the same ways. Otherwise, Jesus' point has been missed.

Maybe you missed my comment above? The Franciscans running the soup kitchen in the nearby neighborhood where no other white people would be seen after dark weren't even helping Catholics. Just, you know, their fellow children of God.
posted by praemunire at 6:36 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


praemunire, actually yes, I did miss your comment, I apologize. But I was directly addressing Eyebrows' comments, to be honest. I am aware that Franciscans and Ignatians and Sisters of Mercy, etc., work to end poverty and so much more. And while that is worthwhile and admirable and necessary work, we don't much hear about strangers doing the little things that Eyebrows was talking about, and those are the things that provide a solid safety net for people.
posted by cooker girl at 8:06 PM on August 10


And please understand that I really do believe with all of my heart that the work that religious orders do is valuable and necessary. I'm only talking about lay people.
posted by cooker girl at 8:09 PM on August 10


Laypeople helping total strangers...

I am a member of the Knights of Columbus. Every month in the KoC magazine there are stories about local councils around the world helping people, from building homes for the poor in the US to rebuilding towns and villages for refugees in Iraq who had to flee ISIS.

On a more personal level, my mom's family is Lutheran. My Lutheran grandmother taught science in Catholic schools from the 60s to the 80s. She made lots of friends among her Catholic colleagues. When she died, the retired school principal, a layman, came to her funeral and brought along the then-current president of the Catholic schools to honor her service.

(Arch)diocesan offices, like any other office, are known for their cliquish politics. I'm sorry you ran afoul of one.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:24 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


"And while that is worthwhile and admirable and necessary work, we don't much hear about strangers doing the little things that Eyebrows was talking about, and those are the things that provide a solid safety net for people."

I mean in terms of my family specifically, once you fall into our friendly clutches, you get to activate the network regardless of who you are. These big extended-family networks are characteristic of a lot of religious and ethnic groups; ours just happens to be Catholic (mostly), and so we happen to spring into action more often for Catholics because we know a lot more of them. But, like, my sister had a casual friend in college who was a foreign student from Thailand who got stranded in the US at winter break because his visa got screwed up, so she gathered him up and delivered him to our house, where he spent his first Christmas (he was Buddhist) entirely bemused by the whole thing and with a gigantic pile of presents because all our relatives who came by didn't want him to feel left out so everyone raced out on the 23rd and 24th to buy him something, while we sent out the bat signal and my grandfather's second wife's daughter's husband who was a pilot for United managed to secure him a seat for a few days after Christmas, and my mom's sister's husband was a K-street lobbyist who knew who to talk to, through a chain of DC contacts of his, to get the Thai embassy to address his visa issue in a timely fashion.

I actually feel like it's more notable because so many other community associations have fallen away -- people in the past might have turned to their local Elks lodge or their bowling team or their church community when they needed to activate a support network, but as so much of that has faded away, and people are so mobile these days, we're kind-of left with kin networks (in subcultures that maintain those strongly, which isn't all of them in the US) and to a lesser degree college alumni networks, particularly of colleges that are smallish and have strong collective identities. Like 50 years ago it would have just been a thing people did; today it's sort-of weird because so many of those networks have just died off completely. So now I have to explain to a lot of people, no, of course my family is delighted to do 17 favors for you to sort this problem out, and it doesn't at all matter that that's my third cousin's mother-in-law whom I've never met, she is completely there for you. Whereas 50 years ago I think it wouldn't have been quite so unusual; people would know someone in their Masonic Lodge who knew someone who knew someone and those networks would function the same way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:33 PM on August 10 [6 favorites]


Polish Catholic here.

I feel compelled to comment because of the somewhat rosy picture painted above about how the Catholic church helps those who leave religious life.

I have no knowledge or experience of the Catholic church in the US but in my country (Poland) it's definitely not easy to leave. Especially for women religious. It's definitely a stigma, and a financial problem. One of my friends joined a convent and left after two years, it was hard for her to enter the workforce again even though she had very good credentials. She found the convent life suffocating - not because of the rules themselves but because of the constant nitpicking and pettiness.

There was a book published last year about experiences of Polish nuns who ended up leaving their convents because of bullying by the superiors. All of them reported feeling shame, being stigmatized, and having financial problems because they just got a bus ticket home.

It's also public knowledge here that women religious, even in open convents (not cloistered) have much less personal freedom than the men. The level of scrutiny can be incredible.

It would take a lot of strength and determination to leave, and without a lot of help from family and friends it would be a pretty hard landing.

All that to say, I find the "Catholic network" described above really great and I wish it would be like that everywhere in the world.
posted by M. at 12:52 AM on August 11 [12 favorites]


I went with my cousin once to visit her high school friend who was a cloistered nun. This was in Ecuador. My cousin had just had a baby and went to visit to introduce the baby to her friend (I guess this is where the "different levels of cloister" come in, since the article says Shelly never met her nieces and nephews).

Anyway, these nuns do have minor contact with the outside world because they sell bake and sell communion hosts, so people come to buy them (at certain hours). THey pass the money through a sort of divided-lazy susan and the nuns pass the hosts back. They don't see each other at all.

But when I visited with my cousin we went to a visiting room and the nun was on the other side of a glass(?). I don't recall exactly what the division was, we could hear each other just fine. But she was wearing a veil over her face-- like not a transparnt one, but a black one made of the same stuff as her habit. We talked for a while and then she went back to ask the mother superior if she could remove her veil to see the baby. She came back and lifted the veil for a while to be able to see the baby.
________
I had a close friend who left religious life. I think this " it's about having a support network to hold you up when you do, and Shelly Pennefather does not have one, because her family and former friends are supporting this nonsense." is wrong-headed. I supported my friend being a religious because it is what he felt called to do. When he left, I supported him in leaving, as did everyone he knew. He remained good friends with his former brothers, and one brother who was also a priest even preformed his wedding. I don't think we've seen anything to suggest that Pennefather's family and friends wouldn't support her and welcome her back into their day-to-day lives if she chose to leave.
_____

Anyway, this all made me curious about the social lives of cloistered nuns. Presumably like everyone else they have emotional and social needs and presumably these are filled within the convent, but I have a trouble fully imagining how, given that (at least in the cloister in this article) there seems to be so little opportunity to talk to each other. I thought "too bad it would be impossible for anyone to have done an ethnography of cloistered nuns" and "I guess a memoir would work, but I'm pretty sure writing a memoir would not be within what cloistered nuns would be allowed to spend their time on" but I googled it anyway... I have one of these coming from Amazon and one from the library if anyone else is interested in reading material for a more detailed view inside the cloister.

And then there were nuns: Adventures in Cloistered Life and "Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns"
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:19 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


"I have no knowledge or experience of the Catholic church in the US but in my country (Poland) it's definitely not easy to leave."

Yeah, and for all the Catholic Church is a transnational organization, every nation's Catholic Church is its whole own thing with its whole own culture, so I definitely can't speak to cloistered life in other countries and places (except in small specific ways sometimes). Like, being cloistered in the 60s in Ireland was a hell of a lot more oppressive than being cloistered in the 60s in the US. And then in yet other places, at the same moment in history, the cloister was a place of freedom for women escaping a violent patriarchy that allowed them no self-determination or education; they joined the convent and were free to study and avoid men, and of course that sets up a whole different set of incentives and disincentives that might induce someone to join because it's the best option available in a society where women's choices are extremely limited, but not necessarily what they actually want.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:41 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


given that (at least in the cloister in this article) there seems to be so little opportunity to talk to each other.

You might be interested in this film which follows a Poor Clare nun. From what I understand they work and pray together all but a few hours a day, and have an hour of "joyful recreation" every day.
posted by muddgirl at 6:48 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


IE like most contemplative orders they are not commanded to be silent all day, or even most of the day, but they are supposed to be thoughtful and measured in their speech.
posted by muddgirl at 6:49 PM on August 11


And now I see this film is directed by the same author as Dedicated to God.
posted by muddgirl at 6:51 PM on August 11


You might be interested in this film which follows a Poor Clare nun. From what I understand they work and pray together all but a few hours a day, and have an hour of "joyful recreation" every day.

They have a dog!!! Well, that doesn't sound so bad, then.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:35 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


So...how do I watch that movie? Can i pay somewhere to stream or download it? (Sorry, I'm not a huge movie person. I don't know how people watch movies these days).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:49 PM on August 11


Sorry for the confusion, I linked to the author's website, not the website for the film. If you scroll down on the film website you can rent/buy it online, or buy a DVD. It also looks like a shorter version may be airing on EWTN next week, if your TV or cable provider has that channel.
posted by muddgirl at 9:41 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Chuckled that when I check on the comments, the <<Older post - in a chaotic world, escape rooms make sense.

The LRB article on anchorites received a letter, wherein the letter-writer was horrified that women might have considered encloisterment safer than childbirth. A response set the gentleman to rights - it was MUCH safer to be on your own, than giving birth up until well into the late 20th century.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:34 AM on August 12


Hmm...so the FAQ on the movie site says "Doctors pay house calls and the nuns vote by absentee ballot."

So do they read newspapers in there? How can they vote if they have no idea what's going on?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:36 PM on August 12


I am not familiar with that Order’s specific restrictions, but the Orders I do know in Canada certainly don’t pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. They read newspapers and books. Most nuns I have talked to have pretty progressive views, and very well educated (a rareity for the times); there is a long history of social justice. A surprisingly large number have non-traditional views of “God”. Nuns were the ones in Canada that created compassionate “lunatic asylums” in the 1800’s (unfortunately taken over by male psychiatrists in the 1960’s in a power play), Nursing sisters cared for people with AIDs when few others would, and were the only source of education for girls past elementary school (including a women’s university) when educating girls was not funded. Here is a short article about a local Cloistered Order (they go tobogganing in their habits!).
posted by saucysault at 5:06 AM on August 13


In terms of non-cloistered nuns, a lot of the ones I know of are pretty pagan. They view Mary as equal to Jesus (maybe even a little above him because he only existed because of her!) and pray to Mary for her intercession. They tend to have their public events on the Solstices, have large garden labrynths, get publicly involved in environmental stewardship, as well as offer tai chi and meditations.
posted by saucysault at 5:16 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Yes, I know non-cloistered nuns tend to be very in-the-world and progressive, but given that Pennefather had never seen a cell phone (or it sounded like she didn't know about cell phones), I got the impression that this order really doesn't mostly keep up. Remember, voting would require not just a basic knowledge of big events (e.g. there's an AIDS crisis) but also knowing the positions of candidates on various things. I'm not at all suprised about toboganning. I would be very surprised if cloistered nuns read newspapers.

Anyway, I watched the movie. It was really interesting, though in addition to the questions I had about social emotional needs (not really covered, maybe in the book) I now have more questions about the business they run. I assumed they did something to earn their livings, but from the film it looks like they do lots of different things (I assumed they would have one main business, but it looks like instead they do lots and lots of different things and make a little money from each).

Other things that struck me:

In the private chapel, there's a U.S. flag behind the alter, beside the tabernacle. Yuck. Flags in churches have always creeped me out, with their implication of God-is-on-my-country's-side.

The nun followed had to pay her student loans off before being allowed to join.

I was little yucked by the older nun explaining that it was so wonderful to have the catechism and the papal letters because it meant they didn't have to think about theological issues for themselves since the Holy Spirit told everything to the holy fathers. I mean I know this is the official line in Catholicism, but still weird to hear out loud.

Also, maybe it's because video of people praying is even more boring than video of people working, but from the movie, it seemed like they spent way more time working than praying. I mean maybe they're praying while they work, but they can't spend all day just sitting/kneeling in chapel because there's just too much to do.

Though I have no problem with people making whatever choices they want in their lives, I was unexpectedly left with sadness when I finished the movie. Also, I felt like the featured nun will leave, but what do I know? Maybe it's just me projecting because *I* wouldn't stay there.

Can't wait for the book to come to learn more.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:26 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


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