My Nunophobia

I have never known a habited nun.

Oh, I know they’re out there. I’ve seen them. While serving as a scullery maid on retreat, I ladled bacon and eggs onto the paper plate of a Poor Clare. In the 1960s, one of my cousins joined an order whose members wore habits. I don’t know the name of the order, so I’ve no idea whether it’s gone plainclothes or not. But I do remember seeing her plump face, framed by a veil and cat-shaped glasses, in a triptych between photos of my Uncle Kevin in his Marine Corps dress blues and my Great-Uncle Harry in his admiral’s dress whites. There was no question of playing which-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others; all three seemed perfectly of a piece.

I’m thinking about them — habited nuns, that is, not members of the Naval Service — for the oddest reason. On my Facebook page, somebody posted a link to a Patheos blog post titled “The Inaccurate Ways We Portray Nuns.” It sounded fascinating, so I clicked, but the page refused to load. After trying another 14 or 15 times — I’m nothing if not persistent — I gave up. But I found myself grappling with the question: Do I misrepresent nuns to myself? Does the picture of them I carry in my head do them any kind of justice at all?

I won’t know until I’ve introduced myself to a good representative sampling, but the answer is probably no. Just seeing the title of that piece made me realize that I’ve managed to form some very nasty prejudices against these mysterious and veiled ladies. I blame the media — or at any rate, the media that aren’t me. Ever since the Vatican announced it was subjecting the apostolic women religious represented by the LCWR to a doctrinal assessment and apostolic visitation, countless commentators have been playing them against the more traditional and contemplative orders like Goofus and Gallant. Goofus subscribes to a radical form of feminism. Gallant meditates on virginity and motherhood as the two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality. Goofus’ liberation theology collapses eschatology into inner-worldly social expectations. Gallant recognizes over-emphasis on the class struggle as a Marxist perversion that minimizes the gratuity and transcendence of liberation through Jesus Christ. Et cetera, et cetera.

Maybe because I first became acquainted with Goofus and Gallant (and the other Highlights features, like the Timbertoes) while waiting for my therapist to straighten out some other fit-throwing, bed-wetting kid, I always found Gallant a bore and a prig. His goodness was the goodness of accountants and engineers, people with low credit-card balances and neat handwriting. In short, it was not the kind of goodness I could realistically aspire to. By defining them chiefly in contrast to the LCWR sisters, boosters make habited nuns sound merely obedient, orthodox, orderly and predictable. If they have, in addition, any passion or wit or capacity for spontaneity, those traits tended to get scrubbed out of the hagiographical portrait.

National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson has noted a streak of ageism in criticism of the LCWR sisters. They’re not just unorthodox, these silly hens, they’re unhip. While we’re at it, we might as well throw in lookism. Just today, a blogger friend of mine posted a photo of LCWR sisters welcoming keynote speaker Barbara Marx Hubbard, as the caption says, “with a dance.” The dancer nearest the camera was a senior citizen, and apparently wouldn’t have known Botox from Clorox. This fact brought out claws in the combox. “Auntie Em, I’m scared,” posted one churl.

At long last, have you no sense of decency left, sir? I wanted to post back. Dismay over public artistic expression by elderly people is acceptable only if the elderly people are your parents and have taken a snootful. Otherwise, it’s none of your g.d. business. But the dancing was really beside the point. The general disdain for the dowdy sister was just another expression of the notion that feminism and feminine beauty are mortal enemies. Ann Coulter put it most starkly, if not necessarily best, when she referred to the “corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call ‘women’ at the Democratic National Convention.” Long before Internet memes were called Internet memes, you could find collages with Helen Thomas, Madeline Albright and Hilary at her lowest-maintenance on one side, under the caption “THEIR WOMEN”; and Coulter, Condoleeza Rice and Michelle Malkin on the other, collectively labeled “OUR WOMEN.” Working out the implications would not have taken a trained art critic like Sister Wendy.

This leaves me wondering: if LCWR sisters, whom the same crowd mocks, look like Thomas or Albright, does that mean that the habited nuns, whom the crowd reveres, look like Coulter? Like Malkin? Like Barbara Marx Sinatra instead of Barbara Marx Hubbard? More to the point, do they think and act like these women? In the ladies’ room at a conference, for example, would one make some head-tossing crack about preferential options for pants suits because she knew a Sister of Loreto was occupying one of the stalls?

Of course she wouldn’t. But that’s a nasty by-product of this type of polarization. Nor does the damage end there. LCWR sisters have, by their own admission, taken the spirit of Vatican II and run as far and as fast with it as their intellects could carry them. Does that mean the other kind of sisters have gone in the opposite direction at the same speed? Hopefully not; if they have, we should expect convent chats to proceed along these lines:

Nun # 1: So what’d you do after Adoration last night?

Nun # 2: Had another ecstatic vision about the martyrdom of St. Philomena.

Nun # 3: F’real? Me too!

Now, this is as silly as it is unfair, but as with many prejudices, exploding it logically only serves to embed shrapnel in the imagination. To protect my image of habited nuns from their fandom, I’ve got no choice to run out and befriend a few. And here, I find, another hangup awaits. A few months ago, I took a break from studying at my local diocesan library to have a smoke in the courtyard. At a picnic table, I saw a pair of habited nuns reading quietly. I thought about saying howdy, but somehow their veils made that move feel overbold. Very much like hijab tends to do, the veil sends the message: I am committed to a brand of modesty and apart-ness that your very presence tends to compromise. Do buzz off.

But now that I think about it, that might have been the best argument for strolling over. It’s been way too long since any woman made me feel like trouble.

  • http://evaulian-thebestoftheworst.blogspot.com/ Eva Ulian

    I spent some time in the novitiate of a semi-enclosed order in England during the 1960s. One thing I learned from such experience was that the type of “environment” which evolves in a religious community does not so much depend on the Catholic Church but on the national culture of its inhabitants. I won’t say more so as not to cause displeasure…

  • http://evaulian-thebestoftheworst.blogspot.com/ Eva Ulian

    Since I have been invited to explain myself, here goes. Having lived in Southern Europe, Italy, brought up and became a teacher in Britain I have worked back to back with a number of religious communities and even lived in one in the late 60s when Vatican II was being implemented. Outwardly, the nuns in the English novitiate were trying to make an effort in keeping up with the times, but it was obvious that they remained what they were inwardly and instead of opening a window, their policy on new entrants was to close a door. What the media was portraying as in The Nun Story, was true but it was true only in the Northern European part of the world because the women who made up the religious orders on the whole were reserved, stand-offish and unapproachable even in the outside world of everyday life.

    As we see in The Nun’s Story, when Sr. Luke leaves the convent in Belgium and goes to Africa, she becomes a totally different nun. Even though the rules of the Catholic Church had not changed, yet, she becomes a totally different person because the atmosphere there was different, she changed in accordance to the dictates of her environment. It is my belief that the atmosphere of a convent is not so much dependent on the rules set up by the Catholic Church but by the national culture from which the religious come from and are active in. Environment and not the Catholic Church determines the kind of community a religious order develops into.

    What you have in America are nuns who are influenced by their environment and if their outlook is different from those in Italy it is because Italy is not so fanatical in practicing divorce, abortions, giving out contraception pills right left & center, demanding nuns to celebrate mass and what have you. Believe it or not, nuns in Italy are down to earth lovable women and they are as opinionated as anyone else… you will see them behind bars with prisoners, taking in homeless women, at the bed side of the terminally ill- some wear habits, some do not: some give parties, some do not- they are no different from nuns in America, apart from the fact that they do not live in a schizophrenic society that make them the unfulfilled creatures that their American counterparts express themselves to be.

  • RebeccaK

    There was a tiny, old, habited nun serving our small Catholic school. She lived on her own across the street from the school. She was our elementary computer teacher! She was very passionate about computers being the future (this was circa 1990) and all students needing to use and understand them, even in K.

    She always rewarded good answers and behavior with holy cards. We always sang the 12 apostles song before computer class.

    She also gave interested students juggling lessons with scarves during recess.

    She was such an interesting lady, and very orthodox. I wish I knew her better!

    We also had nuns from a different order with an established convent teach weekly in middle school, and when I went to World Youth Day in Paris with our diocese, nuns from that same (habited) order were part of our group. They were energy-filled, joyous, and FUN! As well as orthodox and reverent.

    I wish everyone could have encounters with those type of nuns :)

  • Jo Ann

    Last year we had Focus 11 for our 6th graders. My daughter went with her class and I chaperoned. At the event, half a dozen young sisters were in attendance. They wore white and navy habits and their order is involved with taking in and helping pregnant women who have no one to help them just around the corner from St. Patrick’s in NYC.

    The 6th grade girls were facinated by their youth, by their joyful demeanor, and by their ability to beat them at air hockey. But most of all, they were impressed by how happy they were and how much they loved God and were willing to share that love with all of the students.

    My four children have all gone to Catholic schools and have never personally known a vowed religious sister who wasn’t elderly and in street clothes. I wish that our Catholic schoosl were full of teachers like those young sisters we met — joyful young women who see the habit as a public witness of the faith they are so eager to share with everyone they meet. Our children lost something when we lost the sisters from our Catholic schools. They lost the visible unspoken symbol of a life given to Christ in love. Yes, I hear older people talk about how afraid they were of the nuns at school. Personally, that was not my experience — frankly, the only mean teacher at our Catholic school was the only one who WASN’T a nun.

    So, Max, do go out and talk to them next time. They have some great stories about talking to people just because they are wearing a habit. Then come back and tell us all about it :)

  • Tim in Cleveland

    Can’t say I support the LCWR, but I have to agree with you about the “ageism”. From the photos I’ve seen, their members are rather old, and part of the more orthodox community seems to view this as a kind of triumph and there is a tendency to mock their years (at least I have felt a sort of condescension towards them).

    The elderly aren’t what I once knew them to be (e.g. my grandparents): now they are former “hippies” and “new-ageists.” I find myself wanting to join your blogger-friend’s choir of commenters, chuckling at their ways, but your article has forced me to muster some respect for them, due to the non-cloistered women’s age.

  • We are all sisters

    RebeccaK and JoAnn: While I fully appreciate your stories of the habited nuns, believe me, I could share stories about older nuns in street clothes. They, too, are full of radiance and joy and the love of God.

    Even more remarkable because many have sustained that love for 40-50 years, have gone through soul-searching like Mother Theresa, but in spite of it all, have stayed true to their mission.

    We need them all–the young nun and the old nun, the habited and the unhabited, the more contemplative and the more active-in-the-world nuns.

    In fact, I believe we’ve had enough of the patriarchy/matriarchy that is the Roman template. I vote for a nun-run Catholic Church of America. I think Jesus would like that. He was not about power and hierarchy. He was inclusive of women.

  • Fr. Frank

    @We Are All Sisters:

    Sister, you really had me going until your last paragraph. Then, predictable as sunrise, all the patriarchy-matriarchy-nun-run-Catholic-Church-of-America crapapola. Is the LCWR stereotype really a stereotype at all? Newsflash: Catholics 50 and younger are not pushing for women priests, reproductive rights, a place at the table, or any of that other stuff. You have taught them that the Church is outdated and hopeless — and so they just leave. They don’t blame you for staying, because they know the Church you mock still keeps food on your table and a roof over your head. Still, when they see pictures of Sinsinawa Domincans being prophetic and speaking truth to power by escorting girls into the local abortion clinic, why would you think that would make already-nominal Catholics say “Hey! That’s the life for me!”?
    If that’s what gets you three squares and a bed, they say “Knock yourself out, sister.” They, on the other hand, will be content to say along with millions of others, “Yeah. I grew up Catholic.”

  • Fr. Frank

    By the way — what’s with the whole past-tense thing about what you think Jesus “would have liked”? I ask because I also hear lots of the CSJs I’m around speculate on what Jesus would have liked, were He still alive.

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com The Sanity Inspector

    “…many nuns are truly unknown and unsung heroes. In any case, I think I’ve noticed a crude and imperfect but serviceable way to judge which women’s religious communities work, are constructive and faithful, and which are not. The more old-fashioned the habit,
    the more Catholic the nun. The more distinctive the dress, the more removed from the world, and the more faithful. A nun in a veil probably prays; a nun in a two-piece suit with nothing on her head but a gray crewcut is somewhat more likely to be thinking of spirit winds and new ways to refer to Jesus as “she”.”
    – Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual
    Father, 2005

  • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

    Max, thanks for this. You put into words something that has been subtly bothering me about all of the recent discussions of nuns and sisters, but which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It seems like—on both sides of the LCWR controversy—sisters (and, oftentimes, women in general) are sorted into “good” and “bad” camps. Personally, whether I’m told that good Catholic women should be prophetic-minded feminists or tradition-focused contemplatives or mothers, I’m disheartened by a vision that there is only one “right” way of being a woman and that women who step outside of whatever (traditional or progressive) mold we’ve created for them are worthy only of ridicule. It is even more disheartening when that ridicule attacks the intelligence and appearance of women, something that has unfortunately happened to both traditional and progressive-minded nuns and sisters. Frankly, as I find myself typing “traditional” and “progressive” over and over again, I realize how frustrated I am with that silly, overly-simplistic dichotomy that I can’t seem to avoid utilizing but which nonetheless is part and parcel of the divisiveness that leads to the Goofus/Gallant rhetoric you’ve so perfectly pilloried here.

  • http://www.sherryantonettiwrites.blogspot.com Sherry

    I have known habitted and non habitted nuns. I do not know why so much mental energy is wasted prepainting them as Other if their decision to wear the garb or not does not jibe with one’s personal preference. I love the presence of the sacred, of the holy, of the committed. It is as lovely to see a husband and wife wearing their wedding rings and holding hands, as it is to see a nun in full habbit, it is a visible sign of a vocation, a way of living and loving God. That being said, I have known both, but the ones that discarded their uniform carte blanche, sadly, in two cases, threw away their faith eventually, as they watered their Catholicism down into something not nearly so extraordinary, much more comfortable, much less visibly apart from the thinking of the world. The more devout one becomes, the more obedient one must become. It cannot be otherwise.
    A year ago a video came out called “We Are…” about Catholicism. I showed it to a friend of mine who is a nun who does not wear a habit. She liked it but expressed dismay that there were so many women in the habit in the video, where were the nuns that did not wear the habit? I asked, “How do you know that the women not wearing the habit, weren’t nuns?” and that is the crux of the problem in a nutshell, if you don’t wear the habit, it does not mean you do not have a strong faith or devotion or humilty or obedience, but it does mean, it is harder to spot you as a bride of Christ.

  • Dominic

    You mentioned Sister Wendy. This gives me great joy. She’s my very favourite nun. I was introduced to her work back in High School, and I fell in love with her piety, her good nature, and the joy with which she approached art.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    My experience with nuns have all been positive. I have found them to be the sweetest, kindest people, in many ways kinder than priests. And no I don’t support the LCWR.

  • http://www.godspace3.com Tota Tua

    but how many know that Sr Wendy is an Episcopal nun. Roman Catholics are not the only to have vowed and habitted religious.

  • http://www.franciscanfocus.com Lisa, ofs

    Tota Tua: Nope, she’s not Episcopal, she’s Catholic. :-) She “was a teaching nun in her native South Africa with the Notre Dame de Namur order, but had to give up after a series of epileptic seizures, brought on by stress.” (http://is.gd/63WgOH) This was “from the beginning of 1947 until 1970.” (http://is.gd/zorGCM)

    “After recurrent bouts of illness, Sister Wendy returned to England in 1970 to live a fully contemplative life. Obtaining papal permission for Sister Wendy to become a Consecrated Virgin, Sister Wendy’s order arranged for her to live under the protection of the Carmelite nuns [www.quidenhamcarmel.org.uk] at their monastery at Quidenham, Norfolk.” (http://is.gd/cYfvUZ)

    Jo Ann: The beautiful sisters that you’re talking about are the stellar Sisters of Life: http://www.sistersoflife.org. :-D

  • http://doremiles.com/club/pg/blog/vdm81hl85/read/1805/massive-amount-of-storage-area Kaitlin Cellio

    Howdy! I understand this really is kinda off subject but I was wondering in case you knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my comment form? I am applying the identical site platform as yours and I am having problems finding one particular? Thanks a whole lot!


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