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.