Ask Richard: My Friend in High School Wants to Become a Nun

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

I’m a male senior in high school, and one of my friends, who is a girl, is going to become a nun. I have no sexual feelings for her, but I truly think she is not meant for that lifestyle. She likes to drink and party, but still wants to become a nun. Everytime I try to tell her she is not meant for the convent, she says she feels that God is calling her. Everytime I call her a hypocrite, she doesn’t want to talk to me, and I lose the chance to talk her out of becoming a nun. Do you know any ways that me, a closet atheist, can talk her out of it becoming a nun, and in my opinion, throwing her life away in some secluded place, where I KNOW she will be miserable?

Nick

Dear Nick,

This is an opportunity for you to learn about yourself, and about how you interact with other people. Your letter reveals more about you than about your friend. I think you will benefit by looking at what is reflected in that mirror with an honest but compassionate attitude toward yourself, just as I’m going to be honest but compassionate toward you.

I’m not surprised that your friend says she doesn’t want to talk with you about this, because you’re taking the position that you know what is best for her better than she does. That is very annoying. I don’t think you would accept a friend trying that with you.

You say that you truly think that she is not meant for that lifestyle. I cannot help but wonder if you simply disapprove of that lifestyle in general. The fact that she likes to drink and party does not mean that she is “not meant for the convent” nor does that make her a “hypocrite.” She’s not a nun yet. Drinking and partying is not a deal breaker for a young person considering this kind of service. Having lived a life of perfect piety and purity is not a prerequisite. People and their lifestyle behaviors can and do change. Nuns are not born, they decide.

They also have a long time to think about it before they decide. I can’t think of a profession that has so much time and encouragement to reconsider built into its internship. Typically, to become a Catholic nun she would need to undergo six months to a year of initially testing the life, a period called a postulancy. Then she would become a novice for between one and two years. After that, she would take temporary vows lasting one to three years each, which she can continue to renew for at least three years but not more than six. Finally, after as long as nine years from her initial entry into this process, she would take her permanent, solemn vows. At every step, either she or the nuns supervising her can decide that this is not her appropriate path. The modern use of the word “nun” can also mean a religious sister, such as the Sisters of Charity. Their vows can be different, and they don’t necessarily live in secluded places such as convents. Sisters often live and work amidst society, doing charity work or ancillary work in hospitals for instance.

Nick, by saying things such as she is not meant for this, or that you KNOW she will be miserable, you seem to be professing god-like knowledge. You cannot actually know this. You have your opinion. You don’t agree, you don’t like it, and that is all perfectly okay for you to express as an opinion, but not as a certainty. You’d probably prefer that she became a teacher, pilot, nurse, businesswoman, scientist or a bus driver. If I knew her, I’d probably have such preferences too. But I could not pretend that I know what walk of life will be best for her or best for the world around her.

She’s considering a very powerful, very public commitment to her beliefs, and I’m sure that there are many people in her life besides yourself who are disapproving and trying to dissuade her. You, on the other hand are a “closet atheist.” She is putting herself out there while you are being careful. Perhaps that is wise of you, but it puts you at a distinct emotional and tactical disadvantage for debating this with her.

You’ve made your opinion clear to her. Now try trusting your friend’s ability to know her own mind better than you know it, and trusting her ability to make a careful and well-considered decision. She’ll have plenty of opportunity to change her mind, so she’s not going to become a nun impulsively.

This is similar to another letter I received about two friends, and like that one, it’s an opportunity for you to move above and beyond your preferences, and to express a caring for another person that is completely free of agenda. Such pure caring is not that common, but it does exist. You can be a shallow friend who supports her only if she does what you prefer, or a deep friend who supports her in her journey wherever it may lead. I hope you choose the latter, because we need more deep friends in the world. We need to accept each other far more than we need to conform with each other. We need to understand each other far more than we need to agree with each other.

Richard

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About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Great advice, Richard, as usual. I know the giuy means well, but he really should let people live their lives. This person may be trying to change her life around, and yet he insists that she is set in one way and cannot change. I don’t think he would appreciate if others took this view with him.

  • Anonymous

    Very well put. I also suggest watching “A Nun’s Story” with Audrey Hepburn, who I don’t particularly like but have to admit how fine and nuanced her performance is. She’s as good and well-meaning as they come, wanting to serve her god and the people of Africa as a nurse, but finds herself less disciplined than imagined for making a friend and breaking her vow of silence to start, having her sense of pride judged by Mother Superior, suffering to preserve a self nobody else would ever judge as arrogant or indulgent. Although modern convents aren’t typical of the time period depicted, it’s worth showing to your friend how strong of mind she needs to be.

    And for yourself, you might like to read one of many blogs written by nuns: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1558292,00.html

    Very proud to be an atheist, I still have tremendous respect for the nuns who educated me. The younger ones are far more radical than you would imagine, freely discussing birth control and the ordination of women.

  • jtradke

    Everytime I call her a hypocrite, she doesn’t want to talk to me…

    Gosh, I wonder why?

  • Killer Bee

    I wouldn’t even believe her much less argue about it.

  • canadiannalberta

    Not saying this is what is good for her, but I wanted to point this out.

    I seriously considered being a nun. I felt God calling to me. And beleive me, it was a good thing I was talked out of it. I even heard God talking to me, and thought I could see the future as I had a dream about a tornado on a lake and the next day the lake near where I live had a tornado. I also told my mother my grandma was going to die the day she did die, even though no one knew she had complications.

    This was why I wanted to be a nun, among other things. Perhaps your friend is the same way, she thinks only God will accept her as she is because she is so weird? I never told anyone about my so-called visions.

    So maybe you should ask her why she wants to be a nun? Perhaps her reasons are different than you think.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I would drop the hypocrite accusation. Talk to her but with the intent of trying to understand her thought processes and feelings. You can always good-naturedly play the devil’s advocate but don’t belittle her by calling her a hypocrite. As Richard says, at this point in her life, it doesn’t really apply. If she were drinking and carousing later in life after her permanent, solemn vows, that might be different.

  • pinksponge

    We need to accept each other far more than we need to conform with each other. We need to understand each other far more than we need to agree with each other.

    This.

  • plutosdad

    great response

    I can’t think of a profession that has so much time and encouragement to reconsider built into its internship

    Only one I can think of is The Marines. Talk to a recruiter and he won’t help, he’ll tell you you are not good enough. :)

  • littlejohn

    Perfect answer.
    This is clearly one of those “nun of your business” matters. If it’s a bad decision, she’ll figure it out soon enough. In the mean time, leave her alone about it. Just be a friend. We’ve all watched friends make bad decisions (I bit my tongue while a female friend married an obvious con artist – she figured it out after about four months and divorced the bastard). She literally thanked me for not saying “I told you so” more than once.). A friend should, I guess, point out a bad plan – just once – after that, you’ve done your duty and it’s just nagging.

  • HamsterWheel

    I disagree with Richard on this one, big time. Basically, the girl wants to join a cult and Nick is just trying to talk some sense into her. It’s understandable that she finds the peaceful, altruistic lifestyle of nuns very appealing, but you don’t have to be a nun to lead a peaceful, altruistic life, and the only thing that differentiates a nun from any other ordinary person living a peaceful, altruistic lifestyle is that nuns just happen to embrace an utterly absurd primitive superstitious fantasy about a three-day-old resurrected corpse, talking animals, and a pregnant virgin.

    Nick doesn’t want to prevent her from having a peaceful life dedicated to helping others, he just wants to prevent her from having a peaceful life dedicated to her imaginary friend.

  • littlejohn

    Hamsterwheel:
    I think everyone here agrees with you that she’s joining a cult. It’s really not a religious or even philosophical argument.
    The question is whether nagging the girl is likely to make her change her decision.
    I’m an old man, but I remember being young and rebellious.
    Telling me not to do something was a guarantee that I would do it.
    I’ll use my age to impart a little wisdom – assuming you’re willing to consider it: In most situations, “Mind your own business” is the best policy. I had to learn this the hard way, repeatedly. Please take my word for it.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    You don’t win over a prospective cult member by being belligerent and attacking them. The decision to leave has to be theirs; all you can do is plant seeds.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mat Wilder

    I can understand the frustration Nick must be feeling. My sister is planning on joining a convent this August. My family knows that I’m an atheist, and so doubtless would not choose that life for her, but I have never told my sister that I don’t think she should join the convent. It is her life, and her decision. I am only hoping that over the seven-year period before she makes her final vows she changes her mind. Whether she does or does not become a sister/nun, I will always love her.

    What is hardest for me is that I literally may never see her again after August, as her movements during the seven-year discerning process are very restricted, and after that, she could be assigned virtually anywhere in the world.

    Seven years is a long time, though. Your friend could easily change her mind during that time, Nick.

  • JB Tait

    I wanted, briefly, to be a nun at that age, and I know why. I felt alienated and wanted to belong. I believed that even if there was no person who could love me, God could.

    Make her feel like she is respected and appreciated, like she belongs in your world, and she won’t need the cloister.

  • fritzy

    Hamsterwheel;

    I fail to see your point. Even if this girl wanted to kill herself, ultimately there is nothing Nick can do to stop her if she really wants it. So she wants to join a cult. So what? That’s her goddamned choice. It’s not Nick’s job, or anyone else to see to it that she doesn’t. He has made it abundantly clear that he does not approve. And he doesn’t have to. But if he wants to stay friends with her, he needs to accept her ability to make her own decisions. If she ends up miserable, that’s on her shoulders. Yes, she is considering living a life of peace for her imaginary friend. Better that than a life of violence for her imaginary friend. And again, don’t be so arrogant as to presume to know what’s best for someone else.

    Nick;

    Take Richard’s great advice. Tell your friend that you are sorry for calling her a hypocrit and being so critical of her choice. Let her know you respect her ability to make her own decisions. And for the love of all that is rational, don’t try to change her mind. No one likes to be told what to do, and the word hypocrite is a conversation stopper. You might be surprised how much more she opens up to you.

  • Demonhype

    I would probably be a bit distressed at a friend considering the convent, but I don’t think there’s anything I could do besides be her friend and support her in whatever she truly wants to do. Same way my brother is making some decisions that I consider very bad–perhaps potentially life-ruining–but I made it clear to him that even if I’m not personally in agreement with his choices, he’s always going to have his sister’s love and support. It’s even possible that I’m wrong and he will be very happy, however unlikely I find that prospect at the moment. This girl may turn out to be really happy in the convent, or she may find that it’s not for her once she gets on the inside (it does happen) and end up leaving. There are plenty of opportunities to leave before the final vows, or so I understand.

    About hypocrisy: I found this really interesting book at the Goodwill, so I don’t know how generally available it is, but it was entitled “Nun: A Memoir” by Mary Gilligan Wong. It’s the autobiography of a woman who, in 1957, went to a convent-prep high school to become a nun and ended up leaving the convent sometime in 1968, just months before her final vows. She describes the fairly wild life some of these girls led over the summers in HS, drinking and smoking and dancing and dating, etc. before they were to enter the convent officially. The reason they were doing that was, to quote from the book, “live it up before you give it up”. Knowing about their imminent cloistering, they wanted to experience everything they could before they got cut off from the world into a life of obedience and abstinence. A girl considering the convent is planning to give up everything forever, so it’s understandable that she might want to get some serious living in. I understand that guys who are planning to be priests often do this as well–my mom told me stories about seminary students who would go out clubbing on weekends when she was young.

    It was a really good read, and I’d recommend it to anyone, atheist and believer alike. It’s not atheistic, it’s not evangelical, it’s just an interesting account of someone from the inside of the convent, and all the thoughts and events that led into the convent as well as those that led her out of it.

  • Jen

    Great advice, Richard. Nick, I have to agree; as a friend, you have a duty to let your friends know what you think about their life choices insofar as you are concerned for their well-being. However, part of that is realizing that after you have said what you think, you must drop it. Hate their lover? Think they shouldn’t lease that car? Feel that they shouldn’t smoke? You ultimately can only offer a helping hand if and when they have a problem. Perhaps one day she will drop out of the convent and need a place to stay. She isn’t going to seek you out if you are the jerk telling her how awful her plan was.

    And keep in mind that she might change her mind anyway. For instance, my high school had a prom king that was going to be a priest who is now apparently engaged. Who knows where she will be one day? For that matter, who knows what you will think about this later?

  • Carol

    It’s hard to watch a friend make a decision that we’re sure is wrong. But as others have pointed out, that’s her decision to make (and live with), not yours. You can have an honest and respectful discussion about your concerns (and listen with an open heart to her reply), but ultimately your job is to support her and her decision, right or wrong. That’s what friends do.

    Besides, what if you did succeed in talking her out of it? That’s a recipe for resentment. If you become responsible for her decisions, you also become responsible for the fallout. It’s hard enough to manage our own lives; better not to take on hers, too.

  • Amy

    Friends don’t try to control friends, period. Actually, your letter sounds incredibly creepy.

  • http://backwardsbuddhist.com Backwards Buddhist

    Most of all I wonder how Richard accesses such common sense at such a young age. It took me a long time to be able to step back and listen to what people had to say without judging it. Being a parent is the hard knocks training camp for this. Believe me, if you think it’s hard dealing with your over-controlling parents, look at it from the other side, like this young man who longs to “protect” the girl from what is so obviously to him, a wrong choice. Parents have experienced pain and many times would like to spare their children the same. However, there is truth at every step along the path and Richard has hit it on the head. I only control my own actions and that’s plenty. If I listen to those around me, support them in their decisions and be there to lend an ear when they need me that is all I can do effectively. Advice is rarely even heard much less taken just as this piece will probably be ignored by most reading it.

  • Richard Wade

    Backwards Buddhist,

    Most of all I wonder how Richard accesses such common sense at such a young age.

    Thank you. What a nice thing to say. I’ll only be Sweet 60 in July.

    And as far as anyone reading your advice, I at least always do, and it is always excellent.