“I am not Catholic, and yet I find myself drawn to the women saints,” admits Jessa Crispin in a recent New York Times op-ed. Crispin is not alone in this fascination, nor should she be. She touts St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) as independent woman, one engaged in meaningful work rather the traditional woman’s lot of home, husband, and children. Crispin is right that St. Teresa was a woman worthy of admiration. Foundress, administrator, and reformer of religious houses, she was both visionary and practical. Ecstatic in her mysticism, she also assured fellow sisters working in the kitchen that God “walks among the pots and pans.”
From St. Teresa, Crispin extends her admiration to nuns generally. Nuns may not attract much attention in current culture at large, but they get plenty in scholarly spheres. Study, especially historical study, of women’s monasticism has been booming for decades, in part because scholars find sisters appealing for some of the same reasons Crispin does. In medieval and early modern Europe, women in religious life accomplished things generally closed to their sex, having opportunities for leadership, education, art, and thought. Nuns commissioned paintings and building projects; governed household matters and external properties; wrote histories, copied manuscripts, and crafted goods for sale; welcomed pilgrims, gave spiritual advice, taught children, served the needy. In centuries when adult female life offered few choices-–“a husband or a wall,” as the saying went—the “wall,” or life enclosed in a monastery, had plenty to recommend it.
But recommending it for all that is missing the mark. Love of God, desire for holy life, was the heart of the vocation. The picture of women’s religious life as fulfilling career choice is attractive but can risk obscuring what mattered most. To be sure, some women were placed in convents for family convenience or other non-spiritual grounds. Further, as clerical supervisors of women’s houses complained, the artistic or economic activities of a convent could detract from prayer. At best, though, when female monasteries balanced these elements well, they left examples illuminating not only to Catholics–not only to Christians either. Maybe nuns can be especially important for “Nones.” Singleness in the lives of holy women was not just a way to avoid domestic burdens or maximize opportunity but an opening to deep commitment, perhaps a feature particularly needful to many now. Saintly nuns, like Teresa and others, afford a model of adult female vocation premised first upon neither family nor career but something else: calling, community, a vision of God.