Learning from the Nuns

Learning from the Nuns June 17, 2019

For a few years now, Catholic sisters and religiously unaffiliated young-ish people have been finding common ground, making common cause, and building community. As Nellie Bowles reported recently in The New York Times, millennials have been gathering together with Catholic Sisters of Mercy for conversation, study, and fellowship.It’s exactly what should happen, and lauds are due to both Nuns and Nones for willingness to engage the other, to appreciate each other’s vision and gifts.

As Bowles narrates, the project was sparked by 32-year old Adam Horowitz, who is Jewish, and was together with his friends “brainstorming ways they could live radical activist lives, lives of total devotion to their causes. They were trying to figure out who was already doing this, and when Mr. Horowitz talked to a minister, it came to him. The answer was nuns.”

Of course the answer is nuns. A few structural features of Catholic women religious make them amenable to such attentions. Since late antiquity, monastic institutions have cultivated learning, reflection, devotion, and acts of mercy on behalf of the poor, sick, and oppressed. Women’s monasticism in particular provided refuge for women judged inconvenient to marry off, what were known euphemistically as “forced professions.” But convents also provided space for faithfulness and innovation and women’s leadership.

It may seem surprising that nuns would have much appeal for hip millennials. But this is no peculiar predilection. Stern stereotypes fail. Nuns are diverse, often socially engaged, veritable dynamos of holiness and deed, action and contemplation. They have been so for millennia, as millennials seem now to have discovered. Reading Margaret McGuinness’s survey of women religious in the United States, Called to Serve, can make me slip back into habit of saying that nuns made America. That contention is not exactly accurate but provides potent antidote to some flatter renderings of American history. Nuns have staffed and led schools, hospitals, orphanages; they agitated for peace, reform, justice, often while battling scurrilous reports, Protestant or non-religious, about what they got up to in their spare time. Millennials’ interest signals an encouraging leap beyond stereotyping looped around age and sex, recognizing that their modestly dressed interlocutors are no mere “little old ladies.”

The Nones appreciate the sisters’ background. They are respectful of sisters’ beliefs, if not persuaded of Christian doctrine. Indeed, their earnest curiosity and respect could serve as a model for many, nattering news nabobs tone-deaf to religion and perhaps designedly so when talking about Christian particulars now unfashionable. Some Nones are attracted to these women and their way of life, Bowles notes, because they consider nuns a kind of “rebel force” that is “hardly related to the Catholic Church at all,” though of course sisters  are deeply, historically, and charismatically integral to the institutional church. As Wayne Muller, the minister who tipped off Horowitz, explains the attraction, “The sisters have been doing radical social justice work for forever.”

What is most curious about the Nones’ interest is that it seems to skirt belief and seek counsel for practice. This is strange in a way, as millennials in their formative years were urged to figure things out for themselves, make personal commitments, be authentic. Figuring things out for yourself is strenuous work, though, perhaps especially as pertains to God and justice. Some millennials interviewed in Bowles’s article discover that it really can help to learn what people before you have figured out. One young woman notes that “a lot of the people in our generation” forget “these really old wisdom traditions that can fed change.”

So perhaps it is not surprising that what they seek from the sisters is guidance on practice. How can we grow closer to the goals we seek by what we do? Practice, as Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle or a thundercloud of witnesses could attest, is what shapes the soul, and practice in community with others, as Benedict of Norcia would attest, is a fitting vessel for a mighty wind. For the sisters, practice proceeds from vows, daily offices, and liturgical calendars. Through charisms particular to each institution, sisters learn to serve whomever they are called to serve more effectively.

Some Sisters of Mercy interviewed in Bowles’s article envision their millennial seekers as heirs to their own legacy. The shrinking, aging population of Catholic women religious has left convents half-empty, or shuttered altogether. These serious-minded non-Catholics might be the appropriate inheritors of their mission.

As the Nuns and Nones website explains,

Through Nuns & Nones, we have learned that sisters’ charisms have natural inheritors in a younger generation of seekers. Based on decades of experience living in self-governing, resource-sharing, women-led, “counter cultural” communities of contemplation and action, sisters have a wealth of wisdom to share with a younger generation setting out to serve and heal in a fractured world. Amidst the social and environmental crises of our times, we are hearing a common call to incubate new forms of community rooted in love and committed to justice.

It is such a good idea. I hope the fellowship of Nuns and Nones will grow and prosper. Indeed, I’d venture to suggest that religiously unaffiliated millennials would also get goods from seeking similar connection with Baptist women, Methodist women, Lutheran women, and aged faithful in other church traditions across the American landscape, and not just for a grandmotherly embrace or coffee cake. Of course, Catholic nuns do have something to share with millennials that these other women lack, in the structure of their religious practice and tradition, its history and material culture. Still, other American Christians have built practices formally and informally that might inform young activists. Do not underestimate short-statured, grey-haired females. They have plenty to teach about conscientious living, humility, and activism.

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