“Sisterhood” May be Reality-TV for Reality-TV Haters

“Sisterhood” May be Reality-TV for Reality-TV Haters November 26, 2014



When it was announced that Lifetime network would be airing a “reality” series chronicling five young women as they “discerned” whether or not they have religious vocations, I was as skeptical as Diana von Glahn, who felt pure dread at the prospect.

More than dreading, I was a bit repulsed by the very idea. Having experienced my own vocational discernment as long-looking — a process both serious and slow, and full of challenges to my own self — the notion that five women being hustled through three convents over a six-week period could be considered “discernment” seemed like a “hustle” indeed. I distrusted it, and assumed it would be chock-full of the usual (and repellent) — “reality-tv” fodder gobbled up by busybodies and voyeurs: meltdowns real and fake, camera preening, self-delusion and manufactured conflict.

Well, there is some of that. The whole, “I’m scared to go” thing expressed by some of the girls rang false and overdone, to me. From the benefit of 56 years, I watched them play with drama about it and thought, “Goodness, you’ve signed a contract for a six week venture; it’s not like you’re not going home again, and eventually going to become “celebrities” from all of this!”

But then I thought, “they’re young.” The melt-downiest of them seem very young, both emotionally and intellectually. It’s striking that these women — and they are grown women — all seem to see themselves as young girls, as though they are and will be forever-teenagers. As one of the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm notes, “they are products of their environment,” and that is exactly right.

From a sociological standpoint, alone, The Sisterhood is fascinating. One can’t help watching these young women and considering that 50 years ago, women in their twenties would not be thinking of themselves as “girls” and — given their limited options — they would actually choose their direction and then step onto the adult track by the time they were 18, or so. If they felt called to marriage or religious life — or, if they were mavericks, a career — they would, certainly by their mid-twenties, be established in their adult roles, or at least have their wheels fully in motion.

How ironic to consider that the greater opportunities and broad choices afforded to women in the 21st century have resulted in adult lives that are lived like engines set to “idle”.

One ponders the responsibilities some religious women (and our own mothers) were already taking on when they were the same age as these girls (okay, yes, they’re girls) and the mind boggles. At 21, Saint Therese was a zelatrix (a responsible assistant to the novice-mistress); at 25, Mother Dolores Hart, OSB had already figured out that Hollywood success was empty and had entered a Benedictine Monastery. At 27 — the same age as Sisterhood “discerner” Christie — Saint Catherine of Siena was embarking on her first foray into church politics.

We really have come a long way, baby. Now, at 27, we’re still “girls.”

Much has been made of Francesca’s freak-out when asked to remove her make-up; I admit it did seem over-the-top, and high-drama — particularly played before the cameras — generally repels me. In this case, however, I think The Sisterhood is again shining a light on our sociology as much as anything. The meltdown was an eloquent exposition of how deeply ingrained is the message that young women must look a certain way or they are unknowable, unlovable, too hideous to take seriously. “If people are looking at my acne, they won’t see me,” Francesca frets.

Juxtaposed against that, the security of the nuns — who are unconcerned with fashion or appearance beyond the outward sign of their consecrated lives — seem much more free than any of these young women. Francesca’s insecurity was sad to witness, but the encouragement of the other young women was heartening.

By the end of last night’s premier, I had decided I would tune in to the show, again. I want to see these young women working within the apostolates of the sisters, and I also want to see if any of them can get through the show without falling into hysterics — the previews indicate perhaps not — but that’s one reason that it’s all so fascinating. These young women, even the homeschooled ones, are deeply attached to the popular culture, and they are spending a little time in an environment that is profoundly counter-cultural — one that strips away all pretenses, all superficial nonsense, and demands a self-declaration that requires a good deal of courage. And yes, faith, and trust.

I like the straightfowardness of the nuns, who show a sense of humor even as they make it clear that they’ve got their eyes and priorities set on something more larger than themselves.

A few caveats. Live tweeting the show last night with Diana and with Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, some questions kept recurring through the feed:

1) Are these women actually discerning religious life?

Well, in a manner of speaking, but it’s not what most active discerners would call it. They are, essentially, going on an extended “nun-run” — visiting several convents to get a sense of the communities — but in this case they’re combining it all with a “live-in” experience. In general it can give them a sense of what religious life is, but communities are all different, too.

2) But they’re all wearing the same clothing, so aren’t they postulants?

No. A postulant has settled on one community to which she is seeking admission. They’re wearing the same clothing for the sake of modesty, for the sake of television, and also because — as one of the Carmelite sisters notes — not having to think about what they’re wearing each day helps to better focus minds and hearts on what they are supposedly seeking.

3) Are these religious “nuns” or “sisters”? They are “sisters” — professed religious working within an active apostolate. “Nuns” are vowed religious living in a cloistered environment, whose work is liturgical prayer. Conversationally, though, everyone refers to sisters as “nuns”.

4) Will these young women be visiting with any nuns, then, in cloisters?

No. I happen to know of at least one monastery that was contacted for the show, but two weeks of cameras and uncertain women would be terribly disruptive to the work of prayer. A “nun-run” to a monastery can involve talking in the parlor and a shared liturgy through the grilles, but only serious discerners are invited for live-ins.

3) Isn’t Eseni’s boyfriend, Darnell, a veteran from another “reality” show?

Yes. And that was a really sour note for me, too, even though he personally seems like a charmer. Two reality shows? Why?

Rebecca Lane Frech wrote the other day about the “fake surprise engagement photos” that clutter up Facebook and Instagram, and this is the biggest “reality” I have to adjust to: that these young people are fine with living their lives before a lens.

Millenials and Gen-Y’s have been trained throughout their lives to play to the cameras. It starts with the parents wanting to videotape every moment of their lives, year after year. The problem with all that — and it’s the reason we stopped videotaping when our kids were still very young — is that it distorts one’s sense of authentic experience — of what it means to really experience something with some depth. I started worrying about this 25 years ago, when I was the only mother not videotaping her kid getting on the school bus. My son and shared a real moment of that whole excitement/anxiety/letting go thing that happens. The other kids were busy performing — they were being told what to do, and where to stand, and even prompted as to what to say. “Smile. Wave. Tell us how excited you are. Play to the cameras, play to the cameras. Exit, stage right.”

Now, what did you actually experience? What did you actually feel? Oh…yeah…you don’t know. You wanted one more hug from Mom? Aw, too bad, sorry! But we got great pics, so that’s all that matters.

That’s the big drawback to The Sisterhood. The intrusive cameras, and the need to perform for them, skews authentic experience within the “reality.” And I am not sure if, ultimately, that is fair to these young women, fair to the communities welcoming them, or even fair to Christ Jesus, who desires our authentic outreach so he can deliver to us his Constant Reality.

But, in the end, the Holy Spirit can work with anything. And this show may yet prove to be one of those confoundingly corkscrew routes the Spirit likes to take, on the way to the miraculous.

Watch the episode for yourself. Share your thoughts.

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