Thursday, 23 May 2013

"We want to see the nuns!"

I could have been a nun--after I gave up the Star Trek obsession.
I've been thinking about teenage girls worrying that they'll never get married (or, thanks to Beyoncé, that nobody will "put a ring on it" ) and was reminded of my own teenage emergency plan. My emergency plan was that if I were desperate I would just go to Communist-oppressed Warsaw and casually drop my Canadian passport by "accident" outside churches after Mass. Now that I think about, this was flattering neither to Warsawians nor me, but hey, I was a teenager.

It might have been as unthinkable to my generation of teenagers that we would never, ever get married as it is to the current crop. And perhaps it was even more unthinkable because there were no young nuns around. This may make you laugh, but there were fewer young nuns when I was a teenager than there are today. And although there were about 900 girls in my convent school--by which I mean it was a school attached to a convent--there was no, no, NO attempt to interest us in the religious life. (Oh wait. There was one. More anon.)

Generations of girls were curious about the nuns, most of whom we never saw. Most of us walked past the convent part of the building, and the big chapel, to get to the door to the school. We knew they had a swimming pool somewhere, too, just for the nuns. They were among the great mysteries of the place. Where was the swimming pool? Where were the nuns?

When I began at the school, the most infirm nuns were kept on the top floor, and a door with major locks and bolts kept them safely on their side of the building. (An infirmary has since been built.) That added to our curiosity, to say nothing of our dread of old age and dementia.  In contrast, a few elderly nuns in ordinary if dowdy clothes pottered around the library. There were two or three nuns among the teachers, and the principal was a nun. Two nuns gave music lessons in a sort of musical corridor hidden behind the auditorium. So, as a matter of fact, nuns were not that hard to find. They were, perhaps, just hard to see  because they wore ordinary, boring, dowdy old lady clothes. (Except for the principal, who wore power suits.)

Boy, we hated their clothes. Have I mentioned their clothes?

I discovered more nuns when I started going to daily Mass in the chapel--something nobody ever encouraged us to do, although I believe there was an altar guild of some kind. And finally my friend Stef and I went to some nun-authority---or perhaps just the nun who sat in the porter's office near the convent doors--and said, "We want to see the nuns!"

There was some communication about this, and Stef and I were permitted to see the nuns. That is, we were permitted to visit the very oldest nuns on the third floor. And I remember us chatting with a very sweet shrunken nun with an Irish accent who might have been one hundred years old. But that is all.

I wonder if the nuns thought the 900 female barbarians of many nations who came lolloping past their convent five days of the week, white shirts untucked and blue kilts rolled, were more of a pain in the posterior than potential nuns. It's a shame because underneath our underclad exteriors beat devout, passionate and energetic hearts. We were ready to be inspired by nuns, had there been any nuns who wanted to inspire us. And as the high school program was then five years long, the nuns would have had a captive audience for five years.

Any adult in a high school has a captive audience for five years.

The one attempt to attract us to the religious life was extremely lame. When we were on retreat, I believe, a plump, bespectacled, dowdy 39+ nun (presumably the youngest around back then) was brought in to tell us about her life. She emphasized that her sexuality was not dead, and that when she saw a cute guy in a grocery store she thought, "Wow!" And she punctuated "Wow" by throwing her arms in the air.

We were very embarrassed.  Other authority figures over 39+ did not share the secrets of their sexuality with us, so we were appalled that this nun did. And I think I was actually disappointed that religious life did not kill sexual yearnings stone dead. So much for that.

Looking back, my last year of high school was the last year of my life that I could have heard a call to religious life. The summer between graduation and the first year of university I discovered I had caught my first real Catholic victim boyfriend, and that was it. The whole messy cycle of infatuation-boredom-break-up-infatuation began. And although it all worked out in the end, and I have B.A.,  I must say I am an eensy bit cross.

But I do not blame the poor nuns. As a matter of fact, when I was 38, a few weeks before I came to Scotland and met B.A., a nun at that very convent crept up to me while I was strolling the grounds and asked me if I had ever considered joining the order. (Bless her heart!) No, I blame history, really. I was a teenager in the 1980s, when religious life in my city was at its zenith nadir. The Sisters of Life, the first of the "new" nuns, did not get started until the year after my graduation, and it was some years before they came to Toronto. Amazingly, they had habits. When I first saw a Sister of Life in person, I was blown away. A nun...a young a habit! She looked beautiful.

I am absolutely delighted that the situation is so much better for young women today and there are now religious orders with young women in them, religious orders whose charism I can really get behind. And, realizing that I am probably more read by teachers than by teenagers, I implore readers to make sure teenage girls actually know about them.  When I was eighteen/nineteen and thinking about religious life, I really had nowhere to go and no-one to speak to who was not old (or "old"). Nobody really welcomed me or encouraged me, and of course I gave up the idea as soon as the first cute NCB asked me to be his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, nineteen is not too late for other women. I know two women who went to the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Cecilia at Ryde, one after finishing her PhD, and one some years after finishing her B.A.  In my UK circles, the Sisters of Saint Cecilia is where you go, darling, if they'll take you.  And in the USA and Canada there are of course the Sisters of Life, not to mentioned the fabled Tennessee Dominicans and the Dominican nuns (average age 28) in Ann Arbor, MI.

Of course there are other orders, too, but these are the ones I think of first, as they are the ones most attractive to younger women--and to me. As I never cease to brag, the Tennessee Dominicans turned me down sight unseen, and I would never want to join any order that would have me. I mean, come on. They'd have to be desperate, and this is not humility speaking. It is self-knowledge.

I wonder if religion teachers ever arrange class trips to convents and monasteries....? Just throwing that out there.


Anonymous said...

Not zenith....nadir.
Aged P

Seraphic said...

Thanks, I always get this mixed up.

Maggie said...

One of the Catholic high schools in my town has a class for seniors about vocational discernment, and they take girls on on "nun runs" to convents and the boys are encouraged to go on seminary visits. I am not sure this will continue, though, since the teacher (a very holy widow) who taught the course is entering religious life herself this fall, a habited, semi-cloistered order for very holy widows.

Athanasius lover said...

I am a high school theology teacher at a Catholic school. I haven't arranged any trips to convents or monasteries, but I have had guest speakers come in. One was a relatively young sister, easy to relate to, who has a great sense of humor. Another was a priest chaplain who is also relatively young and relates well to the students.

Our school in general does a good job of teaching students about vocations. We have two priests on staff and two nuns (we are going to get some of the Ann Arbor Dominicans next year, too!). I am excited about the Dominicans coming because although the nuns we have now are fairly young, they are not easy for the students to relate to, and they had a much more positive response to the Dominicans when they came to our vocations day. On our vocations day, different orders of nuns and several seminarians came to talk to the students. One of the seminarians was a former professional football (soccer, not American football) player who gave it all up to pursue a priestly vocation.

I am not sure what kind of fruit this will produce in the lives of our students, as some of them have expressed the opinion that there are too many vocations talks, but I think it is a good thing that the students are frequently reminded that priesthood and religious life are options for them, and that "real" people are called to those vocations.

Seraphic said...

Oooh! I wonder if I will ever be a very holy widow. (Maybe B.A. will be a very holy widower instead.)

I wonder what the students mean by "too many" vocations talks. For me, any excuse to get out of math class would have sufficed! And I do not think it can be emphasized enough that not everybody gets married and unmarried men and women can have, good, meaningful, happy lives!

Seraphic said...

To finish my thought--so if female students, for example, feel like they have to date guys they aren't crazy about or be single, they can remember that single is really not so bad.

Also, you never know what they might do after high school. The Ann Arbour Dominicans' website says the average age of someone entering is 21.

Domestic Diva said...

I'm also a high school religion teacher. We take girls on weekend trips to the convent that is a few hours away. The nearest seminary/monastery for men is about 8 hours away, so unfortunately that's not feasible. We do have a priest chaplain and (habited) religious sisters on staff, and bring in guest speakers for each vocation.

Most of my experience with sisters was like yours, Seraphic, with the notable exception of the Nashville Dominicans on staff at my high school. I never had one to teach me, but was able to go with them on a retreat to their Motherhouse. The positive experience I had there, combined with my not-so-positive/non-experiences like yours, very much motivate me to arrange these vocational opportunities.

Katy said...

Yes, nun runs are common among the on-fire Catholic high schools and colleges. I was in a religious order of "young nuns" for a year and a half ago, and having entered at the age of 35 and I was definitely an OLD WOMAN!! Most of our girls entered just out of high school, or just after college or dropping out of college to enter. Average age was something like 24, and that includes all the superiors in this young (25 years old) order. They are known as the blue nuns but their real name is the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara ( international site, American site), and I chose them because they were rowdy and their apostalate was to evangelize the culture which meant they wanted to take over the world and I loved that. I still love it and love them and hang out with them regularly even though I am now engaged. Their associated priests are also crazy young and rowdy and hilarious running around in their black cassocks and playing sports and what-not. I often wistfully think back to those days in the 80s when, like you experienced, there wasn't a nun to be seen ANYWHERE. I was radical and sacrificial in college when I was straying from Catholicism and pursuing radical protestant missionary life... I really wanted to be Mother Teresa then and I didn't know it. If only vocations had been then what they are now, who knows what would have become of me. So like you, even though I am confident I don't (at least now) have a religious vocation and am very happy to get married soon, I am a bit cross about it all.

MaryJane said...

(To continue yesterday's conversation) I was part of a youth-group type thing that was always having "discernment talks" - they would have a married woman and a nun, and of course only a handful of girls went to the nun's talk. If you went, you got all sorts of pressure (attention?) about discerning religious life. If you went to the married one, all you could think of was how much fun it would be to married to a NCB and have lots of babies.

Again, I know most teens aren't thinking about anything but boyfriends (and we were plenty worried about them too!), but I think a more laid back and concrete approach would have been better. Things like, "how can you live your baptismal vocation and deepen your gifts from confirmation RIGHT NOW in your life?" All the discernment stuff kind of put us in a mindset of (a) always living in the future rather than the present and (b) thinking that "real life" or even "holiness" began when you entered a certain state in life (religious or married). Also that you were pretty much living in limbo until you figured it out.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from talking to teens about discernment! Just be aware that there's a Catholic subgroup of kids that will be SO EARNEST about discerning their vocation that they will lose sleep over whether or not God is calling them to be a nun. At age 16. {Yes, it happens, but I don't think it's ideal for most.} And that sense of urgency will make them uneasy through all of high school, college, and beyond - "I'm wasting time! I have to figure it out!" - when really, they should relax and focus on God in the present moment.

Calendula said...

I agree with the too many discernment talks. Unfortunately some sisters love their vocations so much that they (hopefully inadvertently) denigrate those who were discerning and then chose to get married. Also, I heard a few sermons relating the sad stories of various girls (and guys) who had "put off" or "ignored" their vocations and then gone on to have unhappy lives.

Woodbine said...

Wow - so much to respond to! Your photo and description of the Abbey seemed very familiar even though I was there a few(-ish) years after you. I feel like time passes at a funny pace inside that school. (Side note, I'd been there for three and a half years before discovering the showers in the basement. Showers! Like, eight of them.)

When I was there, interactions with the nuns were about the same, maybe even less substantial. However, even if the sisters had been more open, I wonder how much they would have been able to connect with us - and vice versa. The building was basically a nursing home attached to a high school. I feel like both sides would come across badly, in some awkward mix of boredom and confusion. Even if they had been more open, I doubt many girls would have been seriously attracted.

It seems like the very traditional orders seem to be the only ones getting new vocations. Firstly, I don't get it. The older orders are still somewhat in line with the wider world - at least they have spent decades ministering to people in it - but I get why they are dwindling. The new orders seem even more detached from society, so why are girls joining? I understand the need to retreat from the the noise and complication of life once in a while, but forever?

Also, I admit that I'm a bit skeptical of the reach that the new orders have within the Catholic community. Having spent fourteen years in Toronto Catholic schools, attended a Catholic university (where I met a fabulous order of liberal, unhabited, and undeniably aging nuns), and been involved in parishes all the way through, I don't think I've ever seen a young, habited nun in person. Is this just my experience? Are they a common sight in other places? I'm really curious about what everyone thinks.

MaryJane said...

Woodbine, I think they are common in certain places - where their convents are (Ann Arbor, New York, Nashville); where their charisms send them (esp. elementary schools or diocesan offices); and where they get their training (Catholic universities). There are tons of habited sisters at an event like the March for Life in Washington DC.

In general, I don't think their charisms (or bishops) place them in parishes. In some cases, I have been told that bishops have invited them to dioceses, but there aren't quite enough of them (or enough experienced ones) to start another house yet.

Most of these new vibrant orders draw their strength from an extensive prayer life in community (traditional pillars of religious life), so while it may seem like "retreating" from the world to those of us on the outside, they idea is to remain rooted in their foundations in order to better serve the world.

Also, I don't know much, but it seems like right now Canada is not fertile ground for new orders right now. The US has its handful, places like France have a few very strong does seem to be somewhat geographical, though I can't say why.

Seraphic said...

Woodbine, I get your confusion. And, no, I doubt the IBVM could ever really connect with Abbey girls today. The girls who would agree with their mission would not want to be nuns, and the girls who might like to be nuns would not want to sign on with their mission.

Elderly women religious who don't wear habits just do not get what young women want now. If you try to tell them, they just don't get it. They can't understand why girls want to be more like "mediaeval" or "nineteenth century" nuns, or that young people are seeking for identities, symbols, Rules, and all those other things many women religious gave up as "irrelevant."

Once after high school, I went to an Abbey Open House, and there was actually a vocations director there to talk about the IBVM. Unfortunately, she kept stressing what a feminist St Mary Ward was, and what a rebel against the Church, and I thought, "Who cares? If you want to be a great feminist, you certainly don't become a nun. And if you really want to rebel against the Church, you just sleep with any guy you want and stop going to Mass. Duh."

Seraphic said...

@Woodbine. I forgot to mention that there are two houses of Sisters of Life in Toronto.

Woodbine said...

Mary Jane, come to think of it, I did see a habited sister when I was in New York a year ago - same order as Mother Theresa. I think Canada has a handful of young orders. I know that the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate gave one or two vocations talks at my university, although I don't know how many vocations they are currently receiving.

Seraphic, thanks for pointing out the Sisters of Life houses. I think I may have driven past one last night.... I'll have to keep an eye out for them.

I think it's unfair to say that older orders gave up their identities. You can't live a way of life for 50+ and not be shaped by it, even if its trappings aren't as bold as the traditional orders. Whether habited or not, sisters' lives are structured around of prayer, service, and living in community - aspects which shape who they are. I remember meeting a habited nun in Italy and being amazed at how similar her mannerisms and demeanour were to the Canadian sisters I knew.

Seraphic said...

Maybe to say they gave up so much is unfair, but the fact is that many orders changed their way of life quite dramatically during and immediately after the Second Vatican Council. Women left the orders in droves. The women who stayed often sacrificed their own feelings and preferences for the modernizing trends to which they thought they should conform themselves.

At the Abbey, Mother St. Leonard may have got busted back down to Sister St. Leonard but she didn't cave on everything. She never gave up the old habit (square headress and all) and stumped around the hallways like the Ghost of Abbey Past. She was positively a legend, scaring the unwary just by appearing through a door. I love thinking about Sister St. Leonard. What an old battle-axe.

Rosemary said...

Bravo, Seraphic! I was a Protestant during my teen years, so the only options for vocation as I understood things were marriage or single career-minded woman. I converted in my late 30's, and thus was considered too old for many of these vibrant young communities. I think had I been Catholic at a younger age, I would have loved to explore a traditional community. When I see these lovely young women in their habits, they are so beautiful they actually glow with their happiness. I'm afraid I'm not very drawn to these older communities that have adopted secular dress. Some of them even describe themselves in their literature as "progressive" which just doesn't sit well at all with me. I feel that perhaps I missed out on a potential calling. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

Miss Doyle said...

Amen Mary-Jane!
You're right about some groups being big on discernment to a particular vocation from a young age.
All we should be doing is encouraging everyone to pay attention to the Holy Spirit and to want to do God's will whatever it is - big things and small.
A call to a particular vocation will come when God wants, not when you sit some kids down and give them a talk.
I've seen people do themselves some serious spiritual damage by vocation 'hunting'.
Seriously not helpful.

Seraphic said...

Rosemary, if you think you do have a vocation to religious life, don't give up! If you haven't tried already them already, the Tennessee Dominicans might have taken me at 35 had I not been divorced-and-annulled. Therefore, I wonder if some of the vibrant orders might be open to 35+ women, too.

If not, well, that was you and I both on the wrong side of history.

It's true about how happy they look. This is particularly obvious in Rome.

Maggie said...

Another thing to keep in mind for young women in terms of discernment is how much debt you might have (or acquire). A university degree is a wonderful thing to have, but if you're serious about religious life, you usually have to be debt-free before entrance, and getting rid of tens of thousands of dollars of school loans can be a huge hindrance. Two of my close friends are working through this right now, asking for donors and scrounging any way they can to pay off their debts before their entrances next fall.

Rosemary said...


I've seen at least one young woman put her story up on a blog asking for donations to pay off her debt so that she could enter religious life. Of course, don't forget to add any donations to your income when you report to the government! :)

Rosemary said...


I actually did inquire with the Tennessee Dominicans. They did offer some suggestions of other communities to me, but did not seem receptive to the idea of 35+ vocations. I'm currently in formation with a third order, but recently received a call from a vocations placement service urging me to keep looking into religious life.

Seraphic said...

Rosemary, I always pray for my readers at Sunday Mass, but I will try to remember to pray ESPECIALLY for you!

Sheila said...

When I made up my mind, at the age of 13, to become a nun, I had met three nuns in my life, all elderly, none habited. I had never seen a convent and had no interest in the lives of the nuns I knew. But I read the book A Right to Be Merry, by Mother Mary Francis. It's about the Poor Clares and I was instantly sold. (Later on, obviously, I discerned it wasn't for me.) But the book is written so beautifully and with such love for that vocation, it really makes you feel like you've experienced it. The author wrote some other books, too.

Maybe give that to the teenage and college-aged girls of your acquaintance, if you are worried they don't get to see any nuns?

Seraphic said...

If her name was Mother Mary Francis, she wrote it before the Change, and I don't mean menopause.

By the way, when I called Sr. St. Leonard a battleax, I meant that in the most complementary way.

MaryJane said...

"and I don't mean menopause" - hilarious!

I read that book, too, and really liked it, mostly because I felt less frightened of religious life afterwards - it was more of a "known quantity" and not some alien life form. I thought "In This House of Brede" (by Rumer Godden) was another good book that revealed the joys and challenges of religious life, albeit in a historical fiction mode.

Rosemary, as far as I know, the Sisters of Life take older vocations.

emma said...

re Maggie:

There is a non-profit organization that helps people discerning vocations resolve their student debt.

They also accept donations.