Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Supernatural in the Natural

This is turning into Vocations Week at Seraphic Singles, so I will have to be careful. Many of you are in college or uni, so you may already be suffering from Vocations Awareness Fatigue. I really don't like the "Job Fair" approach to advertising the religious life. I bet it would be much more effective if nuns and monks just put their habits back on and were visible 365 days of the year, as part of ordinary life.

My grandparents bought their first television in 1953 so that they could watch the Coronation. Basically everyone in the British Commonwealth who had enough money did that. (I don't know what inspired Americans to buy a television set, but in Canada it was definitely the Coronation.) Catholics have always had a rich visual culture, but after television and mass advertising--who-hoo! The past three generations of western human life have been all about seeing dramatic, stirring and/or beautiful sights. You would think that the orders would get that Hollywood directors keep dressing their nun-and-monk characters in habits because they look good, grab viewers' attention, and identify the nuns and monks at once as Catholic nuns and monks. Yet the traditional (so to speak) excuse for rejecting the habit is, "When people looked at me, they didn't think about God, they thought about the habit."

First of all, how does Sister Rejected the Habit know what people were thinking, or if thoughts about the habit didn't lead eventually to thoughts about God?* Second, people are even less likely to think about God when seeing an elderly lady with a short blow-dried haircut in a business suit. Incidentally, there is no garb more becoming to an elderly woman than a full-on old-fashioned Benedictine habit. It looks good on young women, too. They all look so dignified, and all you can glean about their looks is their posture, their hands and their round and beaming faces.

But I am going off-topic because what I really want to say is that it would be a lot more natural if we were aware of all the states in life as children and teens and grew up with visual and everyday reminders that there are contemplative orders; active orders; consecrated virgins in convents or out in the world; devout, chaste Singles dedicating their lives to humanitarian missions or to ordinary professions; married people with many children; married people with only a few or two children; married people through sad circumstances with only one child or no children at all; priests and bishops. And I don't mean just books and films from before 1963 showing these people. I mean contemporary, up-to-date reminders, presented in a positive fashion, and not just the minute we all turn 18.

Naturally those of us who go to Mass see priests at least once a week and see bishops from time to time. But we don't often see recognizable nuns, or young nuns, so no wonder women start feeling "left out." The associate pastor of one parish I frequented was a nun, and my goodness, was she mannish in her pantsuit. Sorry to be so shallow, but I am a child of my television-watching generation, and she would have looked so much more attractive, and so much less like a wannabe-priest, had she been wearing a habit. And as I said yesterday, anyone who longs to see women take charge in church should listen to cloistered nuns sing the Office. How sad that so few of us have had that chance! Vite, vite! Grab your best buddy, a car and a map and find some to listen to.

As a matter of fact, when I started elementary school, the principal was a sister--the last sister ever to be principal at that school--and at four I thought she was wonderful. When she was given a retirement send-off, I cried inconsolably and had to be taken to her office. It is the only evidence that I was a child mystic: presumably I was mourning the twilight of a formerly great teaching order and the centrality of nuns in the lives of generations of Catholic children.

And this was important because Vocation doesn't show up in a vacuum. If you're like me, you grew up thinking a Vocation happens in the same way as Samuel heard the voice of the Lord in the Temple. You know what I mean. You'd be sleeping on your little bed, surrounded by dolls and stuffed (woolly) animals, and suddenly you'd hear a voice saying your name, and you'd wake up, and nobody would be there, so you'd fall asleep again. But then the voice would say your name again, and you'd wake up, and LO! The voice would tell you that you were supposed to rise up and go at once to Convent X in City Y, and you'd have to do it whether you wanted to or not. Oh, woe! How terrible the voice of the Lord; holy is His Name. When I was 20 I was busily praying, "Oh God, please don't call me to the Single Life. Please, please, please!" What a nice trusting relationship I had with the Lord--not.

Anyway, I am sure God does sometimes call people with such bolts from the blue, but I suspect that these are very rare. He is much more likely to bump you along the path of history and circumstance, leading you naturally and through all kinds of friendly people to the way He wants you to go. My friend ex-Berenike is in the same abbey as her dear friend ex-Boeciana who conceived a love for the Benedictine Rule by studying mediaeval history as a then-Presbyterian. And I met B.A. because while writing her PhD thesis, Boeciana read my blog, and got Berenike hooked on it, and she got Aelianus hooked on it, and I became pals with them and wrote about them, and so Aelianus' pal B.A. started reading my blog.

What we had going on here, and still going on here, is the supernatural as a golden thread through the natural events and relationships of Christian life. Boeciana found her vocation by reading about Benedictines, and I found my husband through Boeciana and her friends, and Berenike found her vocation through her friendship with Boeciana. My friend El found her husband at our friend Lily's wedding, and Lily found her husband at some event at the university church.

It seems to have taken the Lord a long time to bump me into place, but now that I think about it, I didn't give Him much to work with, being so mistrusting and pessimistic when I was 20, and not really open to His plans until I had my "It's Okay to Be Single" revelation in my mid-thirties (Feast of St. Jude the Patron of Lost Causes) and washing the dishes. That was one of the places were the gold of the supernatural showed through the silver of the natural, too.

*In Norman Jewison's Moonstruck Loretta (Cher) buys an expensive new outfit for a date with her fiance's brother and bumps into a trio of habited nuns. Loretta's expression shows that her conscience has suffered a big fat pang. See what Jewison did there? Yeah. Is Loretta thinking about the habit? No.


Kate P said...

I think you may be on to something, and I wondered if you think that is part of the reason all the religious vocations I've seen in the last decade or so were only to cloisters--most orders "visible" in the United States (at least on the East Coast) do not wear habits. Maybe the order Blessed Teresa of Calcutta founded?

My great-aunt is 90 and belongs to an order that stopped wearing habits in the 1980s, I think. She continues to wear a uniform or sorts, a blue skirt and a light-colored (white or blue) blouse, and a blue sweater. You would not belive how hard it is for my mother to find simple clothing like that for my great-aunt!

But it is a little difficult to identify my great-aunt as a nun and not just a little old lady, and I do see the average age of her order is quite on the older side--not many new members in recent years. We do worry about her welfare in this late stage of her life.

Seraphic said...

I'm glad you're looking out for her, as it sounds as if there are no young sisters to do it. Well, perhaps it is not as bad as that. All the same, I think it is sad for the sisters who cared for their older sisters and prayed around their deathbeds not to have younger sisters to care for them.

A pal of mine (in his 50s) told me that this was my generation's fault, and I'm afraid I laughed at him.

Seraphic said...

To answer your actual question, I don't have a grip on the actual concrete numbers of who is going wear, just anecdotal evidence from readers, many of whom seem to have friends or family in the Ann Arbour Dominicans or the Tennessee Dominicans or the Sisters of Life or "B.A.'s and my" order in England.

If I have to guess, I would guess that the kind of young western women who want to be nuns today crave the traditional life of poverty, chastity, obedience, stability, the Rule and the Office. I remember a Vocations Director trying to sell her order by telling people what a great feminist and rebel the 400 year old founder of her order was. Well, come on. If you want to be a feminist and a rebel, religious life is not the path to excellence in feminism and rebellion.

Sophie Miriam said...

"I would guess that the kind of young western women who want to be nuns today crave the traditional life of poverty, chastity, obedience, stability, the Rule and the Office."

As a young western woman, I agree. I go to school at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC, and our campus swarms with monks, friars, and nuns, all well-habited. The ones that girls seem to be joining are the Dominicans (both kinds), the Sisters of Life, the Sisters Servants of the Lord, and an order of African nuns with light purple habits.