Friday, November 24, 2006

A Nun Responds to "Today's Nun..." (Time, 11/20/06)

Centuries ago, Suor Juana Inez de la Cruz of New Spain wrote her "Respuestas", her response to criticism from her Bishop. I thought of that missive which some consider a feminist tract defending the right of a woman to to study and to speak as I wrote the title to this piece. Yes, I found the Time Magazine article under question demanding that I respond using my voice as a nun of today.

The authors, Tracey Schmidt and Takeuchi Cullen, betray their evaluation of religious life for women and the narrowness of their scope in a single sentence. "And although the extreme conservatism of a nun's life may seem totally counter-cultural for young American women today, that is exactly what what attracts many of them." The congregation on which they focused fits the conclusion but reflects only a narrow segment of the total picture of women coming into Catholic religious life in the United States today. Their attempt to amend this narrow focus at the end of the article falls short. They incorrectly identify the founder of SisterMoms (an organization of women who entered religious life after experiencing motherhood). For the record, her name is Sr. Bea Keller. Their earlier vast generalizations about the preferences of new nuns, based on contact with a conservative congregation have far greater impact than the correctives offered in the concluding paragraphs.

The discussion concerning a current preference in favor of wearing a veil is a poor and immature expression of its meaning. One sister quoted says she chose to wear a veil because it is a reward for giving up sex, freedom and money and wearing one says to others, "I'm special. I gave this up." Where are charity and humility, the foundational virtues of those very counter-cultural vows of chastity, obedience and poverty? Didn't St. Paul say, "Let me boast only of my Lord Jesus Christ." I am 61 one years old, a mother, a professional, and a feminist who professed the vows of religious life in 2003. I choose to wear a veil. My reasons have nothing to do with reward or expressing specialness. While I am aware that veils have been and in some cases continue to be images of the subjection of women, I believe that most people in the United States do not automatically make that association when they see a sister or a nun (there is a difference) in a habit. I believe that the dominant mental connection is to one who has chosen to live their faith life in a radical way. In a culture so bombarded with influences expressing the opposite of any acknowledgement of a transcendent reality, my little veil, my cross, and my behavior when wearing them offer some small corrective. I hope too, that the sight of me and others like me will be encouragement to those who personally struggle to remain faithful to their commitments. I need the reminder that putting on the veil provides; a reminder of my vows and the need to be tireless in my effort to live by them. I wear a veil because I know my human weakness not because I think I am special.

It is certainly true that a picture is worth a thousand words. While it is also true that religious like to have fun (you should see the pictures taken at our Halloween costume party), it is unfortunate that the image dominating the article is one of sisters in habit rollerblading and riding bikes. It smacks of the popular 'nuns having fun' calendars. The photos and the text do not speak of the significant contribution made by nuns in the past and in the present to the ministries of the Church and the social service structures of our nation, especially those devoted to education and healthcare. While feminist historians are discovering a goldmine of female achievement in the histories of American women's congregations, this article's retrograde view is a demeaning Hollywood-type version of cutesy nuns.

Fortunately, others in the media have recognized the need emerging in our culture for serious and mature expression of deeper conscious awareness concerning the meaning of life and how to live it. The shelves of mass market book stores are filled with a new genre of books concerning how lay people can access those contemplative values that undergird the true call to religous life. I thank God for them. Would that Schmidt and Cullen, had visited a broader spectrum of convents and monasteries and taken the time to go beyond bicycles and roller-blades to the depths of faith and service calling women of all ages into religious life today.