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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and corrective statement to that article in Time. I had much the same reaction. I am a Sister of Providence who entered community at the ripe old age of 47 in 2000. I was previously a successful single businesswoman who had a full and engaging life.

I chose an order not based on what they wore, but their charism and call to live the Gospel life. I do not wear anything more than a simple white cross that is the sign of our order's commitment to this Gospel call.

In fact, the view I hold for myself is that I don't want to be singled out by clothing. For me it is a constant challenge to live this life as I blend into society so that I live the example of what I am called to do in the world. My reminder is our simple white Cross of Gladness.

If my order were to chose again to wear any kind of habit it would need for me to be to be something that again keeps me true to that Gospel life (something that says I am ecologically and socially commited to the challenges of the world today), not something that would falsely romantisize the commitment that the brave women in the middle ages made.

So I thank you for your expression of what it really means to wear a habit or veil as opposed to some identity of "specialness" or such.

Janice Smith, SP
Sisters of Providence
st. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana

Anonymous said...

Good, I applaud what you wrote and your quiet way of explaining the excellent practise of wearing a veil. I think it's indispensable as an example and an inspiration for the rest of the world.

Are you aware that the Fatima message has not been addressed about the need for Russia to be properly consecrated by the Holy Father and all the Bishops of the world at once? Please study the materials of The Fatima Center ( as a starting point, but their written materials are far superior in explaining the urgency and all the details. Please look into this, if you don't mind my humble request! Our Lady will be so pleased if your entire Community could participate in this crucial effort to comply with Her stated requests. Thank you, please don't delay!