Women of God

Nuns are an endangered species. With a median age in this country of sixty-nine, and little new blood coming in, their numbers have dwindled markedly. The novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon, who herself once contemplated joining an order, examines this disappearing way of life, talks to survivors here and abroad, and wonders what, if anything, can replace the iconic figure of the nun in the popular imagination of Catholics and non-Catholics alike

For the whole of what I would call my childhood I wanted to be a nun. In my box of treasures, alongside my Dale Evans cowgirl outfit and my cutouts of Grace Kelly, I kept my favorite book, The Nuns Who Hurried, and my favorite doll, a stiff, coiffed figure in a habit of black silk. I enjoyed my cowgirl outfit and my cutouts very much, but the nun doll and the nun book had a special shimmer. They made me feel exalted and apart.

The Nuns Who Hurried was hand-lettered, more a pamphlet than a book. I have kept it for nearly fifty years. Its pages are yellow now. Some of the letters in the text are drawings in themselves. On the cover the word "Hurried" slants forward, rushing, like the figures of the rushing nuns below the word. The attribution, "By One of Them," seemed to me wonderfully sly.

A large part of the book is really an annotated list of the kinds of nuns who rise with alacrity at the sound of the bell that calls them to morning prayer, an irresistible list of occupations: contemplating nuns (my plan for myself), teaching nuns, comforting nuns, visiting nuns, catechetical nuns. I know I read this book myself, rather than having it read to me, because with it is associated my first pleasure in the solitary ecstasy of words as words. I learned the joy of the sound of the word "catechetical" from this book, and that it meant having to do with instruction in the faith. I followed the rhythm of the final, menial categories—"the ones who cooked and played the organ and fixed the altar"—with the headlong intoxication of a gavotte or a downhill run.

The catechetical nun is pictured with a half-naked child whose hair suggests that he is black (or Negro, as we would have said then), but his face, like the others' (because the drawings are only line drawings, and therefore the figures are only outlined), is the color of the page. The catechetical nun follows the missionary nun, pictured standing beside a bicycle in front of a grass hut. Her page says, "THE MISSIONARY NUN HURRIED—Because she thought of all the little and big PAGANS all over the country just waiting in the darkness of ignorance for the LIGHT of the world to dawn over them—And she wanted to be filled with this divine LIGHT so that it would shine out to all she met—And then to help that stubborn old heathen who needed special prayers."

Each of these nuns is smiling, the smile a single, quick, upturning curve. The point of the book is that they are smiling because their lives are intensely meaningful. All their hurrying is in order to complete their work for the love and glory of God. And they are smiling in part because their lives are a charming joke. They may look like plain, unlovely workhorses, but they are brides of Christ, sposae Christi, and they share in the romance invoked by the "NUN WHO COOKED": she "HURRIED—Because she loved this time of audience with her KING and LORD—So much of her time must be spent in the royal kitchen getting the meals—But she still liked to think that it was CINDERELLA who won the PRINCE after all—wasn't it?"

The last page shows a group of kneeling nuns surrounded by a text that says, "They PRAY AND PRAY that WE will hurry up and start loving GOD REALLY AND TRULY—Because—they just can't bear the thought of all of us NICE PEOPLE not getting to heaven after ALL their hurrying—!"

We are all nice and they are all happy—a vision as simple and perfect as the line drawings with their blank centers. A quick look, not lingering and not close.

My devotion to my nun doll is memorialized in a photograph of me at four years old. I remember—in a vague, dim way that makes it seem like an image pulled from a memory before birth—the occasion of the photograph. The official photograph—as if I were royalty. As in royal photographs, the iconography was fixed. The child or children posed with their favorite toys—or their favorite presentable toys. The chewed-up blanket, the moldy teddy, would be kept from sight.

It is the night before the great event. My mother is on the telephone. I am in bed, but my heart is racing: tomorrow is the day of the photograph. I want to look pretty. I take the nail scissors from the bedside table and cut my hair. I can only imagine what kind of job I must have done at four years old. I remember only the snip-snip sound of the scissors—exhilarating, entirely productive. And then my mother's screams.

And then what? A blank. The next morning the photographer arrives. He is wearing a tan suit and brown shoes and a red bow tie, and I, with my formal sense as rigid as a Versailles courtier's, know this is all wrong, and that his taste is not to be trusted. I remember the stiff blue-corduroy jumper I am wearing, and the lace of the white blouse underneath it, irritating to the soft skin of my neck. I do not remember all the barrettes my mother stuck all over my head, trying to conceal the damage I had wrought, though I could see them later in the photograph. I don't remember the look on the photographer's face when he asked me what toy I'd like to be photographed with, and I produced my nun doll: uncuddleable, something to be looked at and admired rather than held. I now understand that the photographer must have thought he had been paid to photograph a freak, a child with her uneven hair held in place by multiple barrettes, a child holding a nun doll. Did I cut my hair because I knew nuns were shorn and I wanted to be like them?

I know that my father wanted me to be a nun. He was a Jewish convert; perhaps this accounted for his romanticism. He died when I was seven, but I remember his saying, with real pride, "My daughter will be either a nun or a lady of the night." He was a man of extremes. I didn't know what a lady of the night was. It sounded glamorous, but no more glamorous than the image of a nun. He and I had a party piece about nuns. He would say, "Honey, what do you want to be when you grow up?" And I would say, without skipping a beat, "A contemplative."

I knew exactly what I meant. I knew, even at four and five, what contemplation was: Silence and prayer. Union with God. I had knelt beside my parents in the dim light of early-morning masses. I knew as many prayers and hymns as nursery rhymes. More. I dreamed of First Communion, believing those who said it would be the happiest day of my life. And I had had a glimpse of a real contemplative, a glimpse that would press itself into the hot wax of my imagination—an indelible image marking a life devoted to the creation of images.

We were visiting the convent of Mary Reparatrix, on East Twenty-ninth Street in Manhattan. The Sisters of Mary Reparatrix were a contemplative order. They specialized in retreats for working women. This was my mother's connection to them: she made their retreats. Their habits were sky-blue.

I went into the chapel with my parents. From the back I could see one of the nuns kneeling in prayer. Her form was impeccable: back straight, hands folded, head bowed for the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. A beam of light fell on her. And I knew that saturation in pure light was the most desirable state in the world. How paltry, how vulgar, the image of the bride: accompanied, diminished by ornament, her silence marred by music and the sniffling of the crowd.

I read books about nuns: novels, biographies, spiritual diaries. I practiced saying an abridged version of the Divine Office that they said or sung. I wrote out my religious name on napkins the way other girls wrote out what would be their married names. Always something dramatic: Sister Dolorosa, Sister Perpetua, Sister Clotilde. But I have to admit that many of my strongest images of nuns were taken not from actual nuns but from the movies. Two movies in particular: The Bells of St. Mary's and The Nun's Story.

My family watched The Bells of St. Mary's on TV every Christmas. And every year, at the first glimpse of Ingrid Bergman in a habit, my mother would say, "Why that bitch thought she had the right to be a nun while all the time she was planning to run away with that Italian, I will never know."

Ingrid Bergman's Sister Benedict is a tomboy; she knows how to play baseball, and she teaches a studious boy to box. But she has academic standards, too. Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley thinks these standards should be done away with if they make people unhappy. Their main bone of contention is a young girl, Patsy, the daughter of a prostitute who has had to take up her profession because her husband has deserted her and her child. She leaves the child in the care of Father and Sister. Father finds the deserter husband, and the marriage is patched up. But Patsy deliberately fails her exams because she doesn't want to leave Sister Benedict.

A subplot: St. Mary's is about to be torn down, because the selfish plutocrat who's building an office tower next door wants the land for his parking lot. The nuns pray for a miracle: that he will give them his building. In a shameless display of sentimentality—including a dog that kneels in church—the plutocrat has a change of heart. Before this, when Father O'Malley tells Sister Benedict the school may have to close, he reminds her that she has to face facts. She says, "We've tried so hard not to face facts." Sister Benedict runs a school and is the superior of at least ten other sisters, but she's not quite an adult. She's a boy.

Sister Benedict faints. The doctor tells Father O'Malley that she has TB, and in a moment of dubious medical thinking he tells Father not to let her know—she'll get depressed and won't heal. Better to tell her she's being transferred to Arizona because she can't be trusted to deal with children. Sister Benedict accepts everything—including the idea that a priest who is clearly her intellectual inferior has the right to ruin her life because he doesn't agree with her pedagogy. She kneels and prays, tormented only for a moment before breaking out in the ravishing smile of complete acceptance. But Father O'Malley sees the error of his ways. In one of the great romantic lines in cinema he says, "When Doctor McKay said you were perfect, he was right. For that's what you are. But he didn't mean physically. Because, Sister, you have a touch of tuberculosis." Sister Benedict's expression of gratitude is so intense that the only logical next step is for them to fall into each other's arms. But they don't. She goes off to Arizona. He stays at St. Mary's. The last shot in the film is his.

I didn't see The Nun's Story for the first time in a theater. I must have seen it for the first time with my girlfriends, sneaking downstairs to watch The Late Show while my mother slept. My family were the kind of Catholics who would have boycotted such a movie, the kind of Catholics who had contempt for the Hollywoodization of the Faith—although my mother would never have been able to resist Bing Crosby, however diluting his interpretation of the priesthood. And besides, Bing Crosby always made the Church look good. At the end of The Nun's Story, however, Audrey Hepburn leaves.

The movie begins with Gabrielle, a young Belgian (Audrey Hepburn improbably almost plain), taking off her rings and setting them next to a picture of a young man framed in a silver heart. Gabrielle becomes Sister Luke before our eyes. She enters a nursing order that is semi-cloistered. She wants to be a nurse because her father is a famous surgeon. But the order stresses being a good nun far above being a good nurse—and this is the problem. Gabrielle is a gifted scientist and a gifted nurse, and these talents conflict with her vow of obedience, contributing to her sin of pride—a sin that she must publicly confess, as she must publicly confess (and also record in her spiritual diary) every imperfection, every infraction of the rules.

A Jewish friend with whom I was watching the movie found it all appalling. I wondered why I did not; why I found it enchanting—the silences, the gliding walk, above all the belief in perfection, which I have spent many thousands of analytic dollars trying to give up. I imagined that if, like Audrey Hepburn, I could confess my faults to Edith Evans (the wise mother superior, the superior mother, blessed with the gift of discernment, her hard-won wisdom shining in her sorrowful eyes), if Edith Evans would bestow on me the secret smile of favor that she bestows on Sister Luke, if Edith Evans would make a cross on my forehead every morning, I might have the stamina to try for perfection. The stamina not to give it up as impossible. The stamina to believe that perfection is not a delusion, a trap. As Jesus said, "You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Of course, we were meant to believe that we never could be perfect but that the attempt was infinitely worthwhile.

Sister Luke is by far the smartest in her nursing class. A new superior (not Edith Evans) urges Sister Luke to fail an exam intentionally, as a test of her humility. Sister Luke can't bring herself to do it, and is forced to serve in a mental hospital.

When I thought of being a nun, I imagined that I could keep the vow of silence, prostrate myself, kneel during dinner. But one thing I knew I could never do was deliberately fail an exam.

Sister Luke is sent to Africa, where the male helpers are called "boys" and the nuns pray only for their conversion. (The year the movie came out, 1959, marked the apogee of the unexamined colonialist dream. We could bring antibiotics and baptism to the heathen.) Sister Luke returns to Belgium just as World War II is about to begin. Her father is killed by the Nazis. She has been ordered by her superiors not to become politically involved, but she helps the Underground. In standing against evil she disobeys her vows and comes to the realization that she can no longer be a nun. She leaves without farewell, walking through a door into a bleak, gray world.

Audrey Hepburn's face is a masterpiece of tortured idealism—of great gifts constrained, of the desire (this is, after all, what she does best) to give everything, to hold nothing back. Her anguish comes from the impossibility of the struggle. Did I believe that if I gave myself over to an impossible struggle, I would look like that? Could I ever raise such a face to God, a face cleansed by suffering, and believe with all my heart that nothing else mattered? Personality? Mind? Saving lives? Is it possible that all else pales before the perfection of the spirit—the conformity of the will to the will of God? Whatever Sister Luke's life is, it is not trivial. Whether she succeeds or fails, the stakes involved are the highest. She is in love with God, but she cannot love God as a nun and be the person she was meant to be.

Why not? Can't she just spend more time with Edith Evans? Can't she just hold on until Vatican II? It's only twenty years away, and then the order will see that it must be part of the twentieth century. But then she will take off her veil. She will be a gaunt, spent figure in an ill-fitting suit. Her hair will be gray and thin. No one will want to look at her.

The images I formed of nuns, based on books and movies, were for many years strong enough to blot out the harsh reality of my relationships with living nuns. The truth is, nuns didn't like me. I wanted to like them. For a few years I loved them easily, effortlessly, and although I was often afraid of them, I assumed that their displeasure with me was deserved. I remember being so afraid of the school principal that when she ordered my first-grade class to come down the stairs two at a time, I hyper-obediently jumped down two stairs at a time, and was taken out of the line and shaken for being "wise" and "fresh"—two words that it took me many years to realize might, in other contexts, have a positive meaning.

After a while, though, I could no longer swallow the evidence: these nuns weren't very smart; they certainly weren't as smart as I was. Perhaps it was simply a matter of bad luck, but from fourth grade on I had a series of terrible, not to say extravagantly incompetent, nun teachers. My fifth-grade teacher turned into a man before our eyes: some hormonal blip made her grow facial hair and seemingly dropped her voice an octave every week. My sixth-grade teacher was so old that she had to ask me and my classmates for help tying her shoes; our only instruction was reading aloud from our texts. My seventh-grade teacher was a retired nurse; she seemed perpetually weary and out of her depth. Once, when one of the children yawned, she threw an eraser and shouted, "Don't you think I've seen enough dirty old throats to last me the rest of my life?" But my teacher in eighth grade, which coincided with my puberty, was the object of my deepest adolescent contempt. She was ignorant and proud of her ignorance; she mocked learning and stressed the superiority of blind obedience. I made it my mission to torture her. Once, knowing she had a loathing of chewing gum, I bought gum for every kid in the class—there were fifty-four of us in those boom years—and directed everyone to begin chewing at once. She quickly traced my role in this subversive plot, took me outside, and threw me against a wall. I do think I deserved to be punished, but her reaction increased my disdain.

Things were not much better at my all-girls high school, in Queens. My first-year English teacher was a woman of great brilliance; Sister M. taught me to love poetry and Shakespeare. But we knew she was crazy. It was the era of teased hair, and we were not allowed to tease our hair. Sister M. became convinced that a girl in our class had teased her hair, and when the girl denied it, Sister M. took her into the bathroom and doused her head in the sink. She discovered that the girl simply had naturally thick hair. Later she began to lose her eyesight, but until she was given new glasses, she accused us of altering the print in her books. I loved her, but I didn't want her claiming me as her own, for fear of turning mad myself.

In my junior year I tried to start a literary magazine, the first in our school's history. In its only issue I made the mistake of including my review of a reading by Allen Ginsberg. One of my comments was to the effect that upon hearing Allen Ginsberg, any demons in the neighborhood would bury themselves in available swine, and beetle over available cliffs. Sister R. wrote BLASPHEMY in large red letters across the text, and banned publication of the magazine. But I had my weapons. At a poetry reading given by the Brooklyn diocese for the best high school English students, the reader was Father Daniel Berrigan, who would later become famous for his anti-Vietnam protests. I showed Father Berrigan my article and told him that Sister R. had said it was blasphemy. He took it home, along with a hefty sheaf of my poems, and wrote to me: "You must make your own maps of your own landscapes. But I see you are a poet." Sister R. gave in. We published.

In my senior year I was put in the class of a teacher reported to be the best in the school. She was obese but cheerful. She didn't like me. Once she said to the class, "I'll bet you think you know who has the highest grades in the class." Everyone called out my name. Smugly, she disabused them: I had only the third highest grades. Another time she took a few of us to Fordham University, to a performance of Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding. The subway train got stuck in the station, and sweat began to break out on her upper lip. "Do you think we'll have time for dinner?" she kept saying, looking to us for rescue. "Where do you think we'll be able to have dinner?" We could never again meet her eye.

One reason these nuns didn't like me was that I was untidy. I was untidy because I didn't want to be like them. I understand that they were undertrained and overworked. But my mind was ardent and endlessly appetitive, and they offered me dry husks and gruel. What if I had had different nuns, like some I met as an adult? Maybe it was better that I hadn't. Maybe I would have continued to want to join up. And then what would have become of me?

But I don't really think it would have mattered much what nuns I met after seventh grade. That was the year I fell in love with Joseph Montalbano. He was the smart boy in the class, I the smart girl. We tied each other in spelling bees. He was a handsome boy with a perpetual tan and the look of a young George Hamilton. I don't know what I loved about him, but I bought my first straight skirt with him in mind—the bottom half of a Kelly-green suit I got for Easter, along with a green pillbox hat. I thought I looked like Jackie Kennedy. Wearing my new Easter outfit, I walked up and down in front of Joseph's house, hoping he'd come out and notice. He didn't. I re-enacted this every day after school for several weeks. Then I came up with a brilliant plan: I threw my dog over his fence, rang the bell, and said the dog had got into his yard. He looked at me as if I were insane and showed me the way to the back yard. I put my dog on the leash, and the two of us slunk home.

Joseph Montalbano paid no more attention to me for the rest of the school year. Then he moved to Texas. But I had lost my vocation. Nowadays when friends ask me what "vocation" means, I sometimes look at them strangely, as if they'd just asked me to define the word "bicycle." "Vocation" means a call to the religious life. It is intended to suggest not an individual choice but a summons that one could be in eternal peril for refusing. Clearly, a vocation that could not withstand the temptation of Joseph Montalbano was not very strong.

One might think that my experience with Joseph Montalbano, an experience of such ignominious failure, such humiliation, would send me running back to my convent plan. It did not. There has not been one day since the day I knew I was in love with Joseph Montalbano when I thought it possible that I would become a nun. Before that day I thought no other life was possible.

The image, the idea, of a nun brings together three powerful elements: God, women, and sex. For whatever else she is, a nun is a woman who has pledged herself to God and renounced sex. How could this combination not engender ripe fantasy? The angel nun, the devil nun—Ingrid Bergman radiant in renunciation, Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils, grotesque and humpbacked, bleeding on her knees while she says the Sorrowful Mysteries. Sister Mary Ignatius explains it all for you. Mother Theresa saves them all for God. The voluptuous body beneath the swaths of fabric; the dowdy nun with the five-dollar haircut.

The difficulties, the roiling contradictions, of all these ideas, images, fantasies, and fears about nuns led me to keep away from them for twenty years. I didn't speak to a single nun from the day I graduated from high school, in 1967, until the late 1980s, when I encountered nuns as political allies, signers of an advertisement taken out in The New York Times saying that not all Catholics were anti-choice. After the ad appeared, the nuns and their communities came under pressure from the Vatican to recant. These women, many in their sixties, had risked emotional and financial security in defense of women's rights. I had to acknowledge that in the years that I had changed, they had changed too.

The Vatican Council had affected them profoundly. Initiated in 1959 by Pope John XXIII, in his words to "open the windows of the Church" onto the modern world, it was in session from 1962 to 1965. Its effects were radical, and it is still the watershed event by which Catholics know themselves: conservatives think the liberalizing effects of the council eroded the Church's authority; liberals see it as the great good time, the beginning of a profound era of humanization and revitalization. The council issued many documents urging religious communities to modernize themselves, to rethink their constitutions, to study their origins and the intentions of their founders. Many American communities made enormous changes in their ways of life; they moved, as many of us living through those years had to move, at lightning speed, with effects that could be disorienting, soul-wrenching, and exhilarating. Within two or three years many nuns had stopped wearing traditional habits and had replaced their religious names with their given names. The semiotics were clear: liberal nuns wore street clothes and used their own names; conservative nuns kept their habits and the names they had been given at induction.

Of course, I acknowledged these changes intellectually, but it required the passage of many years and the happy accident of meeting three nuns in the academy to allow me to get close enough for real conversations. I now say a sentence I would have thought impossible in my youth: There are nuns who are my friends. And as I grew more familiar with their lives, I came to understand that they were facing the demise of a way of life that had nourished and sustained them.

The figures, I learned, are grim. The median age of American nuns is sixty-nine. From a high in 1965, when there were 180,000 nuns in the United States, the number has fallen to 80,000. This decline has had serious effects on the education and health-care systems, which were once importantly enhanced by the pool of cheap labor provided by nuns. What growth areas there are for nuns are not in the progressive communities but in the conservative ones, which want to return to a pre-conciliar way of life. Vocations are on the upsurge in the Third World, but those communities tend to be patriarchal and traditional, and there are concerns about issues of colonialism—are these real vocations, or just a means to a more prosperous, Western style of life? Joining a religious order has traditionally been a path to the middle class for Europeans and Americans; but now, in what has been referred to as the "post-Christian" West, many women who would have been drawn to the religious life see other, better options.

This is both a moment of crisis and a deeply poignant time in the history of nuns as we in the West have known them for the past hundred years. Thus I wanted to pose a series of questions to a variety of nuns, for the purpose of exploring lives whose self-definition is at once clear and flexible: there are many women who call themselves nuns who would find the lifestyle of other women who call themselves nuns strange, alienating, or even unacceptable. This is also a now-or-never moment. If the number of nuns is dramatically diminishing, and the future of their way of life is precarious at best, now is the time to ask real, living nuns questions about their lives. This is important if only as a corrective to the potent fantasies so readily at hand, both for people whose lives have been touched by nuns and for people who have never met one.

What, then, does it mean to be a nun today? What does it mean to be a celibate woman whose life is formally dedicated to the service of God, a woman who lives in some sort of community with other women, in some sort of relationship to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church?

It seemed only natural to begin my exploration of these questions with the nuns who are my friends. Janet Walton, Celia Deutsch, and Beth Johnson. If they were characters in The Nuns Who Hurried, they'd be the musician nun, the historian nun, and the theologian nun. Janet teaches worship at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City; Celia is my colleague in the religion department at Barnard College; and Beth is on the faculty of Fordham University. They are high on the list of people whose lives I admire, people who integrate their social and political beliefs with their work lives and their inner lives. Their intense vitality, the quality of their engagement, makes them people I want to be around. I can talk to them about the religious life without embarrassment. Their tender and occasionally fierce clarity allows, sometimes forces, me to move out of archaism or cliché.

Celia calls me on my tendency toward pessimism, urging me to question the "temptation to stay too long in the desert, to stare too long into the heart of darkness, to the point of paralysis." "Paralysis," she said to me once, "is much safer than hope." Janet and Beth have challenged me to reject a relationship to God based on being Daddy's little girl. Janet and I have spoken about the difficulty of accepting the idea of God as mother beside the idea of God as father if one adored one's father but found one's mother problematic. Beth's theology has made me see the possibilities of a God more mysterious and various than I had had the courage to imagine.

In addition to teaching worship at Union Theological Seminary (as a Catholic nun, she is a novelty at that traditionally Protestant institution), Janet lives a life that bears witness to the Gospels' call for solidarity with the poor. She once brought a group of seventy pastors, laypeople, and scholars to a church in the South Bronx run entirely by neighborhood women, so that the visitors could meet and talk to people to whom the Scriptures really matter. They and the women discussed the biblical passage in which Elijah urges a widow to use her last oil and flour to make bread for the prophet, not to feed herself and her child. She is rewarded with an everlasting supply of oil and flour. The women told the group that they understood the widow, who is the center of the story for them, because they knew what it was to do something daring when everything else had failed.

Janet has had a ten-year friendship with a paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cardboard box on 125th Street, in Harlem. She visits him each week, and takes his clothes home to wash. Once she gave him a bar of Ivory soap, and he said to her, "Oh, Janet, this is the wrong soap. This is soap for clean people." She has a master's degree in piano from Indiana University. In her spacious, peaceful apartment in Union faculty housing she has played Chopin for me with a subtlety and a passion that made me know I hadn't understood him properly before.

Celia is a distinguished scholar who studies and teaches early Judaism and early Christianity at Barnard. But part of her work involves organizing interfaith events between her parish and the local synagogue—recently a blood drive, during which the priest and the rabbi spoke about the different understandings of blood in the two traditions. In her apartment, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, she keeps a meditation room, to which the women in her parish, mostly from the Caribbean, always have access—an oasis of silence in difficult and often overwhelming lives. Her friendship with these women is warm, easy, and rich. She has told me a story about standing on her front porch with one of the women, holding hands as they said good-bye. The woman teased Celia about not wearing a habit, saying, "Now, if you were a proper nun, you'd have a long veil and a long skirt." Celia asked her if she would be happier with a nun in a habit. "If you were a proper nun," the woman said, "I wouldn't be standing on your porch holding your hands."

Beth's radical commitment to justice for women and the poor is the force that drives her theology. I first met Beth when I heard her speak about an image taken from the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich—the image of the crucified Jesus as mother. For Beth, this means replacing the idea of an angry father God, demanding his son's blood in atonement for human sin, with the idea of a mother who sheds her own blood in order to bring her child life.

Because of Beth, I had to readjust one of my oldest nun fantasies. Whenever I envisioned nuns writing, I was always the nun writer. I saw myself in my Audrey Hepburn habit, sitting at my simple desk, silently creating poetry about and for the glory of God. I never thought of myself as the reader of something that a nun wrote. But in reading Beth Johnson's book, She Who Is (1992), a feminist theological analysis of the naming of God, I was struck by both the poetry and the rigorous logic of her argument, by her ability to consider the darkness of doubt, to delve into the impossibility of the search for God. She uses language that I love, language with a depth and nuance too often missing from both theology and feminist thought. Her use of the word "lament," for example, makes me reconsider it as an important practical vehicle. "Only lament and the courage of hope against hope enable the community to continue walking by divine light, inextricably darkened by the power of evil."

Beth once took on Cardinal Ratzinger, who is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that determines what is acceptable doctrine and what is not. Her application for tenure in the theology department at Catholic University was held up on the grounds that her feminist theology was insufficiently orthodox. The department is a pontifical institute, so candidates have to be sanctioned not only by academic colleagues but also by a board made up largely of bishops and monsignors. Beth decided to stand her ground, and was told that she would have to appear before an assembly of all the American cardinals—an assembly never before convened.

"I said that I would if they met three conditions," Beth recalls. "I would bring legal and academic counsel of my own choosing; they would provide a court stenographer; and both parties would sign off on the transcript, so that later no one would be able to misinterpret what had been said.

"Cardinal Bernardin was the head of the American bishops then, and he was very kind. He talked about how important my work was to many of the women in the Church. Then another cardinal turned to me and said, 'So, tell me, Sister, do you think Our Lady packs more punch in heaven?' I was absolutely stunned. So this is the theological level they're operating on, I said to myself.

"The theological questions that were at the heart of the matter were about the influence of feminism on my theology: Did I think that feminist issues were as important as Scripture and tradition? Did I think that all theology had to be a commentary on feminist issues or be called inauthentic? When I advocated the use of female images of God, was I intending to add them to male images, or to supplant the male images? Then there were questions of authority: Did I believe that a theologian had the responsibility, as all Catholics do, to respond obediently to the teaching authority of the bishops? Did I accept its responsibility to correct matters of faith, and was I ready to submit to the corrections?

"I had once taught eighth grade, and I saw these cardinals as a bunch of restless, resentful thirteen-year-old boys, and I said to myself, Now I must become their teacher. I answered all their questions, and they approved my tenure. Yes, I won, but it took a great deal out of me. I experienced a kind of post-traumatic stress for a year or so afterward. Then I resigned from Catholic U. I could feel my own fear, my tendency to self-censor. I came to Fordham, where I'm very happy. But I think She Who Is came out of the darkness of that time."

All three of my nun friends live alone. Janet and Beth relish this; Celia thinks there's something wrong with being a nun and not living in community. But their orders are intensely important to all of them. Janet's is the Sisters of the Holy Names; Beth's is the Sisters of St. Joseph, the order that taught me and, it must be said, bedeviled my youth; Celia's is the Sisters of Sion, a congregation founded in the nineteenth century by a Jewish convert. "Originally the order was dedicated to the conversion of the Jews, but we got over that," she says. "Now we're devoted to witnessing the faithfulness of God's covenant to the Jewish people, and promoting good relations between the two faiths."

Despite their awareness of the graying of their orders, and of the falling numbers, none of the three is much worried about the future of religious life. They think there will always be nuns of some sort, but they don't know precisely what forms the vocations will take. They all believe that the way of life they themselves embraced is dying, and yet they all, in looking ahead, invoke images of rebirth: Celia and Beth the Resurrection, Janet the phoenix. Celia mentions a simile drawn from a book she admires: Finding the Treasure: Locating Catholic Religious Life in a New Ecclesial and Cultural Context (2000). The simile compares the recent history of nuns to the evolution of a dinosaur into a songbird. No one, says the author, Sandra Schneiders, herself a nun, really needs songbirds except for their beauty, their power to lift the heart.

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