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

All three of my friends are proud of the steps their sisters have taken toward a mature understanding of their vocation. Beth says that her training, in the early sixties, was very restricting, stressing detachment from the world. But when she read the Vatican II document Gaudiam et Spes, she felt she had the theological framework she needed. "I'll never forget the words that did it," she says. "'The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.' I thought, This is worth my life."

These women understand their vows of poverty and obedience in similar ways. Obedience is not to the Church or to a superior but to the spirit of God, in response to the signs of the times in consultation with members of their communities. They are pleased to be giving their entire academic salaries to their orders; that they can share their earnings is a source of joy and pride. Their positions on celibacy vary: Celia and Beth think celibacy is necessary to religious life. Janet does not.

All three chafe under the restrictions of a patriarchal church, but they express their unease differently, and this is reflected in their styles of self-presentation. Janet is striking, even fashionable. Her often startling aqua eyes can flash with anger; she once took me severely to task for a story I wrote about a nun, which she said fed into stereotypes. I know a couple of well-meaning priests who are afraid of the rough side of her tongue. The refusal of the Church to ordain women is a challenge to her faith which she prays to be able to endure. Beth is calm and slow-moving; the reluctance of the hierarchy to adapt to the world is a source of fatalistic befuddlement to her. Celia is a thin, dark-haired gamine, with a relaxed, jokey style that makes my colleagues say—seconds after they reveal she's a nun—"But you'd never know it." She finds the official Church's resistance to women bewildering, but she doesn't let it get in her way. She herself, she says, would not want to be ordained.

They are all staying in the Church not least because it is the larger structure—however fragile—that has made their way of life possible. As Beth tells me: "You wanted to be a nun when you were a kid. I wanted to be a tugboat captain. I see myself in a tug pulling along the old bark of Saint Peter."

Because I was trying to get a wider perspective on nuns than I could get from just talking to my friends, I asked Celia if she would help to put me in touch with different kinds of nuns. She sent me to Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, the episcopal delegate for religion for the Diocese of Brooklyn, who gave me the name of a contemplative sister, Mother Marie de Chantal, of the Visitation Order in Bay Ridge.

I had not realized what emotional strain this work would entail. Every time I had to call a nun on the phone, I was afraid. And I was most afraid of visiting Mother Marie de Chantal, who was, I was told, more traditional than the nuns I had known in recent years. The day before I was to see her, I felt headachy and exhausted; my throat was sore. The day of my visit I awoke having lost my voice. My husband had to call and say I couldn't make it. Mother Marie told him she would pray for me.

But what made me afraid? She had been kindness itself on the phone, with a light, girlish voice that was entirely welcoming. What did I think would happen? That she would yell at me for being "wise" or "fresh"? That she would uncover my profound failures of virtue? That she would call me a fake, someone interested in nuns for self-serving, ambitious motives?

I made a new date to see her. I channeled my anxiety to the problem of what shoes to wear. I was wearing a light-blue pantsuit, which I thought modest—but I usually wear high heels with it. My daughter told me not to wear high heels—"Not the kind of high heels you have, Mom"—to talk to a traditional nun. So I wore my elegant pantsuit with black sneakers. The mismatch made me feel unattractive, but I liked thinking that no one wanted to look at me as I walked the streets of Bay Ridge, where my Uncle Joe used to live.

When I visited Uncle Joe, Bay Ridge was an Irish neighborhood. Now it has an Islamic center, and the veiled women are not nuns but Muslims. The two people I asked for directions answered me with Russian accents. A block away from the subway the neighborhood is much more the domain of the descendants of Western Europe and almost exurban; with hedges and tiny lawns. The buildings belonging to the Visitation Order—convent and academy—take up nearly a block of Ridge Boulevard. At the end of the driveway, standing at a door, a nun in habit waved at me.

Fears of being reprimanded welling up inside me, I apologized for being late. But this woman was not about to reproach me. A short woman in her early fifties, with large brown Italian eyes, she offered me coffee and cookies—Pepperidge Farm pirouettes, my favorite. It's bathing-suit season, I said, I'd better say no. Then I felt like a fool for mentioning a bathing suit to a contemplative.

Since the days when my father and I had told the world at large that I wanted to be a contemplative, I had been intensely curious about the details of the contemplative life. But I had never before spoken to a real contemplative—the point of the life being seclusion from the world. I was avid to know the details of the schedule, at least in part to see whether it conformed to my imaginings of it. Indeed, the sisters' day is structured around times of prayer. They meet six times a day for communal prayer, and have three daily periods of private devotion and meditation.

"You see, we lead an intensive life of prayer, a pure life of faith," Mother Marie told me. "Prayer is really the center of our day; it's what we devote ourselves to. Originally I entered an active community, but then I understood that I wanted a contemplative life. I was drawn to an intense life of prayer."

There seems to be no time in the day that is meaningless—no slack hours, no residue of triviality or folly or plain waste. Of course, it is also possible to say there is no spontaneity and little individual choice. It is a schedule that seems outside history: it is not much different from religious life before Vatican II—and not much different from monastic life in the Middle Ages.

I asked her if it was difficult to pull herself away from her prayer life to do practical tasks. "You see, it's like being in love," she said. "When you're in love, you really don't want to be anywhere except alone with the person you love. If I have to go out to Eighty-sixth Street, to buy a pair of shoes or something, I'm always eager to get back. It's the spiritual atmosphere I love, and so I miss it. Since I'm the superior, I suffer a bit from not having as much solitude as I would like. But part of our vocation is living in community. For example, if during my free time I wanted to take a walk and say my rosary, and one of the sisters said she needed to talk to me, needed my help or my support, I would feel that my first duty was to her. Community life is a great challenge to virtue. I believe it's in community that you grow. In patience, in generosity."

I looked at her face, which had the sweetness, the calm, the quiet assurance, of a woman happily married to her high school sweetheart and still amazed at her own good luck. Her ease of manner made the life she lives seem un-extraordinary; but, of course, it is extraordinary, because it is a hidden life, quite foreign to most modern imaginations. So I asked her what misconceptions about contemplative nuns she would like to clear up. "First," she said, "we're women, we're humans, and we experience everything a woman does, but we experience a very deep call from God—and the call is captivating—to a life of intimate prayer. We're not stoic, we're not afraid of life, we're not afraid of responsibility, we're not cold fish, and we're not afraid of marriage. We're not that different from other women. Being a contemplative doesn't make you less of a human being. Saint Iraneaus says, 'The glory of God is man fully alive.'"

Because her life is so different from those of Janet, Celia, and Beth, I was curious about her understanding of obedience in comparison with theirs. It was remarkable how many points of similarity there were. Mother Marie said that now, since Vatican II, obedience wasn't unquestioning; it was a course a sister and her superior worked out together. "I believe in the value of obedience because it helps me to go beyond myself, to go beyond myself for the community," she said. "It's a kind of self-surrender that I think is valuable."

One reason I wanted to speak to Mother Marie was that her order was doing unusually well—it had six new postulants last year. In an age of diminishing vocations this is somewhat phenomenal. She thinks that the appeal of a contemplative life is very strong for women now, that there is a resurgence of interest in the spiritual these days, and that people want to come back to a more intense connection with God. She pointed out that the new postulants were all in their late forties, and said that perhaps her order's having no age limit was important. Four of the postulants have had marriages that ended in annulment; two never married. They were all successful working women: teachers, librarians, businesswomen.

Mother Marie was excited by her fledglings, a proud mother. She reminded me of a southern Italian casalinga, with an earthbound good humor that has no place for malice or mean-spiritedness. For a long time she and Sister Susan, in their late forties, were the youngest in the order. It was difficult, she told me, not to have age mates: "A couple of years ago I was discouraged. I sense a great spirit of renewal. And I have faith that if this way of life is meant to continue, God will see that it does."

We walked outside in the garden. "The apartment building across the road advertises that they have a view of this," she said with a laugh, pointing to the flowering bushes, the green lawn, the generous trees. "I was thinking of writing to them and suggesting we could use a little help having our chapel repaired. We're very lucky to have all this. But a contemplative needs space—you need a place to walk and feel you're on your own."

I asked her if such a reflective life could breed perfectionism—what the Church considers the sin of scrupulosity, a sense of failure at not living up to a lofty ideal. "Our founder, Saint Francis de Sales, had a charisma that was very gentle," she said. "He kept reminding us that we would fail, that we would always fail, but that we should try. And it's very different since Vatican II. We're much more open; there's much more discussion. The whole idea of scrupulosity is very foreign to me. I'm Italian, and I had a very loving father, who thought everything I did was great. So that's kind of how I think of God."

I couldn't help wondering if I could live in a place like this. I looked at the beautiful grounds, one corner given over to climbing toys for the children of the academy. A pleasant-faced nun in an apron was talking to a fat calico cat. The sun shone through the trees; the wind blew my hair and Mother Marie's veil. She kissed me good-bye at the door. I felt I was being sent out to a coarser, harsher place.

Since the Middle Ages writers and thinkers about religious life have divided it into two large categories: the vita contemplativa, a life of prayer and seclusion; and the vita activa, a life of engagement in the world, the life lived by those religious who teach, nurse, care for the poor. One of our cherished notions about nuns is that the good works they do have a different flavor from the good works of the non-professed; that there is a difference between good works and charity—the difference between duty and burning love. The incredible devotion inspired by Mother Theresa is connected to this idea. So I went looking for a nun who has made a real difference in the lives of the poor.

When I told a friend, a psychological consultant, that I was trying to find such a nun, he steered me to Sister Mary Paul, a co-founder of the Center for Family Life, in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. In his opinion, and in the opinion of others who have evaluated it, the center offers the most successful program in the city for keeping children out of foster care.

Since the center was started, in 1978, by Sister Mary Paul and Sister Geraldine (who died last year), it has served the people of the community with a variety of programs that include individual and family counseling; literacy and language tutoring; after-school programs and day camps; emergency food programs; thrift shops; advocacy services; employment training; and college-tuition assistance. All these services are sorely needed in Sunset Park, a neighborhood in flux, with older white ethnics having given way first to Puerto Ricans and more recently to Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Hondurans, Mexicans, and Chinese.

My friend had told me that Sister Mary Paul was in her eighties—and very, very tiny. "You think she's going to break," he said, "but she's the most competent administrator in New York." Her staff stays with her year after year—a very unusual loyalty in not-for-profit places like this, where the burnout rate is high.

Even forewarned, I was unprepared for how small Sister Mary Paul really is—certainly no more than four-foot-ten. She also seems to suffer from scoliosis. Her habit sat unevenly on her torso—a full habit, complete with veil. I asked her what her order is. "I'm a sister of the Good Shepherd," she said. I told her that that was one of the orders I fantasized about when I was a girl. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd cared, I said, for "wayward girls."

Sister Mary Paul practically leaped out of her chair at the term. "What were 'wayward girls'? Girls who made a sexual mistake, that's all," she said firmly. "No one said anything about boys who made sexual mistakes. When our order was founded, in 164l, we were called Sisters of Refuge, and that's what we provided: a refuge for women who were victims of the double standard. The motto of our community is 'One person is of more value than a world.'"

Sister Mary Paul places herself squarely on the side of all victimized women, from the person she has seen most recently to someone dead 300 years. Talking to her, I understood the limited utility of terms like "liberal" and "conservative." She wears a full habit, and she uses her religious rather than her given name, but her political allies include some of the most radical leftists in New York, and she lives not in community but by herself. "I wear my habit because I'm not enthralled by anonymity," she explained. "And I feel that my habit says to people in the community, 'I'm not going away. I'm here for the long haul.'"

But, she assured me, her job isn't to shape consciences to fit the traditional Catholic mold. "I don't give them religious training; their consciences aren't my responsibility. We never force anybody to do anything. We give them options." What about the options for family planning? "We wouldn't provide that sort of thing here," she said, "but we might tell them where they could get more options." She earned my admiration with this adroit answer. Sister Mary Paul has had to navigate the choppy political waters of the Catholic Church and the larger public arena, serving the needs of her clients while avoiding the wrath of the archdiocese—no mean feat.

"When I began my religious life, I lived in a semi-cloistered community of sisters," she recalled. "Our days were shaped by liturgy, much of it sung, and it was very beautiful and satisfying. But the world changed, the nature of religious life changed, and it would have been foolish not to change with it. The changes were for the better—we have a much more vibrant laity, much more diverse. Now I have a different experience of community. This neighborhood is my community, even though I live alone, since Sister Genevieve died. I learn a tremendous amount from all kinds of people, believers and nonbelievers. My prayer life, my liturgical life, is of great sustenance to me: it's what keeps me from burning out.

"My prayer life is different from what it used to be, but I don't think I'm praying only when I'm in church. A mother can't be telling her children she loves them every second; her love is in her care for them. I hope that whatever I do or however I welcome the people who come here, it will be a result of God's spirit working with me. The Church is not my only source of knowing God. I find Him all around me. I see so much of glory; I see such outpourings of glory." It occurred to me that few social workers include the word "glory" in their vocabulary.

"What I live by and value and love in my vocation," Sister Mary Paul said, "is all brought together in this center, for the people I care for and love. I'm happier here than I could be anywhere else." But doesn't dealing with people whose lives are so full of tragedy shake her faith? "No, I see much more good than bad. And what I feel is that there's always a place to join people, always room to be with them in their sorrow, and that's what my job is. Mine, not only God's."

Among American orders that are considered activist and progressive, perhaps the most outstanding is the Sisters of Loretto, an order founded in Kentucky in the nineteenth century. In the spring of 2000 I visited their motherhouse in Kentucky for a few days of reflection. I was moved by the spirit of the older sisters, particularly Sister Mary Luke Tobin, who is ninety-two. A hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement, she was jailed many times and participated in the Paris peace talks.

My rewards that week were as much aesthetic as religious. The gentle landscape of Kentucky, a female landscape of tender rolling hills, the rich old trees on the convent grounds, the high, wide windows in our sun-filled rooms, suffused the atmosphere with moments of quiet delight. Among the delights was Sister Elaine, the retreat director.

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