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

Many women like me, in our fifties, are on a secret but obsessive mission to find older women who are attractive in ways we would hope to be. Sister Elaine is one. When I met her, she was sixty-six. Her hair was thick and gray and curly, pinned back in a bun. All the time we were at the center, she wore cotton pants and shirts and simple sandals, but it was impossible not to invoke the word "elegant" when one saw her.

During our visit I learned that Elaine had, twenty years earlier, spent a sabbatical year in a Zen monastery in Japan. It seemed appropriate; she had the aura of simplicity and spaciousness that marks the Japanese decorative arts. She told me that her prayer life had been much influenced by Buddhist meditation and was wordless and dark; in her spiritual life she was drawn most of all to silence. When I asked her why she hadn't joined a more contemplative order, rather than the Sisters of Loretto, she said that their engagement kept her asceticism from becoming inhuman, dry.

I knew that Elaine would be leaving Kentucky for New Mexico a month after I saw her; she had been retreat director for twenty-two years, and thought it was a good time to consider her next move. I knew she planned to work with a midwife. I liked this idea very much—a major change at sixty-six. I envisioned her working on an Indian reservation. But when I phoned her in Santa Fe earlier this year, she was puzzled: where had I gotten this idea? In fact she had taken a sabbatical to consider what her next move within the community would be; she was renting a gatehouse on a large estate in Santa Fe, living alone, reading, writing, contemplating. "Well, Mary," she said to me, "we've all benefited so much from your imagination, how could I mind that you applied it to my life?"

If the convent in Kentucky was a dream of monastic perfection, the gatehouse in Santa Fe was a paradisal blend of austerity and lushness. In early May the grass was dark green and the flowering trees were in bloom.

Because I was entirely comfortable with Elaine, I felt free to ask her difficult questions, not only about celibacy but also about how she had accommodated being an attractive woman with being deliberately out of the sexual running.

"The nature of my vow of celibacy has changed enormously," she told me. "When I entered, you were forbidden 'particular friendships.' You weren't really supposed to love people: the love of God was supposed to be enough. Now we understand the enormous importance of affective love. We understand the enormous need to know and be known. I think I'm a natural celibate. I've been in love, but never did I feel I wanted to go to bed with that person; never did I imagine for a second doing anything that would make me break my vows."

I asked her if she could imagine non-celibate nuns. "I think if you want a partner, community life is not for you," she said. Did that mean, I asked, that religious life is not for the highly sexed? "I think so," she replied. "But you see, I really don't know. It is for a rare kind of person." Did she think she had missed out on one of the big things in life? "Yes. There's something I'll die not knowing about. But there are things we all die not knowing about, aren't there? I think, though, that not being joined to any one person gives me the freedom to be open to many people."

I asked about her relationship to her own body, her femaleness. What happened to her image of herself as a female when she put on the habit for the first time, and then when she took it off? "You have to understand that before I entered, I never thought about how I looked," she said. "My mother loved clothes, and, essentially, she dressed me, but I was never really interested. Once, when I was a senior in college, I was coming in from a date, and the woman at the desk in my dorm said to me, 'Elaine, you are really beautiful.' And I was completely surprised. I said, 'Oh, really?' I had never thought of it."

I asked Elaine how she thought of her appearance, of being looked at, now. She replied, "I try to dress in a way that doesn't draw attention to myself, either by excessive elegance or by excessive ugliness." "I don't want to look dowdy," she said. I told her how frequently the word "dowdy" came up when I talked to nuns. Was it an anxiety? "Well," she replied, "we all know dowdy nuns. We can pick them out—pulled polyester. You see, I think that's a way of standing out. I dress not to stand out. But mostly I don't think about it. It's such a freedom not to need to think about makeup. Not to wear earrings. I always hated earrings."

I touched my dangly earrings and looked down at my painted toenails in the grass. "Did you ever think clothing was fun?" I asked. "No," she said. "I just never was interested." I asked her if she understood how different that made her from most other women in the world, who spend a great deal of mental energy—most of it negative—thinking, worrying, anguishing, about how they look. "You see, I believe our life is very freeing," she said. "Most people don't understand that."

"Now poverty is much more difficult in the new way of doing things," she continued. "Before, when we had no access to money, when we literally owned nothing, when we had to ask the superior for money to buy a stamp, we didn't have to think about it. Now, every day, I make many decisions about how to spend money, about whether I am living in a spirit of poverty. I try to buy only what I really need. I don't really like things."

A natural celibate, I thought, and a natural ascetic. Did she indulge herself in anything? "Yes," she said with a laugh. "Organic vegetables. Eating organic vegetables makes me really, really happy."

I pointed to her luxurious surroundings. "Is this a life of poverty?" I asked. "Well, of course not, so it can seem like a fake vow," she replied. "What I'm interested in is inner detachment. I didn't ask for this place. I wanted to be in Santa Fe because I have friends here, and someone was talking to the woman who owns this place, and she happened to say, 'I have an apartment to rent, and my ideal tenant would be a nun.' The person said, 'I happen to know a nun who's looking for a place.' It turned out the apartment was affordable, and so I got it."

"I would find it difficult to live in squalor," she said. "I would find it difficult to live without light. But I like to think that if I had to live in squalor but I had access to nature, if I could get out from it, I could handle that."

"But the really poor live in a squalor they can't get out of," I said.

"Yes," she replied, "but my understanding of my vow is an inner detachment—that I can use things or not, but that I'm not attached to them."

"There's something wonderful about growing old in a community," she told me. "We support each other, we keep each other vital, we have shared memories, a shared history."

I asked her how she felt about the fact that this way of life appears to be ending. "I am sad, because it was so good for me, and so good for so many people," she replied. "But I think we're going to have to be much more imaginative about religious life. We're going to have to cross borders not only of community but of religious denomination—and this will be very difficult, because we're not good at using each other's symbols. But it's going to have to be much more inclusive, in a way I can't predict."

When I decided to write about nuns, I consulted Beth Johnson about seeing some nuns who had taught at my high school when I was a student. My plan was to seek out the most liberal and the most conservative. Sister Patritius, the most conservative, was, I knew, very old. I remembered her as brilliant and formal and frightening. Beth said that Sister Patritius had written blistering letters about her work, accusing her of heresy. But Sister Patritius wouldn't see me, pleading age and hearing problems, perhaps unwilling to give her time to the likes of me. The most liberal nun, Sister Dulcissima, was teaching in a Methodist seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and was accessible by e-mail. And she was now called Joanmarie Smith. I couldn't think of a clearer sign of the loss of the old glamour than this change of name.

Joanmarie, now sixty-nine, taught in our high school for only a year, and I wasn't in her class. But she was a whirlwind presence: young, beautiful, talking excitedly about Martin Luther King and Vatican II and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. She was the faculty adviser to the cheerleaders, and the cool girls orbited her; I was just outside the orbit, so we probably never even spoke. But I had thought of her a lot, and had once used the name Sister Dulcissima in fiction. I hadn't seen her in thirty-five years.

When I e-mailed to say I wanted to come and see her in Columbus, she replied,

O Mary, you are a glutton for punishment! The last time (March) I attempted to get to NYC, I waited seven hours in Washington D.C. while U.S. Air canceled five shuttle flights into [La Guardia] and could not promise that the sixth would fly. I turned around and came home. I got my $ back but lost a day. They stamped my ticket, "Trip in vain."

On the other hand, I'd love to meet you ... Of course, there is always the possibility of a phone appointment. Seven cents a minute and we can be in pajamas. In the meantime, let me answer some of your questions. Re: celibacy as the specifying note of nunhood. Unfortunately, I don't see any future for nunhood in the western world. I am unaware of any compelling theological framework that would attract young women ... As for what nuns can do that any other woman could not do—NOTHING. If anything, there are more strictures on nuns than on laywomen. I have to watch what I say and do so as not to arouse the ire of the local Bishop, not that I could not survive if he made the Josephites dismiss me (unlike most other nuns who get stipends and no pension), but it could be so awkward for the Methodists who have been so good to me.

Interestingly enough, there is still a cachet to being a nun on this Protestant seminary campus. I have not quite figured out why the fascination persists even with this fat old lady with dangling earrings and the Joe Pesci speech pattern. It probably has something to do with the cognitive dissonance engendered by their old Bells of St. Mary images and me. It may also have to do with the fact that I am obviously a very happy person—and very funny. Single and never lonely—all of which I consider genetic and chemical gifts for which I am very grateful ...



(Most of the profs and administration call me "Dulcie" as do all my friends and sisters)

In a later e-mail she wrote,

The prospect of entertaining a famous NY novelist and memoirist who is into "noticing" and recording what she sees has sent me into a decline. Moreover, my instincts tell me that the Sister of Loretto lives in some desert aesthetic that cannot fail to impress you ... And you will leave here confirmed in your impression that Josephites are classless ... In the meantime, have a safe trip to New Mexico. I'll be thinking of you and saying ... "Please God, let that other nun's house be a mess!"

Dulcie was waiting for me at the airport gate. A large, robust woman with short ginger hair, she wore black pants, a black shirt, black Reeboks, and dangling green earrings. En route to her apartment, where she had invited me to stay the night, we started talking about the nuns at my high school. I asked about the principal, who I had thought even then was senile to the point of mute immobility. To illustrate the inadequacies of my Catholic high school education, I told a story about the principal's getting on the loudspeaker and saying, "Today, for sale in the bookstore, The Brothers Kalamazoo."

Dulcie laughed. "She was my superior, of course, and we had to ask the superior for a penance when we did anything wrong," she said. "Well, I took a hot pot from the stove and put it on the Formica counter and burned it. I had to ask a penance for that. She said, 'Would you have done that in your own home?' I thought, How do I answer that question? Like, when did you stop beating your wife?"

Dulcie's apartment could have been in any apartment complex anywhere in the United States. The carpets were beige, as was the furniture, which she said she got at Wal-Mart. The walls, however, were covered with colorful Impressionist reproductions. There was also a lithograph of habited nuns in front of a convent, and a framed business card—her grandfather's—advertising violin lessons. The striking feature of the room was a glimpse of a river through a plate-glass door: the river ran beneath trees that were, in May, in lush, full leaf.

Dulcie made herself a martini, and I opened a bottle of Merlot I'd bought on the way. She said, "I still don't understand really why you came." "I find phone and e-mail insufficiently Incarnational," I told her.

The phone rang. It was one of Dulcie's closest friends in the Josephite order, Sister Elaine Roulet, a chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, in New York, where Jean Harris was incarcerated and where Kathy Boudin, convicted of robbing a Brink's truck and killing a guard, still is. In an interview last July, Boudin said that if she had been a Catholic, she would have become a nun.

I got on the phone with Elaine, who said, "You're with the best, you know. Dulcie is the kindest, the funniest, the holiest. You're lucky to be there." Dulcie took the phone. "I've got a martini and Mary's here, trying to tell me sex is everything. You did say sex was everything, didn't you, honey?"

Of course I'd said no such thing, but I had no desire to wreck her shtick. "Elaine, do you think sex is everything?" Dulcie asked her friend. "No? Well, I guess that's our problem."

Dulcie had wanted to be a nun since she was twelve, when she transferred from public school to Catholic school and adored the nuns who taught her. "I worshipped one of them, and I knew I wanted that life, a life that was intensely devoted to God, a life that was edgier and more poetic than any life I knew. I was lucky that I came of age at a time when they honored that kind of early knowing. Like Tiger Woods: he knew at four he was meant to play golf. And I knew I was meant to be a nun."

She entered a special high school for girls who wanted to be nuns, but when she went into the novitiate proper, she had a kind of nervous collapse, marked by inexplicable fainting spells, and was sent home. "When I walked in, my father handed me a cigarette," Dulcie told me. "And it was such a gesture of defeat. I took the cigarette and I thought, I'm not going to be a nun."

But she was desperate to return. She took classes at Hunter College, and then got a clean bill of health from a doctor a few months later. She re-entered the novitiate. "I've never looked back," she told me.

She taught grade school and studied philosophy at Fordham University, writing a doctoral dissertation on John Dewey. She taught at a Sister Formation College of her order. Then her mother had a stroke. Just at the time money was needed to supplement the inadequate nursing care that Medicaid provided, she was offered a job at the Methodist seminary in Columbus. She accepted the job as a lark, thinking she'd do it awhile for the salary. Nineteen years later she is still there.

So for nineteen years she has lived not in a convent with other sisters, as she had done her whole adult life before, but alone in an apartment—a situation that would have been unthinkable when she entered the order, five decades ago. I asked her if she misses community life. "I love being alone," she said. "Of course, I talk to my friends in the community every day. We get together for feast days, holidays. We have retreats together. My other best friend, besides my sister, was in the community, but she left to marry someone who'd been a brother. I talk to her every day too."

I asked Dulcie what being a nun means to her. "I'm very proud to be part of a group of women who made so many large moves," she said. "Women who are not defined by their relationship to a man—or to a woman, for that matter. Who are defined by their relationship to God. Who are really free.

"My life as a nun has been tremendously freeing. Right now I have the best of both worlds. Particularly among non-Catholics being a nun has a kind of mystique. But if I want to be anonymous, like in the supermarket, I can be. People project all kinds of things onto the idea of my being a nun. So I can use that. Like, for instance, I hate big parties, so I never go to the seminary president's party at the end of the year. They think it's some kind of spiritual discipline. But it's just that I hate big parties. The irony is, just as we're really starting to get it right, living a mature religious life, as adults responsible for our own lives, the jig is up."

I brought up the time of the great changes, the years during and immediately after Vatican II. "The only analogy I can make is with people who went through the downfall of communism," she said. "After it's over, it's hard to think of it as anything but inevitable. There's no possible going back, even if you didn't know what was ahead. When we changed out of the habit, there was this really strange thing, and my friends and I talk about it. A kind of collective amnesia came over us. None of us can remember what happened to our old habits. And our profession crosses. Did we throw them away? Did we burn them? I can't imagine that even the poor would have wanted to wear them, so I don't think we gave them to the poor. It's a very puzzling metaphor."

What about prayer life? "I read the Scripture, I say the Rosary. I think the Rosary is a kind of perfect prayer. It functions on so many different levels: as a mantra, so you can lose the words; as a vehicle for narrative meditation—you can focus on the words of the prayers, or on any of the mysteries. And it's a diurnal rhythm that's very beautiful. And I love the Eucharist very much. The bounty of it, the celebration of it."

Dulcie then asked if I would like to pray with her. I agreed but felt a bit shy. She moved to sit across from me and said, "Why don't we pray for our fathers? It's the anniversary of my father's burial. The anniversary of the day I bought him the cheapest coffin there was." So we prayed for Charlie and David. We prayed for the children whose lives are ruined before they begin. We prayed for peace in the Middle East. We prayed that Senator Jim Jeffords would convert from Republican to Democrat. Dulcie said that once, at a conference, she raised the question—deadpan—of whether it was a sin to be a Republican. Then she glanced around at some of the members of the audience, who looked stricken. "People don't always get my tone," she said. We closed our eyes. She kept hers closed; I opened mine to look at her. When she prayed, she was transformed. In her black shirt and pants, her black Reeboks, on her beige couch, she was as luminous as the nun in blue who knelt in the perfect beam of light. We hugged each other. "I didn't know how this would be," she said. "I was a little afraid. But it's wonderful."

Another friend, Regina, called, and Dulcie told her we were having a great time. I could hear them laughing. I asked her what Regina's old name was. It was Sister St. Thaddeus. I said I knew her—that she had come to our school when I was in third grade, and had made a great impression on me, but I couldn't quite remember why or how.

The next morning I woke at seven, but Dulcie had already been out to get us good coffee and—"just to prove the power of evil"—cinnamon rolls. I went upstairs to shower and pack. When I flushed the toilet, it overflowed. I ran down the stairs to get the plunger. "You were the one who wanted Incarnational," she said.

On the plane home I finally remembered Sister St. Thaddeus. I had been enchanted by her, thought her beautiful and holy. She wrote her name in script on the blackboard, and I loved the way she made the capital T in her name. I decided to change the way I made my capital T. Over and over I practiced my capital Ts by rewriting her name: "Sister St. Thaddeus." The helpless love of a certain kind of girl for a certain kind of nun. We loved them the way we loved movie stars and the way we loved God. I don't love Dulcie in either of those ways, but I do love her in a way that I couldn't if she weren't a nun. This is mysterious to me, this unique response that seems somehow connected to a woman's living a vowed, consecrated life. What will we do with this kind of love if nuns disappear?

The genius of the Catholic Church is its ease of movement from the local to the global. Having revisited and re-absorbed my high school past, I now craved the global, not to say the official, perspective. I wanted to talk to someone in the Vatican.

All my sources agreed that the person to talk to was in the Vatican office that deals with nuns, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister named Sharon Holland. When I phoned her from New York, she said she would have to "clear it with the cardinal" (she didn't say which one) before she could speak to me; she told me to phone again when I got to Rome. When I did, I found I had been cleared by the cardinal. Sister Sharon and I made an appointment to meet in her office, on Via Conciliazione, the street leading up to St. Peter's. The Street of Conciliation, which celebrates the rapprochement between the Vatican and Mussolini's government. My eye falls on the dome of St. Peter's, perhaps the most visible symbol of the Church's huge, inflexible authority.

The office looked like any other—long corridors, pseudo-busy secretaries seated at official-looking desks. But how many offices have the word "consecrated" on the door? I was told to wait for Sister Sharon in a singularly unadorned room. The floors were marble, as I imagine all the floors in the Vatican are, and there were unlovely navy-blue upholstered couches and chairs; one was broken, its face to the wall. There was also a picture of the Pope when young and vital, and a crucifix.

Sister Sharon, a silver-haired woman in her early sixties, came to greet me. She was wearing a dark-blue suit but no veil. By now I thought I understood the semiotics: Rockefeller Republican.

When I asked her what her department is responsible for, she began by saying, "Things having to do with sisters and brothers and apostolic communities"—the last a category so amorphous I couldn't take it in. She said that her office deals with everything from providing documents and arranging conferences for superiors to administering what she called "alienation of property." She later defined this as "selling large pieces of property." Her department is also in charge of "dispensations for individual religious"—which she explained as nuns and priests being released from their vows. If congregations make changes in their constitutions, these also have to be approved by her office. "Although we wouldn't withhold approval so much as we might make suggestions," she said. I asked if it would be theoretically possible for the congregation to withdraw its approval of an order's constitution, thereby removing its legitimacy. "Possible, yes," she said, "but my friend who's worked here for twenty-five years says he's only seen it happen once."

Sister Sharon assured me that her department is not in the plug-pulling business, and cleared up a misapprehension: the Vatican does not control the funds of any religious orders and has no financial power over them. I asked her why some nuns felt they had to muzzle themselves out of fear of Vatican censure. She said it probably came from misunderstanding; no order would ever be punished or suppressed because of the behavior of an individual member. I refrained from mentioning Sister Jeannine Gramick, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who was ordered to keep silent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Sister Jeannine had been told she would have to quit her ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics unless she agreed to reinforce the Church's interpretation that homosexual acts were intrinsically "disordered" and "evil." She has now left the School Sisters of Notre Dame and joined the Sisters of Loretto.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In