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.

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.

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.

Sister Sharon said that most sisters, to say nothing of the public, don't understand how much dialogue and productive communication goes on between representatives of the Vatican and superiors of religious orders before any action is taken. And the action then takes place under the guidance of the superiors. She gave the example of Father Robert Drinan, the former Massachusetts congressman, whose superiors ordered him to give up political life, which he did. "Now, you don't think the Vatican was going to put that kind of pressure on the Jesuits, do you?" she said firmly. Next she brought up the case of Sister Mary Agnes Mansour, who had been working as the director of Michigan's Department of Social Services. In that position she presided over the distribution of funds for abortion. She was told that she could keep her job if she expressed opposition to public funds' being spent on abortion. This was something she didn't want to do, nor did she want to give up her job. "But she asked for a dispensation," Sister Sharon recalled. "She was not dismissed."

"But," I asked, "she was out of the order?"

"By her own choice, yes."

For Sister Sharon, these cases seemed to have had happy outcomes; for many American Catholics, however, they created great anguish and conflicts that have yet to be resolved.

I asked Sister Sharon for statistics about the number of vocations worldwide, and she produced a chart showing changes in vocations from 1978 to 1998. In America there has been a 21 percent decrease, and in Europe a 31 percent decrease. In Africa, however, there has been a 45.5 percent increase, and in Asia a 48 percent increase.

"It's been observed," Sister Sharon said, "that vocations decrease in areas of greater prosperity and increase in less prosperous areas. Which is why there is great concern that the areas of discernment of vocations and the formation of vocations are very important. A word you'll hear spoken very frequently in congregations is 'internationalization.'" She explained this as the inclusion of non-Europeans and non-North Americans in positions of leadership. She told me that many congregations have adapted very well to this. There are many Asian sisters, particularly Indians, in positions of authority in congregations around the world. This is less true of Africans, because the missionary tradition is much younger there.

The mention of African nuns reminded me of two recent news stories. The more shocking story came out of the nightmare landscape of Rwanda: two Benedictine nuns were convicted in a Belgian court for participating in the massacre of 7,000 people who had sought refuge in their convent. These nuns were Hutu, and had been expected to shelter some Tutsi, members of their rival tribe. Instead they provided the gasoline that resulted in the Tutsi's mass immolation in a garage in which they were gathered.

The second news story concerned a report, sent to the Vatican by an Irish nun, about the abuse of nuns by priests. The report charged that certain African priests were demanding sexual favors of nuns. Many of these priests had formerly gone to prostitutes but had quit that practice for fear of AIDS. The report cited the case of a priest who had impregnated a nun; forced her to have an abortion, during which she died; and then said her requiem mass. I pointed out to Sister Sharon that some people in the Church were disturbed that the treatment of these priests had been so light: some counseling, some transfers. "I have a lot of trouble with that report," Sister Sharon said. "It was leaked to the press. I have problems with documents that are marked 'confidential' not being kept confidential."

I suggested that this might have been done because of frustration with the Vatican's foot-dragging. "What could we do?" she said. "It was up to the local bishops. I'm afraid that this might have a chilling effect on sisters who might have reported this kind of incident. Now they'll be afraid that their confidentiality might not be kept. And it was greatly embarrassing to African clergy. They feel that everyone is looking at them as potential abusers."

"Isn't this the argument that's habitually used against reporting abuse?" I asked. "I don't know the particular cases," she said. I asked her if the very fact that the identities of the priests were kept private constituted a kind of protectionism—a gentle response very different from, say, the excommunication of liberation theologians. "Liberation theologians put their name to something they wrote," she said. "They do something public. What these priests did was not a public act."

How did Sister Sharon think the secular world read these differing responses to the liberation theologians and the African priests? Did she think the inconsistency sent a message to the world that the Church is more concerned with doctrinal purity and protecting its male clergy than with the sexual abuse of nuns?

"People don't understand that the Church is one of the strongest voices in the world speaking out against the abuse of women, the trafficking in women," she said. "Of course, we need to do more, but we are definitely on the side of the women of the world, wherever they're oppressed."

I asked her what concerned her most about the state of American religious life. "I'm worried that there's too little emphasis on community," she said, "too many sisters living alone when they don't really have to. I don't think this is a good thing."

After my visit with Sister Sharon I wondered if my enthusiasm for the lives of the nuns I had enjoyed spending time with was an aberration, like a preference for arugula and dark chocolate when most of the world was happy with iceberg lettuce and Milky Ways. I realized that Sister Sharon would be most comfortable with the nuns I had spoken to whom I found the most difficult to approach—two nuns I interviewed in Brooklyn, one a Nigerian, one an Argentine. Perhaps they were most representative of the contemporary Church, which is, after all, the church of John Paul II, not of John XXIII, who has been dead nearly forty years. As America is now the country of George W. Bush, not of John F. Kennedy.

Sister Miriam Therese, the Nigerian, and Sister Angelus, the Argentine, share Sister Sharon's view that the hyper-individualism of American society has both discouraged vocations to the religious life and impaired the faithful fulfillment of such vocations. Both of them think that American women have too much freedom to take on the three Evangelical vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Sister Miriam Therese believes that American bishops like having African nuns in their dioceses because those nuns are more traditional in their outlook. She thinks that missing mass on Sunday is a mortal sin—a concept rejected by most liberal and moderate theologians. And Sister Angelus's order, The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, has taken a fourth vow, of "enslavement to the Blessed Virgin Mary"; her monastery is dedicated to prayer for the conversion of Jews. Responses like this called up my limitations and failures as an investigative reporter. I never succeeded in getting either of these sisters past the language of official response.

Sister Miriam Therese, who teaches in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and is studying for her master's degree in education, contends that "it is more difficult for African sisters than for American sisters to say no to something the bishop wants." There is an increasingly widespread phenomenon called "reverse evangelization"; whereas traditionally priests and nuns were sent from Europe and North America to serve the needs of developing countries, the migratory pattern is now in the opposite direction. African priests and sisters are an increasingly visible presence in American parishes and schools. Even Tony Soprano's parish, in New Jersey, has an African priest.

Sister Miriam Therese declines to be critical of American nuns, and says she is "most edified by their work." But Sister Angelus thinks the fact that so many American sisters don't live in community with other sisters "opens them up to many difficult temptations." Her order, which is almost pre-conciliar in style (except for its adoption of e-mail and the rhetoric of the current Pope), has many new postulants, forty this year, all of them under thirty-five. Sister Miriam Therese says that many women in Africa want to be nuns, because they believe it is a good way of going to heaven, and because nuns are honored in their societies, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Neither of these sisters thinks that her way of life is dying.

From Rome, I took a plane to Bucharest to visit some nuns Celia had told me about, members of her order, the Sisters of Sion, whose story had gripped me. Romania went Communist in 1945, and almost immediately a reign of terror began, culminating in the mad rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, who wielded absolute power from 1965 until his violent overthrow, in 1989.

Catholics are a religious minority in Romania, making up only about 10 percent of the population. Starting in 1948, Communist anti-religious fervor, mingled with paranoia about foreign influence, fueled a campaign to suppress Catholic religious orders. The property of the orders was confiscated; convents and monasteries were closed; those who lived in them were sent back to their families. But a group of Sisters of Sion, among others, kept their religious life alive underground while working in factories, on farms, or as domestic servants. Though often interrogated and harassed, they lived this double life for more than forty years, until 1990, when the repression was lifted.

A friend of Celia's, Rosemarie Wesolowski, a German member of the order who is also a physician, had recently arrived in Romania to help the Sisters of Sion integrate into the larger, modern world. The congregation includes around thirty older sisters, who joined before or during the repression, and six younger ones, who entered in 1990 or later. "Theologically," Celia told me, "they're still in 1948. And yet they are heroic."

Rosemarie suggested by e-mail that I come to Iasi, a small city in the largely agricultural province of Moldavia, where she was living. She would arrange for me to talk to both the older and the younger sisters. When she met me at the Bucharest airport, her looks surprised me. She was younger than I had expected, a large, fair woman with the rosy skin of a Dürer maiden. She was the only nun I'd met with long hair, which was clipped by a metal barrette and hung down her back. When she discovered I was staying at the Hilton, she responded with laughter. "Go for it," she said. I learned that this is her favorite English expression.

She had been in Romania for only six months. In that time she had, in addition to her other duties, started a counseling center, focusing on pregnancy prevention and help for battered women. There are no shelters for battered women in Iasi, although because alcoholism is a huge problem in Romania, so is battering. But her principal job was to evaluate the local community and to give the worldwide congregation her suggestions for its future.

She understood the anomaly of this. At forty, she is one of the younger members of the order worldwide, and she has no memory of a pre-conciliar Church. Meanwhile, the majority of her sisters in Romania, coming out of a time warp, have no experience of a Church touched by Vatican II.

I spent more than a week in Rosemarie's company, and in that time I learned her remarkable history. She entered the Sisters of Sion at twenty-four, after finishing her medical training. She has lived and worked as a doctor in many places: Frankfurt, Geneva, Vienna, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jerusalem, Brooklyn, and Chicago. She chose the Sisters of Sion because she believed that as a postwar German, she had a particular responsibility to witness the importance of Yaweh's covenant with the Jewish people, to stand with those who honored its importance in the life of Christianity.

I asked Rosemarie some of the questions I had put to the other nuns. Her understanding of her way of life, her sense of the meaning of her vows, is rooted, as are the others', in personal history. "I'm making a statement by my communal life about the possibilities for reconciling difference," she told me. "Because I do not choose whom I live with, there must be constant reconciliations. I go where I'm needed by the community. I live simply and I don't own things. I am celibate, which for me, believe me, has not always been easy. When you are a doctor, you work closely beside men, sometimes very attractive. But I believe I am called to live my life as a celibate, and as Jeremiah says, the word of God can sometimes feel very violent."

Her job in Romania was very much on her mind. She needed to examine the quality of the vocations of the younger sisters, making sure, as she put it, that "it's a calling from God and not just a career move." The younger sisters were all from poor rural families; they had moved from simple houses to convents with private bathrooms and washing machines. They were all studying for teaching degrees.

"When I first arrived, they would use the word 'children' about themselves," Rosemarie told me. "I would say, 'We don't have children in the Sisters of Sion; we have independent women.' I must work with them to see if our order really makes sense for them. Independence and individual responsibility are very important in our order. I have to try and determine with the younger sisters if they would be better off in a more traditional order. For instance, a Romanian bishop has recently founded a religious institute called The Servants of the High Priest Jesus Christ. Their mission is to be domestic servants to priests. They appeal to a lot of younger women: two hundred nuns in less than ten years."

Of the six sisters who entered after the fall of communism, four are living in the convent at Iasi. One, Paulina, is fifty-two, the eldest by seventeen years. Ecaterina is thirty-five, Christina twenty-eight, and Maria twenty-seven. Maria and Christina, who are first cousins, have lived together since they entered the order, in 1993. Christina has a sweet, almost babyish face; Maria is stronger-looking, plainer. Ecaterina is angular; her face can look angry, but then she smiles, her tension dissolving into eagerness. These three wear habits and veils.

I spoke first to Paulina. She sat across from me at the dining-room table in the convent—a beautiful, sad-faced woman with light-hazel eyes, a tan face, a strong, graceful body, and short, naturally wavy gray hair. I asked her how she came to be here. She said that in her town there was a nun, Sister Ludovica, one of the Sisters of Sion. Paulina was drawn to her because of her calm, her kindness, her willingness to talk to people about Scripture, about her life, about their lives. She never spoke badly of anyone. Sister Ludovica was often interrogated by the police. When she spoke of her mentor, Paulina began to cry.

Ever since she was ten, Paulina had wanted to be a nun. But when she spoke to Sister Ludovica about it, her mentor told her that it was impossible in Romania, and that she should forget it. But Paulina made a private vow of celibacy, and she kept alive the dream of nunhood. She worked in a sheet-metal factory, and later in the fields, all the while living with her mother. In 1990, having dreamed of joining the Church for more than thirty years, she was finally able to start her novitiate. In 1991 she began caring for the older Sisters of Sion in a nearby town. There she read for the first time the documents of Vatican II, then almost thirty years old. In 1992 she moved to Iasi. When I asked Paulina why she didn't wear a habit, she said, "I didn't wait thirty years for a habit. I waited for a religious life."

How to explain the strength of what Paulina would call a vocation, what most modern people would call a dream? How to describe Paulina's smile, which irradiates the calm plain of her face like a pool in a fertile field suddenly struck by sunlight? It is a smile of hope and quiet pleasure: an expression of almost incredulous gratitude for being, after years of great patience, finally in the right place.

While we ate lunch, I asked Maria, Christina, and Ecaterina to tell their stories. Maria and Christina were from the same village as Paulina, and also knew Sister Ludovica. But they had been frightened of her and found her harsh. They came of age after the Communist collapse, so they were able to meet openly with other sisters for prayer and Bible study. Maria, the more talkative, said she knew very early that she didn't want to marry. Neither had much to say about what drew them to the Sisters of Sion. "We wanted to serve God," Maria said, answering for both. They went through high school in the Sion community; now they are studying to be kindergarten teachers.

Ecaterina was older than Maria and Christina when she entered the order, in her late twenties. She worked in a textile factory and deliberated for two years about entering religious life. She, too, knew she never wanted to marry. She, too, wanted to serve God.

Frustrated with the emotionally flat tone of their responses, I asked them if they believed that women should be ordained, expecting the topic to be provocative. The three young sisters laughed. "We knew it would come to this, this question," Maria said. She argued that women have their proper sphere and should not step out of it. Ecaterina was more vehement: she said that the line of succession was passed from Saint Peter to the Apostles, and that only men can continue the line. She said she believed that women are emotionally unfit to become priests, and that the idea of a pregnant woman saying mass was disgusting.

Gently Paulina suggested that Ecaterina might find it disgusting because she had never seen it. Change is always difficult and frightening, Paulina said. It would be fine with her if women became priests, although she does not think it will happen in her lifetime.

The women asked me why so few young men are becoming priests in the West. I suggested that celibacy is particularly difficult for men. I told them that the priesthood has been racked by scandals of sexual abuse and homosexuality. In general, fewer Catholics go to church regularly now; the Church's ban on contraception has made many of them feel distrustful and abandoned. "It is not the Church that has abandoned them, but they who have abandoned the Church," Christina said. "They can always confess their sins and be taken back." Ecaterina added, "If Westerners can't live up to the demands, then we will have to be missionaries to them. Here we have many vocations."

Later Rosemarie told me that the younger Romanian sisters didn't believe a word I had said. They all thought it was wrong for sisters to be engaged in such conversations.

After lunch we went to the apartment of Maria Gabor, another Sister of Sion, which fulfilled all my preconceptions of Eastern bloc grimness. The glass was missing from the front window; the stairway was littered and unlit. I was surprised when a young man answered the door; it was Maria's nephew, who lives with her. We walked into the sitting room, which was dominated by a dining table. On the wall was Technicolor religious art: The Last Supper in aquarium shades, an effeminate Jesus pointing to a coral-colored heart. On a shelf were statues of the Madonna, the Little Flower, three china dogs. Across from The Last Supper a computer and a printer were oddly out of place in this cluttered room.

Maria is a tiny woman of seventy-one, toothless and stooped. She wore a mid-calf navy skirt, a white shirt, a green-and-yellow babushka. Born in a small village in Moldavia, she knew she wanted to be a nun because of the nuns who came home on holiday to visit their families. She used some of the same language to describe these nuns that Paulina had: they were calm, talked more quietly than other women, didn't speak ill of people. I could only wonder at the difference between these nuns and other women in the village, who were probably overworked, producing a baby a year, at the mercy of a husband perhaps brutal, perhaps merely in charge.

By the time Maria came of age, religious orders had been suppressed. But she retained a strong desire to be a nun, to devote her whole life to serving God. So she, too, made a private vow of celibacy. In her thirties she moved to Iasi, where she worked in a textile factory. In the parish she met a woman named Rosina, who she only gradually discovered was a nun. Sister Rosina worked as a nurse in a hospital; she was under suspicion by the police, who would often tail and sometimes even interrogate her. When Maria and Rosina spoke, they had to go outdoors to an isolated place. Often they met in a local cemetery. In 1970 Maria made private vows to a priest in a confessional in the cemetery chapel. She met occasionally with Sister Rosina and two other women, also secret nuns. But to the world she was a single pious woman working in a factory. Even her mother didn't know the truth. Once, her mother was questioned by the police about why Maria wasn't married; but because she didn't know her daughter was a nun, the investigation proved fruitless.

After the religious orders were reinstated, Maria's life didn't much change. She moved in with her sister and her sister's children, because she felt she was needed there. This surprised me; I asked her if she had longed to wear a habit and live in community. "No," she said. "I felt I could do more good helping my family. And if I wore a habit, it would be strange for the people who knew me all those years. As if I had become a different person. I don't need a habit to love God and serve people."

The next day I traveled with Rosemarie to Sabaoni, three hours by bus from Iasi, where the order has a kindergarten and a convent. Later, as I was resting in my room at the convent, reading, there was a knock on the door, and an old woman burst, almost jumped, in. It was Sister Ana Marta, a joyful force, in the room, which was cold even in May. I was reminded of the words that compared the presence of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost to a rushing wind that enlivened the Apostles. Sister Ana Marta embraced and kissed me, enthusiastic that we would speak Italian to each other. Although she was born in Romania, she has lived most of her life in Italy. She left Romania during World War II, was trained in France, moved to Trieste and then to Rome, where she ran schools. At the age of seventy-three she returned to Romania to help the new community of sisters, and today, at eighty, she is in charge of the kindergarten. Later she told me that she was puzzled by the attitude of the younger sisters: they seemed so joyless, to have such a sense of entitlement. She said that one of the younger sisters, miffed that her request for a car had been denied, said to her, "But Jesus said, 'Whatever you give will be given back to you a hundredfold.'" I told her I didn't think Jesus meant cars.

At dinner I was introduced to several more nuns, who wanted to tell me their stories. Each of them wore a habit, complete with veil. Sister Josepha, toothless and in her seventies, spoke first. Her convent had been broken into by the Communists in 1948. All the books were thrown into the street and burned; then the police sent the nuns home to their families. At first her family didn't want her—another mouth to feed. The family had two horses, and they sold one to buy her a sewing machine. Sister Josepha is very proud that her tailoring raised her family's status and economic well-being. "And I did it all with only four years of education," she told me. "Not like these young ones who think they know so much." She had no contact with other sisters until 1991, when she put on the habit for the first time in forty-three years and rejoined her community.

Sister Florenta is the only nun I have heard brag about the men whose sexual advances and marriage proposals she refused so that she could join the order. She also boasted about having been beaten by the police, because of her brave resistance. Her presentation, her desire to lord it over the others, made me uneasy.

Another sister, also called Christina, told her story, encouraged by Rosemarie. She had wanted to be a nun from a young age, and with the support of a hometown priest, she moved to Iasi. There she met Sister Rosina, who urged her to join the Sisters of Sion. She made her vows secretly, like the others, knowing that she and the other women who met with Sister Rosina were under surveillance; she even suspected that the confessionals were bugged. After the fall of the Communists the sisters discovered that Rosina had brought a total of twenty-two women into the order, but none of them had known that at the time. They each knew one or, at most, two other secret nuns.

A radiant smile came over Sister Christina's face. "Those years, those difficult years, were nevertheless full of joy," she said. "I told no one that I had a religious life. Even my family didn't know. It was a very beautiful, very wonderful secret I had with God alone."

Sister Ana Marta burst in excitedly, "You found the absolute."

"Yes," Sister Christina said. "I did." Now she works in a school where she and another sister teach Gypsy children. As she described her work, she revealed the negative attitudes many Romanians have toward Gypsies. I looked at these nuns, and other than Ana Marta they seemed to me ordinary women, with the ordinary faults and limitations of their time and class—except for the fact that under the extraordinary pressures of history they had done extraordinary things. They had put themselves in danger to keep alive a way of life that was only a hint, a shadow of itself, practiced in secrecy. They had lived a life of trust in a society in which trust was nearly unimaginable. I asked myself, Is it possible to act extraordinarily and yet not be transformed into an extraordinary person?

When we got back to Iasi, Rosemarie suggested that I invite Maria, Christina, and Ecaterina to dinner in a restaurant. When I proposed it, they were excited in a way that reminded me of young children being taken to the city for an outing. None of them had been to a restaurant in the years they had been in Iasi.

The restaurant they chose must once have been a splendid fin de siècle place. Later it may well have been the dark hangout of the security police and their bought girls. The high ceilings, the elaborate moldings, were grimy and crumbling, and there was a smelly, spotted carpet on the floor. Light bulbs were missing from the overhead fixtures. A guitarist and a keyboardist played seventies-style music: "Feelings," "Save the Last Dance for Me." Then they moved with an anachronistic swoop into "Them There Eyes."

To my surprise, the sisters all ordered beer. Almost immediately Christina got rosy and giggly. Maria swayed to the music. I asked her if she liked to dance. Yes, she said, very much. I said I did too. She asked if I would like to dance with her; women, she told me, often dance together in Romania. And so I danced with a nun who probably considered me heretical, in a dispiriting room of former glory and former intrigue, next to men in nylon shirts stretching over their beer bellies and excessively made-up women with cheaply dyed hair and tacky, excruciatingly high heels.

The nuns ordered meat dishes (a luxury for them), salad, and dessert. They seemed very happy. It was almost midnight when we left. The municipal bus didn't come, so we hailed a private minivan, which stopped several times to pick up more passengers—so many that the last two half stood, half crouched in the space between the seats.

Back at the convent Maria reminded me that I had promised to teach her the tango. After I showed her a few steps, Ecaterina and Christina wanted to learn too. Then they spoke to each other in Romanian, and Ecaterina fetched a boom box and a cassette. They played Romanian music and said they wanted to teach me their native dances. We were all giggly, and I was dizzy with the spinning that is an essential part of their dances. They spun me and spun me until we were all laughing very loudly, a bit out of control. Rosemarie, who doesn't dance, watched from a bench in the hallway.

It was after one o'clock in the morning, and I had to wake in three hours to catch the train to Bucharest. But I couldn't get them to stop dancing. I said to Maria, the best dancer among them, "You look like you've spent many a night dancing." A shutter came down over her happiness. "Not really, no," she said disapprovingly.

I was glad I hadn't said what was on the tip of my tongue: "The way you dance, you must have Gypsy blood."

If it is not a fantasy, what is the idea of a nun? It is so strong that it can inspire a group of women to keep it alive during a murderous dictatorship, so potent and so large that women as different as spiky Janet and traditional Sister Angelus can recognize themselves by it, and Sister Miriam Therese can feel at home in an alien continent because of it. The image is so evocative that it moves a gay agnostic friend of mine to weep uncontrollably when he sees a friend take the veil. It is amorphous enough that the two Benedictines from Rwanda can still think of themselves as nuns.

In Finding the Treasure, Sandra Schneiders defines a nun's life as "the total commitment to Christ in lifelong consecrated celibacy lived in community and mission." I can't imagine anyone's having a problem with community and mission. But then there is celibacy.

Possibly I come from the cohort least disposed of any in history to accept celibacy. Women like me, who came of age in the sixties, believed that sex had been kept from us, that our rightful pleasures had been denied us. We had been lied to for centuries about the strength and range of our desires and our satisfactions. It wasn't that celibacy was always in the back of my mind when I talked to nuns; but it never ceased to be a puzzle.

People look at me suspiciously when I talk to them about the happiness of the nuns I've spoken to, as if I've regressed to a point of infantilism. It takes real courage for me to say, however tentatively, to the people I know: Since Freud, we all believe that sex makes one if not happy, then whole. But look at these women's lives. How can we understand that even without sex they are happy, and whole, and free? Freer than many of my friends. Although, like most of my friends, I don't quite understand why.

Often in recent months I have felt as if I were floating in a lake fed by two streams: the stream of my admiration for these women and the stream of my incomprehension of the totality of their lives.

How can we speak to each other over the gulf of a life not lead?

This journey into the world of nuns has not been without pain. "Put your tears in it," Celia said to me when I told her that I often found myself crying as I wrote about these women. Tears for the end of something. Tears for the neglected parts of my own life.

To give up the idea of the higher calling. The one right way.

To leave behind the book and the stiff, uncaressable doll.

To get beyond the old, dead images in favor of what Vatican II called "the freedom of what is unsettled."

The grip of a past that will no longer serve. The risk of partial understanding.