Like many things, the religious life is sometimes regarded with fear and suspicion because it is not known or understood. (Throughout this article, unless otherwise specified, I will use the word “religious” to refer to religious orders.)
At their most bizarrely hideous, the caricatures look like the murderous albino monk of The Da Vinci Code’s opening scene. However, even in generally more open-minded, tolerant circles—even among Catholics—questions and doubts may persist: Why do men and women disappear into these orders, and what are their lives like after they do so?
Regarding women’s religious communities, the negative conception I’ve most often encountered is that they are cold, without feelings, or that their feelings have been suppressed or drained out by the harshness of their life. The idea seems to be that their life is very demanding and rigid, and therefore calls for someone ruthless with herself and others.
Now some may think this simply because they’ve had a poor sampling. Even merely seeing images of Mother Teresa’s radiant smile can demonstrate that the above is not the essential nature of a religious sister. Still, ideas that gain a significant hold want careful consideration. Two questions, then, are in order: what exactly is the popular negative image, and what relevance—if any—does it have to reality?
The Ugly Image
Ironically, one of the most vivid images of horror-story religious life comes from a pious movie for which many Catholics, myself included, have high regard: The Song of Bernadette. This Golden Age classic is certainly reverential toward its protagonist, the Lady of her visions, and the Church generally. On the other hand, the Sisters whom the saint eventually joined don’t come off as well.
For all the persecutions Bernadette endures, the film’s most insufferable presence is Sister Marie-Therese, her schoolteacher and later novice mistress, whose verbal and emotional abuse of the heroine runs almost throughout the story. Sister never misses an opportunity to put Bernadette down, from humiliating her for her poor performance in class to condemning her for her accounts of supernatural experiences.
When the visionary enters the convent, the situation worsens. Sister seems able to rebuke anything and everything, with no trace of human sympathy. If Bernadette thinks of her family, Sister terms this “worldly concerns” and “reverie,” a distraction from God. If Bernadette stops to catch her breath while scrubbing the floor, Sister accuses her of not doing her work wholeheartedly. If Bernadette walks with a limp, Sister declares it a trick to attract attention.
Coming from a Hollywood film, this kind of antagonistic drama may be understandable. Still, Sister Marie-Therese’s viciousness is a problem thematically, because no other nun is ever developed as a character. What little is shown of the other nuns mostly comes off as rather cold and mechanical. They aren’t unkind to Bernadette, but we hardly ever see them taking any notice of her or of anyone.
This is the ugly image of the convent: a world in which a woman must not only renounce contact with her loved ones, but cannot even think about them or anything outside her new spiritual regimen; a world where zeal and dedication mean working like a slave; a world where the first response to one’s suffering is not concern but criticism. In order to give oneself wholly to God, this idea suggests, one must cease to be human.
To be fair, the film probably emphasizes Bernadette’s sufferings to glorify her heroism rather than to denigrate religious life; and she does briefly mention that “the Sisters are very sweet.” Still, we never really see that sweetness, nor any sign that she had an attraction to their life. To all appearances, she enters only to escape her celebrity status, and is tormented for the remainder of her life. That such a faith-infused film could have included this theme (did the filmmakers even notice it?) indicates how subtly and deeply these notions can infiltrate even devout minds.
As my family and I watched, my nine-year-old sister whispered, “This is giving me a bad impression of nuns!” The five-year-old, too, had a comment, but a remarkably penetrating one. “That nun was like the opposite of a nun!” he exclaimed. Somehow, even at his age, he had an idea of what a nun ought to be, and an understanding that, in many ways, The Song of Bernadette’s antagonistic Sister was the opposite of that ideal.
What, then, does that ideal look like, if and when it happens?
“As Merry as Any Ladies”
For answers, let’s listen to one who faithfully lived for decades in a life of prayer and penance: Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
In her book, A Right to be Merry (Franciscan Herald Press), Mother describes many aspects and stages of her life as a Poor Clare. Their penances and sacrifices are challenging, as is their close common life, but for those who have the vocation, it is nonetheless “a full, joyous, beautiful life” (31).
In their new lives, Mother Francis explains, they find more than compensation for the joys they have left behind, both in small ways—as in the unexpected opportunities she found to exercise talents that she had thought she was giving up forever (dancing, singing, working with books)—as well as in the great, overarching fulfillment that comes from discovering God’s goodness and love more and more.
Since this image is developed across the book, summary quotations are hard to find, but the following are among the most representative:
“In one way or another, all of us find ourselves fulfilled and not thwarted in the enclosure.” (37)
“One cannot experience the fullness of happiness in the virginal state, they maintain. It needs only one long look at the faces of nuns, one long listen to their laughter, to blow this proposition sky-high—or, better, earth-low” (79).
“We do our penance and chant our Office and lose ourselves in the obscurity of a little cloister, and we are as merry as any ladies could ever be” (168).
At the root of the nun’s joy is her mystical marriage with Christ. The woman with a religious vocation, Mother says, is “more loved than Juliet ever was” (80). Love of God makes them desire eagerly to spend their lives in special union with Him, and, as the saying goes, He is not outdone in generosity. Thus, she adds, “Virginity is not only a giving, but a receiving. If properly understood, it is a glorious enrichment” (81).
Since this life is founded on love of God, it cannot be lived without love of others. Mother emphasizes, particularly in the twelfth chapter “In All Things, One,” that a deep, strong mutual love is essential within the community, to aid them in “accepting each other one’s foibles of character and temperament with patience and compassion” (155). When they cultivate this love, with the help of grace, a warm, familial bond develops. Several resulting tender scenes are described in the book, such as a reunion between two superiors and the other nuns: “We embraced her and the Novice Mistress until their bones could take no more. We laughed and we cried and then we laughed some more” (16).
This love extends to all people everywhere, of whom each nun is a spiritual mother. “When strangers come to whisper their tattered little tragedies to the extern Sisters or to the abbess,” Mother says, “they will find the compassionate ear of those who live by the principles of Christ at Jacob’s well” (160). In particular, those who have lived in sin and are rejected by everyone else, “whom the world would call derelicts,” can count on the understanding and prayers of Christ’s virgins: “we love them and compassionate them as He does” (164-65).
This, then, is what religious life ought to be: a life filled with God’s love, to which every rule and sacrifice is only a means, and of which love for others is the rich and natural fruit. Not only should it be, but it can and has been attained.
Love as Cleansing Fire
Does this mean that the bleaker assessment of religious life is entirely unsubstantiated? Unfortunately, I think not. While distortion and exaggeration have undoubtedly made the ugly image worse, the evils resulting from lack of love and joy do seem to have crept into some communities.
I first discovered a real-life instance when I read The Ear of the Heart, the story of Mother Dolores Hart. In 1962, when she left her acting career to enter a Benedictine monastery, the young Dolores found much that was beautiful and good. However, she also found that, in many ways, the culture was soul-stifling. The nuns had hardly any means of communicating with each other, and newer ones especially were almost isolated. Their past lives and personalities were almost irrelevant. Adherence to rules had become less an aid to growing in divine love than a sort of mechanical system, and nothing was expected but silent following of directions.
The young actress, accustomed to self-expression, struggled to deal with this atmosphere and found herself clashing with it. Some older nuns, used to their ways, judged her as rebellious and rebuked her, sometimes in scenes as horrendous as those in The Song of Bernadette.
Appalled, I wondered what could cause these women to behave so contrary to their calling. I was less astonished, however, when I remembered that the monastery’s founding members came from France, the seedbed of Jansenism. The Church condemned the original doctrines of Cornelius Jansen in 1653, but Jansenist-inflected spirituality continued to freeze spiritual blood in many quarters.
This way of thinking tends to emphasize human sinfulness to the detriment of God’s mercy. What results is a kind of spiritual slavery, a stern, demanding program. God, in this mindset, seems more interested in making everyone keep the rules than in saving them or drawing them close to Him. He’s not interested in anyone having a relationship with Him, but only cares about their performing actions in a certain way. Various forms of this have lingered to poison the Church.
By extension, just as a life centered on divine love naturally becomes filled with love for people, a life centered on a God perceived as cold and hard easily leads to coldness and hardness toward others. Whether from considering ourselves worthless creatures, or from a legalism that treats every failing without mercy, or both, a Jansenistic outlook dries up charity among religious sisters. This is probably the likeliest reason for such an attitude in a religious community, because of its subtlety: it seems like fervor and discipline.
This disease, however, is curable. Mother Dolores’ own story proves as much. Despite her painful first years, she persevered, and found that other nuns were silently longing to connect with each other. She spoke with her superiors, and over time, she and some others implemented new practices. They created ways for the community, especially newcomers, to open up and form relationships. They altered the culture so that each woman’s unique identity, her gifts and experiences, would not be repressed or forgotten, but instead integrated into her religious life. Gradually, the monastery’s world became much more human.
From the beginning, Mother Dolores understood that the harshness and obstructions of the older atmosphere were not essential, much less inherent, to the religious vocation, but were a corruption to be amended. If a community is suffering from such neo-Jansenism, it needs to be revitalized with love’s cleansing fire before it can thrive.
“A Sign of a Good Vocation”
Among religious communities today, many are healthy and sound, some not as much, and none—being composed of sinners—are perfect. What should a woman hope to find if she enters one?
While no two persons’ experiences are identical, we may have a sketch of “what to hope for” from the real Bernadette, who described her post-entry experience in a letter.
Like most, she experienced homesickness: “Léontine and I cried all day long Sunday.” Far from scolding their new girls, however, “the good Sisters encouraged us by saying that it was a sign of a good vocation,” likely meaning that, if young women so devoted to their families had still freely chosen this life, it indicated that their calling was genuine.
For Bernadette, this proved true: “Rest assured that the sacrifice would be even more bitter if we had to leave our dear novitiate now. One senses that this is truly God’s house, so you cannot help loving it in spite of yourself! I feel his presence everywhere, especially in our dear mistress’ instructions; her every word goes straight to my heart.”
Let all be assured: God calls no one to live in misery or become a heartless creature. His bride must become like Him, a process that involves some suffering, but is primarily a matter of love and essentially bound up with joy.