It was a cold night. My good friend Karen and I were driving back to campus after a quick trip to Ann Arbor for a special viewing of “The Human Experience,” the first full-length film of Grassroots Films, the Brooklyn-based company which also produced the phenomenal “God in the Streets of New York City” and “Fishers of Men.” It was a school night. We both had class early the next morning. We were both so on fire.
I told Karen about my family and our love of home, but how I had been discerning becoming a missionary after college in Belfast, Ireland, to help foster peace and ecumenism between warring Roman Catholics and Protestants. Then Karen spoke: she was thinking about becoming a nun.*
I was surprised, and then I wasn’t. I pressed her for more information, ecstatic for my friend. I was the first person she told. She was worried about her family, especially her sister Anna, who is one of her best friends. They had often talked about living close once they were married, so they could raise their kids together. But when Karen talked about realizing her vocation, her whole face lit up. Her love of the Lord is apparent to all who know Karen; the joy she was finding and the peace she experienced in accepting God’s will can be unsettling to those unversed in complete surrender.
It almost goes without saying the level of bemusement Catholics experience when some non-Catholics talk about nuns tends to be high and in the laughable region. Apparently all nuns go around in their habits and whack people with rulers they have hidden in their sleeves. They look like Penguins (cue the ‘Blues Brothers’). They are all sexually repressed and mean.
Last week, however, those misconceptions were beautifully dispelled when NPR published a story on the Nashville Dominicans. One read of “For These Young Nuns, Habits Are The New Radical” was cause for a shout of “Te Deum!”; multiple reads was known to cause Catholics to hum “Sanctus” for the rest of the day. This article is possibly one of the first non-scathing articles about the Catholic Church from the mainstream news arena in years, and could even be seen as a deep nod to the success of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s efforts for the New Evangelization via public radio.
First Things’s web editor Joe Carter posted the article on the FT blog too, with the preface, “NPR has an article about young nuns in Nashville that is so sympathetic and affirming that it could be mistaken for the convent’s recruiting brochure.”
Affirming, yes; but sympathetic? Definitely not.
After all, how many recruiting brochures would start out, “For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits.” Nor is it usually tempting to brag that women will only wear “traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.” Oh, and don’t forget fun activities like “kneel[ing] and pray[ing] and fill[ing] the soaring sanctuary with their ghostly songs of praise” at 5:30 a.m.
Wow. NPR is really selling it to so many Hip Young Things.
The next few sentences are more revealing, though: “But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.” Since when is 27 considered startling? There are hundreds of thousands of young people out there—27 seems like a drop in the bucket. And 90 in the past five years? Considering that is only about 18 women a year, is it more startling for the secular world to see that women want this kind of life or that enrollment numbers are increasing?
NPR revealed a new trend to its listeners (which is not actually new, considering the age of the Church): in the wake of the sexual liberation and in the era of women empowerment, young women are actively and happily choosing the religious life. They claim their femininity and enjoy life as a celibate, fulfilling their need for union and communion through an utter devotion and love of God. These women reject that satisfaction in life comes from an overindulgence in vices and thus freely pursues wholesome goodness, holiness, and real love through service and prayer.
Another Dominican order, the sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor (yes, the ones featured twice on Oprah!) recently sent me a letter asking for donations. On the envelope, they had a picture of the order and a picture of the novices with the tag line “We have a different sort of vocational crisis!” Their mother house was built for 23 women—they now have over 100. Their numbers, according to the letter, have gone up 2,500 percent in the past 13 years.
NPR’s article ended admitting there are “nearly 300 other Nashville Dominicans, [who are] called to the unbending rhythms of prayer and silence and worship. With their long habits and disciplined regime, these conservative sisters are, it seems, the new radical.” (…is that a compliment?!) Have no fear, NPR: truth is always revolutionary when it is allowed to fully manifest itself in believers and non-believers alike.
The Nashville Dominicans are not an anomaly, either. There are hundreds of faithful and orthodox orders out there, living in relative obscurity, but very much alive and working for the glory of God. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, for example, are nuns in Arizona who proclaim they are “A religious community which refuses to conform to the requirements of the times becomes unfaithful to its founder, for it will no longer be able to do the work confided to it… A community keeps its youth if it is faithful to the spirit of its founder by striving to do things, not as they were done in the lifetime of the founder, but as the founder would do them if he were alive in our day.”
Karen, by the way, graduated college with honors and is now a Sister of Life postulate in the Bronx. Her family (especially her sister Anna!) and her friends have been very supportive of her decision from the beginning. In her last letter to me, she told me she could already feel her soul growing by leaps and bounds, which reminded me of the Canticle of Mary: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior (Luke 1:46-47).
May we all find and answer such a calling in life!
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*In an effort not to confuse readers, I decided to stay consistent with religious terminology used in the headline of the NPR piece. I wish to indulge a technicality: Karen actually told me she wanted to become a sister, which means she will live an active life of service, not a cloistered one. Nuns take different vows than sisters do. That being said, the Nashville Dominicans in NPR’s article are not nuns; they are sisters. I did not want to harp on NPR for this simple fact checking procedure to know that nuns and sisters are not synonymous in the Catholic Church, but it should be clarified.