Of Habits and Hobbits

“I was expecting, you know…hobbits.” My friend Valerie said this to me with surprise and perhaps a touch of disappointment after she spent time with Catholic Sisters.

Hobbits?” I asked, immediately imagining Bilbo Baggins and his ilk running through the chapel and dining hall of the motherhouse. “Wait, do you mean habits?”

She caught herself and realized that she had inadvertently confused the term for the traditional dress of women religious with the humanoid Middle-Earth residents of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (In Valerie’s defense, she made this slip before her morning cup of coffee!)

This is one of many conversations I have had since moving in with a community of women religious. I’ve fielded questions from friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, taxi drivers, bank tellers, and near-strangers. Some questions are funny and off-the-wall – often related to portrayals of sisters in pop culture like the movie “Sister Act” or the reality TV show “The Sisterhood.” Other questions are poignant and thoughtful; they lead to great explorations of big topics like community, justice, feminism, spirituality, ministry, human sexuality, and everything in between.

One question I have been asked more than once is: “Do you live with real nuns?”

At first, the question was confusing. What did this mean? Do people think I live with “imposter” nuns? What would render a sister fake? I wondered. I’ve come to realize the question they are really posing is if I live with habited sisters. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary modified their dress in response to the Vatican II document Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis).  They moved to a simple blue suit without a veil. Now they wear contemporary dress with a ring and a medal as a sign of their vowed commitment and membership in the community.

There are women religious – from postulants to jubilarians – who are attracted to the habit and I don’t challenge their desire for distinctive dress. Some believe the habit gives a powerful, visible public witness to a sister’s identity as a consecrated woman in the world and opens the door to ministry. Others find that the habit separates women religious and leads people to put them on a pedestal which negatively impacts their ability to do ministry. Sister Susan Rose Francois’ Habits of Love or Sister Sophia Park’s Beyond Habits and No Habits (both on the Global Sisters Report website) explore the habit question. There are valid reasons for both sides of the habit argument and it’s not something I seek to hash out here.

What I do challenge is the idea that what women religious wear marks the authenticity of their identity as consecrated women. A nun or sister is not more or less committed, faithful, or prophetic based on her choice of dress. From the full habit to a simple pin or cross there are many ways that women religious today choose to externally present themselves. What dress will allow women to best serve the people they seek to serve? What will facilitate their ministries? What will communicate the message they seek to communicate about their way of being in the world? These are the questions that guide individual sisters and congregations. Especially during this Year of Consecrated Life, it seems more relevant than ever to stress that religious life is not a fashion statement.

As a keen observer of contemporary women’s religious life and a guest in many convents and motherhouses, I have concluded that what women religious wear is the least interesting thing about them. The sisters of Giving Voice, a national organization of younger women religious, echo this observation in their February 2010 letter in which they state “our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention.”

The preoccupation with the habit question seems to me an application of the ubiquitous sexist rule that what matters for men is the substance of what they do, whereas for women it is how we look while doing it. It’s clearly present in the entertainment industry where singers, actresses, and other performers are subjected to constant and intense scrutiny about their dress, weight, hair and makeup – just glance at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line. Commentators are more likely to focus on female politician’s pantsuit collection, hair accessories, and makeup than they are on her policies and ideas.

Is our hang-up with habits just a religious application of this same principle? If so, the response should be a strong, unequivocal emphasis on the full human dignity of all women whose identity is infinitely more than their physical appearance and wardrobe and whose gifts must be named and celebrated.

What women wear – whether we are nuns or world leaders, nurses or grandmothers, CEOs or gardeners – does not define us. I have been blessed to meet and develop relationships with women religious who have spent decades as teachers, spiritual directors, police chaplains, counselors, pastoral ministers, academics, artists, activists, administrators and more. Their fidelity to God, commitment to mission, and passion for service would make them “real” sisters in anyone’s book – whether they are wear a coif or a cardigan.

So if you come to the motherhouse where I live – or to many other motherhouses around the United States – expecting to see habits (or hobbits, for that matter!) you won’t find them. But if you come to find “real sisters” – that is, consecrated women striving to live lives of service and prayer in community, animated by their charism and vision of God’s kin-dom, committed to God and to one another – you will not be disappointed.

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary (real nuns!) at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Litany of the nuns

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents eighty percent of American nuns, concluded their annual meeting last Friday by announcing they will continue dialogue with church leaders. Rome recently decided to “reform” LCWR for, among various perceived offenses, a “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

However, the sisters signaled that dialogue does not mean infinite elasticity. According to a statement read aloud by LCWR president Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF: “The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”

I haven’t written about the nuns yet. Shame on me for not doing so. But I’m doing it now, and better late than never.

As with all my social justice causes, I support LCWR as much because of people I know as because of principles I hold. I came late to my appreciation of religious sisters: I went to public school for the first eight grades, and the convent at my parish has always been office space during my lifetime. But I wouldn’t be who I am without several very important women who have extra letters after their names.

Sr. Mary Roselle Orso, OP. High school English teacher. Sr. Roselle told me I was a “born writer.” Fifteen years later, my memory of her words keeps me blogging, keeps me coming back for more, and helps me “speak the truth, even when my voice shakes.”

Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, OP. High school principal, high school religion teacher. Sr. Paul’s class on “Jesus of History, Christ of Faith” was the first time I ever experienced what they call “breaking open the Word.” She had us read Mark straight through in one night, start to finish, helping me understand something new: how each Gospel author would craft a coherent portrait of Jesus for a specific community. (Incidentally, Mark’s Jesus was perfectly pitched for a high school sophomore: a mysterious and lonely Messiah, usually misunderstood, always restlessly on the move.) After that, I spent years on a biblical studies kick. Sr. Paul also gave me the green light to interview Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George for our school paper. That interview was a delayed catalyst for my Catholic writing career.

Sr. Teresa Marron, OP. High school campus minister. Sr. Teresa skillfully directed all our retreats, including an overnight retreat I attended as a senior. Going on that retreat was the first of several critical spiritual choices I made (and sometimes fell into) over the next several years that radically opened me up and saved my faith.

Sr. Jamie Phelps, OP. College theology professor: Christology. Another sophomore year, another class about Jesus, yet another Dominican sister, and another milestone. Dr. Phelps introduced me to Christ the Liberator, someone who actually meant that whole thing about the kingdom being on earth as in heaven. We had readings in black liberation theology and mujerista theology and womanist theology, passages from James Cone and Jon Sobrino. I looked through the eyes of people of different genders and colors and saw a different Christ. At the time I was kind of overwhelmed and really didn’t know what to do with any of it, but it gave me a frame of reference I needed later.

Sr. Wendy Cotter, CSJ. College theology professor: Parables of Jesus. After studying all those weird stories Jesus told, stories about the last being first, the lost being found, and the self-righteous being humbled, it slowly dawned on me that I was learning the very worldview of God. And God’s worldview is particularly pungent when explained in Dr. Cotter’s marvelous accent, Canadian by way of Ontario.

This is my litany of nuns, religious women who have intersected with my life and decisively shaped my heart and intellect. In some ways they could be any nuns of any era, ministering and teaching as has been done since at least St. Scholastica and St. Brigid.

But, to steal a phrase from St. Augustine: “ever ancient, ever new.” Sisters today, including those I highlight here, bring to their ministries the life experiences, openness, and spiritual and intellectual sophistication encouraged since Vatican II. LCWR has much to do with cultivating and promoting such riches.

Therefore, remembering my litany, I stand with the sisters. Obliged by my litany, I stand with the sisters.

“Vocations”

As one of my friends from college was packing up her apartment for a move, she stumbled upon an item that recalled our friendship’s beginnings. When people ask me how we met, I usually tell them that we lived in the same dorm my freshmen year, but in truth, most people, Catholic or not, could never really understand what built our friendship.

Sure, it is true that we lived in the same dorm, along with 400 other women, but we grew close because we were the odd young women who seemed to have a “special” interest in faith and spirituality. We enjoyed not only going to Mass, but actually wanted to help plan it and volunteer for events put on by our college’s campus ministry. What really brought us together, though, was that we were designated as “vocation discerners.” Many in the Catholic world constantly urged us to “seriously discern religious life.” From high school on for both us, one in the urban Midwest and the other in rural California, had little old church ladies, priests and nuns envisioning the day we would take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience long before we knew the difference between an apostolic sister and a contemplative nun. My friend was even given the worst CD-Rom ever created: “God’s Design.” This was the found item that spurred my friend’s 2,000 mile call and left us belly laughing as we relived its horrid format of a Santa Claus looking God leading the vocations discerner through an amusement park of prayers, religious life, and tips for the soon to be priest or religious. The most memorable advice included something to the effect of “After selling all of your belongings, be sure to have a farewell party with all of your family and friends because you will never see them again!”

Though well intentioned, these folks (the creators of the CD-Rom included) pushing us into religious life never gave us an alternative to being faithful and spiritual women other than becoming vowed religious. Certainly, I am not chastising anyone of those people who felt the need to tell me that I “would look great in a habit” or “make a better school teacher than the mean sister” they had in grade school, but I never once had someone say to me, “Becky, you would make a great lay ecclesial leader. We need strong and faithful women like you!” No one ever even told me that the laity have a mission of their own within the Catholic Church. It is a mission that I now realize, after years of “vocations discernment,” that I am truly called to live. I actually stumbled upon Vatican II’s beautifully written role of the laity while writing a paper in college: “The laity…are given this special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that it can become the salt of the earth…All lay people…are at once the witness and the living instruments of the mission of the church itself… [and] have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater extension of the divine plan of salvation to all people of every time and every place (Lumen Gentium, 30).”

I am certain that there are faithful women called to vowed religious life within a community, and we must support those who are discerning God’s call, especially those who are young and find it increasingly difficult as religious communities continue to age. I have been guided, mentored and loved by many of these fantastic sisters, but as a Church, we must not continue to perpetuate the notion that the only way for a woman to be a truly faithful Catholic is to become a vowed religious. We must encourage and constantly remind all people that each of us has a vocation vital to the mission and life of the Church, and when asked to “pray for vocations” also pray for passionate, devoted and faithful laity as well.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.