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.

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Reality vs “Reality” of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

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The cast of “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.” (image: http://www.mylifetime.com)

Though I rarely watch TV, as a millennial in a motherhouse, I couldn’t resist tuning in to the “docu-series” about young women discerning religious life.  The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns aired on the Lifetime Channel in November and December and followed five twentysomethings (Christie, Eseni, Claire, Francesca, and Stacey) to convents in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky.  The title was my first clue this show would be inaccurate since there is a  difference between the terms “nun” and “sister.”

An ominous voice over announces at the beginning of each of the six episodes: “At the end they’ll face a choice…follow their calling and become nuns or go home.” The (patently false) implication is that if someone decides not to enter religious community, she has “failed” at discernment.  This creates the tension needed to keep viewers tuning in; however, it misrepresents the discernment process.  Discernment is listening to that still small interior voice and, as Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte wrote in response to the show, is “individual, personal and private.” By its very nature discernment is internal and mysterious – between one’s soul and God.  Having such an intimate process filmed feels weirdly voyeuristic and even exploitative.  Discernment is not a competition and certainly not something that can fit neatly into a six week series.

 “The Sisterhood” delivers plenty of meltdowns, crying fits, and (to use the term employed by several of the girls) moments of “bugging out.”  One of the girls hyperventilated.  Another one stalked off announcing that she wanted to “punch somebody in they (sic) face.”  Conflicts are magnified with camera angles, background music, and intentionally scheduled commercial breaks.  To the surprise of the girls and the chagrin of the sisters, Eseni’s boyfriend is brought back by the producers in one episode to stir the drama pot even more.  During a commercial break, my viewing buddy – a Franciscan Sister of over fifty years – said, “Don’t you think this kind of melodramatic?”

Sister Lisa nailed it: “The Sisterhood” – like all reality TV – is about drama.  In contrast, religious life is about inclusion, generosity, service, welcome, and love.  Don’t get me wrong – those values aren’t lived out perfectly. Convent life is not free from tension or disagreement, but it is a far cry from the constant histrionics we see displayed on the show.

“The Sisterhood” overall has a feeling of being scripted and contrived.  The conversations about chastity take place as the girls and one professed sister are sitting around a pool in bathing suits, and another one happens out in a bar when two of the girls have rolled up the skirts of their “discernment habits.”   An exchange between an older professed sister and one of the girls about twerking feels obviously staged.  The handing over of the cell phones to the mother superior each time they arrive at a new convent is a fake stunt to create tension.  The argument that the girls need to “unplug” to be free from distractions and focus on God rings false when they are being followed around by a phalanx of cameras 24/7.

Some have expressed disappointment that the communities portrayed are conservative and habited.  The show offers a portrayal of Catholicism which is not representative of that practiced by most lay and religious US Catholics today.  For example, at the archives of the motherhouse in Chicago, a hair shirt and first class relic from the archives are presented in a sensationalized way.  Focusing on these more obscure elements of Catholic religious practice is pandering to a secular audience with things that seem exotic and unusual.  Then there is the overblown romantic language about marrying Jesus which makes the show seem like the bizarre religious analog of “The Bachelor.”  Those unfamiliar with Catholicism would walk away from the show with a definitely pre-Vatican II understanding of our rich and varied faith tradition – not entirely false, but far from the whole truth of contemporary Catholic religious identity in the US.

Beyond this, my larger concern is the portrayal of the girls’ service.  From serving in a Chicago soup kitchen to cleaning up the yard of a home bound woman in rural Kentucky to praying bedside with a woman in a hospice, the girls participate in service challenges at each convent.    The girls appear to be thrown into the service experiences without training before or processing afterwards.

Apostolic acts of service are at the heart of religious life. They are opportunities to meet God in human beings who are poor and vulnerable, and therein to find our own poverty and vulnerability.  These experiences challenge us, stretch us, grow us, and convert us.  Great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those being served and not objectify them – something that is virtually impossible when accompanied by a camera crew. When the girls were on the Chicago streets handing out bag lunches to people who are homeless, the goal was not to have genuine and respectful interactions of mutuality but rather to “win” the challenge of handing out their bags the fastest.

I found myself wondering:  How must the woman with a disability who had her trailer cleaned by the girls feel when they describe how bad her house smelled?  Did the family members of the woman in hospice with whom the girls prayed the rosary give their consent for their mother, grandmother, aunt, to be filmed in her hospital bed in final days?  Why are the adults with intellectual disabilities described as “kids” by one of the professed sisters?  The treatment of the people served in the show is insensitive at best and ethically seriously questionable at worst.

Furthermore, the girls gave details about their pasts that seem more appropriate for sharing in confidence with a spiritual director than with an entire viewing audience. Though I’m a member of the over-sharing Facebook generation – marked by constant self-disclosure through a variety of media – but on-camera disclosures about experiences of sexual assault or struggles with a serious eating disorder cross the line and make me wonder if the girls felt exploited.  In the producers’ defense, this level of deep sharing on camera is the norm for reality TV, so it fits well within the genre.

More than once over the six episodes professed sisters would sternly say to a camera operator, “Don’t film this!” before having a conversation with one of the girls.  I found myself cheering from my armchair that the sisters had the sensitivity to hold the girls’ deep sharing with protection in at least some cases.  Many times the girls speak about – and are shown on camera – having panic or anxiety attacks. It’s another case of inappropriate painful-to-watch over-sharing. It also makes me question how they would fare in the psychological testing required before entering religious community.

Overall, “The Sisterhood” disappoints – not a surprise since I have fairly low standards of network TV.  However, the value of the program is that it has provided much material for conversations among women religious and discerners.  As religious congregations seek to be relevant to and reach out to my generation, we can thank “The Sisterhood” for giving them something against which they can push back.  Lively conversations on social media as well as in mainstream and religious media have been spurred on. While far from presenting the reality of religious life and the discernment experience, we can be grateful for the conversations sparked about vows, service, community, faith, vocation, and discernment.

In the words of my friend Eilis, a candidate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary: “Overall, it’s not a  realistic portrayal of the discernment process…I think the best part is following the live tweets by other sisters/communities/A Nun’s Life Ministry. People are sharing their own stories and reactions. So, in that way, the show is ‘succeeding’ because it’s bringing religious together and showing others that we exist. If some discerner googles “The Sisterhood,” she might come across these tweets and/or blogs, realize the show isn’t completely realistic, and also realize that there are still people entering religious life.”

For me as a “motherhouse millennial,” “The Sisterhood” and its commentators leave me intrigued by the unorthodox approaches religious communities are taking to engage with young adults through pop culture and social media – and also very grateful that the convent where I live is camera-free!

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(image: Annmarie Sanders, IHM – http://www.lcwr.org)

 

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 at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

A young nun’s response to “For These Young Nuns, Habits Are The New Radical”

I am fascinated by how the season of Advent/Christmas tends to be a time when the secular media tells stories about how people live their faith. Sometimes it makes me sigh out, “Hey! We don’t just do this faith thing on holidays!  How about some Truth during ordinary times?”

Nonetheless, I appreciate the attention, especially when the stories focus on how our generation keeps the good faith.  Yesterday I was able to catch a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” called “For These Young Nuns, Habits Are The Radical.” The story gives nine minutes of good attention to a lively congregation, the Nashville Dominicans, who have many new, young members.  Please listen to the story, and tell me what you think.  It’s a conversation worth having for all of us who desire to discern how we are each called to live the gospel radically in our own ways.

I really loved the story.  Everything that was described and stated resonated with my own reasons for becoming a young nun.

My only disappointment is that the story failed to mention that communities like mine are still receiving new young members.  Although we don’t come in as crowds, we count.

While I was discerning the sisterhood in college, some of my friends recommended the Nashville Dominicans to me.   I remember requesting materials and considering them. I also remember being attracted to some things about their life, like how many new young members they have.  I don’t remember why for sure, but I decided to eliminate them from my list of possible communities.  Afterwards, I joined my community.

Today I have no doubts that God called me directly to my community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  I am very confident that I am right where I need to be and living the way that God needs me to.  I am grateful and honored to be a member of a holy community of praying, steadfast women of social justice and service.  I am inspired by the wisdom of my elder sisters and the actions of my peers.  I believe that the light that comes out of the adoration chapel in our motherhouse energizes the globe with peace and healing.  We don’t look too traditional, but our motto, “modern lives, sacred traditions”, rings true.

I believe I belong with the FSPA because I fit in, and they support all that I am about. Without having met the Nashville Dominicans I can’t really be sure, but I suspect that they are more concerned with being faithful to the magisterium and upholding church doctrine than I am.  I can’t say that I am not concerned with those things; I believe that it is the call of some parts of the church to do that work.

I have never felt called to dissent against the church.  I do feel called to challenge, however.

As I challenge, I am inspired by the courage and the approach of some of my favorite church reformers: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA.  With great reverence and deep connection to God, all four of these holy disciples stood before church authority and asked for changes.  They pointed to the gospel of inclusivity and stirred the hearts of the powerful.  They stood for and with the powerless.  They prayed, and the changes began.

The reformers of the past have taught me that it is important to ask questions.  We are a church defined by conscience, so we must always offer safe spaces to authentically discern the ways that the Spirit uniquely tugs at our hearts.  As we keep our faith let’s remember that the reign of God in its fullness is unlike anything we have ever seen or experienced before, it’s much better.  I am pretty sure that God’s dreams for us will only come true if we remain open.

I love the diversity within our church.  I am grateful for the witness of the Nashville Dominicans and communities like theirs.  Nonetheless, I don’t think my own gospel witness is any less valid.  The division in our church is very painful and slows us from showing our love.  I scramble for more ways to commune with all types of Catholics, and I want to build bridges.  I believe we need to be diverse because it enriches us, and I pray that we can love and listen to each other through our differences.

I celebrate Christian diversity as Christmas comes closer.  As I sing songs of hope, I am moved to make a proclamation:

Dear journalists who love stories about young nuns,  I hope you’ll notice me too.  I am 29 and I am also a young nun.  I don’t wear a habit and I don’t go to mass at 5:30 in the morning, but I go as often as I can.  I love the pope and I love my gay brothers and sisters.  I pray a lot and I serve the poor. I witness the gospel through my ministries of teaching and writing.  I love Jesus and I proclaim the Truth.  There’s other sisters like me too, and we are also radical. Thank you.  God bless you, Sister Julia

Originally from Northeast Iowa, Sister Julia is a  Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Her love for God and God’s good world is manifested in her attempts to be an educator, a youth empower-er, an earth lover, and a peacemaker.  She ministers at an inner-city Catholic high school in Chicago.
Sister Julia blogs at http://messyjesusbusiness.wordpress.com/ and https://youngadultcatholics-blog.com/.