old school nuns

One of the most clicked on posts on this blog is nun`s veils, simply a habit?  Thanks to the magic of Google, folks come to the blog while searching articles on traditional nuns. The image of cloistered nuns in full regalia is part of our Catholic psyche – at least for baby boomers and older. And the fascination continues.

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong`s  Through the Narrow Gate – A Memoir of Life in and Out of the Convent. Armstrong is a respected religious historian and prolific author of best-sellers such as A History of God (1993), The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000) and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2004). She is also the moving force behind the Charter for Compassion. (More on that in an upcoming post!)

Armstrong entered a strict, religious order at the age of seventeen. Through the Narrow Gate describes her convent experiences and the struggles of re-entering the world. She entered as Vatican II was beginning, and left in the heady days of the late 1960`s. Her class was one of the last to be formed according to a firm rule of obedience and self-emptying humility.

Armstrong`s writing is very personal and intimate. She draws you into her mind and heart as she tried to live a life of complete self-denial and perfect obedience– even when obedience seemed absurd. Her spiritual life is opened up and laid bare on the pages for us to see. She clung to her vision and aspirations of being a perfect nun, while slowly realizing that this version of religious life was neither life-giving nor reflective of basic Christian charity.  A turning point came when a fellow student from Oxford made an unannounced visit to the convent to see Sr. Martha (Karen). The Superiors were furious and made a big fuss behind the closed doors. The young woman later told Karen that she was considering becoming a Christian, and thought the convent was a good place to find someone to talk to. She had never been greeted more uncharitably!

Armstrong writes lovingly of some compassionate Sisters, women able to find the balance between giving it all to God and having some left over for others. But this is no romanticized `Nun`s Story`. She is brutally honest about the cruelty of some of her Superiors. And, sadly, there`s a lecherous priest in the story as well.

Despite her experience, she still believes that the ideal of the religious life is a beautiful one. And she does not regret her seven years of convent life.

I`m a better nun now than I ever was in the Cloister. You can be so fearful of loving other people more than God that you can be downright uncharitable. Surely it`s better to love others, however messy and imperfect the involvement, than to allow one`s capacity for love to harden. 

Through the Narrow Gate is one woman`s carefully pondered and reflective experience of religious life prior to Vatican II. Her religious order followed others into the spirit of renewal promoted by the Council.   Today, there is a movement in our Church to go back to the `good old days` of cloistered, fully habited, and perfectly obedient and docile women. After reading this book, all I can say is God help us!

3 thoughts on “old school nuns

  1. A few years ago I had the opportunity to facilitate a study on a large group of male religious who were over the age of seventy. There are many similarities with the religious women in the book Isabella describes. Here are some of my observations.

    Insights about Pre-Vatican II Male Religious and Their Place in History:

    Every institution on earth has changed since this group of men entered religious life in adolescence over fifty years ago. It was a half century of new beginnings in science, politics, and religion. It was a time when everything was evaluated to see how it was meant to function. Science and religion intersected; quantum physics discovered the presence of God. Religion validated science as a way in which God was being revealed.
    Four hundred years ago the Council of Trent cast religious life in stone. When the men for this project entered religious life much of the creative, missionary energy of the founders had settled down into a kind of life that was in danger of becoming rigid, dependent, isolated, and taken-up with outdated religious customs. The co-researchers all dressed the same; prayer was scheduled, during liturgy everyone bowed at the correct time in the correct way. The breaking of Grand Silence for some was equal in weight to a significant sin; religious traditions were in danger of becoming morality. However, all of these customs and traditions had their power in the spirituality of the times.
    Over time religious life had drifted into a kind of personal devotion to personal salvation. The male religious in this project entered religious life at a time when the essence of religious perfection meant a separation from the world.
    The second Vatican Council called religious life to renew itself. Religious orders of men were instructed to turn to the Gospels, return to the original intent of their founders, and to look at the signs of the times to determine their mission.
    Those choosing to enter religious life in the 40’s and 50’s were filled with awe, mystery, and adventure. How religious men lived, worked, and prayed after school hours was a mystery, but one that was portrayed as filled with a sense of holy purpose. These male religious were not only teachers, administrators, and priests but also missionaries with opportunities for education and self-development beyond the hum-drum lives of their fathers and other men they knew who spent their entire lives working in factories or on farms.

  2. What a privileged and valuable research, Ray. This phrase says so much…`Over time religious life had drifted into a kind of personal devotion to personal salvation. The male religious in this project entered religious life at a time when the essence of religious perfection meant a separation from the world.` What a difference it makes when the goal is to live the gospel in the world rather than running away from it.

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