Old-fashioned nuns say the past is key to the future | National Catholic Reporter

Old-fashioned nuns say the past is key to the future | National Catholic Reporter.

Kudos to the National Catholic Reporter for publishing this article by David Gibson of the Religion News Service. Gibson gives a peek into one of the more traditional religious orders and the young women who are entering them. Sadly, you can’t avoid noticing the judgmental attitude among some of the women interviewed; an ‘us-them’ attitude.

Ideological differences among Catholics are usually divided into the old left-right, progressive-conservative dichotomy. The differences are apparent whenever a discussion takes place on modern day religious life. Interestingly, it seems to focus more on women’s religious orders rather than their male counter-parts.

Young women who embrace the habit and cloistered life are the standard bearers for Catholic conservatives. The women of more active, apostolic orders such as those of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) are the inspirational heroes of the progressives. The former focus on faithfulness to prayer, doctrine and traditions of the past. The latter focuses on gospel action through works of social justice.

Catholicism has always offered many paths towards holiness. The diversity of spiritualities and charisms found in our religious orders is one of our greatest gifts. It reflects our human reality. One person might find deep peace in a life structured around hours of prayer in a chapel. Another might find the same peace in the midst of the inner city. If a woman or man is called to religious life, there is a smorgasbord of life-styles to choose from.

Different is good. Why can’t we see difference side by side….different but equal. Why do we always have to place one above the other? Why do we always have to rationalize our own choice by demeaning and criticizing the choice of another?

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!