Reclaiming Nuns for God

St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen
St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen

Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy  to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).

When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?

Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?

I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.

In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as  odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.

Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.

There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?


27 thoughts on “Reclaiming Nuns for God”

  1. Why would you ‘not mind betting’ that people who are hostile and derisive towards someone showing interest in religious life are the same people who ‘value’ religious vocations?

    What you find on the internet is– the internet. Everybody’s talking. Most of the actual feedback I see on “nun sites” is positively slavish; as far as I can tell, there is no lack of supportive voices.

    I’m not quite sure what the point of this post is, frankly, beyond the recurring theme that people are obnoxious and you don’t get enough respect. Both of which are probably true.

  2. Thank you, Rebecca. Is it possible you are not reading the post quite as carefully as I think (hope) I wrote it? No reason why you should, of course, but I’ll try to answer your specific points.

    Catholics usually say they value religious life, but are not universally supportive if the person interested in a religious vocation is their own daughter/parishioner. That is the situation that most of our discerners have encountered unless they are telling porkies. Hence my view that there is often a dichotomy between what we say and what we do.

    As regards the internet, it’s possible we have different views on what is acceptable/helpful. If you make the same search I did, see how you feel about some of the imagery. Have a look at some of the ugly stuff about women religious in the U.S.A. (too much to be listed) or even try some of the comments on my own Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ post and ask yourself what is going on and how it affects people’s thinking. Is it or is it not relevant? I am not talking about ‘nun sites’ (which I do not discuss or refer to in the post) but public perceptions and attitudes and how they relate to our understanding of the Church and affect society.

    I don’t think people are obnoxious, so please don’t put words in my mouth! Respect is something we should all show one another, both in what we say/do and the way in which we say/do it, wouldn’t you agree? My final paragraph is key to understanding the whole piece. That was the point of the post.

  3. I guess one of my main concerns (not being ‘in the know’ as to the way of some decisions) is since so many communities inthe UK are closing, what is the need for a few (like yourselves) to leave an established community to start your own? Especially as there are other very small communities of two or three nuns who would benefit from added members. I do understand that there are different approaches to the spirituality of an Order, but it seems to be like ‘deserting the sinking ship’ when a few nuns take off on their own to form yet another new community while there are still some about to close. I don’t mean this to sound offensive, but it is something that has me perplexed and seems a little self-indulgent – sorry.

  4. Thank you, Annie. You aren’t being in the least offensive, but it is difficult to answer your questions without involving other people. However, I think you should note that the Holy See approved the foundation of our community in record time, just six months. Could it be that the Holy See knew, understood and approved the reasons for the establishment of the monastery here and hoped we would grow? We are at the conservative/traditional end of the Benedictine spectrum (which doesn’t mean we are fuddy duddies, I hope) and I believe it is fidelity to the teaching and tradition of the Church which ensures growth. Unlike most other communities, we rely on our work and the occasional donation to fund everything, which isn’t exactly self-indulgent. As to our joining with other small communities, perhaps one could ask why people are discerning a vocation with us and not with them? Could it be that there is a possibility of growth here and less so with them? Finally, would we, with our embrace of the internet as an expression of Benedictine hospitality, fit in with those other communities?

  5. Well, perhaps this is better taken offline, but if I am thinking these things, then perhaps others are too? Lately I have been worrying about celebrity status for religious (in light of the recent Fr Corapi problems which we need not discuss here) and the danger of online activities for religious because of this potential for celebrity status. And as someone who is a discerner to religious life, it also concerns me a little that one of your youtube videos was posted in 2008 and yet here we are 3 years later with no new vocations to your community, and I wonder if all your travelling to conferences (leaving behind only one sister) is productive to the growth of your community. I know another woman who is a US celebrity who was given permission to start a new community and I have similar concerns for her. Permission to start a community isn’t always an indication that it will grow and prosper. I know this sounds like a lot of criticism for a situation I only see from the outside, but as a discerner, I do carefully consider all aspects of any community, from their faithfulness to the Magesterium to their apparent focus in daily life. And I do have concerns about overuse of the Internet and possible ‘self-promotion’ of religious. I am a former computer teacher so I am not opposed to technology per se. I do apologise if I cause offence, and appreciate if you need to delete my comment. But I think these things, and perhaps so do others, not out of hostility but out of concern. pax xti

    • I read your post with interest Annie and think that you make a lot of interesting points? You say that you are a former computer teacher? May I ask what your current occupation is? I just wondered.

      • Deborah – I am currently a lay hermit in the Australian bush and discerning a return to religious life as a Benedictine in the UK (I used to be a Carmelite there). My employment is casual and/or part-time in whatever I can get (just to raise money for the fare to the UK). Feel free to email me if you want (I don’t want to highjack this forum) annierosha at gmail dot com.

  6. My own limited experience of the internet is that it often has useful facts, but opinions are most of the time to be treated with enough salt to keep the roads ice free. As an Anglican I have always supported the concept of the religious life – both CoE and RC – wholeheartedly. I believe that many people may have an idealised concept of nuns that largely denies the truth so ably set out by D.Gertrude Brown – “Imust get on with whoever is in the next cell because neither of us moves until we die” or words to that effect. Friends have a problem with one community I know (not yours) where the standards of loving care for one another seem often to be conspicuous by their absence. Are their others like this one that can give the many a bad press? Perhaps also the very (to many) mysteriousness of the religious life makes it a convenient target for those who seem happiest when criticizing.

      • As a retired priest, I have all the time in the world! I sit in my eyrie and watch and listen (a rarity according to Nan).I remember a conversation with the Conventual Prior (I hope I’ve got that right) of Nashdom about the possibility of a DVD in which a number of communities could contribute to a wider understanding of the religious life. I don’t think it got anywhere – so perhaps it was not a good one.

        • Apologies for butting in but I think that idea for a DVD was completely brilliant!

          I think about how much I enjoyed ‘No Greater Love’ and ‘Into Great Silence’ – it would be so brilliant to see an even wider of experience from more religious orders. I’d buy it! (I see the Tyburn nuns have a DVD in the works – I’m up for it!)

          And for people who don’t have much experience with the reality of the religious life and only know the caricatures served up by popular culture, these kind of DVDs can certainly open their eyes.

        • Dick, actually the DVD has no been made, it took until 2005/6 to be made, but it is called ‘One in CHrist’,and is avalable from the CHC Sisters at Rempstone, or from CR.

  7. Annie, the reason we haven’t accepted any vocations is because we have NO ROOM! That is why we are trying hard to get some bigger and permanent premises. It is a struggle, and we are having to do a number of things, such as trying to raise the profile of the community, which don’t come naturally to us. When I myself am tired or reluctant to do something, I remember our discerners and that encourages me to go on. Some of the knocks we have taken have been quite ‘interesting’!

    Some people may not see the point of what we are trying to do with the internet, but we believe that what we are doing is of service to the Church and the Monastic Order or we wouldn’t be doing it. I suppose I just have to ask you to take that on trust.

    Fair point about the Holy See, but possibly they did know what they were doing and why, which was the point I was trying to make.

    I quite agree about the dangers of celebrity status for priests and religious.

    As to absence from community, I myself have spent a total of three and a half days at conferences this year (a total of five and a half days away, including travelling) and have not attended any other meetings for religious. I shall be attending one further conference for Benedictines in the States this year. By most Benedictine standards, that is modest. In each case, the request came from outside and attendance was discussed in community and with our bishop before acceptance. Prayer always preceded the discussion. That doesn’t guarantee that attendance was/is right, but it does guarantee that the decision was made in the right way. If you like to ask round some of the other Benedictine houses, you may be surprised how often and how long some are away!

    I understand your concerns, so I hope you won’t think I am trivialising them if I point out that I have been a nun for thirty years and love my vocation. It is the most profound joy and blessing of my life. In order to be true to it, I may have had to sacrifice more than you are ever likely to know, but I count even that as blessing. I know fidelity cannot be presumed; every day we must pray anew for the grace of conversion.

  8. digitalnun – I appreciate your candid (and undefensive) responses to my questions and posts. It is impossible to see the whole picture from the outside, but one must be on guard against ‘appearances’ as well, so I tend to be a little more questioning than many, I suppose. Where others might rush in, I sometimes fear to tread. I don’t think I am cynical, merely cautious. I have been discerning for some time and have been involved with both older and newer (and sometimes also questionable) communities, so I am a little waryabout accepting anything at face value. your explanations (although you owe me none) have been quite reasonable and practical, so I apologise once again if I have been offensive in any way at all. As Dick pointed out as well, I have known from the inside, communities that ‘talk the talk’ but don’t ‘walk the walk’ as far as charity etc goes. I also agree that the whole ‘mysteriousness’ of religious life can get in the way too. Nuns are either idealised or demonised! I have seen parents who have sacrificed their whole lives for their children but who are not given the same respect as religious whom people see as ‘sacrificing everything’ for God. Without discounting the sacrifice of any religious, there are saints on both sides of the fence, witness the Martins (St Therese’s parents) and many other unsung heroes who live in the world. We are each called to offer our lives in sacrifice to God, but not all in the same way. I appreciate nuns who live a life of prayer, but there is also much they don’t have to suffer simply through being withdrawn from the world. I think that perhaps secular priests have it hardest of all because they are constantly exposed to temptation while trying to live for God. I think it is wonderful that there are nuns to pray for them. It shows how wonderful God’s plan is that we are all one body in Christ. Once again, thank you for your considered responses. pax xti

  9. ‘Nuns, negative images, figures of fun’ etc.
    I’m writing as one raised in the Free Churches. I never met nuns, sisters or RCs until I moved south aged 9.
    Nuns are outside the experience of and totally marginal to many.
    Then there was a convent school at the end of my road. I was beaten up by the convent girls and so my first meeting with a nun was having to identify two of her students. Not a
    great introduction! Our GP was excellent, kind, warm and RC. We also had Sunday School trips to many places of worship. So the lesson was that there’s good and bad everywhere, in everyone and that RCs as others of different faiths do things differently.

    In young adulthood nuns, priests and all obvious Christians became an outward and visible sign of a faith I found at best irrelevant. Nuns in particular were women wasting their time by turning away from the world. If I was polite to those I met it was simply good manners.

    Mid adulthood found me more open, a little less judgemental and working in contact with Catholic sisters. Manners ruled but then a growing respect developed. There were ‘boundary issues’ I didn’t understand that gave rise to feelings of rejection and paradoxically feelings of being accepted in a way different to any I had known previously.

    Now I have some nun friends, but still old feelings die hard. I’m wary of interrupting a nun’s privacy (you do so very often have a lost in thought look, that I interpret as mind on higher things!)- so could well have passed many by without a ‘Good Morning’.
    I’m frightened of giving offence – mostly in little things such as shaking hands or using an incorrect title, rather than big ones.
    I feel a very amateur and immature Christian as against the commitment of religious.

    So in my small tale there are many possible explanations for ridicule and negativity – fear, envy, discomfort.

    At the risk of raising more difficulties and misunderstandings, I can see a parallel with how people with disabilities are perceived in the world.

    I heartily accept your invitation to prayer today.

  10. Patricia – I loved your post! I too wasn’t raised in the Catholic faith and had a lot of misconceptions about nuns, so I understand what you are saying. There are also many Catholics who don’t really see nuns as they are, human beings who have responded to a call from God with a ‘yes’, not already made saints or ‘special beings’. My own call from God was ignored by me for many years because I simply couldn’t imagine being a Christian, let alone a Catholic! But I was impressed by the heroism and humanity of people like Mother Teresa and slowly overcame my prejudices and have been discerning religious life for a few years now. I think Ghandi got it right when he said, ‘I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. they are not like Christ.’ If we could all live as Christ did, then wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing? And not even all nuns do that yet!

  11. You must have heard of the Visitation of American nuns at the request of the Vatican last year. A sort of investigation to make sure that the nuns were ‘good girls,’ doing exactly what the Vatican wanted (the Vatican of today, that is). Well, there was an outcry in the US in defense of the nuns, and we discovered in the process all the fabulous works the nuns are doing — and pretty much all for free. (hospitals, schools, etc).
    So, I am aware that nuns are doing many things (inside and outside their monasteries).
    As to the pedophilia scandal in the Church, I have always felt that if these abominations had been done by women, they would have been nailed on the frontdoor of our churches. But as they were carried out by priests, their hierarchy did protect them at the expense of those they were to take care of.
    A final word about young women becoming nuns: I have a bright young friend, a medical doctor, who has joined the Salesian order. She is beautiful, very intelligent, and madly in love with Godde. The orders are not turning out to be a particularly easy life at the moment, since she is a novice, but she is learning a lot ♥

    • Claire – I think you misunderstand the purpose of the Visitation of the US Reglious women because your post comes across as hostile to their intentions, which were not simply to ensure that they were ‘being good nuns’ at all. I have discussed this with many sisters who were very happy at the prospect of being able to share their view with the Visitators, and afterwards described the meeting as very beneficial. Mother Millea and her team had a tough job to do and I think that we should support not only them, but also the very well meaning intentions of those at the Vatican who initiated the Visitation. There are going to be more Visitations in the future of male religious communities, and in other parts of the world as well from what I have heard, and I think we can all help the Church by not being divisive in our attitudes. If you are not a Catholic, then perhaps you don’t realize how beneficial this has been for all concerned. Just thought I would put in a different perspective.

  12. “Mother: if nun, write ‘none’.” – 1066 And All That application form for King.

    I adore nuns and like all good male religious I was terrified of them. Quite right too. You Sisters are the salt to our earth. May God preserve you long and holy.

  13. I’ve only just come across this post and the comments. I’m a religious, a member of a congregation of apostolic contemplatives, and I agree with much of what Catherine said in her post regarding negative images of and attitudes towards religious sisters. Sadly, it’s something many sisters know only too well.

    People may protest that they value us, and our contribution to the church, say they pray fervently for vocations and so on, but this isn’t always consistent with comments, behaviour etc – for example if someone they know announces she is hoping to enter religious life. If the comment (or unspoken thought) then is “what a waste, she’s so clever/pretty/outgoing/her parents had such high hopes for her…” then how can these people claim to value the way of life this woman has opted for?

    I do believe that when Catholics are asked to pray for vocations they do so with fingers metaphorically crossed: “vocations of course, God, but please – not me/my daughter!”

    Negative images abound, portaying us as irrelevant, silly figures of fun, sexually repressed or disciplinarians. We do what we can to counteract them, of course, and blogging is a useful tool.

    Fortunately, despite all the of the above, God’s call can still be heard, and responded to with wholehearted generosity! We have three women, aged 26-42, who are due to enter with us here in England in September, and another 3-5 (like Catherine, I hesitate to be precise!) who are in various stages of discernment with us. We know and believe that God continues to keep faith with us, and to invite women to respond to his call. This is certainly good news, and deserves to be known, to counteract the gloom and pessimism we so often encounter.

    PS: Catherine – I expect you recognise my name, but if not, we met at Oxford uni chaplaincy last month.

  14. I have to disagree respectfully with Claire, in that I think part of the negative public (I.e. Not my own!) perception of nuns is due to a perception of heterodoxy. Certainly among more traditionalist/orthodox Catholics in the US and the expat community here in the UK, the actions of some of the leadership of American nuns has been a cause for concern (for instance, support for Obamacare, resistance to the visitation, the St Joseph’s hospital abortion case in Phoenix). Certainly this is a part of the problem, in my opinion, in terms of impacting the perception of nuns from within the Church.

  15. Thank you for all these valuable comments and for the debate. However, I think I ought, in justice, to clarify a couple of points. First, although most people talk about ‘nuns’ or ‘sisters’ indiscriminately, the Church makes a distinction between nuns (who are cloistered/enclosed) and religious sisters (who are active/apostolic) and has different rules for each. In the U.S.A. there is still some soreness among some Benedictine women, for example, that in the nineteenth century nuns were forced to become sisters by the bishops who wanted teachers in their schools. This has left a legacy of distrust that persists to this day. It is by no means general, but history does cast its shadow into the present.

    Secondly, I don’t know how many people here have experienced a Visitation from the inside, as it were. I’ve been through eight, though none was an Apostolic Visitation. Even in a fervent, well-run community, a Visitation can create tension. We are all there because we love the Lord and want to serve him better but a Visitor is only human and may not always understand. The examination of the community’s affairs, even in an ordinary Visitation, is very searching. An Apostolic Visitation rachets up the anxiety several notches higher because it is extraordinary, and because it is often conducted by someone who has no knowledge of the community or Order. (I can’t think of any analogy that would be helpful: it would be like having all your financial affairs, the state of your kitchen, how you treat your mother-in-law, what you eat and how you spend every minute of your time put under the miscroscope by someone who has the power to order you to do everything differently. Does that help to convey the kind of tension that can be generated?)

    The Apostolic Visitation several commentators have referred to was of religious sisters in the U.S. (i.e. not of nuns). It was greeted with trepidation by many inside the various congregations and glee by some of those outside. Speaking as a double outsider, I think those results which have been made public have allayed many of the fears and possibly disappointed some of the hopes. The picture which has emerged of the state of religious life has been encouraging. Yes, there are things to criticize, but there is also much that should be lauded. That is exactly what any Visitation is supposed to do.

  16. In my short time as a novice I was amazed by how kind people were. Strangers smiled at me in the street, people went out of their way to talk to me and help me (many I felt were probably Catholics who just wanted to be able to say ‘sister’, I am Orthodox), once when I was buying wine in the supermarket for a feast at church a young man said, “May I get that for you, Sister?”, London cabbies kept giving me a couple of quid off my fare, a man paid my fare on the underground when I had difficulty with the ticket machine and so on and on. On a personal level it was humbling but on a sociological very interesting given the hard time so many priests and male religious are getting.

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