Why Be A Nun? A Question for Vocations Sunday

La Signora de Monza — the Nun of Monza — by Giuseppe Molteni , 1847

Vocations Sunday and our Responsibility to Others

Over the years I have spent a great deal of time thinking and praying about vocation, more particularly, the vocation to be a nun. I must have written thousands of words in response to enquirers and in posts for this blog and its predecessor. Yet every Vocations Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, I ask myself whether the effort has been worthwhile. Has anyone been helped to find their path in life or have I merely added to the confusion and uncertainty they feel? Worse still, have I discouraged anyone, not only by what I have written but also by what I have done or failed to do?

That is a question not just for me but for everyone. We all play a part in the vocation of others and can help or hinder them (family and friends take note). Sometimes we forget that God loves every person he has created, even the villains of history or those we are inclined to dismiss as somehow unworthy of our love and attention, if not God’s. He has called every one of us by name. He has chosen us and wants our eternal happiness. That is what a vocation really is: an invitation to be with the Lord for all eternity in a bond of mutual love and joy. We begin now, as members of the Church, baptized into the death of Christ and sharers also in his resurrection.

Membership of the Church is our Primary Vocation

To be a member of the Church is thus our primary vocation, and there is none higher or greater. The way our primary vocation is worked out differs with each individual. For some it will be through the holiness of marriage, for others singleness, for others again priesthood or consecrated life, perhaps changing as we grow older or according to circumstance. What we do with our time, our work, is bound up with this but does not define or limit our vocation. God’s love is unchanging, no matter how little we ‘achieve’ or the failures of which we are conscious. As Julian of Norwich says, we are ‘oned with him’, and being oned with him means we are oned with everyone else, too. Together we make up the Body of Christ and Communion of Saints. Our connectedness goes beyond denominational labels or the accidents of time or physical proximity. St Benedict reminds us again and again that we go to God together. We are incomplete without each other, and so is the Kingdom. With that in mind, let us look for a moment at the vocation of a nun following the Rule of St Benedict.

Monastic Life for Women

The illustration used for this post evokes contradictory reactions in most of those who look at it. Those who do not know the sad story of the nun of Monza, Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva y Marino, will probably smile at Molteni’s painting. That is what a nun should be — young, beautiful and romantically pensive. Those who do know the story may make a moue of disgust at the scandal surrounding her name and utter dark comments about sexual perversion and murder. Such reactions reveal how many view monastic life for women and their expectations of it. Fortunately, not everyone goes in for such extremes, although a quick search on Google is not reassuring. If we look for light relief, the nun as figure of fun fares scarcely better than the nun as angel or demon. The exhortations of popes and bishops often seem wide of the mark, too, with their flowery language and ignorance of what a nun’s life is really like. Maybe I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that nuns are often portrayed as different from other women. We’re either impossibly holy or impossibly evil. Even by our admirers we can be seen as milksops at best, dangerously dictatorial and unfeeling at worst, in constant need of supervision and control. Allow me to present an alternative view.

Shepherds and Nuns

Let’s begin by thinking about the popular name for this Sunday: Good Shepherd Sunday. I haven’t met many women who are shepherds, but the three I have, although very different in age and size of flock they look after, impressed me with their toughness, their resilience and their obvious care for their sheep. In fact, they were rather like many of the nuns I know, for all that their ‘habits’ consisted mainly of wellies and old anoraks. There was a shrewdness and realism about them I found appealing, a determination just to get on with things and persevere whatever difficulties or setbacks they encountered. That may not sound very ‘spiritual’ but such qualities are very necessary in monastic life, perseverance above all.

Perseverance, Joy and Fruitfulness

I think the unshowy nature of perseverance distinguishes the reality of being a nun from unreal conceptions of what a nun is or should be. To put it bluntly, seeking God is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who give up easily. Prayer cannot be taken up one day and dropped the next. We cannot fritter away our time on inanities or waste our energies on anything with a tendency to destroy rather than build up. Selective obedience is not obedience at all and, though we might like to, we cannot dodge the dura et aspera of community life. Of course we most of us try, at one time or another, and we can be quite devious in the means we employ. Flopping to our knees or using personal ‘religious fervour’ as an excuse for skiving off the less congenial duties in monastic life is a recognized tactic easily spotted by the novice mistress. We must embrace the whole life, including its occasional tediums and companions we find just a teeny weeny bit tiresome, or we will never really begin. We soon discover that there is nothing romantic about the life we lead, it is all too grounded for that. Even those lovely habits and beautiful buildings have their drawbacks, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

The novice mistress is obliged by the Rule to tell every candidate for admission of the difficulties ahead of her, but most novices experience them for themselves soon enough. We grow into monastic life and I think its most positive side is often experienced later, sometimes much later. It is only then that we see the meaning of certain practices or understand why some things are as they are. It takes a lifetime of prayer, reading and obedience to appreciate the riches lavished upon us in community or see how grace has fashioned others (never ourselves, alas!) into saints. That is one reason every community needs older members who have taken on the shape and form of the Rule through a lifetime of trying to live by it, whose experience can teach us so much. Their example is an encouragement, especially when we ourselves may be feeling tired or inadequate or simply unsure about going on. They show us how monastic life can be lived joyfully and fruitfully.

To speak of joy and fruitfulness in connection with a life that is highly disciplined and frequently austere may seem strange. There may be grudging acknowledgement of the joy, but fruitfulness, where does that come in? I think that is where we have to insist that monastic life is lived by faith. We do not see; we have to trust. For those who are prepared to give themselves completely not just to a way of life but to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, the rewards are very great. ‘We shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may be made worthy to share also in his Kingdom.’ (RB Prol. 50). That is the hundredfold of the Gospel, the answer to the question of the title. It is our privilege as nuns to seek and find the Lord, not for ourselves alone but for all. May I humbly, but with conviction, encourage any who may be thinking about monastic life to listen to the whispering of the Holy Spirit and follow the Risen Christ wherever he may lead you.

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13 thoughts on “Why Be A Nun? A Question for Vocations Sunday”

  1. Speaking as an un-cloistered Anglican religious sister, may I sound a resounding AMEN to this. Excellent, corrective spiritual reading to which I rather think I will return. ( Comes on top of a very good online Thingy for Anglican religious which three of us shared in yesterday here – and it was good to see and hear ChristopherJamieson again.)
    THANK YOU!

    Reply
  2. Thank you, I have read this with great interest. As a Quaker, I have a small booklet known to (and used by) Friends as Advices and Queries, which gives us guidance. The first advice, much loved by Friends, says:
    Take heed, dear friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts; follow them as the leadings of God, whose light shows us our darkness and leads us to new life.
    I imagine those promptings must play a significant role in your movement towards the religious life.

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  3. Sometimes some of us outsiders see monasticism as romantic, but also a position of total Spirit existence. Your words are marvellous Sr Catherine. The washing up and cooking still has to be done, for others and the Christ within them.

    Here’s to the solidly grounded monastic life, grounded but living with the Spirit, in community. As seen from the outside.

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  4. Another corker , spot on. I have often wondered why it is that the same rule (RB) for Monks and Nuns, can be so differently lived. The Monks seem to have much more freedom. The Nuns take the rule as it was intended. Is this another case of we can because we are men?

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    • RB for women is overlaid with many regulations that come from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), e.g. those contained in Cor Orans. I think it would be fair to say that they often reflect a predominantly male/clerical perception that nuns need to be ‘controlled’ in ways that monks, being men, don’t.

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  5. Alexander and Sr Catherine; I like others I’m sure have noticed this. Operating within a societal patriarchy, women are deemed to be more in need of control in a wide variety situations. Men writing these role restrictions for monastic communities may be developing them from, in some part, a subjective opinion or perspectives. And they might fancy a day out now and again but don’t see why women should.
    Women are more likely to do the right thing to be “ good girls” as we have been taught from at our mothers knee.
    Men have their insecurities, but say 95% of some areas of violence are committed by men. There is a 85,000 male prison population to a 4,000 women’s prison population. I mention this to illustrate a tendency to rule breaking, not to compare enclosed situations.
    It is what it is, we can hope and pray for a more reasonable interpretation for communities of monastic women. May the Spirit be at work in this issue/area.
    Pax.

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    • True, though when I think of my male friends, all of whom genuinely respect women, it is hard to think of their being lumped together with the arch-controllers. The sad thing is, I expected the situation to improve during my lifetime but I don’t think it has. Having said that, thinking about how women and girls are treated in some countries is very sobering.

      Reply

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