Is the Convent Still Going?

Everything is grist to the blogger’s mill, so here is a little light relief from major matters like the destruction of Syria and the E.U. referendum, but one with a serious message underneath — and I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t the obvious one of the title.

Yesterday in the supermarket Quietnun and I were accosted by someone who asked, ‘Is the convent still going?’ We were slightly startled at the nature of the greeting but answered as best we could (and I hope we were polite). Afterwards Quietnun, usually mild-mannered and ultra-forgiving, said, ‘People seem to think they can speak to us just anyhow and we must take it.’ What she meant, I think, was that the presupposition behind the words, that monasteries of nuns and convents of religious sisters are all in terminal decline, was actually a little hard to bear, given that we were both, quite clearly, alive and members of a community. One wouldn’t greet a married couple with the words, ‘Are you splitting up now?’ would one? People are usually very nice to us, but we do sometimes have to swallow remarks that would be unacceptable in other contexts. We smile non-committally and pass on, only a slight grinding of teeth and clenching of fists betraying our true feelings. Of course, we all act out of our store of preconceived ideas. Some of those that people have about nuns and sisters are, to us, distinctly odd; but then, so, I suspect, are some of our ideas about clergy and laity.

Occasionally, the misunderstandings give rise to chuckles. We once spent several minutes explaining why, for example, we were hoping to upsize to our present house only to have our interlocutor reply, ‘Yes, all religious are having to downsize these days.’ What can one do but laugh? We know, too, how hard it can be to convince even the authorites of our own Church that our being over 40 doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t help anyone with vocation questions. We smile, we shrug, and we get on with the business of trying to help those discerning, who are often over 40 themselves. Ageism is not for us.

Sometimes, however, I think we need to protest. Recently, Aleteia ran a poll on religious habits for nuns and sisters, asking its readers whether they preferered them habited or unhabited. It didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of talking about any woman in terms of her appearance, let alone a religious who has less freedom in the matter than others. Then, this morning, on Facebook, I noticed that old chestnut attributed to Fulton Sheen about hearing nuns’ confessions attracting boyish chortles. These things are trivial in themselves but they are indicative of something that isn’t so trivial. The Church can make as many pronouncements as she likes about the dignity of women but if they aren’t translated into daily life, they are just words.

Our attitudes, and the way we express them, do matter. It is no good lamenting the decline in female religious vocations, for example, if clergy and laity show, by their words and actions, that they do not have any respect for nuns and sisters but instead trivialise them, both as individuals and as communities or congregations. We are not angels, but we’re not brainless idiots, either. No one is going to join a community or congregation that is despised, treated as a figure of fun or dismissed as irrelevant or tiresome by other members of the Church — something that I think is worth considering. Equally, clergy-bashing is no way to attract men to the priesthood; nor is grumbling about the inadequacies of the laity the way to draw people to Christ.

My main point, however, is this. What is true of the Church is also true, mutatis mutandis, of everyone. Those we despise, treat as figures of fun or dismiss as irrelevant or tiresome are not defined by our attitudes. On the contrary, it is we ourselves who are defined by the attitudes we hold and express. There has been much wringing of hands over the situation in Syria, but it must be evident to everyone by now that we lack the political will to end the war there. We in the west do not want to engage Putin’s Russia head-on. So we allow the desperate plight of the Syrian people to fall from our headlines, discuss those who have fled to the west as a ‘problem to be solved’ and exhibit some rather jingoistic traits whenever the question of immigration comes up. Similarly, the E.U. referendum has raised immensely important and complex questions but it is easier to be rude about those campaigning on one side or the other than to investigate the questions themselves. Scorn is not an indicator of either deep thought or mature reflection but rather the reverse — and we do need to think and reflect, not just react.

If you have read this far, I have a challenge for you this morning. Have you ever asked yourself whether your ‘instinctive reactions’ to people and events are based on what in other people would be called prejudice, although in ourselves we prefer to call it principle or something equally high-minded? How far do our attitudes towards others tend to limit them, even perhaps belittle them? Do we need to examine how we treat others a little more closely? St Benedict was uncompromising about the need for mutual respect and courtesy in community. It wasn’t a superficial add-on, but fundamental to survival. The fact that we still have Benedictine communities fifteen hundred years after his death suggests to me that he knew what he was talking about. Something to ponder there, perhaps. (And, incidentally, the convent=the monastery is indeed still going, thanks be to God.)