A Frank Feminist Talk With A Devout Catholic Nun
Is it possible that convents could teach women something about how to be with each other?
When I was 7 years old, my best friend Angèle and I decided that we wanted to be nuns. Huddled together at recess, we would spend hours mapping out our elaborate future life. We decided that we would live at the same convent — maybe even be roommates — and drive a pink Cadillac. Every Sunday we would go home and our families would cook lasagna for us (lasagna being the fanciest and most labor-intensive food we knew). We would wear funny socks under our habits. We would never have to kiss a boy.
Now, more than two and a half decades later, I struggle to understand what appeal convent life held for us. Neither Angèle nor I were particularly religious — in fact, I found mass so boring that my first-grade teacher asked my mother if I had worms because I wriggled so much in the pews, and I was once carried out of church screaming after a somersault gone horribly wrong. Nor do I think we had any kind of idea of what nuns actually did. We just knew that they were special, and we wanted some of that specialness to rub off on us.
I remember wondering if nuns were all born good, or if goodness was something that they had learned. As a kid, I was often preoccupied by my own inability to be good; what frustrated me the most was that in spite of my best efforts to sit still, not interrupt, not talk too much, I still frequently slipped up and got in trouble. The kids who were well-behaved made it look effortless, their faces calm and attentive, their hands neatly folded on their desks. I, on the other hand, felt that I had a natural inclination toward badness.
I remember wondering if nuns were all born good, or if goodness was something that they had learned.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s possible my childish preoccupation with nuns reflected both the shame I felt about myself and a vague hope that someday I wouldn’t be like that. Saying that I wanted to be a nun felt aspirational, not just because it was a holy calling, but because stating it felt like making a promise to everyone around me that someday I would be a smooth blank canvas instead of the rumpled, scribbled-over mess that I was.
As an adult and a feminist, my nun fascination has shifted — somewhat. I now find myself wondering what it’s like to live without men, without their physical and emotional presence taking up space and dominating conversations. I’m attracted to the self-sufficiency of convent life, where women carry out even the most difficult and physically demanding jobs on their own. And, finally, the idea of rejecting the male gaze — by which I mean living in a community where women do not dress or behave in a way that’s intended to entice or appease men — seems equally foreign, impossible, and exciting to me.
Saying that I wanted to be a nun felt aspirational.
There’s something almost radical about refusing to follow the current model we have of what a relationship or family should look like. Is it possible that convents could teach women something about how to be with each other?
I decided that the best thing to do would be to find some nuns and talk to them. This turned out to be surprisingly easy to do; I just Googled the nearest convent, sent an email, and asked nicely if I could visit them.
Which is how I found myself driving out to Glen Morris, a small town about an hour and a half away from Toronto, one Friday afternoon.
I’m the kind of person who finds themselves both baffled and irritated by my attraction to religion. I’d quit Catholic school after eighth grade, and by the time I was pregnant with my son it had been years since I’d attended mass. And yet before every prenatal appointment I found myself slinking off to the nearest Catholic church, which also happened to house the national shrine to the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
For the uninitiated, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a 15th-century Byzantine icon said to have holy and even miraculous properties. It shows the Virgin Mary holding a disproportionately small yet sturdy-looking toddler Jesus, the latter of which inexplicably has one of his sandals dangling by a strap. According to some legends, the icon is “miraculous imprint” of a painting made by Saint Luke using a board from the Holy Family’s dining room table as his canvas.
If this is true, then the one that hangs in Toronto is a copy of a copy at best, although it still receives its fair share of pilgrims. In my own personal experience, it’s especially popular with Italian widows, the kind that dress all in black and carry rosaries. They would shuffle aside when they saw me, making room for me to kneel down on the bench beside them.
Week after week I would go there and unload all of my petty grievances onto Mary, who I figured knew a thing or two about anxiety during pregnancy. I told myself didn’t believe in her exactly, but that she was a placeholder for a sort of non-denominational earth mother, one who was both my parent and my peer in parenthood. Everything about the act of praying felt comforting — watching the flame of the taper flare up in the dimness of the church, carefully transferring that flicker of light to one of the votive candles, bowing my head and pressing my clasped hands against my breastbone — but at the same time I was embarrassed by how easily comforted I was.
In the same way, I was embarrassed by how excited I was to visit the nuns. The traffic from Toronto was bad, and when I realized that we were going to be over an hour late, I started crying. “I didn’t know this was so important to you,” said my husband, who was driving. Until that moment, I hadn’t known how important it was to me either.
Everything about the act of praying felt comforting — but at the same time I was embarrassed by how easily comforted I was.
The order I’d chosen to visit was a contemplative-active community, meaning that while they adjourn to their small chapel several times a day to chant prayers and sing hymns together, they also work outside the convent both at a nearby nursing home and at their local parish church. I’d always naively assumed that all orders of nuns were basically the same — after all, they all base their lives around the same religious beliefs — but that turned out not to be true.
For one thing, there’s a fair amount of leeway in how you interpret the vow of poverty; that could mean anything from owning few personal possessions but still residing in the relative comfort of a well-maintained convent or school to going full Mother Teresa and living among the poorest of the poor. And while of course there is a core similarity to various orders’ beliefs, there is still some variation in ideology and interpretation of religious texts.
The convent I was visiting was out in a semi-rural area, set back a ways from the road at the end of a bumpy driveway. I’d imagined that it would be a dour stone building, all drafty hallways and large, echoing rooms, but in reality it looked like a big house. One of the sisters was outside raking leaves — I reached over to squeeze my husband’s arm in excitement when I saw her — and another came out to meet us once we’d parked the car. This turned out to be Sister Bernadette, the woman I’d been corresponding with by email and over the phone.
We smiled and shook hands, and I apologized for being so late. She told me not to worry about it, and I admitted that the bigger problem was that due to a tricky bit of scheduling I’d either have to leave immediately or stay for several hours. If we’d been on time, I’d have been able to stay for an hour before driving home to pick my son up from school. My husband could do it, but that meant he would have to drive all the way to Toronto and then back to Glen Morris to get me, which would probably take three or four hours. Without missing a beat, Sister Bernadette invited me to join them for dinner and evening prayers.
“I’M HAVING DINNER WITH THE NUNS!!!!” I texted to one of my friends.
“ALL OF YOUR DREAMS ARE COMING TRUE!” she texted back.
Before starting the interview, Sister Bernadette took me through the public parts of the convent (“Visitors aren’t allowed in some areas, so that we can keep a sense that this is our private home,” she explained) and showed off the kitchen, the classrooms, the chapel, and finally the living room, where the rest of the sisters were setting up their Christmas decorations. We smiled politely at each other. One of them asked if I thought the star over the nativity set was too high. I replied that it looked perfect to me.
I felt self-conscious; my lipstick seemed too bright, my hair too blond. I worried that they would think I was vain or shallow. I wondered what we would talk about over dinner.
Sister Bernadette took me into her office and I set up the little recorder that I’d bought a few hours earlier especially for this interview.
I found myself wishing I’d written down my interview questions, because now I couldn’t think of any of them. So I started out with the one that I’d been thinking about the most — what was it like to live with all women?
“Do you find it empowering?” I asked.
“It’s a very beautiful life,” she said. “I think some people think, ‘Oh no, if I live with a bunch of women, we’re never gonna get along!’ But part of seeking God is also seeking to be charitable to one another. I find it energizing to be with a group of people who have the same goals and aspirations as I do. I find that really empowering. You’re all on the same team and you have a shared vision. In the Catholic church there are a number of ways to live your religion. For example, you can be a hermit, or you can be what’s called a consecrated virgin. But part of our way of expressing our devotion to God is this community, this idea of living together and helping each other and other people.”
“Did you always know that you wanted to become a nun?”
“Oh not at all! We went to church when I was a kid, but I was pretty indifferent about it. Then I started to have a lot of questions about religion in high school and there didn’t seem to be answers. I remember thinking, ‘It seems like there probably isn’t a God, or if there is a God he’s not a very good one.’ Because of course there’s all this suffering, and I was watching different people in my life who were having a lot of suffering. Why would a good God allow that?
I decided I was just going to start living my life in my own way and if there was a God I figured it was his turn to get in touch with me, because I’d tried praying and hadn’t heard anything back. So here I was, this teenager with an anarchy symbol on my bag. I smoked cigars and had I am the Anti-Christ written on my jean jacket. That was basically my view of religion at the time.
I’d tried praying and hadn’t heard anything back.
I kind of thought that, you know, people believed in God because it made them feel good. I remember telling people in my high school that it was fine it made them feel nice to believe that Jesus was beside them, but that I didn’t need that crutch because I lived my life in the real world.
It wasn’t hard to imagine Sister Bernadette in the outfit she’d described. She had a fierceness to her, a half-tamed restlessness that I recognized. I could tell that she wasn’t at all embarrassed or ashamed by the person she’d been as a teenager, the way I might have been. On the other hand, I guess there’s nothing quite like a good, redemptive conversion story.
“So how did you end up becoming a nun after all that?” I asked.
“I had this experience at the cathedral of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, which I was visiting with school. I remember standing outside of it and thinking, okay, this is a nice cathedral, funky artwork, whatever. Then when I went inside the cathedral, I saw all these crutches from people who had been healed and I just had this moment where I was like, ‘Wow there’s a lot of stuff here — what if God is real?’ After that, everything just started to come together. At first it was on an emotional or spiritual level, and then later I started to actually intellectually dissect the issues in Catholicism and why we believe what we believe, and I found it all to be very cohesive.”
I kind of thought that, you know, people believed in God because it made them feel good.
“People who knew you then would probably be really surprised to see you now.”
“Yes! Even on that particular trip where we saw Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré I was suspended from school because I led a little drinking expedition to the bars in Montreal.”
We both laughed as I tried to figure out how to frame my next question. I knew I wanted to talk about feminism — and I’d said as much to her on the phone — but I didn’t want to do it in a way that put her on the defensive.
Finally, I said, “Catholicism isn’t generally considered to be a very woman-friendly religion. Obviously you don’t feel that way, or you wouldn’t be where you are now. Can you speak a bit about the role of women in the church?”
If Sister Bernadette was surprised by the turn the conversation had taken, she didn’t show it. Instead, she seemed eager to talk about women and Catholicism.
“Women have such a prominent role in the Catholic church. People get really caught up in the priesthood issue, but for us it’s not about that. We do hold that God only intended for men to be priests. We also believe that God made men and women absolutely equal in dignity, but with different gifts. We believe that if Jesus had wanted for there to be women priests, he would have made that happen. The idea of women as priests certainly wouldn’t have been foreign to him. The Romans had priestesses in their religion. And Jesus was never afraid of breaking cultural mores. So he could have easily made women priests. But we just believe that God has different roles intended for men and women.”
‘Women have such a prominent role in the Catholic church.’
She leaned forward then, her eyes bright. Talking about this seemed to energize her, and it was clear she’d given this subject a lot of thought.
“The parish priest shared something really funny the other day about a sister who was recently speaking at a conference,” she continued. “Someone asked her about the priest issue and she looked over at a group of nearby priests and kind of wrinkled her nose and said, ‘I don’t want to be like them. I don’t need to be like them. I have my own spiritual gifts.’ It’s not a competition thing, and I wish people would understand that — that equality doesn’t hinge on whether women can be priests. We’re already equal.”
I was doubtful about the separate-but-equal direction we were heading. I felt like it was all very fine and good to say that women were equal to men, but if that was the case, how come there had never been a woman pope?
So I said, “But women can’t advance in the church the way men can. They can’t be bishops or cardinals. Do you think maybe the church would ever allow women cardinals?”
Is Christianity’s activism, solidarity, and short-term memory perpetuating injustices?theestablishment.co
Sister Bernadette considered this for a second before replying, “I don’t know if women are going to be cardinals any time soon, but things are definitely shifting in the church. We now have women in the Roman Curia — the Vatican’s governing body — and in the higher papal offices. A lot of women, religious and lay women, have a lot of very prominent roles in the church now. Maybe not as visibly, but they are for sure there.”
“Speaking of women and visibility,” I said, “one interesting thing about Catholicism is that there are a lot of prominent female role models. There’s Mary, of course — well, all the biblical Marys — and there are a lot of women saints. I find that a lot of other branches of Christianity don’t really have role models for women in a religious sense.”
“Some of the earliest first-person accounts that we have of Christianity come from women — St. Perpetua, for example, was an early martyr who wrote about her faith while she was imprisoned and awaiting death. We still have that document, you can find it online, it’s incredibly fascinating. Christianity in the early days was actually one of the few religions where women had great dignity — women really took to Christianity, if that makes sense. Jesus loved women, he was very pro-woman.”
“He certainly seemed to have a lot of women followers,” I said. “I always thought his relationship with Mary Magdalene was really interesting!”
We were both getting excited now. Sister Bernadette told me that Mary Magdalene was described in the Bible as having had seven demons after her, and I nodded along. Seven demons! Of course!
And then she said something that kind of blew my mind: “You know, she was the first one to whom our Lord appeared on Easter Sunday morning. In that time, a woman’s witness was worth nothing — so that Jesus would choose to appear to her and say ‘go and tell the others’ is huge! Of course, they didn’t believe her, but Jesus was making a point about the importance of believing women.”
“You think so?” I asked, my voice squeaking with emotion. I thought about the pin on my backpack that said Believe Women. I’d written once that it was the most important thing people could do.
“Oh definitely,” replied Sister Bernadette. “Jesus did everything with intention. He chose Mary for a reason.”
I sat and absorbed that for a minute before asking my next question — another one that had been on my list since I’d thought up this interview.
‘Jesus was making a point about the importance of believing women.’
“What does it feel like to wear a veil in public? There’s a lot of discussion about whether wearing a hijab is oppressive — and to be clear, I don’t think it is — and I find it interesting because nuns also wear veils, but no one is proposing banning habits anywhere.”
“I personally don’t know a lot about Islam or about the hijab,” she said thoughtfully, “so I wouldn’t venture to say whether they feel oppressed by it or not, but I do notice that when Muslim women and I pass each other on the street we kind of nod to each other in recognition. In our case, the veil is symbolic of our marriage to Christ and I like the idea that our veil kind of keeps our beauty a mystery. That feels powerful.”
“Of course, some orders don’t wear habits,” she continued. “Our order chooses to do so for a couple of different reasons. One of them is that the teachings of the church ask for us to show by our dress that we’re consecrated. We definitely don’t dress this way to get honor from other people — sometimes you actually get the exact opposite. But it’s a way of showing you’re visibly available to answer questions about God. People see you wearing the habit and they know they can ask you questions, they can ask you to pray for them. And of course the habit simplifies your life. You never have to worry about what you’re going to wear!”
‘I do notice that when Muslim women and I pass each other on the street we kind of nod to each other in recognition.’
“That sounds pretty relaxing! Never having to choose your outfit or whatever.”
“You just have to make sure it’s clean and doesn’t have holes in it.”
“I mean, I love clothing. But the idea of not thinking about it sounds really freeing.”
“You never have to worry about bad hair days.”
“I guess that’s one of the benefits of always wearing a wedding veil! Which kind of leads me to my next question — does it feel like a marriage?”
I felt awkward as soon as I said it. Was that a rude thing to ask? I wouldn’t have known what to say if someone had asked me whether my relationship with my husband felt like a marriage. Of course, I wasn’t married to a god-man who had last graced the earth some 2,000 years ago.
Again, if Sister Bernadette was put off by the question, she didn’t show it. Instead, she took it in stride, replying, “For me it does. Of course it’s not the same as a physical relationship — one where you see your husband, you can touch him, you get to see your children running around. In a religious life it’s more on a spiritual level. But it’s just as real.”
“Do you feel very intimately connected?”
Translation: What’s it like to love someone you’ve never met in corporeal form?
“I do,” she said. “There are times where I don’t feel the connection as strongly, maybe don’t feel the emotion the same way I did, but that’s just like in any relationship.”
“I think so, yeah.”
Of course, I wasn’t married to a god-man who had last graced the earth some 2,000 years ago.
“In any long-term relationship there are times when you don’t feel it, but you choose to work at it. There are times when the emotions are there supporting you, and there are times when they’re not, but it doesn’t alter the relationship because the relationship isn’t entirely about how you feel. Sometimes love is an act more than it is a feeling.”
I nodded. I might not know much about Jesus, but I knew about marriage.
“The emotions are there to help it along,” she said. “Like when you just fall in love with somebody and you’re swept off your feet, then later you have those times when you are finding out about each others’ less-than-pleasant habits, and, well, you must know how that is.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Sustaining a relationship is definitely not as much fun as starting a new relationship. Like you said, eventually the euphoria wears off and you start getting down to the really nitty-gritty stuff, and then if you have a kid — well, it’s work, but also hopefully you’re married to someone that at the end of the day you’re friends with.”
“In community, it’s the same thing,” she said. “There can be interpersonal struggles, and those can be challenging. At least with marriage you’ve chosen the person you’re with! We land here all together from different backgrounds, so it’s kind of this accidental group of people — although of course we believe that God’s providence puts us together too. I didn’t know any of these women before we lived together, I didn’t choose them as roommates. That can make things challenging!”
“Definitely,” I said. “Any relationship involves some amount of work. I guess I’d just never thought of being in a relationship with Jesus as work!”
The [relationships] can be work, but that work is beautiful. For me, it’s beautiful. And of course we don’t have our own physical children, but when we pray for people and sacrifice for people — especially the people we work with in the parish — you feel a sort of spiritual maternity for all these people you serve and pour your life out for. It’s very real and very fulfilling.”
We both fell silent. I tried to imagine what it would be like to commit yourself to someone you could never touch, someone whose voice you would never hear.
“It feels like such a big choice to commit yourself to this for the rest of your life,” I said finally. “That’s such a long time.”
“It is, but there is also what we call a discernment,” she explained:
“When you enter the convent you don’t make any vows or promises and you can leave at any time if you want to. This goes on for the first three years and then when you do make your first vow it expires after a year, so if after that time period you or the community don’t feel that this is the life that God is calling you to, then you can leave and it’s ok. In a lot of ways it’s actually less of a risk than marriage, because in marriage you generally don’t get to have all those safeguards and those stages during which you can leave without any consequences.”
“Is it a very strict life, living in a convent?” I asked.
By which I sort of meant: Did she think I could do it?
“It’s a very joyful life! That’s a weird misconception people have about convents — they think there’s this strictness and moroseness, but honestly, I’ve never experienced such joy and laughter and peace as I do here.”
And I could see that. Even in the brief time I’d spent with the sisters, I’d been able to tell that there was an ease and comfort in how they interacted. They were like a particularly happy family. Well, I thought, they were technically family — after all, they were all married to the same guy.
“Of course there is a certain strictness to the life,” said Sister Bernadette. “We do get up early, and there’s a lot of discipline required in our life, but when we are relaxing in one another’s company, there’s such a light-hearted joy that is unique, I think, to the convent.”
“Oh!” I said. “That reminds me of a really interesting article I read recently called ‘Why Time is a Feminist Issue.’ It talked about how women don’t have a culture of leisure the way men do — so if a woman has some free time, she’s more likely to try to get more tasks done whereas when a man has free time he’s more likely to relax and have fun. But the one big exception to this is apparently nuns, because you have a certain amount of time every day that’s set aside for leisure.”
The article had resonated deeply with me — I’d identified strongly with the author, who felt that she had no down time in spite of a time-use expert telling her that she had 30 hours of leisure time a week. What did it feel like to have scheduled time off?
“We’re always encouraged to relax during our time off,” said Sister Bernadette. “It’s just like in any marriage or family — if you stop having that time where you just get to be together and enjoy each others’ company without having any tasks to do or anything, then the relationship can get really strained. Like how couples need a date night to keep their relationship fresh!
We enjoy movies together, play games or sports together, sometimes we just hang out and do handiwork, we celebrate feast days together. Some of us enjoy building puzzles, others of us it frustrates. We can also spend our downtime alone if we like. A lot of our sisters are big readers.”
This seemed as good a time as any to bring up the f-word. What was the worst that could happen?
“In that way, some aspects of being a nun seem very feminist,” I said carefully. “Do you think many sisters identify as feminists?”
“It depends on how one defines feminism. It’s all about defining what that is. Because God is pro-woman. Women are equal, and should have equal rights. In Catholic theology, we hold that there are differences between men and women and that there are specific gifts that God has given to women — not in a way that shackles them to their gender, but rather in a way that imparts a richness. The term John Paul II used — and one I’d love to hear unpacked — is ‘the feminine genius.’”
‘God is pro-woman. Women are equal, and should have equal rights.’
“You know who you should look up?” she asked. “Saint Edith Stein and the essays she wrote about women. She was a university professor and was deeply into psychology, especially the psychology of women. I think feminists would be very interested in her and the work she did.”
I promised that I would look her up as soon as I got home. (Later, I would message my friend Constance saying, “DID YOU KNOW THERE WAS A JEWISH SAINT NAMED EDITH STEIN?” before falling down the rabbit hole of Edith’s Wikipedia page.)
“Speaking of saints,” I smoothly segued, “do you feel like you’ve ever seen a miracle happen?” Sister Bernadette grew thoughtful again.
“I personally have not witnessed miracles,” she said slowly. “I know people of credible background who say they’ve witnessed miracles, and these are not just religious people. For example, if they’re verifying a miracle in order to canonize someone, they usually have a team made up of both atheists and religious people and they do umpteen million tests to determine whether there’s a scientific reason why the miracle happened. But I’ve never personally witnessed miracles.”
“But you definitely believe in them.”
“Yes. But based on reason. I like to see the scientific evidence. I take it objectively, and I am sort of a skeptic by nature, so if people say they’ve witnessed a miracle, I wouldn’t want to make them feel bad or anything, but I would probably have some reservations in my mind.”
Suddenly I realized it was getting late, and I knew I had to wrap up the interview. After all, it was almost time for dinner.
“What’s something that you wish the average layperson knew about this kind of life specifically or even the Catholic church in general?” I asked.
“I think that deep down I want people to know that there is a religious element — or spiritual element, whatever you want to call it — to human beings, and that this world, as good as it is, cannot satisfy that element,” said Sister Bernadette.
“I also want people to know that faith is not antithetical to science. I remember one time I was in a debate with some atheists, and there were some other Christians on the forum, and another Christian — I don’t know what stripe or brand — they said they believed that the devil put dinosaur fossils in the earth to confuse us and make us believe the earth is older than it actually is. And I was like, oh no, you did not just say that — you just destroyed any intellectual credibility you might have. Catholics hold that the earth is as old as scientists say it is. There are certain parts of the Bible that are meant to be interpreted in a figurative way, whereas other things — like the gospels — are meant to be taken literally.”
‘I want people to know that faith is not antithetical to science.’
I loved the thought of her going onto Internet forums and getting into arguments. It seemed like something she would enjoy, a sort of intellectual exercise and a chance to maybe convert people at the same time.
“Do you often get into online debates with atheists?” I asked.
“Not so much these days, but I used to really like going to online message boards to debate about religion. You know, I love atheists.”
I must have looked surprised, because she quickly continued: “I’ve met so many interesting atheists online, and I really respect them. I know a lot of conservative Christians who think that atheists are all just in denial or that they’re rejecting morality, but I’ve met some very sincere atheists who basically feel like they just want proof. They feel that they just haven’t seen anything yet that proves the existence of God. Like, ‘I’m just waiting for God to get in touch with me and he can feel free to do that any time.’ God loves atheists. Whether or not they know he exists, God is deeply in love with every human being out there.”
Dinner was ready, so we left the office for the dining room. All of my anxiety from earlier rushed back as Sister Bernadette and I joined the rest of the nuns. Would they like me? Would they think I was bad for not going to church? What would we talk about?
Just about everything, it turned out. We talked about books — they’d apparently been passing around C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy, and since we were talking about Lewis anyway, it seemed like a good time to discuss the controversy surrounding Susan Pevensie. Several of them were ardent Narnia fans, and I was interested to hear that they largely agreed with me that Lewis had been unfair to Susan.
“C.S. Lewis didn’t know much about women,” said one of the sisters.
We also talked about Lewis’ odd version of the afterlife in The Last Battle, and from there the conversation turned to depictions of heaven in various books and movies. I mentioned that I’d had a kind of epiphany during the last scene of Gladiator when he dies and meets his wife in heaven and they kiss in a way that makes it pretty clear they’re going to do it soon. Doing it in heaven! Up until then I’d assumed heaven was just lying around on clouds all day listening to angels play lutes; it had never occurred to me that it could be anything like earth.
“Oh, I love Gladiator,” gushed the sister sitting next to me.
“Really?” I was surprised; I’d thought it would be too secular or maybe even sacrilegious. “What other movies do you like?’
I’d assumed that the nuns would enjoy mostly religious films, but in fact their tastes ran more toward popular fantasy and science fiction. In addition to Gladiator, their other favorites included The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park. “Although we also like to watch biographies of saints,” said one of the older sisters.
At some point we started talking about the nature of vocation. I was fascinated by the concept; the only parallel I could draw in my own life was falling in love and wanting to get married. Was being called to a religious order like falling in love?
I watched the sisters consider this question.
“I think so,” said one of them. “Yes, I would say it’s like that.”
“Did it happen suddenly?” I asked. “Was it like love at first sight? Or did it take a while?”
“For me, it happened very quickly,” said the sister sitting across from me. “Two weeks, that was it.”
“It took me years to accept,” said another. “I was in denial about it. Having a calling — it was embarrassing! I didn’t want people to think I was weird. I hoped that ignoring it would make it disappear, but that didn’t happen. Eventually I had to come around to it and accept it.”
‘Having a calling — it was embarrassing! I didn’t want people to think I was weird.’
A couple of the sisters nodded along with her. Others felt that they had known immediately, as if some great revelation had suddenly been imparted to them. Some had tried to date but had felt this weird sense that they were being unfaithful to Jesus. One of them had always been so certain about her calling that she’d never dated at all. I began to see what Sister Bernadette meant about the diversity of the sisters’ backgrounds and experiences.
After dinner we filed through the house toward the small chapel. The sisters paired off two to a bench and began chanting their evening prayers. My seat partner helped me follow along in her prayer book, and eventually I sort of got the hang of it.
I sat there and thought about what Sister Bernadette had said about the joy of convent life. It was joyful, not so much because of what the sisters did, but in how they felt about each other. They treated community as if it was a verb; they acted community, if that makes sense. They had an ease and lightness in their interactions that I’m not sure I’d ever seen in a group of women before.
I thought about that joy the whole drive home. My son had fallen asleep in his carseat beside me and my husband was driving and listening to the radio; meanwhile, I sat there feeling the good kind of lonely, the one that aches somewhere sweet inside of you after you’ve experienced something that few other people have. I found myself wishing I could box the memory of that joy up and give it to people after they’ve had a long day and feel like there’s nothing good in the world. “It’s all right,” I’d whisper. “I know things seem bad right now, but look at this.”
I sat there feeling the good kind of lonely, the one that aches somewhere sweet inside of you after you’ve experienced something that few other people have.
The highway has always seemed like a strange in-between place to me, both in the sense that it’s the line connecting one destination to another, but also because it’s a strangely undefinable space — not urban or rural, but somehow both. I felt that tug of in-betweenness even more strongly that night. Going from the convent back to the city felt like traveling from one world to another; worlds that lay parallel to each other and occasionally overlapped but were still very, very separate. I would never live in that world; they would likely never live in mine. But I’d been allowed to visit very briefly and it had been unexpectedly wonderful.
I’d gone into this interview with mixed expectations, caught somewhere between the thrill of living out my childhood nun dreams and the dread that those dreams would be crushed. After all, there’s a lot that the Catholic church and I disagree on ideologically, and some of the issues we don’t see eye to eye on are very near and dear to my heart. On the other hand, I’d worried that if I did like the nuns, that I would be a bad feminist. And, embarrassingly, my anxieties about my childhood badness were all mixed up in this — as if on some level the nuns had the power to either confirm what I’d always believed about myself or else absolve me altogether.
In a funny way, it had been meeting Sister Bernadette that had finally put to rest the question of my inherent goodness (or lack thereof). After talking to her, I’d realized that the badness I’d felt about myself wasn’t objective; the same traits that had annoyed my first-grade teacher — my outspokenness, my inability to sit still, my wanting to be involved in everything — are the things that make me good at what I do.
I’d realized this because these were also the things that made Sister Bernadette good at what she did. I’d only known her for a few hours, but I could tell that she wasn’t the kind to sit still or keep her mouth shut either. I could also tell that she used these to her advantage.
Seen from a certain light, Joan of Arc hadn’t been particularly well-behaved either.