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Monday, April 23, 2012

Those Madcap Nuns

Many of us, even those with little or no direct experience, are amused by the notion of nuns behaving badly.  The idea that religious sisters, whom we associate with placid, regimented lives, might get up to all sorts of mischief has been a popular theme in entertainment for generations. From Julie Andrews' Maria and Sally Fields' airborne Sister Bertrille to the gaggle under the stern eye of Maggie Smith in Sister Act, we identify with the idea that these disciplined figures might have a frivolous or even wild side bubbling under the surface. A line of greeting cards and calendars featuring the habit-clad doing everything from riding motorcycles to skeet shooting pokes gentle fun at this concept. Listening to some rather timid hymnody in church, I couldn't help but wish that Whoopie Goldberg's Sister Mary Clarence would appear and encourage us to start singing so God might actually hear us. Even the feisty Sophia Petrillo gave religious life a go, but found difficulty adjusting to the point where the Mother Superior told her, "I'm going to go pray now. I won't tell you what I'll be praying for, as it would hurt your feelings."  These are just a few of the dramatizations portraying nuns, in varying degrees of accuracy.

In fact, there are orders who shun all or most of the world's distractions, and being forced to partake of them can be extremely traumatic when one feels called to do live in seclusion. In 1988, while I was involved in a Catholic youth organization called Antioch, we learned that four Carmelite nuns at the cloistered convent nearby barricaded themselves for nine months in the infirmary in an attempt to shield themselves from what they viewed as an imposed modernization or diluting of their "rule of life". The changes, including eating candy, watching videos and leaving the facility for walks around the parking lot, were contrary to what the sisters and novitiates saw as their calling.  The prioress and her supporters contested that these things were not new to the house, and it was a question of alliance to her predecessor and resistance to her authority vs. the acts themselves. As with most conflicts, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between.

 A community of brothers in Vermont, the Carthusians at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, live almost completely as hermits in solitary confinement.  Each brother has a small apartment with a workshop, walled garden, and indoor space to eat and pray.  Food and other necessities are received through a "turn", a pass-through of sorts that does not require interaction with the person delivering them. These brothers gather only for communal prayer and one weekly meal, eaten in silence, and they leave the monastery only a few times each year for a group walk in their wooded surroundings.  Annual visits from their families are their only contact with the outside world.

Most religious, of course, live and work among -- and more or less like -- the rest of us, vows notwithstanding. I attended high school under the Sisters of Mercy and Brothers of the Sacred Heart, but by that time the ruler-wielding tyrants of my parent's generation were reduced to folklore (thank you, DYFS!) so my impression of those in religious life was generally a positive one. I mostly stayed on their good side, with the exception of the morning my friend Staci ran up to the school bus one morning with a made-up "emergency" that was in reality the desire to have me join her for a few minutes of new-found freedom, thanks to her newly-acquired driver's license.  Needless to say the bus driver (who was also our science teacher and the wrestling coach... our school was so small, the jocks had to moonlight as drama geeks!) dutifully reported said "emergency" to Sister Pat.  When we arrived a few minutes later (coffee and bagels in hand, such grownups!) she was waiting for us at the door, wearing an expression right out of the Book of Revelations.  Generally though, she was a benevolent and fair leader, and an interview when she left a few years after my graduation revealed she had survived a difficult childhood, losing both parents at a young age.

My strongest association with a religious community, however, has been with the brothers at Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery and working farm in the woods of Vermont (more on that next week!) that my family has been visiting for most of my life.  My sister and I agree that the Priory would be our post-apocalypse "go-to place" assuming we could fight our way past the zombies on the New York Thruway.  If anybody would know how to deal with whatever was coming next with zenlike grace, it would be the Weston brothers.

After moving to the Episcopal Church for other reasons, I discovered that religious orders exist for us as well, albeit on a smaller scale, like everything else.  In our area is the mother house of the (Augustinian) Community of John the Baptist, and up the Hudson a bit is Holy Cross Monastery, a Benedictine community.  Both host retreats and invite visitors to their historic grounds.

All of this means that I was, as were many, very disheartened by the idea that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of what used to be known as the Inquisition, and most recently led by the current Pope) this past week portrayed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which oversees some 57,000 American nuns, as an unruly gang of Pied Pipers who are leading the unwitting Catholic faithful away from its doctrines, particularly on its favorite subjects of late, abortion and homosexuality. It wasn't so much that the sisters were making statements contrary to church doctrine; but they were not using their influence with the people they serve to echo the party line about the dangers of same-sex marriage and the scourge of free condoms.  It called elements of Sr. Laurie Brink's 2007 address to that body a "serious source of scandal." in that it suggested sisters might find a spiritual calling "beyond the church" or even possibly "beyond Christianity."  The Congregation announced that Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle had been appointed to give the Conference a thorough going-over and knock them back into line. 

The reaction was, predictably, swift and overwhelmingly on the side of the sisters. The Rev. James Martin, who writes for America, says, "More often than not, it is women religious who precede the men in working with the poor, in giving voice to the powerless and in dying on the fields of martyrdom. It is the women who do, do, do, and have done so with little recognition and historically even less pay, and all in a church where women's voices are often unheard, ignored or denied."  Martin started  a Twitter hashtag #WhatSistersMeanToMe, which has taken off with a life of its own.  In her Washington Post blog, Melinda Henneberger says "The Vatican, of course, knows a lot about scandal — to the point that the nuns are the only morally uncompromised leaders poor Holy Mother Church has left."  Sr. Joan Chittister, a well-known writer who once led the group facing the charges, said that a reformation from outside threatened the unique relationships sisters have with the people they serve, and that the questions this work causes them to ask must be answered if the church is to remain vibrant, relevant and respected.   "When you set out to reform that kind of witness, remember when it's over who doomed the church to another 400 years of darkness. It won't be the people of the church who did it."

From my perspective, the nuns are the only participants in this quarrel who are dealing in reality at the moment.  A person discovering an unplanned pregnancy or attraction to the same sex is less likely to be shunned by secular culture today than thirty years ago, so if the response is anything other than empathy and compassion, he or she is more likely to just walk away  and seek help elsewhere.   The sad reality is that Americans are abandoning organized religion in droves, in part because they are no longer afraid of what the church or society will do to them if they don't follow its rules.  While the mainline Protestant denominations and reform Judaism are responding (admittedly in fits and starts) by wrestling with these issues and trying to put them into context, the Vatican and the U.S. Council of Bishops seem to be stepping backwards and snuffing out any room for conversation.  Comparing gay activists to Nazis or the KKK and other extremist rhetoric from the pulpit will not draw the disaffected back into the fold; it will only cause them to tune the church out.  Withdrawing from social services ministries to avoid complying with laws requiring equal treatment of everyone won't get the laws rescinded, it will just punish those who benefited from those worthwhile ministries. Unfortunately for us moderates, the increasing ranks of the unchurched seem to make little distinction between one group of Christians and another. In the end, we get lumped together as an anachronism from a another time, amusing at best and destructive at worst, and we all stand to lose. 

It remains to be seen what the sisters will do. As described above, a calling is not something a person walks away from easily. This is not the first time a religious order has run afoul of the Vatican, and the response hasn't always exactly been timid. Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California responded to a similar 2009 inquiry, "We can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house. When people ask questions they shouldn’t ask, the questions should be answered accordingly."

If all else fails, they can always steal  Archbishop Sartain's carburetor.

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