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A Fortress Against Fear?

In the most recent issue of the Oxford American, Alex Mar has a long piece about her visit to two communities of women religious in Texas. One is a Dominican priory in Houston, and the other is a cloistered convent in Lufkin. I found the article interesting for many reasons, not least because my wife, Katie, is from Houston and was taught by the Dominican sisters at St. Agnes Academy, which receives a shout-out by the prioress (Class of '56). We also drive through the small town of Lufkin at least once a year, while making our way home for the holidays. What will be more interesting to Commonweal readers, I imagine, are Mar's own reflections on why she and others of her (and my) generation (we're in our early 30s) seem drawn to the more contemplative vocations over their active counterparts, like the Dominicans. Here are some key passages:

In light of all this work the [Dominican] sisters are doing, the fact that younger women, in 2013, are more interested in the contemplative communities is shocking. What’s even more shocking is how I can relate to them: when I’m honest with myself, the strange, exotic, locked-away life appeals to me more than the idea of the renegade activist nun. And my fantasy of the cloister is one I’m having trouble justifying.

Perhaps it’s that the active nun’s life makes too much sense—it has a clear link to my identity as an ambitious woman who has built her life around work she believes in—and their ministry reminds me far too much of the grand plans and striving of so many people I know. There is no clean break with my life, none of the transcending-of-the-world that I associate with a nun’s calling. In other words, the active sister’s life does not provide the escape from the mundane that I’ve always imagined the cloistered life would. These women’s determination to confront the world—to work with people who have close to nothing, people who’ve been exploited more deeply than most of us can imagine, people who stand to lose their families and homes because of politics—runs completely counter to what I fantasize religion might one day provide me. Part of me wishes I were a bona fide believer, simply in order to rise above my anxieties and petty concerns and inevitable defeats and unchecked desires—never mind the true problems and tragedies of the world. Isn’t a nun someone who gets to transcend this mess, and even be rewarded for it?

What the women without habits are doing, their “calling” as social activists out in the world, is obviously useful, while that of the cloistered sisters is not. The contemplative life replaces the pragmatic with the romantic, the sense of being special and apart, tapped into some kind of secret knowledge that gives your life meaning—knowledge inaccessible to everyone else wandering around outside the monastery walls. Its layers and layers of ritual create a space in which each action becomes uncommon, almost superhuman.


Maybe the monastery walls serve as a fortress against fear. Maybe there is no loneliness inside—only an alone-ness that’s exalted. Inside, even the most obvious chores are never completely mundane; inside, even the peeling of a potato or the making of a bed or the hanging of the wash or the mopping of a hall happens on the moon. Even your frustrations and your secret moments of boredom have become lunar. You are within the walls, behind the grille, pacing in the courtyard, its interior invisible from outside, invisible to that place called the world—and even if you could be seen, you are always wrapped in white and black from head to toe, covered even when sleeping. You made a choice, and every day since then, yours has been a separate planet.

These [Dominican] sisters, on the same planet as the rest of us, are without that protection. Their only fortress is a closely held conviction—in step with what Catherine wrote, seven hundred years ago: “Build yourself a cell within your heart, and never put a foot outside it.” For this, I think, a special bravery is required.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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Ah yes. Will our traditon every resolve the age old conflict between the active/contemplative life. Sts Martha and Mary pray for us!

The contemplative life, as well as the active religious life have never had biblical roots. Jesus made the point about how prayer is important. But there is no mention of a completely cloistered life. The "religious life" was born out of a protest at the wordly life of bishops and clergy who lost sight of the gospel. Just as many have today. Vatican II restored the idea that all were called to holiness and that clergy and religious were not superior to other Catholics. Some lament the decline in religious life and the clergy. But it is not a cause for regret as others have filled the gaps quite nicely. A church which calls all to holiness is more true to the gospel. The "escape" into a religious or clerical life made more sense when mediocrity crept into the church. Marcus blames Augustine for fostering mediocrity. Vatican II cleared up the distinction. All the baptized are "set apart'  for the fullest life of the gospel. 

It seems to me there are many misconceptions about the religious life, specifically the contemplative life, misconceptions based on a different understanding of the uses of prayer.  Christians (at least the old style ones) believed and still believe that prayer is a form of action, that it can help to change people and the world at large.  Even the strictest contemplatives don't cut themselves off from the problems of the day.  Reading Thomas Merton makes that very clear.  And he, like many contemplatives who communicated with the outside world by means of their letters and other writings, often did affect the world for its good.  At least two of the greatest mystics  Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, were both directly and extremely influential on the events of their days by means of both their letlters and personal meeting with men of power -- like popes.

Another great misapprehension about the religious life is that contemplatives lead lives bereft of intimate personal relationships.  On the contrary, if what they tell us is true (and I believe them), their relationships with God Himself are of the most personal and intimate kind possible, taking place as they seem to do in the very depths of the contemplative's soul.  

Also, the concepts of God of the religious (who see Him as real persons) seem to be basically different from images of the non-religious people who visualize God as a non-personal, far-away, indifferent creator or orderer of the universe. 

 What God is, where He is, what prayer is -- the differences are huge betwen what the religious think about these subjects  and what the seculars think about them.  The result is often a gross misunderstanding of what life in a convent is about.

I should add that maybe the yound women of today, having despaired of finding their soul-mates  in the ubiquitous come-meet-some-hot-guys internet sites, are looking for him instead behind the convent walls.

Ann: I agree with you about the misconceptions concerning the life of prayer embraced by cloistered nuns, and I think that Mar is guilty of some of what you suggest.

What is more interesting to me, though, is her account of why it seems that non-habited, active nuns (and, I would add, plain-clothes priests) are increasingly viewed suspiciously not only by so-called "seculars," but also by certain members of the Church itself. I think that Mar's reflections are insightful insofar as she suggests that these vowed religious seem somehow less obviously "holy" or distinct from the surrounding culture, and therefore, potentially more susceptible to its temptations and also less ready-made to serve as the occassion for own projections of what faith should look like. It is also interesting that she traces this uncomfortability with the active life to a fear within herself, namely the fear that faith isn't really that distinct or set apart, that is not otherwise than the ordinary, that it is not an easy escape from the pressures of the world. I think she's right that accepting this view of faith does take a kind of "special bravery" (or grace?).   

This is not to say that many contemplative religious don't have this non-escapist understanding of faith or that they are all necessarily romantics. It is to recognize that perhaps many of us, "religious" and "secular" alike, do and are.

Eric --

I think that you are right that the new mode of dedicated life of the new nuns is, well,  new.  The difference from the old ones seems to be their emphasis -- working diretctly in the world, spending less of their time at prayer, and living in smaller groups.  At the same time, there are other young women who are attracted to the older, more shut away, contemplative life.  And it is shut away.  We've always had totally cloistered Carmelites here (with their original convent behind high walls in the noisy Frenc Quarter), though I'm not sure whether there are any left.  Last i read they they were down to less than a handful and living in a small house in Gentilly (you know, where Walker Percy's Binx lived).  

My point is that life changes, sometimes drastically, even in the Catholic Church, even in convents.  We shouldn't be surprised (as the poor trads are), but the question always remains:  are the change for the good? Mar sees clearly that the changes are in two directions -- one towards the shut in contemplative life, and one towards the activist life.  What is dying are the houses full of thoroughly subservient women at the beck and call of priests and bishops.  

I can'thelp but think that both movements are good or the Church, including the emergence of so many nuns out of the convents.  Too bad Rome doesn't seem to value that change.  Yet.

Ann: Your point about the contemplative life as a way of subverting traditional notions of obedience to the hierarchy makes me think of Hildegard of Bingen, who placed her fellow conscecrated virgins above the clergy in the spiritual hierarchy. I think you are right that Mar misses this kind of "activism," but it's a kind of activism that's easy to miss from a "modern" perspective. When I read "Scivias" with my students, many of them read Hildegard's discussion of virginity as old-fashioned prudishness, instead of the subversion of cultural expectations surrounding marriage and family that I think it was. All that to say, yes: both forms of religious life reject a kind of subservience and have their own disciplines of empowerment.

Eric --

Must look at some of  Hildegard's writing sometime.  But just on the basis of what I've read about her,  there's something about her that I find off-putting.  Too New-Agey?  Maybe it's because of her descriptions of her visions.  Too medieval?  Or maybe I'm confusing her with someone else.

Ann: Like most visionary theologians, Hildegard definitely gets enlisted for a lot of "New-Agey" causes, but I think most of these appropriations obscure the sophistication of her writtings. I would recommend the German film about her life that came out a few years ago, "Vision," which I think did a pretty good job of giving a more mature picture of Hildegard and her influence.  

Ann, you might try the edition of Hildegard's Scivias, from the Paulist Classics of Western Spirituality series, or the Penguin Classics anthology, Selected writings: Hildegard of Bingen.  A lot of the "New-Age" taint around her comes from bad versions of her writings put out years ago.

Heinrich Schipperges' The World of Hildegard von Bingen is a good overview of her context, and has wonderful illustrations as well. 

And don't miss her music -- many recordings.  (The Penguin collection includes a discography.)

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