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.