Learning ‘Nun-ness’ in the Novitiate

Since spring, it seems every author anywhere chimed in about the nuns – to some they are culprits of too much social justice, to others crusading bus riders extraordinaire, and to some still the educators and mentors of a generation.

If asked in May as I finished undergraduate work where I would be come September, the answer would not have even approximated living in a convent, of sorts, with two remarkable sisters and spending my spare time with several others protesting, praying, and playing. Indeed, my time in September consisted continually of shattered expectations and surprising graces cyclically working to change me.

Risking cliché then, I offer reflections from my time living with the nuns.

Mid-September afforded the Volunteers an opportunity to celebrate 200 years of the Loretto Community’s luminary presence in our darkened world. In what I took to calling our ‘off-brand’ Nuns on the Bus, Loretto members and supporters from the Washington, DC area gathered for public witness on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. We traveled to sites of injustice in the nation’s capital where we prayed, sang, and intoned a litany of past saints and present heroes.

These moments recalling joy and suffering, these moments of mourning and celebration that occurred across DC that Saturday epitomized, in their form and their content, the beautiful spirituality of tension I find common amongst sisters today.

These women uphold the finest traditions of Catholic religious life – the pursuit of justice and peace, unwavering solidarity with all peoples and especially those marginalized communities, utter rejection of ‘-isms’ of oppression, and a daily recommitment to embrace with joy the blessings of life and creation.

Simultaneously, they embrace the Spirit’s dynamism active in our world as a new church community emerges from the inclusive People of God we’re called to. Where male clergy increasingly fail us in a vacuum of division and corruption, the sisters quietly, but deftly, assume leadership and seek a future where all are truly, deeply, and unconditionally welcomed.

The sisters I have met and come to know work tirelessly to promote a better world and a better Church they may never know at ages when most Americans are practiced bocce pros in retirement communities. Inherent to their work, I perceive a persisting tension between tradition and progress. Respecting the good work of nuns past while acknowledging those models cannot sustain the present, loving the Church as People of God in history while expressing distaste for the corrupted state of church institutionalized today, and condemned for loving too greatly while refusing to respond with anything but love enacted.

As a young Catholic attempting to harmonize faith in Christ with the realities of Catholicism today, the sisters’ witness to living tension joyfully is long-awaited bread on my journey.

Four years wandering in the spiritual desert that is The Catholic University of America left me malnourished and yearning. A faith I love from my deepest being conflicted critically with the actions of a church agonizingly suppressing the very Body of Christ it claims to be. I concurrently studied the theology emerging from Vatican II’s vision and watched it’s outright dismissal by chaplains and students alike as they sought to return Catholicism to a primordial golden age of the 1950s.

Synchronizing beautiful ideals and demoralizing realities continues as an open wound in my faith, but the joyful determination of the sisters to live the tension so they can get the important work of the Gospels done inspires me to a greater extent each day. In every situation I attend with them, the sisters through their actions alone teach young Catholics how to exist in a Church and world in desperate need of healing.

In my role as a student of religion and history, I find no conclusive answer yet for the reasons behind the unique confluence of historical, ecclesiastical, and societal factors that created this distinctive group of American nuns today. In my life as a Christian though, I find the very persuasive influence of the Spirit that elevates these women in a world urgently needing their wisdom and leadership.

The sisters make it infinitely easier for those of us around them to love, to create community, to spread joy– their sacrifice draws forth from the rest of us our innermost and finest selves, which is sainthood according to Merton. While a million dollars and three miracles aren’t readily available to me, I stand firm that this crop of rabble-rousing religious are saints calling forth the rest of us to join them.

As I exit my ‘novitiate’ month living with Jeannine, Roni, Maureen, Alice, and many other sisters, I now know well how to fold, do dishes, and sort the recycling the nun way. I also increasingly and imperfectly attempt to spread love, sow hope, and share joy as these sisters do.

It is my fervent prayer that myself, and my fellow volunteers, will grow in our ‘nun-ness’ this year because we will never be amidst more qualified teachers in how to be witnesses to love.


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