Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Written June 11, 2013

I have been visiting Episcopal Convents on a regular basis for about 14 years, hoping to discern whether I was really being called to religious life or if it was just another one of my crazy countercultural ideas.  For many years I went twice a year to St. Mary's Retreat House, which sits right behind the Mission in Santa Barbara, to see the Sisters of the Holy Nativity.  I also visited the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati and the Society of St. Margaret in Boston.  In the meantime I also met monks from the Order of the Holy Cross, Society of St. Francis and the Society of St. John the Evangelist in my various church activities and travels, and in every encounter with every Monk and Nun I asked the same question: "What is it like?" 

I'm a planner, a worrier (I always thought the Scandal song "Warrior" should be reworked for me as "I am - the Worrier.") and a pessimist.  Every choice in my life has been made with tremendous trepidation, and I felt like I just couldn't really make the leap into being a Nun until I got a concrete sense of what my life would really be like.  I'm a details person.  I needed to know what kind of mattress I would have, what I would wear, what kind of towels I would use and all the infinitesimal sensory details of everyday life.

Really all these details were just a substitute for the real fear of "Would I fail miserably?" but still I pressed on, asking and asking, and I never got an answer.  Monastics answer questions in a very general, philosophical way and of course that doesn't compute in a robotic, binary brain like mine.  "What is it like?" I would ask, over and over, and I would get answers like this:

"It's different in every community, and it's different for every person."

"No, I mean," I would ask "What is it REALLY like?"

They would then launch into a long philosophical answer that would make the Dalai Lama sound taciturn:  

"Well the Religious Life feels like whatever you want it to feel like.  It is your choice, and your own subjective view of what God wants you to feel.  There are lessons and hardships and uncertainty, and always you are growing closer to God.  If you are meant to be in the Community, God will show you…"

Yeah, ok that's all very valuable but none of it really ever answered my question.

Now that I am actually in the Religious Life and not observing it from the position of a visitor - an audience to the outward indications - I know now, fully, why I kept asking that same question. It's because Monasteries and Convents have always been shrouded in mystery and seen by the public through a tangle of misconceptions that come from hearsay, overly sentimental books and very cheesy movies.   

When I was in discernment, all I knew of my life to come was what I had learned from reading The Nun's Story over and over, and from reading books by non-Monks and Nuns about their own visits to Communities.  I had the same misconceptions that everybody has about a very cold, stark and harsh Medieval life.  Until I was received as a Postulant in October I really thought I might have to shave my head and be allowed to shower only once a week - just like the Sisters in the Nun's Story.  I thought I would spend most of my days scrubbing floors, on my knees, and cleaning toilets.  My Nun's cell, I imagined, would be a cold cement cubicle with a thin mattress, only a little cotton blanket for cover and only a tattered curtain to separate me from loudly snoring Sisters.  I figured there would be very little heat in the winter, and no air conditioning in the summer.  I suspected that I'd be ordered around like a child and told to flog myself with small whips as penance for my sins.  When I realized that everybody else probably has these same preconceived notions about the Religious Life, I finally understood why nobody in their right mind would want to become a Monk or a Nun these days.  

But - in spite of all my Medieval fears, I did it anyway -  only because I'd gotten to the point in my life where couldn't NOT do it.  I thought the Convent would be so awful, and I would end up with consumption or tuberculosis from the hardship of my life, but I decided it would be worth it.  I would suffer these adversities gladly because my beloved Savior suffered much worse for my sake.

Boy, was I wrong.  The books and movies about Religious Life are way, way, way off the mark.  

After the Second Vatican Council in the mid-sixties, the life of most Monks and Nuns changed forever.  It went from being Medieval to being humanistic.  The Anglican Church followed the lead of Roman Catholics in transitioning Monasteries and Convents from places of discipline and harshness and humiliation to being places where women and men of prayer could grow and flourish.  Now - nobody's perfect so it's taken many decades for the shift to really kick in.  Some Communities are still stuck in the Middle Ages and some are so modern and healthy that they resemble hippie communes but without the drugs and free love.  

I can't speak for every other Community, but I can speak for this one, and now I would like to answer my own question "What is it like?" from my own limited, subjective point of view in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding this life. 

First of all - very importantly - our Superiors are no longer called "Mother" and we are no longer expected to be blindly obedient children to them.  They are called "Sister Superior,"  they encourage and expect feedback, and they regularly ask each Sister how she's doing.  We don't observe the rules of Silence, or sit through six prayer services a day or eat fish on Fridays out of some meek, frightened obedience to our Superior but rather out of our mutual agreement that these things are extremely important to us.  We aren't reprimanded for our faults like toddlers, but more like employees at any modern company would be.  The basic structure of Community - at least in this Community - is much more similar to many companies where I've worked than it is to anything I've read in a book or seen in a movie.  

So what is the Religious Life like - to me, in my brief experience of it? It is surprisingly nice, cozy and secure. There is nothing about it that feels harsh and Medieval.  We live our lives with many ancient customs, but we don't live an ancient life.  I shower every day, just like I did in my secular life, and I did not have to cut off all my hair.  Each community has different rules about what the Sisters wear and look like, and in this particular one they don't really give a hoot what my hair looks like.  We all mutually agree that we don't want to be too concerned with outward appearances and vanity, so I can't dye my hair bright red or wear a face full of piercings, but that's fine with me.  Those rules make sense to me.  

I don't sleep in a concrete cubicle.  I have a very small, simple private room that is less spartan than it is Zen.  My twin bed is extremely comfortable, I can have as many blankets as I want, and I've never been freezing or swelteringly hot in the Convent.  There are five of us here on the third floor and we share two bathrooms, and everyone is very respectful and polite about the shower schedule so there are no conflicts there.  I also have a nice little office with a door (something I never had in my secular work life) and I have a computer, printer and unrestricted access that any responsible grownup would have to the web, email, Facebook, etc.  All of the Sisters have cell phones.  They're not iphones - just simple flip phones - and we're expected to be responsible about them, but we can use them as we see fit.

All my clothing, shoes and food are provided for me by the Community, and they are more than adequate.  The food here is so delicious and abundant that all of us Sisters are constantly fretting about our weight.  When I get into the shower there are three or four different, excellent brands of each soap, shampoo, etc. that the Sister in charge of that category has put there for all of us.  If I want a pair of shoes, or anything else, I'll ask the Superior if my particular choice is ok and works within the current budget, and she tells me yes or no.  Just like in a (healthy) marriage, we're expected to spend money prudently and wisely, always keeping the big picture in mind.  I get a small allowance every month, in cash, and I never spend it all because I can't think of very many things I need.  

I think many people feel called to religious life but they don't believe Convents and Monasteries have anything to offer modern men and woman.  After I entered I was pleasantly surprised to find that this life does offer quite a few things that I, and most modern human beings, do need on a very deep level.  I think in this busy, noisy insane world most of us crave peace and quiet.  Most of us, even non-spiritual types, also desperately need to feel that our life has meaning.  Life in a religious community offers both of those things in plenitude.  There are many frustrations and imperfections and challenges, but we have space around our heads to really focus and think, in the silence, and we have more strength to deal with the stresses of our life together because we feel like what we are doing is tremendously worthwhile.  I'm just as busy and sometimes overwhelmed as I ever was in my secular work life, but it doesn't feel the same.  I feel like everything I am doing, even the smallest of things, is helping to fight the good fight.

Modern people - especially single women - also need to feel like our future is secure.  No future is totally secure of course, but community life comes pretty close.  We Sisters have health insurance, homes, food and clothing until the day we die.  As long as our Community stays afloat, we are taken care of by it.  We are also a team, and we go through the tragedies and triumphs of life together - leaning on each other all the way.  Even if this Community went bankrupt and we lost everything, there are other Communities in the Episcopal Church that we could join.  Sisters take each other to doctor appointments, fuss over each other when we're sick, and even today at lunch one of my Sisters saw me looking pensive and pulled me aside afterwards to ask "Are you ok?"  We keep an eye on each other, and we genuinely care about each others' health and happiness.

Now, I also don't want to paint an inaccurate picture, also seen in movies and books, of saintly Sisters gliding down hallways and speaking to each other only in tones of sweetness and wisdom.  Out of all the awful things I expected, the only one that actually held true was that living with a bunch of women is not easy. The way Sisters relate to each other is less like the Sound of Music and more like a very old married couple in which each partner thinks the other one is totally nuts and that all their actions are insane and preposterous.  Sisters in community sometimes speak to each other in that annoyed short-hand style that old couples have, and oftentimes it's downright hilarious.  They scold each other and argue over crazy things that make no sense, and they go behind each other opening and closing windows, turning off lights and griping about each other just like old married people do.  Learning to live with all their idiosyncrasies, and hoping that they'll learn to live with mine, is certainly a challenge but it's something we really do work on every day.  We also acknowledge frequently that in spite of the fact that we drive each other crazy, we really love each other and any of us would gladly take a bullet for another.  I knew that living with people would be hard since I've always been a loner and loved living by myself, but I'm pleasantly surprised to find out that it's the ONLY part that is hard for me. This friction of living together is also one of the many reasons that we're all totally ok with the rules of Silence.  Silence in a community of women is a very, very good and necessary thing.  Any married man reading this is probably nodding his head vigorously about right now.

In the weeks leading up to my Novice Clothing I went from anxiety to sheer terror.  The night before the ceremony I had colder feet than any bride could ever imagine.  I thought the minute I was brought into the Community I'd be whisked off to a cement room to have my head shaved, and handed a  whip with which to flog myself every night for my sins.  The minute I was brought into the Chapel in my new Habit, though, I was flooded with a tremendous sense of peace and happiness.  I felt like the weight of the world - of fighting to survive as I hurtled toward a dark, uncertain, solitary future - was gone.  I knew that God would take care of me and in the words of Julian of Norwich ""…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."   I'm still very new, but this feeling still has not left me.  

Every day I'm still running into, and dispelling, another misconception about being a Nun.  I was talking to my Novice Director just a couple of weeks ago about rules concerning our appearance and I said "I need to know some more specifics.  I know some things - like I can't dye my hair or shave my legs…" and my Novice Director interrupted me and said "What do you mean?  I shave my legs all the time."  HAHA!  Who knew?  

So - what is it like?  It's not perfect, but it's wonderful.  If I had known how wonderful it is, and that the Episcopal Church had religious communities, I would have done it when I was 18.  The religious life has so much deep joy and stability and meaning that people really need, and I pray that more people will find us.

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