Nuns, for 200 years: vocations, paradoxes

September 22, 1996|By Alane Salierno Mason | Alane Salierno Mason,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Sisters in Arms," by Jo Ann Kay McNamara. Harvard. 768 pages. $35

In 1852 Baltimore, the first plenary council urged all bishops to attach schools to their churches, recognizing the importance of education to the Roman Catholic mission in the United States - work undertaken largely by nuns, who also founded 30 percent of the women's colleges in the United States. Jo Ann Kay McNamara, a history professor at Hunter College and at the CUNY Graduate Center, acknowledges her own debt to a Catholic education in the preface to "Sisters in Arms," her exhausting, fascinating, tragic and admirable history of Catholic women in religious orders over 2000 years.

With tremendous sympathy, she surveys the ongoing struggle of women both to serve God and to live by their own lights in the face of every kind of insult and adversity. Paradoxically, vows of chastity, submission to the rules of an order and the restrictions of the cloister often offered women a degree of autonomy unavailable in homes dominated by husbands and fathers.

In this unruly past, convents served as everything from elite prep schools and aristocratic salons or retreats to utopian communities, old-age homes, prisons, workhouses, homeless shelters and hospitals. Women came willingly and unwillingly, responding to a calling sometimes against violent family resistance or deposited to avoid dilution of property through marriage; they came as mystical or unmarriageable virgins, abandoned wives, independent widows, repentant prostitutes and children, alone or in families.

Even in the convent, they remained prey to greedy nobles, arrogant superiors, their monastic brothers and clerical fathers or envious neighbors: if too wealthy, they were attacked as "worldly"; if too poor, suspected of prostitution; if cloistered, they were imagined as sex-starved; if uncloistered, as seductresses or witches.

Clerical "reform" movements concentrated authority over the nuns' property and activities in the hands of the male hierarchy, while later anti-clerical revolutionaries had no use for contemplative "fanatics." In 1794, a community of Carmelites succumbed to the enforcement of secular "freedom" in France in a scene heartbreakingly described: "They had recovered their habits, or enough pieces of them to go as nuns to the guillotine, having cut their wimples around the neck so that the executioner need not touch them. As they mounted the tumbrils, they began to sing their offices.... Each nun in turn renewed her vows of religion and asked her prioress for permission to mount the scaffold."

Ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions abound here. Even within various communities, the tensions between public service and private contemplation, between individual mystic vision and communal harmony, between autonomy and discipline, could be irresolvable. Combined with McNamara's desire to give every community its due and therefore to cite multiple examples to support every point, the material can be confusing or simply overwhelming.

But when the institutional church remains hostile to feminism, and secular feminists tend to see religion as unrelieved oppression of women, it is a genuine service to have compiled this record of the iron will, society-building achievements, and fertile influence of these determined, inspired women - women whose faith cracked open a space, however small, for responsibility for the direction of their own minds, bodies, and spirits.

Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton and a contributor to Commonweal. From kindergarten through the second grade, she was educated by the sisters of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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