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"We want to see the nuns!"

Thursday, May 23, 2013
I could have been a nun--after I gave up the Star Trek obsession.
I've been thinking about teenage girls worrying that they'll never get married (or, thanks to Beyoncé, that nobody will "put a ring on it" ) and was reminded of my own teenage emergency plan. My emergency plan was that if I were desperate I would just go to Communist-oppressed Warsaw and casually drop my Canadian passport by "accident" outside churches after Mass. Now that I think about, this was flattering neither to Warsawians nor me, but hey, I was a teenager.

It might have been as unthinkable to my generation of teenagers that we would never, ever get married as it is to the current crop. And perhaps it was even more unthinkable because there were no young nuns around. This may make you laugh, but there were fewer young nuns when I was a teenager than there are today. And although there were about 900 girls in my convent school--by which I mean it was a school attached to a convent--there was no, no, NO attempt to interest us in the religious life. (Oh wait. There was one. More anon.)

Generations of girls were curious about the nuns, most of whom we never saw. Most of us walked past the convent part of the building, and the big chapel, to get to the door to the school. We knew they had a swimming pool somewhere, too, just for the nuns. They were among the great mysteries of the place. Where was the swimming pool? Where were the nuns?

When I began at the school, the most infirm nuns were kept on the top floor, and a door with major locks and bolts kept them safely on their side of the building. (An infirmary has since been built.) That added to our curiosity, to say nothing of our dread of old age and dementia.  In contrast, a few elderly nuns in ordinary if dowdy clothes pottered around the library. There were two or three nuns among the teachers, and the principal was a nun. Two nuns gave music lessons in a sort of musical corridor hidden behind the auditorium. So, as a matter of fact, nuns were not that hard to find. They were, perhaps, just hard to see  because they wore ordinary, boring, dowdy old lady clothes. (Except for the principal, who wore power suits.)

Boy, we hated their clothes. Have I mentioned their clothes?

I discovered more nuns when I started going to daily Mass in the chapel--something nobody ever encouraged us to do, although I believe there was an altar guild of some kind. And finally my friend Stef and I went to some nun-authority---or perhaps just the nun who sat in the porter's office near the convent doors--and said, "We want to see the nuns!"

There was some communication about this, and Stef and I were permitted to see the nuns. That is, we were permitted to visit the very oldest nuns on the third floor. And I remember us chatting with a very sweet shrunken nun with an Irish accent who might have been one hundred years old. But that is all.

I wonder if the nuns thought the 900 female barbarians of many nations who came lolloping past their convent five days of the week, white shirts untucked and blue kilts rolled, were more of a pain in the posterior than potential nuns. It's a shame because underneath our underclad exteriors beat devout, passionate and energetic hearts. We were ready to be inspired by nuns, had there been any nuns who wanted to inspire us. And as the high school program was then five years long, the nuns would have had a captive audience for five years.

Any adult in a high school has a captive audience for five years.

The one attempt to attract us to the religious life was extremely lame. When we were on retreat, I believe, a plump, bespectacled, dowdy 39+ nun (presumably the youngest around back then) was brought in to tell us about her life. She emphasized that her sexuality was not dead, and that when she saw a cute guy in a grocery store she thought, "Wow!" And she punctuated "Wow" by throwing her arms in the air.

We were very embarrassed.  Other authority figures over 39+ did not share the secrets of their sexuality with us, so we were appalled that this nun did. And I think I was actually disappointed that religious life did not kill sexual yearnings stone dead. So much for that.

Looking back, my last year of high school was the last year of my life that I could have heard a call to religious life. The summer between graduation and the first year of university I discovered I had caught my first real Catholic victim boyfriend, and that was it. The whole messy cycle of infatuation-boredom-break-up-infatuation began. And although it all worked out in the end, and I have B.A.,  I must say I am an eensy bit cross.

But I do not blame the poor nuns. As a matter of fact, when I was 38, a few weeks before I came to Scotland and met B.A., a nun at that very convent crept up to me while I was strolling the grounds and asked me if I had ever considered joining the order. (Bless her heart!) No, I blame history, really. I was a teenager in the 1980s, when religious life in my city was at its zenith nadir. The Sisters of Life, the first of the "new" nuns, did not get started until the year after my graduation, and it was some years before they came to Toronto. Amazingly, they had habits. When I first saw a Sister of Life in person, I was blown away. A nun...a young a habit! She looked beautiful.

I am absolutely delighted that the situation is so much better for young women today and there are now religious orders with young women in them, religious orders whose charism I can really get behind. And, realizing that I am probably more read by teachers than by teenagers, I implore readers to make sure teenage girls actually know about them.  When I was eighteen/nineteen and thinking about religious life, I really had nowhere to go and no-one to speak to who was not old (or "old"). Nobody really welcomed me or encouraged me, and of course I gave up the idea as soon as the first cute NCB asked me to be his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, nineteen is not too late for other women. I know two women who went to the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Cecilia at Ryde, one after finishing her PhD, and one some years after finishing her B.A.  In my UK circles, the Sisters of Saint Cecilia is where you go, darling, if they'll take you.  And in the USA and Canada there are of course the Sisters of Life, not to mentioned the fabled Tennessee Dominicans and the Dominican nuns (average age 28) in Ann Arbor, MI.

Of course there are other orders, too, but these are the ones I think of first, as they are the ones most attractive to younger women--and to me. As I never cease to brag, the Tennessee Dominicans turned me down sight unseen, and I would never want to join any order that would have me. I mean, come on. They'd have to be desperate, and this is not humility speaking. It is self-knowledge.

I wonder if religion teachers ever arrange class trips to convents and monasteries....? Just throwing that out there.