A Nun’s Life

Wacky women or the first feminists? Three books to help you decide for yourself.

At the end of August, an Italian priest was forced to scuttle his plans for an online beauty pageant for nuns, because it had been, in his words, “deliberately misinterpreted.” Father Antonio Rungi, from a town near Naples, noted that he had already received numerous requests from nuns to take part in his “Sister Italia 2008” contest, which was supposed to show off the “chaste, inner beauty” of sisters.

Needless to say, this story was picked up by hundreds of otherwise respectable media outlets.

How come? Because nuns are wacky.

Or, more accurately, pop culture and the mainstream media leads us to believe they are.

Nuns are silly (Sally Field cruising the skies in her modest-but-aerodynamic habit in “The Flying Nun”); clueless (almost everybody in “Sister Act” except lounge-singer-turned-Carmelite-nun Whoopi Goldberg); or repressed (sultry-but-chaste Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story”). Today when a nun comes on screen—TV, film or Youtube—it’s usually for a cheap laugh. Even books based on the lives of real-life sisters provide much of the same images.

This is pretty surprising when you consider what these supposedly “nutty” sisters have accomplished throughout American history. During times when women were routinely denied opportunities for leadership, sisters founded colleges and universities on a shoestring; ran inner-city schools for vast immigrant populations; and managed far-flung hospital systems for people of all faiths. All this while living together in cramped residences, earning little money, and putting up with those penguin jokes.

In recognition of just a few of their incredible accomplishments, here are three books that take a serious, more accurate look at the lives of those “first feminists.” Hopefully they’ll get you thinking there’s something inspiring about three words you don’t hear too often — poverty, chastity and obedience.

“Today when a nun comes on screen — TV, film or Youtube — it’s usually for a cheap laugh.”

Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen. I know a woman who is never without three copies of this astonishing novel—one for her purse, one for her nightstand, and one to give to someone who hasn’t read it yet. Ron Hansen’s story about the religious experiences of a young sister in upstate New York during the early 1900s (loosely based on the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th century French Carmelite) reads like an extended poem. Hansen, author of the new book Exiles, cannot write a bad sentence and provides a window into the celibate life that fewer women are choosing these days—at least intentionally. The last lines of the book—don’t peek! —are among the most powerful in all modern fiction.

Dead Man Walking, by Sister Helen Prejean. Yes, you’ve seen the movie that won Susan Sarandon her Academy Award. But besides Sarandon and Sean Penn, there’s a reason why this film remains the best modern portrait of a “woman religious,” as Catholics say. The reason is this gritty autobiography, in which an earthy nun traces her journey from a cloistered (not literally in this case) sister to her large-hearted work as the spiritual adviser to men on death row. Lately Sister Helen has become a public advocate for ending the death penalty and her efforts led to changes in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Read this book to meet a person who embodies women’s religious life far more accurately than Whoopi Goldberg did.

The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris. Okay, it’s technically about nuns and monks, but this collection of loosely connected essays is my absolute favorite contemporary spiritual memoir. Norris, a poet, moves back with her husband (another poet) to her grandparents’ house in Lemmon, South Dakota. To her surprise, this thoroughly Protestant writer is drawn into friendships with members of a nearby Benedictine monastery, which leads to her astute reflections on what their lives might teach us.Her essay on the “virgin martyrs,” those early Christian women who died rather than renounce their virginity, which reclaims them as feminist heroes, is a theological tour de force. It will have you thinking differently about chastity. Well, maybe.

I’m as much a fan as the next movie buff for people like Sister Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and Sister Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” But these three books will challenge what you know from Turner Classic Movies and remind you that nuns don’t need a beauty pageant to show how beautiful they are.