Unveiled The Hidden Life of Nuns by Cheryl Reed was part of my vacation reading. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've always had a fascination about what goes on behind convent walls, and when I ran across this at the library (with a copyright of 2004 rather than 1964) I grabbed it.
Cheryl Reed is a journalist raised as a Fundamentalist Protestant who flirted with Catholicism before rejecting it and its teaching on the hierarchy and birth control in favor of Orthodoxy. She spent five years visiting a variety of women's religious communities throughout the country and writes about her experiences and impressions.
She begins her journey in a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota where she meets both a nun who wears the traditional habit and keeps her hair in a crew cut and a feminist who says that she doesn't know if she would remain Catholic if she wasn't a Benedictine. Another community she visited was the Passionists. She noted that they still shave their heads and that they use the discipline (of DaVinci Code fame.)Some of her comments about them and their penitential practices indicate that she doesn't understand Catholic teaching about penance and indulgences.
She discusses the habit and I found this quote best summed up her attitude: "But to me it [the habit] signified total obedience, and aspect of religious life I was having trouble accepting. The orders that retain the habit seemed to require complete devotion to Church practices and theology and there didn't seem to be room for questioning and debate." She seems more impressed with sisters like one in Chicago who runs a shelter for women and children who around 1980 (remember, this book was probably researched in the late 1990's) stopped going to mass, unless it was a celebration with her community, or she was with her parents. Sorry, but I just don't "get" a nun who doesn't go to mass at least weekly. I have to say though that even she wondered if the Benedictines in Ferdinand Indiana were doing the right thing in creating a "summer camp" atmosphere for their vocation retreats and so carefully crafting the image they presented to the press (including her).
Using illustrations from the lives of sisters, she talks about the meaning of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to today's religious women. While she clearly is impressed by those who embrace material poverty to serve the poor, she also admits it isn't the lifestyle for her. She seems far more impressed with those who see the vow of obedience to be obedience to the will of God (as interpreted by the sister in question) than she does by those who see it as obedience to superiors and the Church.
She ends the book comparing two groups--a group of women who renounced their vows and broke away from the IMH Community in California and formed their own community which includes men and families (and lesbians in relationships) and the sisters who stayed in the community. The breakaway group welcomed her and she admitted that if they were closer to her home, she'd consider joining. The group who remained did not, and she described them as a bunch of old women waiting to die. She concludes that the future of religious life is with groups like the breakaway group, rather than with traditional religious communities. Frankly, I find it funny that she can't see why so many of these groups are having trouble finding recruits. She admits that some traditional habited communities were attracting young women, but just can't admit that they might be on to something. As I said on Amy Welborn's blog today, why would a young woman who loves the Church want to join a group of women who don't go to mass, who see the hierarchy as oppressive, or who practice Buddhism and Goddess worship (yup, she mentioned nuns that did)? Why would a young woman who doesn't go to mass, who sees the hierarchy as oppressive, or who practices Buddhism or goddess worship want to spend her life in a Catholic religious community?