|"Mary has chosen the best part..." (Lk 10.42)|
traditions, like the traditional Latin Mass, which is now called the "Extraordinary Form of the Mass." When I was a child, I was so confused by the descriptions in old books of Catholic rituals, I can easily imagine the confusion of those converted to Catholicism by the writings of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) et alia.
Yesterday I wrote an article about the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Cecilia's Abbey at Ryde, and as I was there mere days ago, of course they are still very much at the forefront of my mind. They are such delightful women, and not at all what I thought, as a teenager, women religious had to be.
At first I overemphasized in my article how marriageable my nun friends had been, and when B.A. came home for lunch, we had a row about this, with a great deal of shouting from me, poor man. However, I concluded (as usual) that he was quite right, and so I just emphasized the fact that my nun friends had good friends among men their age. Meanwhile, I realized that all my shouting and histrionics were due to my own regrets. Unfortunately, and I am very ashamed to admit this, when I was 19 or so and occasionally mistaken at pro-life conferences for a nun, I resented it. I thought it meant I was as plain and ineligible as a little brown mouse, which to my froward mind was a horrible, horrible fate.
Why are even religious girls so obsessed with female beauty? In Anne of Green Gables' Scots-Canadian Presbyterian tradition, such an obsession was considered shockingly frivolous. It was goodness that mattered, not good looks. "Handsome is as handsome does," summed it up. "Look in a mirror long enough, and you'll see the devil looking out," is what my mother's Presbyterian granny told her. And although we Catholic girls may find that funny, we have to admit that our lives are rather constrained and sometimes even stunted by the need to look "beautiful."
Ironically, there are few female garments more beautiful and flattering than the black-and-white habits and veils of a Benedictine nun. And there is also--which I know from being married--few attitudes more freeing than not caring if men-not-our-husband find us beautiful or not. As a teenager, I could not imagine not caring. And yet I knew perfectly well that, although objectively (I suppose) Brooke Shields was more beautiful than my mother, I found my own mother more beautiful than any other woman alive. And now I cannot imagine any group of women more beautiful than the Sisters at Ryde, eyes shining as they rush to the grille to chat away to guests.
However, that is now. When I was a teenager, I didn't know any contemplative nuns. At school I saw only one sister of apostolic life who wore her black habit, and she did so--we students assumed--in a cantankerous spirit of rebellion against her order. Her sisters wore a range of 1980s outfits and sometimes carried handbags of remarkable ugliness. At best the sisters resembled dignified maiden aunts, and at worst hard-nosed businesswomen in their mannish haircuts and suits. And although I felt faint stirrings of a religious vocation as a teenager, I really couldn't imagine myself in one of those suits.
What really poisoned the wellsprings of religious vocation was my own belief that the best female life was that of a Great Beauty and Wit, but the way religious life was presented to us was no antidote. Martha really socked it to Mary when the sisters presented the foundress of the school's order to us as a Feminist Heroine who Liberated Women Religious from the Cloister. The cloister was a sort of Jail in which Backward Male Prelates of the Counter-Reformation wished to Keep Women, and Were Very Suspicious of Women Who Wanted to Feed the Poor, Visit the Sick, Educate Girls, etc.
I was not the brightest of girls, but it struck me that if the main attraction of religious life was to be a feminist, then there were easier and more effective ways to be a feminist than to go into religious life. And these were the 1980s, remember. There was no internet. There were no quick ways to discover that religious life was more than feminist striving, and that contemplative life was not a kind of prison in which one wore itchy hair shirts, but freedom from the distractions and stupidities of the world. The pantsuits--and, admittedly, scarily foreign orders that advertised week in and week out in the CR--were it. And worse, when I went to university, I discovered some of the pantsuits there were into New Age tomfoolery.
(Nota Bene: I hasten to say that the women religious--who were not nuns, properly speaking--of my school were excellent, if not always popular, teachers and administrators. They did a good job turning out educated girls. They just didn't do a good job fostering vocations to the religious life.)
Therefore, it is not terribly surprising that I thought the best life for me was to be married, preferable to the most intelligent and ambitious man around, after demonstrating to myself that I was attractive to several men. An appalling attitude, but hardly an original one. And now who's sorry, eh?
Of course I am very happy to be married to B.A., and I'm glad I had at least a last-minute hope to have children, even if they never arrived. But when I think about Ryde, the happy nuns, their beautiful gardens, their glorious singing, their tasks, their perpetual virginity and their total gift of themselves to God, I think that I was robbed--or that I robbed myself, which is worse. This could have been mine, I thought last Thursday. This happy life of prayer and study, of music and fellowship, of beautiful habits and unabashed wearing of spectacles. This best life.
For let's not be all sentimental and prizes-for-everyone-who-has-not-got-prizes about this. The best life for men and women on earth, the numero uno vocation, the vocational pearl of great price, is monastic life. Even Thomas Aquinas, a mendicant friar, agreed that contemplative Mary has the edge over active Martha. But let not the best be the enemy of the good--marriage is great, apostolic life is great, and living out Single Life, if that is what you are called to do, can be great too. But life as a consecrated virgin in an enclosed monastery gets (literally) the golden ring and (metaphorically) first prize at the vocations fair.
As delighted as I am to hear that this long-term Single reader or that has married and had babies, I would be even more delighted if just one young reader read something I wrote about St. Cecilia's and applied to be a postulant. I think such a reader would have to be a bit of an "old soul" or certainly be more intelligent and mature than the vast majority of teenage girls are allowed to be today. Such a reader would not try to freeze the blood of her friends with gruesome exaggerations of the privations she expected to find in the cloister--as I did indeed once hear a girl do, and so was not at all surprised when she left. (Adolescent Catholic girls can be incredibly silly about something as beautiful and sacred and wonderful as cloistered life; they should leave it alone until they grow up. If they cry all the way there--another girl I knew--they shouldn't be allowed in!)
Once again I mourn the fact that I was so old before I had much sense. Truly we exaggerate the wonders of the adolescent state. Blah. Well, if you are a Catholic woman under 40 who has never been married, whether you are a punk (I think they have an ex-punk) or a classical violinist (they have one) or an accountant or a PhD (they have those, too) and are a stable sort of person, you know what I think you should read next.
By the way, the youngest nun is 23; she entered at 19. They tell me she gardens a lot. My friend Sister Mary Thomas, who is about 35, is in charge of the bees.