Tuesday 19 May 2015

The Best Life

"Mary has chosen the best part..." (Lk 10.42)
Today is Traddy Tuesday, a day dedicated to talking about the restoration of time-honoured Catholic  
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.


  1. I remember thinking to myself, just a few months after getting married, "Oh! I'll never be a nun." I felt a bit of a loss at that door having been closed (without ever really thinking seriously about going through when it had been open).

    Your visit makes me want to go visit our local monastery soon. I'm an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so we don't have many monasteries in the US. But, I'm fortunate to live near the lovely Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan (about 65 miles away from my home).

    I read your blog quite regularly, but I've never commented before. Thank you for blogging--I enjoy your posts.

  2. There was a great deal written by historians about women's freedom in the context of religious vocation at one time. If I remember correctly, however, the subtext of such works was usually an attempt to convince people that the moral dignity of women was not incompatible with religious life or Catholicism - a proposition that was under attack by the feminist movement as we then knew it. I didn't notice a tendency to derogate enclosed orders in particular among such writers; they dismissed all of them. I and other young historians, inspired in part by the remarkable work of Caroline Bynum, were trying to counter those assumptions. Being younger than I am, you would probably not have encountered such work until much later because much of it was confined to academic journals, but perhaps you would have found it helpful? I don't know. As I've become more "traddy", I've revised some of the ideas I had then.

    In any case, I was unaware until quite recently (post-internet) that female religious in our era had nearly all become so secularized. I rarely saw the stout women with short hair and baggy suits that you describe. Most of the women religious I encountered were tiny, and usually very old, French-Canadians in modified habits and veils that were still clearly nunlike. If I had been aware of the extent of the trend you describe, I suspect I might have attempted a different approach to writing about the history of such women.

    Alias Clio

  3. Not baggy suits. Business suits. In a way the sisters wearing the business suits--usually the younger, i.e. middle aged ones--looked quite sharp. (The maiden aunt types sometimes looked tidy and sometimes looked merely dowdy.) But the suit-wearers were most definitely in-the-world, as I suppose, being in apostolic life, they certainly were. (Interestingly, it was the middle-aged ones who were stout, where as the elderly ones were tiny, though not tiny.)

    As a child and teen, I read very little besides fiction. I think what would have had the most helpful influence on me was "In This House of Brede" by Rumer Godden.
    I think if I had read "In This House of Brede" as a teen, instead of Antonia White's "Frost in May", my life would have been quite different. However, "Frost", not "Brede", fell into my hands, and there may have been a divine purpose in that.

    1. I was fortunate to encounter "In This House of Brede" when I was about fifteen years old, and found it fascinating. I was baffled by how different its account of monastic life was from those found in supposedly true autobiographies and memoirs of religious life. I often heard horror stories about being taught by "mean nuns", too, and I had nothing with which to counter them because I had very little to do with them myself, in spite of having had many male and female religious in the family. As a result, as an adolescent I was much confused about them, as I was by many other aspects of Catholic life and faith.

      Antonia Frost, poor creature, was so neurotic that she was not to be trusted on such matters, although she does appear to have been badly treated by the sisters at her Catholic boarding school. Not one but two daughters wrote tell-all biographies of her. She re-converted to Catholicism after having left the Church, too, but I assume you knew that. Perhaps some readers won't be aware of it, though, so I mention it for their benefit.


  4. Seraphic,
    it seems like you are collecting a small group of historians/historians-in-the-making who study nuns! and Bynum's work still inspires.

    1. Sister Mary Thomas wrote a doctoral thesis on Benedictine nuns and now she IS a Benedictine nun! :-D

  5. Yesterday you had me dreaming of being back in exciting London, today I'm dreaming of beautiful habits and singing vespers....... I too grew up only seeing feminist nuns in business suits and short haircuts. What I shock I got when I visited Rome in my twenties and saw all these beautiful young nuns!

    Aussie girl in NZ

    1. Yeah, me, too, although the shock was perhaps less dramatic for me in Rome, for had I seen some beautiful young Sisters of Life when I was in my late 20s or early 30s.

  6. "Why are even religious girls so obsessed with female beauty?"

    Because most religious girls wish to get married, and a man won't marry you unless he thinks you're beautiful.

    "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."

    I believe you. It's just that we don't know which one of these men is Husband Among the Ones Who Are Not, and so we have to keep a broad audience in mind.

    I have never seriously considered becoming a nun, although I suppose I wouldn't rule it out. Is it weird that the thought of having no men around puts me off though?

  7. No, I don't think that's weird. That put me off, too. However, they get visits from a priest, of course, and they can receive letters and occasionally they get permission to see a male visitor in the parlour. I suppose it's all very easy to sigh over all-female life when I know darned well I have a perfectly splendid man back home.

    As for the beautiful thing, men are a lot more varied in their tastes than we give them credit for--or are when they haven't had their brains addled by internet porn. I am not, and never have been, a head-turning beauty from any but the most affectionate female perspective, but various men have found me beautiful, so there you go. I think the most important thing is to look happy and healthy, really, and then after that adopting as "feminine" an appearance as possible, although naturally that changes from culture to culture, age to age. In general, I think men (church-going Catholic men anyway) prefer feminine-looking women, but no doubt there are those who prefer boyish women like, er, I'm not sure. Anne Hathaway with a pixie cut, maybe.

  8. "I am not, and never have been, a head-turning beauty from any but the most affectionate female perspective."

    Me too! Today an older middle-aged Ukrainian lady I work with addressed me with, "Hello, beautiful." She thinks I look like one of the women Chopin was in love with or something.


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