THE CALLING by Catherine Whitney


A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns
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Journalist Whitney (Whose Life? A Balanced, Comprehensive View of Abortion from Its Historical Context to the Current Debate, 1991, etc.) returns here to her Catholic schoolgirl roots in a work mingling autobiography and ethnography. After her father’s death, she traveled back to the Seattle area for his funeral and made the inevitable trek up to Rosary Heights, a motherhouse run by the same order (even the same nuns) that had trained her as a child. Whitney chooses to interview these nuns for her book, making her research effort an intensely personal journey. Like many other Catholic baby boomers, Whitney had left the Church in her late teens, turned off by its authoritarianism and its apparent oppression of women, only to begin craving a deeper spirituality in midlife. (In particular, her detailed descriptions of pre-Vatican II parochial school will elicit many shared memories from Catholics of her generation.) But in contrast to other “growing up Catholic” tales, this one is almost obsequiously respectful: Whitney’s parents are shown as devout and loving working-class saints, and the nuns are always benevolent, if strict. The author remains conscious that the nuns, who appear very constrained by Catholic patriarchy, continue nonetheless to negotiate powerful spaces for themselves within the patriarchy. She is fascinated by their covert but palpable feminism. Whitney allows the nuns’ stories of their callings, convent lives, and occasional deconversions to intermingle in their diversity; she draws a portrait of complex, engaging, and committed women. Throughout, however, there’s the sense that in seeking out these contemporary nuns, Whitney was already nostalgic about them as a thing of the past; the average age in the order is 55, and there are hardly any new converts. So she writes wistfully, as if chronicling an endangered species. Oversweet at times, but thoughtful and well written.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1999
ISBN: 0-517-70854-X
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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