A behind-the-scenes look at the surprisingly varied experiences of contemporary American nuns.
A generation ago, GQ senior writer Kaylin reflects, “going to convent school and then entering the novitiate as a teenager was a plan as reasonable and almost as common as a young woman’s pursuit of a business degree is today.” But the population of nuns has dropped precipitously—from 181,000 in 1965 to about 84,000 today—as a result of changes in the Catholic Church’s policies, new career opportunities for women, and an increasing emphasis on self-realization in American culture. These factors had a dramatic impact on the lives of the nuns who remained, and on monastic institutions themselves. Kaylin examines the mysterious, exotic aspects of contemporary religious life, offering thoughtful discussions of celibacy and sexuality, prayer, and the controversies swirling around the habit. She devotes equal attention, however, to the more mundane but equally pressing concerns that modern nuns face: earning a living, for instance, coping with the pressures of communal living, and meeting the needs of an aging population. As these sharply etched, often humorous portraits of individual nuns demonstrate, religious life has evolved beyond the rigidly structured communities that were typical before Vatican II to take a startling range of forms. We meet Mother Hildegarde, a Benedictine whose traditional cloistered community breeds Scottish Highland cattle and llamas; Sister Marge, a Franciscan who faces a prison term for her protests against the US involvement in South American atrocities; and two Little Sisters of Jesus who travel with the Carson and Barnes Circus to fulfill their order’s mandate to “establish a prayerful presence” in worldly settings. Today, Kaylin argues, the women who choose to enter or remain in religious communities are usually nonconformists who consciously criticize the commercialism of contemporary society and often challenge the Vatican’s continuing resistance to feminism.
This fascinating report convincingly asserts that the “modern nun” is not an oxymoron.