I could be a nun
let’s run away and start a convent
Okay, cool, you’re here with me. I find when I talk about nuns, there’s a range of reactions from hell yes, I love nuns, so radical! To… oh god, I had a mean nun in 7th grade. To… wait, are you religious?
The societal trope of a nun is a pious, virgin woman committed to Jesus. Understandably, there’s critique and caution, depending on one’s religious upbringing and trauma. Organized religion is historically and still full of violence and manipulation.Nuns have been used by the Catholic institution as free or cheap labor in schools and churches for decades.
In our modern society of waning religious patronage, waxing individualism, and material pleasures, who’d want to be a nun? The answer is: a lot less women, as declining numbers of nuns over the past 50 years show.
I’m gonna skip over my religious and spiritual background for the moment (I’ll save that for next time) and jump right into nun obsession.
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Why I could be a nun
As a woman embarking on her fourth decade of life, getting clear about my priorities and the life I want/am living, much of nun life is appealing. It’s not a silver bullet solution to my life’s woes and there’s critique of course, but here are a few key features that I’m sold on:
Community Living — While perhaps we live in a free, anything goes modern society, the choice to live in community is still countercultural. There are little maps for how to sustainably weave together our economics, daily life, and shared values with a group of humans beyond biological and married family. From what I’ve been learning about monastic life, many communities also cultivate the sweet interconnection of solitude and shared community life. It’s not about recreating college dorm life or utopian hippy communes - it’s deeper, it’s possible. I’m curious how community is nurtured across physical space - like we don’t all have to live together, but maybe some of us do. Really, I’m interested in interdependent, creative living. There’s something about a wider model for community living that affirms my de-prioritization of marriage and children thus far in my life.
Single Heartedness for Spirit— I feel deep respect and a draw towards people committed to their mission. Whether it’s artists, writers, community organizers, researchers, musicians. For me, Spirit = God = Creative life force = Liberation = Highest Self. This single heartedness is spirit speaking through us. I think it can exist amidst a myriad of personal relationships and it rings of what Octavia Butler describes as Positive Obsession.There’s also some kind of connection between being a solo polyamorous person and being a nun, and one day I’ll weave together that story.
Life of Mindfulness— Prayer, silence, contemplation, intentional work. For years now, one of my favorite pastimes is staring at walls. While it’s hard to nurture time for this as a working human and householder, I need it. Time to be still, to rest, to do nothing but be. Even when I do have the time for this, it can be hard to sit with. Community and teachers are a crucial ingredient.
Oh, and I love a uniform. Truly, give me a drapey tunic and some cargo pants, and I will wear it forever.
I can fantasize about the ideal creative radical nun community of my dreams, but it’s the stories of real boundary pushing nuns that ground me in what’s possible.
Corita Kent, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister and an artist whose work became increasingly political in the 60s and 70s. Along with her congregation, she stood up to the power of their bishop and diocese in Los Angeles, leading to the departure of many sisters from the Catholic church. Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century Benedictine nun and polymath who was a prolific composer, herbalist, writer and mystic. Angela Merici who started the Company of St. Ursuline, an uncloistered community, in the 16th century. She was committed to the education of women at a time when their only options were to get married or be cloistered and separated from society entirely. These women here are all Catholic, but there are also Buddhist nuns (shout out to Pema Chödrön).
Are there any other nuns that inspire or intrigue you?
I write this as I dive back into dating apps (pray for me) and hold open views about relationships, intimacy, and connection.
But yes, in another time and place, I think I’d totally be a nun. Would you??
Curious to hear your thoughts, the yes, buts or the hell nahs, too.
Next time I’ll share more on my religious upbringing and spiritual path and what continues to fuel my deep intrigue of religious women.
I recommendnewsletter for deeply personal and generous writing on high-control evangelical Christianity.
Rebel Hearts is a rad documentary about the Immaculate Heart of Marty sisters that touches a but upon labor, sisters, and the Catholic Church. highly recommend!!
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The future of religious life will look radically different from the assumptions we make of it now; you're shaping the new vision!
I'm so grateful to read this, Emily. Thank you for these reflections and this vision. I feel like I'm in the midst of an internal spiritual reckoning and it feels pretty scary most of the time. Reading this gave me a feeling of peace and eagerness that I haven't felt for a while.