Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nuns: No Regrets

Last week someone was telling me about what happened in her small group in an Abnormal Psychology class at the College of Saint Benedict. They were looking at diagnostic tests, first Rorschachs and then those pictures where you create a narrative based on the figures and situationd depicted.

The four women in this group had a picture of an old woman with a kerchief or something on her head, and a younger, androgynous figure. The story they gigglingly constructed was of a nun on her deathbed, wishing that she had had sex in her life. She wanted to have sex with the young man, and regretted her life of celibacy. You can imagine how the conversation went.

No doubt, once the story began, the others went with it. Such is the group dynamics of 20-year-old girls. What struck me is that it was so completely alien to the nuns I know. It sounds like the teacher did a good job of addressing their story when it was reported to the rest of the class, saying that sexuality is certainly a part of life and likely to be a conflict for people living under vows of celibacy. I told the studnet who shared with me what happened that it would have been difficult if not impossible for me to intervene as they were constructing this story to say they clearly knew nothing at all about nuns, and should take advantage of their opportunity studying on the edge of a large women's monastery to get to know one of the Sisters there.

I am sure that in younger years, celibacy is a conflict-- even moreso, I believe, is the decision not to have children. This conflict was reactivated in spades, I think, as Sisters left in the 60s and 70s to get married (often to priests leaving ministry as well) The Sisters I know have the most fulfilling, life-long relationships with their Sisters. They look back on their long lives with satisfaction and joy.

Yesterday I was talking to Steve about news I'd received of an acquaintance who was getting a divorce after 19 years of marriage. The report of this divorce on a social media site shared that the couple remained best friends but the passion was gone, and they came to the conclusion (with separate counselors and a marriage counselor) that they were young enough to move on and find fulfilling, romantic relationships with others. I don't share this world view about marriage, but I was more saddened by the way others wrote in to congratulate him on his brave decision and encourage him in his new adventure and next part of his journey. One said the couple's two children will be better for their parents making decisions to be fulfilled rather than staying together for the sake of the children. The whole thing made me depressed.

Steve shared his view, which was that it is very difficult to critique the romantic view of love in society. He quoted Stanley Hauerwass, who wrote something along these lines: No one knows what love is. We only know love at the end of life, looking back on the relationships we have had in all their complexity, when we can say: 'yes, that was love.'

I'm not sure these two things are related, but I think they are. I think the girls in the class were more influenced by images of nuns in popular culture (sexy nun Halloween costumes come to mind) than by actual nuns. But I also think they will probably pursue romantically fulfilling, passionate relationships as the definition of successful relationships and, well, love. When those relationships no longer have that spark, if they are in a situation where they can do so, they will leave for the next step of the journey, a journey that is circumscribed by the autonomy of the individual, the highest aim being individual fulfillment at all times at all costs. Self-reliance.

The question is how, in our homes and in our world, do we provide models of lives that allow space for the individual to realize his and her talents, while also building meaningful and lasting communities that are sustaining over the long term?

If someone knows the answer, please tell me.

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