Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Two Good Books about Nuns

In my search for contemporary novels about American nuns, I've found only two. Both of them are fantastic books I'd recommend to anyone. They both share a strong message about religious life, as well as some other key similarities. The two novels are Mariette in Ecstacy by Ron Hansen and Lying Awake by Mark Salzman(Hansen also wrote Exiles, a novel based on the story of the Wreck of the Deutschland and drowning of eight nuns and the poem Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about the incident, but it's a different, much more historical and in many ways less accomplished, book.)

Both books have a mystic at their center, and both of these women live in cloistered communities. Mariette, though published in the 1990s, is set in the first decade of the 20th century, when all Sisters who were not on active missions were cloistered. Lying Awake, published in 2000 and covering the years 1969 to 1997, deals with a Carmelite Sister living in an enclosure in Southern California.

By building in these restraints on the Sisters' lives (habited, cloistered), the authors are able to deal with the central issues of a nun's life: community living with other Sisters and the quality of the spiritual life. What is clear immediately is that mystics, who seem both closer to God and richer in spiritual experience, are disruptive to religious communities. In Mariette, set in 1904, the mystic has the experience of stigmata and her experience, though doubted as self-inflicted, is treated seriously as a phenomenon recorded throughout history. Her wounds come and go and don't act as normal wounds or cause the permanent damage one would expect. The priest and Sisters experience other inexplicable signs of S. Mariette's special status. The experiences of Sister John in Lying Awake result in visions and writings which find popularity in the world outside the cloister walls. Both Sister Mariette and Sister John gain noteriety for their spirituality outside the convent.

But by the time Sister John is having her mystic experiences, there is a diagnosis and a cure for her particular troubles. She is recommended to receive surgery for epilepsy and has to decide whether or not to have it, knowing it will mean and end to her visions and possibly a return to a spiritual dryness that plagued her earlier in life. What makes up her mind is an experience with her community. It is not good to stand out in a convent. The idea is not to be special but to seek God together in daily life and prayer and work. That is the life, and the life, both books seem to decide, doesn't work without the Sisters subverting their own desires to the life and needs of the community. It is ultimately a much more "big picture" view than most of us can take. It's a big-picture view of time (aren't all spirtiual experiences by nature fleeting, if we continue to grow?) as well as one's place in a community.

As in MarietteLying Awake handles this action without diminishing the veracity of Sister John's spiritual experience. In the end, a holy, older Sister, helps S. John to understand the meaning of the experience. "God showed you what heaven could be like, and you shared it with others. ... God must think you did enough with that gift. Now he wants you to do something else."

Sister John is also helped by the glimpse she gets of her surgeon's vocation and its challenges. He also faced a period of disillusionment, realizing he went into medicine "for the wrong reasons." But he remained a doctor when he realized "everybody gets into medicine for the wrong reasons. It seems to come with the territory."

Quite a bit comes with the territory of being a nun. Struggling with the large questions all the time, and with the limitations of the church. For the Sisters who entered in the 1940s and have lived this life in its changing forms until today, there are myriads of questions, challenges, and also, I believe, joys. And each one is special and "stands out," even as they do what it takes to live together.

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