Discernment: a phase, short-term, an answer to questions, a “sorority-esque” experience, physiologically depriving of oxygen (i.e. what’s with everyone passing out and getting light-headed?), gossipy, divisive, torturous, cantankerous, survival of the fittest, judging, and histrionic, and the shrine (Thank God for the shrine).
At least that’s what I’ve gleaned from the viewer’s perspective of how discernment is being defined on Lifetime’s The Sisterhood.
By the way? “The Sisterhood” might make a good title, but it’s not a real thing. Call them sisters, nuns, a religious order/community, but religious life is not some oddball club with a secret handshake or some traveling pants. It is a culture. And there are many aspects that one may find when encountering another culture: customs, food, entertainment, language. “Discernment” is a word you come to know well right off the bat — but as one of my best friends loves to say, “Katy, discernment is a nun word.” Apparently she’s right.
Parallel to the Sisters’ opening their doors to the discernment process, I too was in their shoes (although they weren’t navy flats and matching), but my experiences — and my advice to others — is vastly different.
Discernment starts WAY before you get to the convent. I’ll give the ladies credit here — most of them addressed that they’ve thought about being a nun before. That’s a good start. They talked to their loved ones, who were incredibly supportive (Except Darnell. Poor Darnell). Christie told her enthusiastic party girlfriends who were hesitant until Christie used her “dating Jesus” imagery. My family? Of course they are supportive in the “We want Katy to be happy” department; however, not so keen on the idea of “Katy + Happy = Nun.” Before I ever step foot in a convent or even talked to anybody about this weird sensation of, “WHAT? No! Please, God, No! I don’t want to do this!” turning into “Maybe? Huh?” For a while, that question was unanswered inside and outside of me. So I’m going to give points to the women here. They knew they were “trying it-out”, exploring possibilities, and self-reflecting; this is all good. I also give them points for telling their people. I realize that they are now on TV and kind of had to tell them and yet, I suspect it was still difficult.
Idea/perception of discernment: +1.5 pt.
But now we’re here and we’ve conquered life without make-up and it’s great and the sisters are so nice. That’s truth, but I struggle with the pie-in-the-sky perceptions the women have of what a religious vocation and “living as a vowed woman” religious means. “Bride-of-Christ” as a metaphor disturbs me; seriously…what is that? I am the first one to use “marriage” as a way of translating “nun speak” to the unfamiliar; but married to Jesus? Really? Does anyone else find this unsettling?
Relationship with Jesus, God, Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary and part of the core of religious life. Marriage … absolutely not. Marriage and religious life share many qualities, and probably most importantly, call each person to live very differently than their “before” life. Given that, I think the women come with a sensationalized view of what it means to be a woman religious. That’s not as a criticism, but rather something important for the Sisters to attend to during the early discernment process. This televised discernment seems like, “We’re cruising and … whoops, hit a pot hole! … cruising again! …. rain!…off we go! … tree!”
Understanding the process of discernment: -1.0
At this point, I really want to corral the women, no cameras allowed, and ask them, “What do you know about the Carmelites? Why might this be a fit or why do you want to run the other way?” Because here’s what I know about them so far: They wear habits, work with the elderly, go to mass with capes, pray together, yet individually, in chapel. In other words, not much. And I’d be crying and falling on the floor too if I had the concerns the women have shared: Francesca, being “sent” somewhere and never seeing her family again; Stacey, giving up art; Eseni, not being able to love again; Christie, life without any real fun … and dear Claire, well, she knows everything—biggest problem of all. But ladies, what do you want to do with your life? What do you want to stand for? With whom and for whom do you want to serve? How do you want to love others? These are the questions. And how do you find the answers? Discernment!
This is your journey. ladies. If your energy is focused on observing and commenting on others, then where is the ‘you’ time for discernment? It’s not a race; it’s a process, And — even better news for you — discernment is a life-long experience. The second you stop discerning your call, waking up and saying “yes” over and over is the second you have lost your commitment. Get used to it. Grab some good ears and support along the way you have to figure out what it means for you.
Ladies — and I share this sincerely — one of the most awful, hurtful things anyone has ever said to me was, “Do you pray? Do you listen? I think God is trying to tell you that you are not called and you are just not listening.” WRONG. No one, no one, has the right to interpret or decide what is in your heart. Others can guide and suggest, but ultimately, the only one person who can interpret and make decisions about your journey; it’s you. Stop talking about your friends and start reflecting on you.
Lecture from Katy: +1.5 (because you deserve it)
Sisters, where are you? I appreciate the symbolism [and humor] behind taking the cell phones, the make-up and the “shrine.” But WHO ARE YOU? WHAT IS YOUR MISSION? HOW DO YOU LIVE? That’s the top three of about a hundred questions I have for you. It was wonderful that you took these women to one of your homes and to hospice as an introduction to the type of ministry the congregation supports in ministry. You opened your doors, invited these women (and their drama) and had an opportunity for other people to take pause and say, “Hmmm…maybe I would fit there,” and yet, there’s so little.
Sr. Peter, your time on camera with Francesca was likely the most “real” part of this episode; thank you for not only giving a glimpse of why and how the community ministers to the elderly, but also how someone is companioning these women on this journey. Or at least where they are at in the present moment. Francesca, you also get credit for having the courage to be willing to talk things over with Sr. Peter—reasonable tears and drama in this context. When I step back and take in the big picture, these women are clueless (not their fault). Religious life is not intuitive; in fact it’s counter-cultural.
Sister’s Act: -2.0
In sorority life, the idea of undergrads is appropriate. In religious life — not appropriate. I take offense to this portrayal on many levels (one very personal, as this image of younger members has been published and influenced people in leadership and it can be hurtful, especially when it concerns matters of the heart.) Yes, this is the reality TV we crave — vote them off the island, spy on them while they are sleeping, spotlight every argument and edit every resolution, put 16 women in a house and have them all date one guy. But it’s also ridiculous and not the least bit real.
With that in mind, let’s break down the ΑΩ life of The Sisterhood:
Sorority life: Drinking! Yeah! Hide it! Sneak it! Woot!
Religious Life: (This may differ across congregations; I speak from my own experiences) We’re grown-ups! A glass of wine with a meal or at a celebration, if one chooses, is ok! Moderation and motivation?! Transparent! Key word: grownups! Seriously ladies…when I was teaching 10-year-olds, I used this as a guide, “If you have to sneak, hide or cover it up—that’s probably not your best choice.” You want to drink? Have a conversation with the Sisters. Be honest, mature and authentic to your discernment process and consider how the sisters are portrayed via your sneakiness. Please stop perpetuating the message that “young people are looking for sororities not religious life.” Claire gets bonus points for taking to Sr. Cyril, if and only if the motivation was to inquire, not tattle. I question her motivation, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt here. Sr. Cyril, you never disappoint; way to allow Claire to discern a bit more about herself and not give up the answer.
Srs. Maria Therese, Cyril and Mark all addressed how difficult it can be living in community. I would agree that it is the biggest challenge — and by far the greatest gift. Perfect? Conflict free? Really? I’m going to let you in on a secret: nuns are people, too! If you are called to religious life, guess what? You get the good, bad and ugly — and they get yours, too. Discerning with people who are a “fit” for the congregation doesn’t mean observing who is the best behaved. It’s about who can be effortlessly authentic with herself and her possible sisters and how that authenticity best fits here. My impression is that Eseni and Christie are meant to be portrayed as the “bad girls”— not nun material. Stacey and Francesca — on the fence. And Claire? “Oh yeah…she’s made for this.”
Piety is annoying. C’mon, what good role model — holy or otherwise — do you look up to who is dismissive, divisive and self-righteous? This episode was a lot of Claire. The conversation Claire initiates with her peers shows much more about her, her discernment and her expectations than it does anything about the other women. One woman twerks. One woman connects with Jesus through fantasy. These are called personal experiences. We all bring them with us. To partially quote Stacey, “That’s the beauty…” and, as an added bonus, in this situation, the twerker and former retreat participant are now on common ground. If you want to survive in community, communication and honesty are your best friends.
So, Claire, while I applaud you for having the courage to approach your peers with a concern, I am saddened that insulting them while raising yourself to a higher, more experienced standard was the approach. Stacey, Eseni, Francesca and Christie, nice job for not lunging at her and negating Sr. Maria Therese’s comment that there’s never been a murder in (at least on-camera) handling the situation. But I was most surprised by Francesca; she was articulate, composed and direct in her response to Claire. No drama queen here. My hope for Claire is that she opens herself up to what discernment has for her, because she is obviously talented and committed to the journey, which is awesome. But it’s time to get rid of the costume and disposition of “TV Nun Claire” and face Claire, just Claire, Claire.
This is not entirely Claire’s fault, nor do I think she is malicious. The interviews promote the idea of throwing each other off of the bus. I loathe that the women are interviewed discussing her interpretation of others’ behaviors and discernment journey. That is just wrong. Last time I checked, none of them are experts in discernment, have experienced religious life or been trained in any form of counseling, spiritual director or vocation/formation ministry.
Pius gossiping and sorority life: -2.5
Bonus points: Francesca: +1.0 Sr. Cyril- +1.0
And with that, The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns Episode 2 has come and gone. Looks like the girls are in for a change of scenery next week as they go onto another community experience and I’m looking forward to seeing where the road leads — for them and for the sisters. Because discernment is messy. Really messy. Messy good and messy bad and messy life-long if you’re too legit to quit.
Overall Score: -1.0
Faking it this week: Carmelite Life
Making it this week: Francesca
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
New episodes of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns premiere Tuesdays at 10/9CT on Lifetime.
About the Author
Katy LaFond was a member of Franciscan community for 6 years. Valuing the discernment process, she continues to discern and explore where “home” in religious life may be for her. Katy is currently completing pre-requisite course work and will apply for medical school in 2015.
Photo: Lifetime/Scott Gries Copyright 2014