In the fourth episode of Lifetime’s The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, the women are hitting some bumps, struggling, being torn in opposite directions. In other words, yep, they are doing everything right. Discernment is messy and bumpy, and the women are starting to feel that. Internal and external struggles are making themselves known at this point. I find the women’s courage incredible to share some of those moments with the public — it’s a rare gift to actually hear what the struggle sounds like in others. And it’s the uncomfortable that lights the firecracker underneath people to make a move toward (or away) from something.
This is the point in the series when we finally come across the “L” word: Love. We also had some exposure of how love fits into this picture of personal growth, discernment, and religious life. Despite another hour of cheering and seething at Sr. Beth Ann, her way of explaining the vow of chastity — “It’s not about sex, It’s about intimacy” — was dead on and quite insightful.
And Ok, I’ll bite; I’ll tackle the elephant in the room that our culture perpetuates as “off-limits” and/or foreign to religious women/men…love…sex…and rock ’n roll (or intimacy…or both).
The typical stereotype I encounter about religious life is usually celibacy related — more precisely, disbelief at not being “allowed” to be in a sexual relationship, how oppressive it must be to life this way for my whole life, wishing for me that I could marry someday. How unjust it is that I can’t and, without sex, how incredibly lonely and miserable I must be. At the broadest level I don’t care what you’re doing with your life — if you are making choices and living for or with sex as your internal motivator, that is not healthy, nor do I think it can be life-sustaining for people.
Let’s get a few “rules” out of the way. First of all, entering religious life is a choice someone makes. If chosen, you know what you’re getting into. No one is forcing celibacy on you in an oppressive way. Formation is designed to give you time to “try on” the vows and consciously and freely choose to be called to live and vow this life.
Secondly, nuns are not asexual; the humanity is not stripped off of you when you choose living as a woman religious. All of those human experiences like attraction, love, emotional ups and downs? Nope, they don’t just melt away. But celibacy is not about “lacking” love, or running away from love or intimacy. It’s about running toward love taking a different route.
If you are thinking of becoming a nun to avoid love, intimacy, and relationships — not going to happen. For me, the vow of celibacy was about freedom in loving. My “vow formula” that I professed said, “I will be chaste so that I am more free to love.” I love that wording; I vowed that with my whole heart and would vow it again and again. You see, I am called to love more globally — in different ways. Ways that would not be freeing for me, nor fair to someone I loved in a marriage. (And as ‘shocking’ it is to think of Sr. Beth Ann or Sr. Maria Therese having had been in love — I too was in love, engaged, and then followed all that love back to my order.) Love is a ginormous part of choosing a partner/lifestyle; it looks different in everyone and everyone figures it out in his or her own way in his or her own time. Which is exactly where we join the women for Episode 4; each starting to struggle and feel joy for different reasons in different ways…their journey is becoming individualized, what is most touching is that the women are recognizing it and supporting one another in where ever she is walking.
Let’s start with Eseni and dear Darnell. I really want to know if that was a production-induced visitation or if he really did fly to Chicago on his own. Either way, Eseni’s struggle is real. Even better — it’s GOOD. It was frustrating hearing Sr. Beth Ann creating drama and negative energy about Darnell’s visit and projecting what it was doing to “the girls.” (Side note: these are young, adult, women. Stop herding and scolding them like kids in a classroom.). Darnell is not a problem; Eseni does not have a problem. She has a boyfriend. That’s n-o-r-m-a-l. She is not “screwing up” (direct quote!) her experience or her discernment; for Eseni, it is a huge part of her discernment. If she were to deny that part of her call, she could be miserable at the choices she makes. Again, vocation ministry is helping people discern their hearts. Darnell is a part of Eseni’s heart and being able to have that experience, regardless of what she chooses, she will be more capable of loving into her call because of it. I was displeased that the women were “told” to go to confession because of the “events” that occurred with Darnell; I think confession is a very personal, intimate decision between a person and God.
Although I disagreed with the punitive approach in which she responded to the idea of Darnell coming on retreat, I back Sr. Beth Ann up on that decision; that is not the appropriate time/place in this particular setting. I wish instead of shutting them down, there would have been an opportunity (for viewers too) about how to sort out feelings, fears, etc. of marriage and religious life. It’s an important conversation. Sr. Beth Ann’s response to reality of a 20-something discerning: -2.0
Then Sr. Beth Ann had a wonderful talk with Eseni in chapel, sharing her own story (although I am very confused that she said she had a boyfriend all through preparing for final vows and that’s not appropriate? What? Huh? Did anyone else catch that?). I was leaping and cheering for a personal connection time with Eseni and then the sister totally blew it for me when she asked Eseni to do a favor for her and call Darnell for an “if you really love me” talk. This is not about you, Sr. Beth Ann! Ending with the message to Eseni that she sees “Jesus in her and wants her to stay on the “right” path”!? ARGH! +1 for Sr. Beth Ann making a personal, kind connection with Eseni. And I’m taking it right back for inserting your own issues where they don’t belong. -1
Eseni, girl, have faith that the right path is the one you and you alone choose; if it’s in your heart, with all of your heart, then it’s right for you. Religious life is a wonderful life and call and guess what? So is marriage. God wants you to be happy and be the best you. You’re in an icky place and it’s heart-wrenching and hard, but keep going. You’ll figure it out. Becoming a sister is not giving up on love. It can’t be. If you decide that religious life is up your alley, the sisters will love you for who you are and Darnell is a part of your history. Eseni’s got guts. Period. +2.0 Blam!
Claire and Francesca, your “rollercoaster of love” was very different from the others in identifying who had a need for comfort expression of love. Claire had a beautiful moment during the Darnell “situation” — she reached out and comforted him! Her reassurance by saying, “Darnell, this is not you verses Jesus” was quite thoughtful. Claire went out of her way to reach out the person in this situation who was not being served and still had a need. I love seeing these wonderful scenes of Claire these last two episodes. Francesca, you also reached out to Eseni several times. I was pleasantly surprised to see your ability to stop, listen, and allow the person to be in the moment; you are pegged as the “drama queen”; however, in those moments you rose to the occasion. A true “drama queen” would have added to or made the drama about herself. Both of you were perfect examples of one important face of love and intimacy that women religious are called to. Claire, exploring what love might look like in a ministerial setting and reaching out to someone who was in need +1. Francesca, responding to a need of a friend and letting some of the irritants you’re having rest for a bit. +1
Stacey gets the “in the raw” points for this episode as she courageously shares several vulnerable and deeply personal things coming up for her. Another form of intimacy and love needed is of oneself. Fidelity to the journey is being able to explore and honor what you bring from the past and how you move forward. Feeling like you are at a crossroads and feel more lost than ever? That’s good (it sucks, but it’s good)! Thinking about your boyfriend and wondering if that was the right decision? Feeling jealous that Eseni was able to connect with hers? All good. You will be able to wholly choose where you fit when you take in all of those experiences. Religious life should not be about “Can I give this up and be happy?” It’s about where you are most at home; if you’ve never loved, how would you know? Stacey! Having the courage to see the muck, be in the muck, hate and love the muck and then decide to continue through the muck? A well-deserved +2
Being able to receive love in important form of intimacy too; when I’m struggling, my independence becomes a weakness. “Interdependence” is nun for, “finding a happy medium between in/dependence with your sisters in the community to live healthy and whole together.” A quick scroll down the Sisterhood Twitter feed showed how Stacey’s sharing her experience with an eating disorder allowed people to connect and not feel totally isolated. People go through dark periods in their life, and nuns are not immune—trust me. It’s important to come to religious life — or any life commitment — freely and consciously choosing to say yes rather than running away from a “no.” Sometimes that means going through some of the nasty boxes of ‘yuck’ that you don’t want to work through before you take the leap. And sometimes you figure out you have boxes of yuck to sort through after you’ve made a commitment. The gift in that is you know you’ve found the right place when you can let the people around you support you when you need them. That’s a wonderful, mutual, trusting love.
Finally, Christie, wow. What a fortnight it was for you! I recognized immediately that look of peaceful chaos when someone is finding her way. You were glowing and excited and it was clear that something had entered your heart while with the Sisters in Chicago. What stood out for me was her sense of being so grounded. Christie seemed to have settled a bit from her early, sensational, romanticized idea of finding home in religious life, and seemed authentic and appropriately unsettled. I’ve been there, Christie, walking into a place that no matter what you try to do to get away from this feeling, you can’t because it is home. Profoundly home. I am even more thrilled that you have the insight to say, “Hey! I think this may be a fit, but I still want to shop around.” Good for you; and keep shopping until it feels right! Formation is designed to help you integrate little by little with opportunities to explore the fit at different levels. Get yourself a good spiritual director who you can be brutally honest with and don’t be afraid to change course if you’re being pulled in another direction. Christie feeling at home. +.5 Christie being courageous enough to continue exploring anyway: +1.5
So that love stuff. Well, that’s part of figuring it out — recognizing that no human is immune to being human. Whatever life you choose to live is ultimately about relationships, and love is a part of relating. A relationship with God is important in and out of the convent. What are you running toward, not away from? Some of you are having your worlds turned upside down and others are being rocked, and in my opinion, all are perfectly uncomfortable and where you need to be. Only 2 weeks left! Kentucky looms! And I can’t wait!
Overall Score: 5/5 Woot!
Making it: Christie!
Faking it: The uniforms.
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