Young Women Who Want To Be Nuns
Everybody has been telling me to read the story about Millennial women becoming Catholic nuns. So I did, and yes, it’s really good, and encouraging. Excerpts:
These young women have one last surprise: They tend to be far more doctrinally conservative than their predecessors. If you go deeper into their social media feeds, past the wacky photos of habited nuns making the hang-loose sign, you’ll find a firm devotion to the most traditional of Catholic beliefs. They fervently protest abortion. They celebrate virginity not as a necessity to free up time to serve God—how some “liberal” sisters see it—but as something in itself holy. It’s a severity that overlaps neatly, actually, with the OMG maximalism that dominates social media.
Patrice Tuohy, the publisher of guides for people considering the religious life, including VocationMatch.com, told me that not long ago she used to get only about 350 queries a year by phone and online. Last year, she got 2,600. And 60 percent of those women, Tuohy said, explicitly asked if they could join an order that would force them to wear a habit. (Currently, only about 20 percent of sisters in America wear one.) Amid all their freedoms, Tuohy deduced, these young women wanted to be led. Even constrained. She said she wished I wouldn’t emphasize that point, however. Something about it seemed to make her uncomfortable.
I wonder how old Tuohy is. Maybe she can’t see why young adults raised in this anything-goes society would see freedom in certain kinds of constraint. The constraints that come with a religious vocation, as with a vocation to marriage (rightly received), make the individual free for something. Constraint, in the sense that these young nuns experience, is not the absence of liberty, but a means toward ordered liberty.
It’s not at all surprising that the kind of young women seeking a nun’s life these days would be doctrinally orthodox. How many liberal Millennials and Gen Z’ers are seeking out service in the life of a vowed religious? Why would they? I’m asking seriously.
Two years ago, Meg, the “hobo for Christ,” introduced me on Facebook to a friend of hers named Tori. Tori was both discerning to become a nun and serving in the Army. As a first lieutenant, she commanded men older than she was, but when she spoke to me over Skype from a base in South Korea, she looked younger than her 23 years. The green military fatigues were baggy on her lean frame, her pale brown hair—dyed blonde on the bottom—pulled away from her sunburned face into a wispy ponytail. She said “wicked” a lot, cursed occasionally and referred to herself as “a super-duper paratrooper!” with a wink and a mocking thumbs-up. It didn’t take me more than a few minutes talking with her to think: This woman wants to become a nun?
In high school, she said, she “had an automatic seat at the cool kids’ table.” She was known for her crazy, uninhibited dancing at parties. She hiked, she kayaked and she was good enough at soccer to earn a spot on a professional-development team. On her Facebook page, she can be seen photobombing group shots on snowboarding trips by sticking her tongue out at the camera. She always assumed she’d marry, have kids and work as a nutritionist.
When I asked Tori what made her stray from this path to become a nun, her whole demeanor changed. Her face got pinker, and she looked almost shy. She asked if she could read the full story to me from her prayer journal. This was too important to discuss extemporaneously.
One afternoon when she was a senior at her all-girls high school, Tori found herself drawn to the chapel. She wasn’t deeply religious growing up, and the chapel was a space she usually avoided: small and dark and silent, with uncomfortable knee-high prayer stools. But on that day, as she sat to pray, a thought occurred to her that was so unbidden and forceful “that I stood up from my seat and physically ran. I mean, I ran out of the chapel. I was so filled with fear.” The thought: What would it be like to wear a nun’s habit?
She didn’t want to be a nun, she explained. But in the ensuing years, she just couldn’t get the vision out of her head. In the goalie box, putting on strapless dresses for dances—she kept seeing herself in a black veil.
And then one day, at a chapel on her college campus, she heard His voice.
“What does it sound like?” I asked her.
“It doesn’t sound like anything. I just knew it was Him,” she said. And His message was clear: “Evangelize.”
Tori put down her prayer journal, looked up and started to laugh. She said she expected this story must sound “crazy” to me. She didn’t seem to mind. Discerning the religious life, she explained, is “a process of falling in love.”
The author of the piece, Eve Fairbanks, says that reporting the story affected her in a way she couldn’t have anticipated:
Several other young women I spoke to who hoped to become nuns recommended a book to me called “And You Are Christ’s.” Written by an American priest named Thomas Dubay, its subtitle is “The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life.” I am Jewish, and I am not celibate by any stretch of the imagination. I also wasn’t sure what “charism” meant (basically, it’s a special gift conferred on a person by God). But almost immediately upon opening the book, I experienced a strange sensation. It was as if Dubay were speaking straight to me.
“Nothing is ever enough,” Dubay writes of how it feels to live in the modern world. You are expected to give yourselves entirely, 24/7, without wavering, to careers, to hobbies, to lovers, to children. Ideally, you are supposed to spend zero time not loving your job in a dying industry or your husband who fails to absorb the concept of emotional labor. But this is impossible.
And yet, Dubay explains, there is one being who reliably rewards our efforts: Christ. The woman who loves Him, the religious sister, has a calling worthy of her complete devotion and that honors her sacrifices “many times over,” as the Book of Luke says. She has found her “passion.” She has “rest,” “fulfillment,” “enthrallment,” “completion”—precisely the things that I, exhausted, have often wanted.
There are a lot of recent books—and Twitter accounts, and blogs—written for women discerning to become nuns. They, too, sounded uncannily like the voice in my own head that whispers to me late at night all the things I wished my parents or partners or colleagues would say. Words of quiet affirmation and acceptance I had, in fact, almost never dared to ask for.
Later, in talking to a Catholic high school teacher, the answer to the the question implicitly raised by Tuohy became clear:
The more Olon thought about his students’ enthusiastic response to the hardcore priest, the more it made sense to him. Millennials and Generation Z kids report much higher levels of social anxiety, pessimism and depression than previous generations. He’d seen it firsthand in his own classroom. “When I ask kids what they want to do in their lives, they’ll say, ‘I guess I’ll get a job,’” Olon told me. They would explain that they had already done everything. They had destroyed worlds, fallen in love, built communities, made art. Then he’d realize that they meant they’d done this all online.
In real life, they were much more fearful. Everything they said—every youthful, experimental pose they struck—became a part of their permanent record on social media. The stakes seemed so high for even tiny choices. Sometimes, after class, they would ask him mournful questions like, “What have I ever really done that has any depth?” They reminded him of people having midlife crises. Yet Olon noticed that the more cornered they seemed, the more pressured they felt to do something truly wholehearted and unique. To be like Steve Jobs and take a huge risk that changed the whole world. Hemmed in on all sides, they also yearned for a tabula rasa, to tear everything down and start over from scratch.
“The level of anxiety and sadness these kids have, I don’t think we can even understand it at this point,” Olon said. “I think there are things these kids are experiencing now that we don’t even have names for.”
A Protestant campus minister told me a few weeks back that he sees college students having serious panic attacks all the time. This is something that almost never happened when I was in college in the 1980s. I don’t know why it’s happening now, but I believe it when people who work with young people today say so.
One more excerpt:
Overall, organized religions in America are still leaching members. But it appears that young people who do seek religion are drawn to a stricter, more old-fashioned form of it. Orthodox Judaism is becoming more popular with young Americans today than other, more liberal Jewish sects. The majority of Jewish Americans who are reform or conservative are over 50, while the majority of Orthodox Jews here are under 40. This isn’t only because Orthodox Jewish families have more children. Orthodox Judaism’s retention and conversion rates are much higher than they were two decades ago. The memberships of “liberal” Protestant sects like Lutheranism are rapidly aging while more doctrinaire Christian denominations—Baptists, Orthodox Christians—have younger adherents. A fascinating study showed that millennials—even Protestants and atheists—are attracted to churches with old-fashioned gilded altars and “classic” worship styles over modern ones. Young Americans are often more likely than their elders to believe in core elements of traditional religious belief like heaven and hell, miracles, and angels, and young religious people are more likely than older ones to assert that their faith is the “one true path to eternal life.”
Pollsters have also observed that young people in America seem more open than their parents or grandparents were to authoritarianism, as if we possess a hidden desire to be ruled—that it would be a relief. In 2016, nearly one-quarter of young Americans told Harvard researchers that democracy was “bad” for the country—in 1995, only around 10 percent of young people said that—and they are consistently more likely than their elders to say technocrats or a strong leader should run America, even if that means doing away with elections. My friend Josh, a convert to Catholicism, told me he was drawn to the church specifically because it “doesn’t hold a vote to determine the truth.”
Several people to whom I suggested, recently, that Americans might become more religious said that couldn’t be true. They pointed to surveys saying Generation Z is the most undogmatic and atheist generation ever. But the truth is that it’s incredibly hard to read American young people. You can find surveys and news stories indicating they’re more genderfluid, more committed to traditional gender roles, more rebellious, more uptight and moralistic about drugs and sex, better with money, lazier. This may reflect internal contradictions, the kind that compelled some of the young women I met to seek a much more streamlined answer.
Read the whole thing. It’s long and deeply interesting.
When I read Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain in my late teens, the idea of the monastic life seized me. That wasn’t my calling, as it turned out, but that encounter as an anxious, idealistic young man with the prospect of living a life of spiritual discipline as a monk marked me. I am sure that I would not have written The Benedict Option at 50 if I hadn’t read Merton at 19. Come to think of it, there’s probably a connection between the young people journalist Eve Fairbanks profiles in this story, and the fact that, in my admittedly anecdotal experience, most of the people drawn to the Benedict Option are aged 40 and under.
One more thing: in Poland recently, I saw more than a few younger Catholic nuns wearing traditional habits. And I saw a couple of young Catholic priests wearing traditional cassocks. I’m not even Catholic, but I wanted to thank them for it, because as open signs of contradiction to the modern age, they encourage me.