A commenter recently shared an NPR interview with award-winning novelist Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and a new autobiography with a misleading title, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Advance to 22:59 in the interview and listen to an earnest 5-minute discussion about Ms. Patchett’s childfree choice. Advance a bit more, to 26:45 to hear what she says is a recent insight. The thought came to her in response to others’ who consider her decision to live without children to be strange:
“I went to Catholic school for 12 years…I was with nuns the whole time I was growing up. They were my role models, they defined my moral code, they set the rhythm of my days. And they were career women who didn’t have children. They were women who said, ‘I have this thing that I really want to do. I want to devote my life to God and not get married and not have children.’
“And those were the women that I was around from the time I was 5 until I was 17. And it was really much, much later in my life that I thought, I had a ton of role models of strong, smart women who said, basically, ‘I want to follow my career. My career is God.’”
Fresh Air host Terry Gross slowly responds, “I hadn’t really thought of it that way.” Yeah. More of us should.
I know what Ann Patchett means. As an adult, I worked closely with nuns for about 12 years, too. I am not Catholic (it’s unclear whether Ms. Patchett is), but it never mattered. Close exposure to the Sisters, and they way they see the world and their responsibilities to it, changed me for the better.
The Sisters I know are detailed researchers and planners and do-ers who advocate for people without advocates. You might say they leaned in before leaning in was cool. They can be fearless in their responses to the needs of others, and dare I say it, downright ballsy. And, they generally succeed at seeing the face of Jesus in every face.
Very few of the nuns I knew wore the veil, and even fewer wore the complete habit with a rosary at their waist. For many of today’s Catholic Sisters, only a cross and congregational pin distinguish them from the people they serve, and that’s the way they like it. Modern dress was a directive of the 1960’s Vatican II decision that led them to be creative in carrying out their missions. Now, the Vatican suspects their ingenuity to be subversive, but that’s another story.
I consider myself lucky to have known many Sisters of different congregations pretty well, but I came on the scene after their numbers had begun to freefall. In old age, they are energetically still working and visible, if you know where to look. The quiet truth is that thousands of America’s Sisters are dying without replacements. There were 90,809 nuns in the United States in 1995, three years after I began work in a Catholic hospital. By 2013, Georgetown University reports there were just 51,247. (The recorded high was in 1965: 179,954.)
In 2009, I was hired to help promote a national touring museum exhibit about the contributions of nuns to American history. Women and Spirit taught me that Catholic Sisters were among the country’s first teachers, nurses and social service administrators. They rode in covered wagons to open schools for Native Americans and settlers, for goodness sake (pun intended). Big myth breaker: Nuns are not all white women. Not in the U.S. and not around the world.
The Sisters are a highly educated, highly effective feminine force, living and praying in community. Just like their other sisters – the ones without kids – they often have an abundance of children in their lives: nieces and nephews, students and patients. As women, and religious ones at that, nuns’ contributions to our society are generally overlooked. When their decision to be childfree is noted at all, it seems to be more easily accepted by others, perhaps because it is cloaked in faith.
As for the recent Vatican investigation into the the “radical feminism” of the organization representing 80% of the nuns in the United States, that group’s president, Sr. Carol Zinn said, “We are privileged to live in a time of unprecedented challenges and grace.”
Nuns are classy, too.
(Image Credit: WomenandSpirit.org Yes – those are nuns.)