Thoughts on Nuns and Sisters and Perpetual Indulgence by Marie Cartier


helen prejean

Marie and Sister Helen Prejean

The word “nun” can conjure images from traditional to irreverent in terms of gender. The gender of those who call themselves nuns can range from feminine to masculine, from a woman who looks like a woman dressed as a woman, a contemporary sister or “nun,” who does not wear the traditional black habit, but contemporary female clothing and perhaps a short veil or “wimple” and a cross around her neck; to a man dressed as nun in extremely sexual female garb, a “drag queen” nun; to the traditionally dressed nun, whose habit is a full-length black gown, and full veil covering everything but her face and hands, who means to conceal gender and become something else – a “nun.”

The physical space of “nun” then has opened the realm of gender for women, and recently men, since the creation of the category “nun” was established with the first order of female religious. Cloistered orders of women began in the fifth century, with the more liberated orders of “sisters” forming in the sixteenth century. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists approximately twelve Roman Catholic religious orders of sisters, or as they are commonly called, “nuns.” However, this terminology should be amended to allow for the difference between “sisters”- non-cloistered orders, and “nuns”- cloistered orders. Most traditionally the word nun officially refers to Roman Catholic nuns – those who take solemn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and live cloistered lives of silence, and prayerful meditation. Choir nuns, such as that of the famous convent headed by Hildegard de Bingen, (1098-1179), German nun, mystic and composer, chant the Liturgy of the Hours daily – consisting of a set order of readings and prayers, including Morning, Evening, Daytime and Night Prayers.

Author w/contemplative nun

Author w/contemplative nun

Orders of Roman Catholic sisters on the other hand, take the simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but live in society, ministering to the needs of the people in their community, and do not live by the strict rules of the cloister. Those who call themselves “nuns” however exist outside the Roman Catholic religion, most notably in Buddhism, but also in Eastern Christians, Anglicans, Jains, Lutherans, Taoism, and the aforementioned “drag queen” nuns or Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Nuns are, however, almost overwhelmingly female-sexed and live lives of service to God. The male equivalent of a “nun” is a monk, as opposed to a priest. Roman Catholic nuns do not perform the Catholic Sacraments of Mass and Confession for example, but live lives of charitable service. Mother Teresa, Teresa of Calcutta, is perhaps the most notable example of this type of sister, founding the Missionaries of Charity in 1949 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

mother teresaThe traditional black nun’s habit covering all but the hands and face, effectively removes all evidences of female “gender” thus making the “woman” disappear and the “nun”- a gender-free space- emerge. This did allow women throughout history the space of “trans” gendering the traditional role of “woman.” It allowed for women to pursue charitable work in a way usually seen unfit for women- a life lived with other women and ministering in the streets of the world, rather than service in the traditional personal home. Nuns, or sisters, have been sent to every corner of the globe ministering to the poor, sick and dying and have founded and dedicated themselves to systems of education, nursing, and social work throughout the world.

sor juana Billete_$200_Mexico_Tipo_D1_AnversoThe cloister, on the other hand, because of the emphasis on an intense personal life devoted to God and removal of the possibility and perhaps responsibility of heterosexual marriage, gave many women historically the space and therefore freedom to create. This freedom allowed certain women an intellectual access unheard of way before the second wave of feminism. Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this type of intellectual access would be the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the 16th century Mexican nun who is immortalized on the 20 peso and is second in popularity in Mexico only to the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She challenged male authority throughout her life. As a mixed race person from a relatively poor background, her history is an example of the possible trajectory for a woman who entered the nunnery hoping to serve God, but also who was given  access to a different life than her feminine gender would normally allow.

Pride nunsSor Juana left court life for the nunnery where she published works read throughout her country and in Spain. Her life also points out another function of the habit, that of a possibility of a kind of “cross-dressing.” The reality of “lesbian nuns” was exposed in a popular book, Lesbian Nuns, published in 1986, but which references Sor Juana in the introduction as a possible example. Did Sor Juana enter the convent to have relationships with women, most notably perhaps the Countess of Spain who published all her work? Did she enter to have intellectual access disallowed women of her time? Did she enter to escape the heterosexual demands of court life, or traditional married life, her only other options? Or did she enter simply to marry God, above all other male figures, and to live a life of service devoted to Him? These gendered questions have been asked, not only of Sor Juana, but of female religious throughout the history of the orders. In a world that often restricts access to intellectual ability based on gender presentation, it is difficult to answer. While the primary reason most women enter the religious life is certainly to serve God in whatever way the order they enter chooses to serves God, it can not be denied that they do this in a non-traditionally gendered way – that of life lived exclusively among women- in a cloistered order, and that of a life lived among people, but primarily with women, in a religious order.

What is certain is that the physical space inhabited by those called “nun” has, while reinforcing certain gender roles, also challenged them.

Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University; and a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.

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Categories: Gender, Gender and Sexuality, General, Pride, Sisterhood, Women Religious, Women's Spirituality

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30 replies

  1. A fascinating post, love the photos, thanks Marie. There is a long tradition in Japan of women entering Buddhist convent communities, located in the mountains, in order to escape what they called “the world of woe.” But they also became some of Japan’s greatest women poets, as well as painters, calligraphers and ceramicists. Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875) was one of them, she says:

    The echo of the bell
    at Yoshimizu —
    I am here, too,
    in a black robe
    set against the white mist.

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  2. Thank you for this reply– this poem is gorgeous and evocative….I especially enjoy the quote “the world of woe” as to what they were escaping by entering the world of the convent–and by doing so becoming some of the greatest poets and artists.

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  3. I have plays about lesbian historical nuns! Stigmata (about Benedetta Carlini) and Artemisia and Hildegard (about Hildegard von Bingen). I have no doubt I would have been a nun back in the day… the only way to escape compulsory heterosexuality!

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    • It certainly seems to have been a way (for many I think perhaps the only way) to escape compulsory heterosexuality! Thanks for bringing your plays and fabulous work into the conversation!

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    • I think this is why so many Catholic priests ended up molesting young boys. They became priests in an attempt to escape “compulsory heterosexuality”, but they couldn’t resist their (homosexual) sexual urges forever and ended up venting them in unhealthy ways (on young boys).

      Are you suggesting that lesbian nuns should embrace or suppress their homosexual urges? I always thought the point of being spiritual was to ignore the body (so that the spirit can be free). Sexuality, on the other hand (homosexuality in particularity), is about exalting the body.

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      • I completely disagree. Pedophilia has nothing to do with being ” gay!” Gay priests, and i know some, choose celibacy in the same way heterosexual priests do — or don’t and have adult relationships that go agst. the celibacy rule, as is what happens when heterosexual priests go agst. the celibacy rule. Molesting children has nothing to do with being gay or straight– it has to do with molesting children.

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  4. My friends who are nuns at Paliani, Crete, describe being drawn to a beautiful garden and a life among women, as well as being drawn to God. Their order is on self-rhythm (unregimented) except for the singing which is morning and evening psalm-ing. Kassiani who I discussed at Eastertime is an example of an educated woman in the Eastern Orthodox tradition who turned to the nunnery and was able to develop her talents.

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    • Thank you for this wonderful cement! That sounds so wonderful– doesn’t it? A life that is unregimented/self-rhythmic! I didn’t know that was what it was called. Certainly folks are commenting here that the nunnery was a place, a sacred extraordinary place, within patriarchy where a woman could develop her talents. Blessed be.

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      • wonderful comment! but your words could also be cement I suppose helping to create a structure for the conversation ;)

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  5. I love the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence! I got to talk with a few of them once. They were hilarious. I’ve also had two friends who had left their orders. One became an elementary school psychologist and worked with kids in need of almost everything. The other became devoted to Mary Magdalene and led classes and rituals. And I edited a fictionalized memoir by an ex-nun who is now happily married. I think there are also women who consider themselves to be sort of like nuns in that they live quiet lives of usefulness to other people and the planet.

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  6. A vast subject Marie! I love the photo of you and Helen P. Two books I highly recommend for people interested in knowing more are: Sisters in Arms by Jo Ann Kay McNamara, and Women and Christianity by Mary T Malone.

    I made public vows in a cloistered monastery in 1961, left that structure to live the same values without the cloister, which I didn’t find helpful at a later time. When I left in Dec of 1969 the Association of Contemplative Sisters was forming – which broadened the concept of “contemplative life” beyond cloister walls. I think that women especially, are moving beyond stereotypes of religious community and Vatican approval. It dawned on me one day that how I live comes from deep within me, and is focused on living the teachings of Jesus – compassion and love even for enemies; letting go – of greed and trying to find “security” in possessions; and being a “student” or “disciple”, open to learning more and not getting “stuck” in “the way it’s always been”.

    Your introduction opens many thoughts on another way women are living, alone or together, with great diversity.

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    • Thank you for bringing those books into the conversation. And yes, agreed, living beyond what we possess— other than peace of mind– does seem to be a goal of contemplative women, whether or not they identify as nuns.

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  7. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz lived in 16th century Mexico, not the 15th.

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    • I don’t understand why the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are included here.
      Don’t they make fun of nuns? With their exaggerated make up, it seems to me they are mocking the religious order.

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      • The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are included because they are an actual order . They do service, have a novitiate period and do become sisters after determining if that is the correct path for them.

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    • Thank you for the correction!

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  8. “Hildegard de Bingen, (1909-1979)”? Hildegarde was born much earlier.

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  9. But your article is clear and TRES UTILE. MERCI.

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  10. Another interesting strand around these issues relates to the number of lay women (and men) allying themselves formally to monastic orders. For example, the Benedictine monastery to which I’m connected, where we are known as oblates (from the Latin, offering). As the numbers entering contemplative monastic life grows smaller, there seems to be a – perhaps not unrelated – increase in those who wish to commit to some of the elements of monasticism while living “normal” lives. We don’t take vows, but we do make a formal commitment.
    All of which is by way of saying that while women now have more choices and do not need to walk the cloister in order to study, to avoid marriage and family, to form deep ties with like-minded others, there does seem to be a hunger for monastic spirituality which is wider than the contemplative communities themselves.

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    • I remember reading a long time ago that some Buddhist monastics see the monastic life as a stage in life and a temporary way to form a person in meditation and the values of the teachings. Perhaps some of the others can enlarge on that?

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      • Good point– agreed. I have often thought I would like to as you say here take a “stage” of my life and form a person in meditation– except as we get older there seems to be less and less of an opportunity to take time away form our ordinary lives…and drop out for awhile

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    • as normal life becomes more and more connected to electronics and not nature — the idea of contemplative life I think may grow (not that nuns and sisters are not committed to technology)..but I’m thinking cloister/contemplative orders may not be as tech-dependent as most of us currently are

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