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. Continue reading “Thoughts on Nuns and Sisters and Perpetual Indulgence by Marie Cartier”

Life Begins at 42: Saint Hildegard’s Guide to Becoming a Midlife Powerfrau

hildegard statue appletrees

We live in a youth-obsessed culture. The cosmetic industry pushes wrinkle creams and hair dye on us while celebrities resort to Botox and surgery to preserve an illusion of eternal girlhood. We live longer than ever before, yet advancing age, once a mark of honour, has become a source of shame.

But what happens when women embrace midlife as an inner awakening and call to power?

One such woman was Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), powerfrau and late bloomer par excellence.

Her youth was dire. Offered to the Church at the age of eight, she was entombed in an anchorage. Though she had been haunted by luminous visions since earliest childhood, she didn’t dare speak of them. Her entire existence was bent on silent submission to her superior, Jutta von Sponheim, an ascetic whose regime of fasting and mortification of the flesh eventually killed her.

Only after Jutta’s demise could Hildegard step out of the shadows and carve out a spiritual life based not on suffering but on celebrating life in all its burgeoning green beauty. Even so she might have remained obscure, lost to history.

But when she was forty-two, everything changed.

“When I was forty-two years and seven months old,” she wrote, “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.”

Dazzling visionary experiences descended upon Hildegard, along with the divine summons to write and speak of her revelations. Reluctantly at first she embarked on her first book of theology, Scivias, or Know the Ways. After putting quill to parchment, she could never go back.

Hildegard went on to found two monasteries, go on four preaching tours, compose an entire corpus of sacred music, and write nine books on subjects as diverse as cosmology, botany, medicine, and human sexuality, thus leaving her indelible mark on history.

Most of us believe we live in a more enlightened age than Hildegard’s—after all, children are no longer offered as tithes to monasteries. Yet many young women find themselves in modern and secular forms of servitude—dead end relationships, soul-crippling jobs, credit card debt, a life of junk food and junk television—all the sadness and waste of an unexamined life.

We don’t need to be visionaries to break free. We just need to remember who we are, that we all serve some higher purpose. Each of us has our own unique gift to give the world.

In youth, it’s easy to be beguiled by the glamour of the surface of things—if we get the right job, the right partner, the right clothes we’ll be happy forever.

But in midlife we are gifted with the maturity to see through the false scripts consumer society hands to us. After a certain age we can see just how absurd it is to kill ourselves to emulate airbrushed supermodels. We realize that the greatest lover in the world can’t fulfill us until we are at peace with ourselves. And so we can let ourselves go. Paint the pictures we’ve always longed to paint. Learn French and travel the world. Dance under the stars. Play the saxophone. Offer our own song to the vast symphony of life.

Remember, it’s never too early or too late to embrace your inner powerfrau.

Mary Sharratt’s book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World and was a 2012 Kirkus Book of the Year. Her forthcoming novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, will be published by Houghton MIfflin Harcourt in Spring 2016. Visit her website.

Voice of Wisdom: What Hildegard Means Now by Mary Sharratt

sharratt$mary_lresHildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard on May 10, 2012—over eight centuries after her death. In October 2012, she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Hildegard is the fourth woman in the entire history of the Church to receive this distinction.

But what does Hildegard mean for a wider interfaith audience today?  Continue reading “Voice of Wisdom: What Hildegard Means Now by Mary Sharratt”

Vatican Lays a Cunning Trap for American Nuns by Mary Johnson

At the end of this month, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will meet to formulate a response to a Vatican trap whose cunning is best appreciated within the long tradition of religious authorities who craft impossible dilemmas for those they perceive as threats.

Two millennia ago, the chief priests sent someone to ask Jesus, “Should we pay taxes?” If Jesus said yes, he would pit himself against Jewish resistance to Roman occupation and therefore, in Jewish eyes, against God. If he said no, the Romans could execute him for sedition. Instead, Jesus famously replied, “Render to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s and to God what is God’s.”

In the fifteenth century, Joan of Arc’s ecclesiastical inquisitors asked her, “Do you know yourself to be in God’s grace?” If Joan answered yes, she would commit heresy because the Church had long taught that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace; if no, they could interpret her answer as an admission of guilt. Joan looked them in the eyes and replied, “If I am not in God’s grace, may God put me there; if I am, may God so keep me.” Continue reading “Vatican Lays a Cunning Trap for American Nuns by Mary Johnson”

Does Christianity Open a New Space for Cambodian Women? By Katie Schubert

The following is a guest post written by Katie Schubert, a Ph.D. student in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture program at Claremont Graduate University.  Her academic interests include feminist ethics, postcolonial feminism, human rights and religion, and Southeast Asian Studies focusing on Cambodia.  Her work explores Cambodian women’s experience of empowerment through religion. 

Christianity has often been blasted (and understandably so) for its patriarchal character, for justifying violence, and for its instrumental use of power throughout its long history.  In transnational feminist literature the work of missionaries is often referred to as the epitome of problematic transnational work, automatically assumed to be evil, likely because of the history of missionaries’ collusion with violent invasion and attempted erasure of previously existing systems.

But can Christianity also be freeing, a vehicle for change, even a vehicle for feminism? Continue reading “Does Christianity Open a New Space for Cambodian Women? By Katie Schubert”

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