Friday, 2 September 2011

Being a nun is no longer habit forming

It always amuses and bemuses me that charity 'fun run' type activities invariably feature half a dozen 'nuns' dressed in habits to the ground and face enclosing wimples. How sad that the traditional habit of a nun is only seen on mindless idiots these days, whilst the real nuns prance around with blue rinse perms and M & S cardigans (complete with the stainless steel cross brooch - they are religious after all!).

But then, what on earth would make a woman believe that she had a vocation today?
I am leaving the traditional orders out of this equation as, it seems to me, that they have got it right; they might not have vast numbers of novices coming onstream but, they are moving in the right direction.

In short, what woman would give up a secular life for one of doing what? Being parish administrators? Catechising the catechumens? Dancing around the Sanctuary holding hands?
The religious life for most orders has become a pale mix of assisting here and there and doing something else, the Lord knows what, behind the Convent doors.

There are horror stories about nun's activities that I will not go into here; except to say that, within my knowledge, they only extend as far as plotting and scheming against the parish priest (they are not the dancing naked around a fire at midnight type of scandal).

The Tyburn nuns lead a life of prayer and penance
The teaching orders seem to have all but vanished and the same goes for the nursing ones. There are, admittedly, many fine rest homes run by nuns but one gets the impression that this is an exercise in keeping the order afloat first and adoring God, second.
Before my combox descends into burn out mode let me just spell out a few orders where good works are still carried out; the Poor Clares, the Missionaries of Charity, Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate...ummm.....and that's about it in Great Britain, apart from a few traditional communities from the Dominicans, Carmelites and Benedictines. 

But back to the habit. Nuns today are instantly recognisable; they wear a light smearing of make-up, badly applied, their hair looks as if it had been cut by a demonic hairdresser on speed and they all wear the mandatory cardigan and mid calf length skirt, either in dark blue or clerical grey. They are always the ones (when they have to attend an EF Mass) who refuse to kneel and instead stand and offer their hands for reception.

St Therese would never have worn twin set and pearls!

They also take on the role of arbiters on all matters doctrinal. I remember once speaking to a newly converted couple and mentioning Purgatory to them. They looked appalled and just could not see the logic behind Almighty God's love for us that makes this such a saving contrast with the stark Protestant routes of Heaven or Hell. They set off post haste to confront the nun who had catechised them and returned the next week looking much relieved. "It's OK" they said: "Sister X said that the Church doesn't teach  Purgatory these days"
And the old chestnut about the habit being a barrier between the laity and themselves just does not make sense. Many of the laity appreciate that 'barrier', it helps them cope with the social niceties of mixing with nuns (or priests for that matter). Take away the habit and you are left with a rather sad 'auntie' sort of figure that people find hard to relate to.

Bringing back the habit is, of course, only part of the remedy. Much more needs to be done if young women are to consider a life of poverty, chastity and obedience dedicated to Christ. No one is attracted by a soft option but an amalgam of prayer, charitable works (real ones), teaching (real teaching),  working with parish groups and, especially, picking up on my post of 31st August, (here) re-establishing the young women's guild of Children of Mary - a possible prelude to the Legion of Mary and then, who knows, a vocation.
Ttony made the apt comment that the Children of Mary equates well with the Archconfraternity of St Stephen and removes, in one swipe, the division over altar girls and altar boys; a separate and distinct role for each sex, both carrying merit and parity and both with the capacity to encourage vocations.


  1. If St Therese had joined, say, the Servants of Jesus, and if twin sets and pearls had been standard dress in her day, she'd have worn twin set and pearls. Many organisations of consecrated women were closer in their original form to secular institutes than to religious orders. Wearing secular clothes is something of a return to an original charism in some cases.

  2. I think Berenike makes a very fair point here. We have tended- perhaps mistakenly- to lump together all religious sisters as if they were all meant to be contemplative nuns when, in fact, many are, and were, pursuing a somewhat different apostolate. As to what is appropriate dress for these, as a mere man, I hesitate to be prescriptive!

  3. Patricius - he who hesitates is lost! Given the option of civvies or a decent habit I would opt for the habit every time.
    Sadly, it is, in the main, largely the enclosed orders who dress and behave as nuns should.They are also the ones who appear to be staying afloat whilst those who have 'gone modern' are closing their houses down left, right and centre.

  4. " the main, largely the enclosed orders who dress and behave as nuns should."
    That is the point- they are the contemplatives for whom there is always a role in the Church. Many of the others were founded to meet specific needs in the very different circumstances of past times. In a sense the modern outmoded dress may, in my view, point to a loss of relevance. St Therese joined the Carmelites because she recognised her own vocation in the particular contemplative charism of that order- and not in one whose primary area was that of looking after orphans or fallen women, or in nursing or teaching. In other words the ones who have "gone modern" may well have been lost already

  5. Funny you should bring this up today Richard. I was looking at the very kind ladies who make up the order who staff our hospital. None wear a habit, even though their founder did. There isn't a young woman among them. Some of the sisters are nurses and still care for the sick on a daily basis, while some of the others have other roles. But again, not a woman under the age of 60 among them. And no prospects.

    I'll open a another can of worms a bit and say that priests who go out in public in civies have, in my opinion, no right to voice an opinion on the habits of nuns. One of the worst offenders I know is full of criticism of nuns but leaves his cassock and collar home when going out to dinner, etc.

  6. A friend of mine has an aunt who is a nun who wears a full-length traditional habit. On a train for London from Edinburgh she found herself sitting opposite a young woman who was clearly distressed. After a while they struck up a conversation and it transpired that the woman, the mother of a young family, was at the end of her tether with caring for her children with little support from a husband whose devotion to the whiskey bottle was greater than his commitment to supporting his family.

    Sister continued to listen and to encourage her companion and, to cut a long story short, by the time the train reached Kings Cross the young woman had decided to catch the next one back to Scotland and return to her family.

    The young woman made it clear to Sister that it was only because she was wearing her habit that she felt able to confide in her.

    Enough said.

  7. That's a wonderful story. And a sad comment on the bishop who said he travels on the train in mufti so that people don't start talking to him.