Time for a revolution in the convent

Religious Notes

DO NUNS have a place in the modern church? Many women would answer yes, because the end of the millennium is marked by an upsurge in vocations. Women are entering the convent, if not in droves, then in steadily increasing numbers. In some previously dwindling communities, vocations have reached a 10-year high.

Educated and articulate, the nuns of this new generation are keen to explain their choice. Few of them see their lives as a cosy retreat, the "heaven-haven" described by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Almost all were dissatisfied with late 20th-century materialism, and have a sense of being called by a personal God. Many, having worked in therapy or counselling, have rejected these and other forms of new age soul massage.

Can the convent be seen as a good new career move, as at the end of the last millennium? In 10th-century Europe the education of girls was at worst non-existent and at best haphazard, and women were legally obliged to obey their husbands or fathers. By becoming a nun, the musician and mystic Hildegard of Bingen did indeed choose the better part. By the time she had reached her thirties she was the administrative head of a large community, and recognised by both sexes as a theological authority. She healed the sick, wrote many songs and medical textbooks, finding far more scope for her talents than she ever could have as a laywoman.

Though most modern nuns have careers before entering the convent, paradoxically their role in religion is reduced. Unlike Hildegard, they seldom get the chance to intervene in theological disputes, or go on preaching tours of monasteries and cathedrals; nor is their advice sought by bishops or heads of monastic houses. When the American theologian Madonna Kolbenschlag described today's women as "spiritual dwarves" she angered some of her readers; but arguably her description suits those modern women in religion who are denied the intellectual liberties of their medieval and renaissance predecessors.

Today's nuns are taught to see their vows of obedience as a renunciation of their own will in favour of God's. But how does God express his plans for them? Presumably not through a Pope who denies the morning-after pill to raped women in Kosovo; or who forbids feminist theologians to debate even the possibility of women priests. Church dogma is still patriarchal, and its female members are doomed for the foreseeable future to have their sacraments dispensed by men.

"Dark nights perhaps but no grey days for you," wrote Elizabeth Jennings to a friend with a vocation. Her metaphor comes from the 17th-century mystic St John of the Cross, persuaded to join the Carmelites by St Teresa of Avila. Like Hildegard a reformer, a visionary and a brilliant writer, Teresa knew how to turn boredom (grey days) into spiritual psychodrama (dark night of the soul).

But Jennings is wrong about modern nuns. Their vocations are undermined not by dark nights, but by spiritual stagnation, otherwise known as boredom. Unlike Teresa, they do not become reformers, saints, or doctors of the church. What they usually become instead is old nuns, or else quit the convent because they feel thwarted by its intellectually stifling atmosphere. Among those who stay, many are able to find confessors who condone their decision to ignore unpalatable papal dogma. But this is merely sticking plaster for wounded souls. By choosing to avoid open defiance, nuns are propping up the patriarchy that scants them.

So isn't it time that nuns redefined their role? Their God, if he exists, is presumably that same God who called Hildegard and Teresa, so he might just prize revolution over obedience. Only through a bold, confrontational engagement in theology and politics and an active support of their victimised sisters in the world will nuns regain the religious life they deserve.

Jenny Newman is the author of `Life Class' (Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick