Thursday, December 23, 2010

NPR: ". . . habits are the new radical."

Though I should be packing for my trip, I couldn't pass on the opportunity to share a very positive NPR story on the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia of Nashville, Tennessee. I suspect that many readers of this blog know a thing or two about the Nashville Dominicans, but those who do not may learn something from the first few paragraphs of this report by NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty:
For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.

The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 — four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.

Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.

They enter the chapel without saying a word, the swish of their long white habits the only sound. It is 5:30 in the morning, pitch black outside — but inside, the chapel is candescent as more than 150 women kneel and pray and fill the soaring sanctuary with their ghostly songs of praise.

A few elderly sisters sit in wheelchairs, but most of these sisters have unlined faces and are bursting with energy. Watching them, you wonder what would coax these young women to a strict life of prayer, teaching, study and silence.

And did they always want to be nuns?

"No," says Sister Beatrice Clark, laughing. "I didn't know they still existed."

Clark, who is 27, says she became aware of the religious life when she was a student at Catholic University in Washington. In her junior year, she began feeling that God was drawing her to enter a convent. Over Thanksgiving vacation in 2004, she broke the news to her family.

"My parents just sat there and looked at me," she says. "And they cried. And I said, 'I think I'm supposed to enter soon.' And my father said, 'This is the time of life to take leaps.' "

She joined the Nashville Dominicans on her 22nd birthday.
One of the things that I really like about this story is that it makes the point (not always apparent in some media coverage on vocations) that religious life is a viable option for intelligent and well-adjusted young people who could have opted for successful careers in the secular work world if their hearts hadn't led them elsewhere. Consider, for example, what Hagerty writes about Kelsey Wicks, a onetime Notre Dame basketball standout now known as Sister Joan of Arc:
[Wicks] says she worked on refugee issues after college, then received a scholarship to Notre Dame Law School. But her plans shifted when she went on a medical mission trip: In Africa she saw abject physical poverty, but it was nothing compared with the impoverishment she saw when she came home.

"When I came back to the U.S., I saw our true poverty of the heart and of the mind. And I saw the loneliness," she says. "It really made me give my life to the church, so I was more open to the advances of God when he asked, 'Lay down your life!' "

Her parents did not share her certainty.

"I remember my mother sent me Notre Dame Law School bumper stickers when I was deciding, because she did not want me to pass up that opportunity," she says with a laugh.

Sister Joan of Arc forsook law — but not basketball, entirely. Now in her second year, she regularly drills her sisters on the court behind the convent. They dribble and shoot in their long habits — the first-year postulates [sic: postulants] in black, the second-year novices in white. And when they break into the three teams — Our Lady of Victory, Cecilia and the Martyrs — they scream and chant with a fierce competitiveness that is not all that, well, sisterly.
The Nashville Dominicans may be smart and devout, but Hagerty effectively makes the point that they're also normal people who like to have fun. She also points out the positive effect that they're apparently having on students in the schools where they have their primary apostolate:
Catholic bishops beg the Nashville Dominicans to send their young sisters to their parochial schools, and more than 100 of them now teach in 34 schools in 13 states. The sisters are a big hit with the students as well because they don't fit the stereotype.

"You hear stories from your parents about getting spanked with rulers and stuff, and that's not true at all," says Breanne Lampert, one of [Sister Beatrice] Clark's sophomores [at St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville]. "But seeing the sisters here compared to other schools — they're so much younger. I don't know, they understand you really well."

"The young sisters are really inspiring," says Brady Diaz-Barriga, "because you're like, 'Oh, I could never do that. I just love Facebook and my cell phone and my computer too much to give that up!' But you see how much joy your life can be with less and not having all of that."

Isabelle Aparicio says the young sisters' lives have a surprising appeal. "Seeing these young women make these really hard decisions and then seeing so many of them make it, it's kind of inspiring," she says. "And it's actually made me think about it, possibly."
To read the rest of the article, click here. I hope that Barbara Bradley Hagerty's story on a dynamic group of young religious sisters leads NPR listeners and readers to think more positively about vocations in general. At the very least, I'd say that this story makes for a fine Christmas gift from NPR. AMDG.


At 12/24/2010 11:51 AM, Anonymous Maria said...

'Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence'.

Fruit is borne of habit silence and communal prayers. Without these things orders die...

At 1/17/2011 5:59 PM, Blogger J said...

My great-aunt on my father's side was a Sister of Mercy and was an educator. Some of my fondest memories growing up are Sister Mary Linus in her habit. She was a nun first, then she was our aunt, and the sweetest ever. There was, and I stress the word "was", also a convent next to the local Catholic school in our little home town and it was somehow reassuring to see the nuns out and about town. It is so sad thinking about what our community has lost. There is something spiritual about having such a presence among us in our daily lives, even if we don't have direct contact. Seeing a nun in habit in the grocery store or walking on the street always gives me extreme comfort and joy. It is an outward sign to the world that God is everywhere.

At 1/17/2011 7:55 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Thanks for the comment, J.


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