EIGHTEEN months ago, my sister entered a religious order. She had been feeling a deepening sense of calling for over five years, and, in the end, she couldn’t ignore it. One of the reasons that it took her such a long time to decide whether to enter was that she knew what the cost would be, both to herself and to those around her.
I remember talking with my sister in the weeks before she left. At that stage, I was full of what now look to me like enviably idealistic sentiments. “You’ve got to do what’s right for you,” I said to her. “The role of the people who love you is simply to support you in your journey.”
I suppose one of the reasons I was open to my sister’s becoming a nun is that I had form myself. Before and during university, I had flirted with the Franciscan life. As a student, I had shunned party culture and said matins, vespers, and compline instead. I went on to do a Ph.D. on Thomas Merton, the monk and hermit. When I look back on it, now, I realise that my own interest in the religious life pre-dates my sister’s. I sometimes wonder whether my own monkish years had some bearing on her decision to become a nun.
Another reason for my support was that, when my sister described her prospective way of life to me, I liked the sound of it. She would be living abroad, but she could come back once a year, and we could visit her once a year, too. She was to have no mobile phone, but we could talk every couple of weeks. And her new way of life sounded rich and exciting; in particular, there was a focus on internationalism that struck me as impressively open and outward-looking.
FOR the first year or so after my sister entered the religious life, my initial idealism held its roots. I felt proud of her. She was doing something deeply worthwhile — something that few people have the depth and courage to pursue. As my own career as a teacher began, I had a sense of somehow being connected, through my sister, to a powerful network of prayer and contemplation.
I still feel those things now, but with less clarity than I did to begin with. I think things really began to change for me when my sister became a novice, meaning the period of discernment and formation before she decides whether to take first vows. At this stage in my sister’s journey, the rules about contact with family shifted: calls became limited to once a month; the earlier promise of an annual visit to the UK seemed to be off the table. She was entering, in her own words, “a time apart”.
When I learnt this, I began to feel more conflicted about my sister’s vocation. On the one hand, I knew the theological reasons why the lessening of contact was taking place: her life was being radically recentred on prayerful service to God. I had come across this idea in my own research and reading. My monkish years had exposed me to that way of understanding relationship with God.
On the other hand, the theology didn’t stop me feeling sad and frustrated that I couldn’t have the level of contact with my sibling that I would have chosen for myself. In the weeks after learning about the novitiate rules, I found myself coming up with an analogy that gets (albeit imperfectly) at the source of my difficulty. If my sister were in a romantic relationship with a person who laid down rules that strictly limited contact with her family, I’d be knocking on the front door, asking what was going on.
Why, I began to ask myself, should it be any different with a religious community? Is there a mystique surrounding monks and nuns that prevents us from applying the general norms of what is healthy and normal in human relating?
Soon after Easter Day, I visited my sister along with my wife and parents. There were plenty of positives to the trip: it was good to see my sister, and to meet some of her community. Her religious Sisters were eminently hospitable, gentle, intelligent people; in other words, people with whom my sister fitted right in. And there were aspects to her life that I could see made her happy: the sense of service and prayer, the contact with wise mentors, the simplicity of life. I found it helpful to see my sister being herself in her community environment, finding a place, relating to people with her usual brightness and skill.
If I’m honest, I also found the visit challenging. Moments of normal sibling relating were touched, for me, by the wider knowledge that neither my sister nor I can really have the kind of relationship that we might choose to have if she didn’t feel called to community life. Lighthearted family moments were subtly underwritten by the fact that we all knew they were limited to a timeframe, imposed by somebody else.
SINCE that visit, my sister has told me that the sibling of one of her fellow novices has expressed something similar, if in stronger terms. “I’d rather you were in prison,” they said. “At least then I could visit you regularly.” I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but I can understand where it comes from — a longing for more say in how the relationship works.
All in all, my sister’s becoming a nun feels a bit like Holy Saturday: a mix of sadness and loss with the hope that it all means something. I find myself wondering whether there is a broader conversation to be had about the dynamic I’ve been describing.
In the past five decades or so, Christian religious life has changed hugely around the world. I wonder whether the relationship between religious communities and the blood families from which they come is an area that might be part of this continuing discernment.