Breaking stereotypes about nuns!

“Why is it in popular culture -- and even in some Catholic circles as well -- we like our nuns buttoned up, predictable, and contained? Why is it that we don't mind outbursts of singing and giddiness, but we have a problem with normal, accurate displays of strength, balance, relationship, compassion, and zeal for God's mission?” (from a Nun’s life, 6th of June 2013).

When I read today’s blog from A Nun’s Life, it really got me thinking. Recently a friend said to me that I break the stereotypes of a nun/sister, probably something to do with my recent rollerblading!

People have varying opinions about me being present in the big world of social media. It is important for me to be present and as a younger religious to be able to dispel many of the stereotypes that there are out there about sisters. I am surprised by the many people, from so many different walks of life who make contact, be it through Facebook, twitter, email and even through this little blog. More than often, what draws them is the fact that my choice to become a religious sister and live completely for God, flows over into what I do, into my social networking. Often I share what I do in my daily life on my blog because I want people to know that my life is not a caricature as often media, especially Hollywood portrays.

I’m always interested in popular culture’s portrayal of nuns, which often bends to the cheapest stereotypes of grumpy, wrinkly, ruler-wielding disciplinarians. To be honest, some of my early impressions of nuns came from The Sound of Music. I have lost count of how many times I have seen it. It may just be the most popular depiction of nuns in films. From it, I thoughts that nuns were nice ladies who went around breaking into song all the time and sabotaged Nazi cars. Nuns are nuntertainment afterall and Hollywood gets great mileage out of nuns! Think of the last article you read in a magazine or a newspaper about nuns or sisters? We know that we are becoming more and more visual with regard to what we remember. What kind of visual images were used? What was the age of the sisters portrayed? What were they wearing? Was there a general emotional appeal of the image? Its connotations? Its realism?

Here are some of the stereotypes which I encounter regularly:

Some of our younger generation PDDM sisters from around the world
Stereotype no. 1 : All nuns are old. No, there are young nuns. Yes, even in Ireland! When I introduce myself as a sister, often I get the response, ‘but you are so young’ (see the  post 'OMG, you're a nun' for another giggle). Give it another year of grey-hair inducing Canon Law in Ottawa and I probably won't be able to pass as a 'postulant' anymore. But old nuns are super-cool as well! If they didn't join the convent years ago, we wouldn't be here today. They were pioneers, risk takers and continue to inspire me so much with their wisdom, experience and no-nonsense following Jesus approach. They've seen it all and have overcome a lot of the drama and crises that comes with the joys of youth. The Catholic church's National Office for Vocations  in Great Britain says the age range of people showing an interest in entering the priesthood or becoming part of a religious community is getting younger. They are now 16-18, but 10 years ago they would have been 30 or 40.
Stereotype no 2: All nuns carry rulers. Sadly, for most places, including Ireland, of all the contributions religious sisters have made over the centuries, they are probably most associated with rulers and cracked knuckles. I wonder when this stereotype will change. Yes, I do have a ruler but I use it for ruling lines, just like everyone else! 

Stereotype no 3: All nuns are super-holy and you have to be super-holy to join a convent. Society would seem to think that the current generation of women would be looking for a more 'relaxed' and "modern" style of religious life. In my experience of accompanying people in vocation discernment, most are actively seeking something much more traditional. They wanted a lifestyle radically and distinctively different to everyday life. Lumen gentium, one of the Apostolic Constitutions from Vatican II reminds us that we are all called to holiness. We read and are inspired by the lives of the saints who inspire us and remind us that they were real people too who struggled to become Christ-like. Afterall, He is the true model of holiness that we follow. This does not happen overnight or even over years. Some sisters come from religious families, Not all nuns are 'cradle Catholics', some became Catholics as adults. It is a one-day-at-a-time journey, walking, falling, getting up! We are perfectly imperfect!

First Profession of our sisters in the PDDM Province of
Phillipines-Taiwan-Hong Kong
Stereotype no.4: Real nuns wear habits. Ok, warning, a semi-rant shall follow. I could probably write a book on this topic at this stage. Many of my friends know this is a little hobby horse for me. Our religious dress varies from country to country and considering I have moved around significantly I have had the experience of wearing the habit and veil. Upon return to Ireland, in accordance with our Statutes, I returned to wearing more of a uniform blue skirt and blouse. I went to Poland and returned to the habit and veil. I came back to Ireland again and continue wearing what I wear now, even here in Canada. I have no problem returning to the habit and veil. I am the first to say that visible witness is important and is a tool for evangelisation, but it is not the only witness or tool. The bias I often hear is that if a woman religious doesn’t wear a habit, she’s not a “real nun.” Often among young people who are discerning religious life, there seems to be an opinion that if a sister is wearing a habit, she’s likely to value traditional Catholic values more than those who don’t. In my experience, habits are not magical anti-heresy devices, though it might be handy if they were! Even if sisters are all wearing the same habit, make sure you remember that each one of them is a wonderful unique person!

Stereotype 4: Nuns have an easy life, they just pray. I wish! Going back to stereotype no.1, people also think that sisters and nuns stay/look young because they have no stress or problems!  To choose to be a nun or a sister in any tradition means to adopt a life that is not easy at all; it can involve a lot of hard work, a struggle to stay on the spiritual path, and it can be quite lonely at times. But it is worth it, time and time again. As a teenager, I did not understand the depth of the evangelical councils of chastity, poverty, and obedience that I would later make but I saw religious life as a complete gift to be handed over and received. Sometimes I hand over willingly, other times, I try to hold onto the gift. Other times the Lord gives me gifts which are harder to receive. It is so much easy to give and receive when your hands are empty and your heart is full.
Stereotype 5: Nuns can’t see their families or have friends. With the means of social communication today, it is easier to keep in touch. Each Congregation or religious order have different rules and regulations regarding family and friend contacts and visits. Generally with enclosed orders, they do not usually go to visit their families except in cases of grave illness but instead they are welcomed to the monastery. St. Paul writes to the Galatians some practical advice for relationships. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of God.” (Galatians 6:1).Paul is saying that we all have burdens and we shouldn’t have to carry them alone. We walk alongside our family and friends and bring them to the Lord in prayer always. Similarly, we rely on them doing the same for us.
Stereotype 6: Nun can’t go rollerblading. Or to the cinema/McDonalds/other ‘normal’ places where  people hang out.  Even after 12 years or so of wearing either a habit or wearing other obvious nunlike clothes, it still takes getting used to the stares and weird looks you can get when you walk into some of these places. However that said, at times people will come up and ask for prayers or ask some other random Church-God-faith related question. There is  no ‘off-duty’ when you are a sister!
There are lots of other stereotypes but I think I will stop there for the moment!
Phylis Giroux, S.C. who has long been involved in religious communications work in both Canada and the US, looking at media portrayal of nuns, writes: “Positively speaking, sisters appear energetic, faith-full, flexible, dedicated, and socially-concerned. But the dark side is quite dark. Sisters are anti-authority, cruel, hypocritical, mere pawns, or martyr-masochists.” That is quite an extreme. Religious sisters and nuns are people with communities, families, and friends. It can be myopic to paint with too wide a brush without slopping tar on those who merit our praise and our prayers for their love and service. There are many dedicated women who have truly given everything generously for God and for the poorest of the poor, the voiceless, the marginalised, the list goes on. However the media is a powerful tool. Who's going to decide how sisters are portrayed?
The breaking of stereotypes is difficult, and can only happen one relationship at a time but it can be done. As the Imagine sisters movement continues to expand, strength after strength, we hear and see their motto “one sister can change the world!” more and more. However it is not just sisters who can change the world. You can change the stereotypes too. Just think about how you talk about sisters or nuns...are you adding to the stereotype or are you building a culture of vocation?
Note: While “nuns” and “sisters” frequently are used interchangeably in everyday conversation, technically, nuns are cloistered and live lives of contemplation. Sisters often live in community, but may hold outside jobs and live in private homes on their own or with one or two other sisters.