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A Time of Upheaval for the American Nun

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD: The Faith and Future of the American Nun; By Lucy Kaylin; William Morrow; $24, 240 pages


"Although some would balk at the characterization, being a nun seems inherently feminist: This rigorous and communal life fosters a self-reliance and interdependence among women in spite of the patriarchy that oversees it," suggests journalist Lucy Kaylin, author of "For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun." In this compelling work, she examines the changes--public and private--that have altered the image of nuns, and uncovers surprisingly potent concepts of this once tradition-bound vocation.

Raised in a nonreligious home, Kaylin writes from a perspective of fascination, intrigued by "the quiet strength of women who seemed untouched by trends, who toiled in the unremunerative realm of the spirit." Using "the outsider's capacity to be surprised," she creates a clear-eyed portrait that is hampered by neither excessive respect nor the desire to unmask the mystery at the heart of these women's life choices.

"For The Love Of God" examines two factors that permanently altered the concept of "nun" in the United States: the upheaval resulting from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, and the feminist movement, which expanded women's options beyond the roles of wife and mother. It was in the midst of this transitional period, Kaylin argues, that American nuns began to question "a way of life and a legacy that was nearly two thousand years old."

As the questioning intensified, the defining terms of the vocation underwent radical changes. On an exterior level, many sisters altered or abandoned the wearing of a habit; some chose to pursue their ministry outside the circumscribed choices of teacher or nurse, heading instead into the messier problems of homelessness, hunger, politics, drug addiction and AIDS, while others left their convents for apartments to abide more fully among the people to whom they ministered.

The biggest changes, though, were internal. The Sister Formation Movement, for example, a direct result of Vatican II, sent religious women in record numbers to college, where they were exposed for the first time to catalytic theological concepts. "Few notions in all of theology would have greater impact on the life of the modern nun than that expressed in St. Thomas' [Aquinas] 'Summa Theologica,' which essentially said that the ultimate authority in moral issues is one's conscience."

Armed with a belief in the primacy of personal ethics, amid the openness brought on by Vatican II, sisters participated in "a kind of heated and highly politicized dissension that no living nun had ever before witnessed" that included debate on birth control, abortion and the ordination of women. Though, in some ways, the result was to create sisters more impassioned in the dedication of their lives, there were also drawbacks: The free-thinking individuality that erupted was essentially at odds with the aims of communal living. "[A] cornerstone of religious life was coming loose," Kaylin writes.

For many, this loosening spelled disaster, disrupting the predictable, secure lifestyle to which they'd aspired. For others, it was the "long-overdue acknowledgment of their ability to decide things for themselves." The exodus that resulted, however, was unambiguous: The population of American nuns, which peaked at 181,000 in 1965, dropped to 135,000 by 1975. "Today, there are roughly 84,000, with a median age nearly 70."

The question at the heart of this wide-eyed examination is whether female religious life is a hapless casualty of our times bound for extinction, or if sisters in the 21st century will reinvent themselves. To this end, Kaylin interviewed a broad cross-section of women religious: cloistered nuns who have been professed for decades, women just entering religious formation, and those who have left religious life to pursue other vocations. There are nuns in full habit whose days are filled with prayer and dairy farming, a pair of sisters who minister to circus workers, and Sister Marge, white-haired and grandmotherly, who's a prison-bound felon for her subversive work against human rights atrocities. (Sister Marge's family jokes that "getting arrested at protests is what people did in the '60s, not in their 60s.")

What may be most arresting about this book is the way it forces readers to reconsider the tidy mental box to which they may have relegated the concept of "nun." As one sister puts it, "I want to live more counterculturally." Perhaps, if we were to see the devotion of nuns for the radical and subversive act it can be, we, like the sisters questioning their roles, might have a deeper appreciation for what this vocation may yet come to mean.


Bernadette Murphy is a critic and fiction writer, now completing "Venice Street," a novel.

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