UNVEILED: THE HIDDEN LIVES OF NUNS, by Cheryl L. Reed. Berkley Books (New York, 2004). 333 pp., $24.95.
In “Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns,” Cheryl L. Reed, a Chicago-based journalist, shares her four-year study of women religious in America, a group she calls an “aging and rapidly vanishing subculture.”
Reed interviewed more than 300 women in a wide range of communities, from the strictly cloistered Trappistines to the secular branch of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, a group without canonical vows and no longer under the official auspices of the church. All the names of sisters and congregations are real. Their stories are recounted from tape-recorded personal interviews Reed conducted during several days’ stay in each convent.
Reed covers religion stories for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications, but she is not a Catholic and she acknowledges that as a child she had a fear of nuns. She undertook this research project in order to educate herself and to examine whether modern women can live like nuns.
The author was surprised to discover that members in a typical community “neither looked alike, nor thought alike — some didn’t even like each other.” In interviews the sisters express a wide range of views, including disagreement on habits, community life, friendship, abortion, women’s ordination, birth control, the infallibility of the pope, celibacy for priests, homosexuality and even the meaning of religious vows.
Sisters’ definitions of the vow of poverty varied from personal deprivation, to solidarity with the poor, to using only what is needed, to caring for the environment and pursuing justice. Diverse ideas of the vow of chastity included discouraging friendship, encouraging friendship, mothering or nurturing many, and being faithful to community and relationships. Views of obedience ranged from unquestioning submission to superiors or hierarchy to resisting questionable external authority, to following the voice of the Spirit within and listening attentively to others.
After visiting several cloistered orders, Reed questions the viability of a life entirely devoted to prayer. One prioress of a semi-cloistered group addressed her concern, explaining that she had been drawn to social work but realized she would only reach limited numbers. She told Reed, “I decided to get a job where I could badger the boss … become a lobbyist of the highest level.”
Reed talked with active sisters whose orders focused on teaching and nursing before Vatican II but now emphasize working with the poor and marginalized. She admires their work but wonders whether many active sisters are overinvolved and workaholic, with little time for prayer or for themselves.
She interviewed political activist sisters who consider it their calling to use civil disobedience to stand up to prejudice and violence. Reed encountered groups of women religious who found the male-dominated authority in the church to be restricting their spiritual lives. Reed says she found that groups with micromanaging superiors and rigid rules tend to attract women who are spiritually immature, opinionless and bland, aspiring to be “cardboard cutouts of perfection.”
This book is an engaging account of the diversity of American sisters and their personal stories. Reed sums up her own view in this fashion: “For many women, like myself, distrustful of a male-led church, the nuns offer us a church outside of that hierarchy, whether it is through their secular oblate membership, meditation retreats, spiritual direction or simply friendship.”
Sister Castelazo is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who has taught English and literature in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, most recently at Mount St. Mary’s College.