The topic of “discerning a vocation” is a commonplace yet difficult one with young Catholics. In order to make a generous choice of a state in life (usually, in the Roman Rite, between marriage and consecrated religious life and/or priesthood), young men and women in the Church must listen to and grapple with every aspect of their personhood—appetites, senses, intellect, will, and imagination. Yet this last faculty, imagination, is somewhat neglected in the educational resources offered to young adults to help them discern.
Speaking from my own experience during a year when I seriously considered the contemplative life, I often wished for well-written, convincing literature about nuns: not just hagiographies, for those are too often morally simple and neglect the real struggles and sins of the saints in the time before they were saints; and certainly not the luridly immoral monstrosities that one easily finds when looking for fiction about cloistered religious. I wanted challenging, beautiful, captivating books that simply had the divine romance of the religious life, rather than human marriage, as their theme. I wanted good books about nuns.
And, although God turned me aside from the path to religious life for other reasons, I have found some such books and enjoyed them greatly. Below are three book suggestions, although I hope and believe that this is not a comprehensive list.
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A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.: While not fiction, this memoir is as captivating as a novel. Though certainly not emphasizing sin and spiritual struggle, this bright and cheerful work still manages to “feel real,” showing at least the foibles and honest mistakes of the nuns it describes. It is a playful, humorous, and profound account of what it’s like to be a contemplative Poor Clare, and it is suitable for both teens and adults. At least three separate nuns recommended it to me when I was visiting convents, and one passage in particular accompanied me through my own discernment:
“In my own case, as in the case of so many others, enclosure has given me the fulfillment of what I had thought it must necessarily abort. ‘I like to dance and I like to sing,’ I had told the Jesuit priest at the university, and added that I was prepared to surrender such joys for God alone. And at that very moment, God saw my bare feet dancing around the rude manger Sister Dolores was to fashion from odd pieces of lumber…each Christmas devising a new ballet for eager postulants and novices who understand that if anyone in the world should dance at Christmas, contemplatives should! Yet I would scarcely have pirouetted and twirled in a classroom. Sing? The Franciscan Order was born with a song, and Franciscans have been singing ever since. Books? Often, when I am working in the library, I ask in my heart: ‘My very dear Lord, is there nothing at all I can surrender to you?’ For He made me the librarian.” (A Right to Be Merry, p. 63)
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden: This novel follows the vocations of several women at the fictional Benedictine Abbey of Brede, which is based on the authoress’s real-life experience of living beside an abbey for several years. Each of the main characters comes from a very different background and struggles with different obstacles to religious life, from family opposition to missing their pets. Meanwhile, the Abbey itself goes through the difficulties and changes a real monastery must, including the death of its abbess and interpersonal difficulties between nuns who are sincere but far from perfect. Some of the darker scenes in this story may make Brede unsuitable for too-young audiences, for sin and death must be portrayed in order for redemption to have any significance, but nothing is graphic or gratuitous. The novel ultimately portrays the surrender to God’s Will in a way that the modern reader can understand and yet find challenging: it suggests that we must be willing to give up everything for God, and yet, sometimes God may call us to keep something of ourselves we’d rather relinquish. He transforms, rather than annihilates, our personalities. The many personalities of Brede convince the reader of the difficulty of this transformation but also of its real possibility with God’s grace.
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman: This brief, intensely cerebral story follows a year in the life of a Carmelite nun who, after years of aridity, has suddenly begun to experience ecstasies and inspiration to write exquisite poetry—along with crippling headaches. Her first book is selling well, enabling her convent to replace its leaky roof, but the headaches begin to keep her from the duties of religious life, and the doctor believes that the cause of both the spiritual experiences and the headaches is the same. The sister must decide whether to be cured in body, at the risk of losing her newfound consolations, or choose to endure as she is, at the risk of harming her community of sisters. Ultimately, the novel is about using the will to make a choice, but a choice that is informed completely by love for the Divine Spouse. Salzman understands what the Carmelite mystic saints knew (ironically) so well, that true love for God means seeking God for His own sake and not for the sake of mystical experiences. The complexity of how the spiritual life is portrayed and some of the nun’s darker memories of her early life make this novel better for mature readers; knowing that the author was an agnostic when he wrote the novel may give many Catholics pause too. But I found him capable of exploring the inner life of a contemplative in much the way the Church herself might: with genuine openness to possibilities both mystical and medical. For those who can handle the challenge, this short novel is a healthy reminder that mystical experience is not necessary in order to be a good contemplative, and that a vocation is ultimately a choice to commit oneself to Divine Love, regardless of feelings.
Bonus: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, is a well-known modern classic and certainly has marriage as its central theme. But I would feel remiss leaving it off this list because of its portrayal of nuns, at the beginning and end of the story in particular. Without spoiling too much, Kristin spends some time in a convent in her early life and admires the dignified women there, even as she falls into grave sin the moment her hostesses’ backs are turned. Her fall is not the end of the story. The rest of her life will seemingly be shaped by a decision that was undoubtedly wrong, but by the end of the lengthy trilogy, she has discovered the deeper significance of religious life, love, and self-gift. While the beginning of the story may seem to portray nuns in a shallow, holy-card fashion, this is only the view through young Kristin’s eyes, and the end of the story recognizes that nuns can be made of ordinary, sinful women who have even a small mustard seed of faith.
This fact—that nuns are made from ordinary sinners—is what young Catholics today need to understand, and be able to grasp with the imagination as well as the reason and will, in order to fully consider the possibility that they themselves could become religious. Reading good literature about nuns is a helpful means toward this end.
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