In the Habit of Justice: Why Nuns Are Badass

by: Emma Rose

When my dad was in 2nd grade, Sister Mary Traumatizing pulled him around the classroom by the ear for writing his homework in blue crayon.  I heard the anecdote countless times growing up, and it was the first thing he mentioned when I told him I was considering religious life.

In general, I dread telling new acquaintances that my major is Catholic Studies.  Their faces phase through about 23 shades of judgment and confusion before they condescendingly respond with, “Catholic Studies? What are you going to do with that, be a nun?”

I never know how to respond to the question.  Sometimes, I give the honest answer (which is maybe) just to freak people out.  Other times, when I don’t want people looking at me like I’m crazy, I give a charming why-would-I-ever-do-a-thing-like-that! chuckle.  Either way, my gut wants me to look the person straight in the eye and say, “Would there be something wrong with that?”

I think most people’s concept of nuns is Sr. Mary Traumatizing: a cloistered, grumpy, sexless woman doomed to wearing a penguin dress and hitting kids’ knuckles with a ruler for the rest of her life.  However, in my 22 years of being a Catholic, I have never encountered this woman, and my experiences with nuns and sisters have been positive and affirming.

What most people don’t realize is that nuns are completely badass.

Let’s address a few things.  First off, most women religious—the collective term for nuns and sisters—these days aren’t cloistered or in the habit.  Thanks to Vatican II, nuns and sisters have more freedom to dress in everyday clothes.  Sure, some women still choose to wear the habit; however, if you see a woman in a white top and a blue or brown skirt, there’s a good chance that she is a Daughter of Charity or a Sister of St. Francis.

Also, sisters are super sassy.  Don’t believe me?  Go talk to one.

And, just because a sister takes on a vow of chastity does not mean that she lacks sexuality.  She is still a human being with a human body.  Sexuality, at its core, is a way to show love and affection for another person.  A woman does not have to engage in the physical act of sex to share intimacy with the world.  Sisters are women who dedicate their lives to loving and serving others.  They are by no means asexual.

On top of being fiery and empowered, women religious have been the backbone not only of the Church but also of the social work system.  Without nuns and sisters, there would be no orphanages, hospitals, education systems or soup kitchens.

History is full of women religious who devote their lives to faithful service and social justice. I personally feel inspired by St. Louise DeMarillac, the Patron Saint of Social Workers, who singlehandedly organized the first social service program; Sr. Norma from Colombia who keeps drug cartels at bay; the 20th century Maryknoll martyrs from El Salvador; and the Jonah House political activists who participate in civil disobedience and regularly spend time in jail to protest nuclear war.  And what about the nurses, teachers, lawyers and ministers who spend weekdays serving their community and weekends advocating for systemic change?

Without nuns and sisters, the Catholic Church would literally fall apart.  In areas where priests are scarce, nuns and sisters keep churches running.  They do the hard work and manual labor and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.  All the while, they minister to the spiritual needs of the people around them and root their work in prayer.

I work in a church office, and today a priest came in and asked what I was writing.  When I told him, he said, “You know the passage about the shepherd and the sheep? Women religious are the shepherds of the Church.  They work stay dedicated to the people of the flock. Usually, the men of the hierarchy are the hired help who run away.”

Women religious take the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as men without receiving the Sacrament or the status.  They do as much work as deacons, priests, bishops and cardinals, but they are told that their vows cannot come with the same gift of Grace as Holy Orders.  They are humble servants who keep the spirit of passion alive.

Family and friends have told me that joining an order would mean throwing my life and talents away.  Why would anyone want to give up money, sex and power?  Who would want to make that sacrifice?

The truth is, any committed lifestyle involves sacrifice.  Some may find the idea of taking a vow of obedience to the Church to be a bit extreme; but, married people vow to be equally committed to their families.  In may ways, following the path of religious life allows for more freedom to work for service and justice without being tied to a spouse and children.

Not to mention, a core part of religious life is community. Women religious live intentionally with each other and hold the same beliefs and mission.  I can only imagine that it’s a struggle to have so much estrogen in one house, but at the end of the day, sisters and nuns can always find support and solace in one another.

The misconceptions about how women religious live their day-to-day lives often leads to dehumanization.  Oftentimes, people talk about sisters and nuns as if they are different species.  The idea of entering religious life is so countercultural and distant from the norm that people often misunderstand that nuns and sisters are everyday people, too.

Maybe I’ll be a sister one day, maybe not.  I’m not really in a rush to find out yet.  I’m still trying to figure out how the heck I’m going to support myself after I graduate next month.  If that does become my path one day, I know I will be surrounded by strong, empowering, phenomenal women.  It would be a blessing to join in the footsteps of women who bring faith, justice and peace into the world.

I would not be the person I am today without the support, love and friendship of the Daughters of Charity.  They have given me faith in times of doubt and darkness.  From them, I learned what it means to be a woman, what it means to love unconditionally and see the Christ in each human person.  Every day, they show me how to pray and live, how to tend to the poverty in the world and how to recognize the poverty within my deepest self. Together, we have danced, laughed, played, prayed, cried and struggled for justice.

If you would like to show your love for the sisters, leave a tweet at #whatsistersmeantome.

This article is dedicated to Sr. Mary Beth. Thank you for everything, SMB. I love you so much. I don’t think you’ll ever know how many lives you’ve changed. Keep being your sassy, amazing self! 




3 responses to “In the Habit of Justice: Why Nuns Are Badass

  1. No one is saying that nuns are asexual – in fact just the opposite. Asexuality is a sexual orientation indicating no or very little sexual drive. Nuns on the other hand have sexual thoughts and desires which they are cruelly and pointlessly denied expression for.

    You say that sisters are “empowered” because they are “super sassy” and “completely badass”, pointing how the church in its infinite mercy has given them “more freedom to dress in everyday clothes”. Does it not strike you that maybe it was none of the church’s damn business to have these restrictions in the first place? Who made the decision at Vatican II? Was it a group of “empowered” nuns, bravely fighting for their own measure of autonomy? No. It was a group of ridiculous, self-important old men. As you say “They do as much work as deacons, priests, bishops and cardinals, but they are told that their vows cannot come with the same gift of Grace as Holy Orders.”

    Last summer I was at the Milan Cathedral. The door policy dictates, among other things, that women are not permitted to wear shorts inside. It was July, in Milan; I saw twenty women turned away from entry and not a single man, including myself.

    When, about, do you think this kind of dress policy would have been considered normal? Say, 1962?

    Religious life is certainly “distant from the norm” but it is in no way “countercultural”; in fact its downright reactionary.

    If women religious are so important to the Church (and I don’t doubt that they are), why does the church refuse to ordain them? Why are they not included in upper-level church positions? Why is both the structure and teaching of the church so unequal?

    The huge amount of charity work organized by the church (and I’m sure the contribution of nuns to this is substantial) is commendable and not to be dismissed. But the Church itself, especially it’s upper echelons, is a monument to inequality. I think activism and a desire for justice are all laudable priorities, but that they can and should be secularized, divorced from an institution that has long been misogynistic, homophobic and contemptuous of sexuality in general, and that furthermore has displayed a propensity for deep, deep dysfunction and self-service.

    • Wizardcommander,

      Actually sisters take a vow of chastity of their own will. You can be a religious woman and take other vows and get married and wear whatever you want (these are known as secular/third orders), but religious life (aka nuns+monks) are specifically called to live a life of sacrifice, and taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

  2. This is so beautiful, and a great tribute to nuns and women religious of all orders everywhere. Not to be underestimated is their ceaseless dedication to prayer. Prayer holds the world together. When we work, we work, but when we pray, God works. Everyone on this planet owes a quiet thanks to all individuals who dedicate themselves to the calling God has for them in the form of monasticism.

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