SPIRITUALITY AND SEXUALITY
The goal of spirituality and the goal of sexuality are the same,
It is the experience of intimacy and union.
Young women choosing a life of celibacy and asceticism must necessarily
substitute a love of God and religious life for the
abandoned desire of physical attachment to another human being. The question examined in this chapter will be how the participants in this study viewed their sexuality during the transition into the convent and their time there. Their collective reasons for entering had little to do with a desire for asceticism. For the majority, celibacy was either a relief or appeared to be a “non-issue.” Few of the women described themselves as tremendously religious prior to entering, although many said they were daily communicants. Did these women see their sexuality as being honored? What did they do to preserve that part of themselves that would have been labeled sexual? These are some of the questions I hope to answer.
Catholic children of both genders learn at an early age and in complex ways that they must deny and sublimate their sexuality in a variety of ways. In their recently published book Righteous Religion, Ritter and O’Neill (1996), compare fundamentalist patriarchal religions to our image of the nurturing family. The reality for many children growing up within the confines of these religions was far from nurturing. Often the children are exposed with impunity to “authoritarian misuse” from angry, repressive parents in a Church which teaches that parents are God's representatives on earth and must be obeyed and honored in all things. According to Ritter and O’Neill (p.14) this belief applies to members of the Catholic and fundamentalists religions in particular and children of these families.
They are continually threatened with exclusion
punishment at the hands of a parental angry God unless they abide by
the dictates of righteous law and authority. Members encounter a
belief system that assumes that they are flawed and evil children and
that only out of fear will they stay in line. In this regard,
believers are terrified into obedience by frequent references to Satan,
hell, and a final judgment presided over by a jealous and wrathful God.
An example of this was apparent when Caroline described an incident that happened to her in high school.
We'd had teenage missions where you'd go off
for a week and the priests would
holler at you. I remember sitting there one night and literally they would holler at
us for five nights in a row. This night he was talking about french kissing saying
how evil it is and how can you do this and I'm sitting there thinking what is it? I
didn't even know what he was talking about. I was more embarrassed not
knowing what it was. I couldn't look in either direction. I just pretended I knew
what it was. I thought it must be a terrible thing.
As illustrated in Chapter Four, many of the participants endured paternalistic, dysfunctional and often abusive homes. Authoritarian religions give parents, priests and teachers absolute power. Only one out of the women in this study had attended a Catholic co-educational elementary school. However 100% of them attended single sexed high school, further reinforcing the model of a “good Catholic girl.” By the time they were 16 or 17 all of the women had made their pledge to enter. Two entered when they were 16, one when she was 39, the remainder entered at 18 years. This figure was consistent with the data from the larger study, which found the majority of women to have entered between the ages of 16 and 19 years old with 49% entering at 18 years.
Caroline's story held an insight that was repeated by other women when they recognized that during their time in the convent they were able to play and be children for the first time in their lives
I know I went into the convent for a number
of reasons. I went because in the
convent I got to be a kid. I wasn't the oldest. I didn't have to do everything right.
I got to be a kid in the convent. It was like joining this big family. I broke all the
rules. I did everything wrong, all the things I didn't do when I was the oldest of
six and the student body President. If there was a rule to break I'd figure out how
to break it, and have a great time doing it.
Miriam had a similar experience upon entering her convent,
I would have been in the Peace Corps
had it been another time; except I went to a
Catholic school and was taught by nuns and I was attracted to their altruism. I
think the religious life continued my adolescence. I thought it was a real challenge
to beat the system. I remember stealing ice cream from the locker and being
found out by the Novice Mistress with chocolate ice-cream running all down the
front of me. I was a novice then. When I look back at all the things I did, I know
I went from one family to another. I took authority very seriously. My mother is a
very dominating, angry woman and to me she was replaced by the mistress of
novices, so I was scared shitless of that. When it came to sexuality, I used to
laugh. But I entered in the 60s, and I have to say the novices all laughed at what
the vows were. We had this crony Dominican priest telling us about them, and
what made us really laugh was “particular friendships.” Now the point was we all
probably had one. The holy cards in our missals. I still remember that and it
makes me laugh. I did not have any sexual feeling about women but I liked being
close to them and having girlfriends.
Although Caroline would break any rule she could, the rules relating to chastity and personal friendships were never challenged. Miriam poked direct fun at the personal friendship rule and was conscious of breaking it, by passing a holy picture to a fellow novice to carry in her missal. However she never attempted to form any sexual liaisons. Caroline continued her story
In the convent when I look back, people have
asked me if there
were a lot of lesbians. I wasn't aware of any sexual fooling around
when I was there. Now when I look back on it I'm aware that so and so
was having an affair with so and so, but with people I really didn't
really know. My friends and I really weren't doing it. What is
interesting is that when I got to the convent I was 17. It seemed like
somehow we all paired up; like we all had a crush on this other novice,
you know we were postulants with the older novices. It wasn't sexual
but now I look back on it and it definitely feels like a crush. So
there were no sexual feelings for me in the convent.
Looking back she recognized the feelings she had as a “crush.” However, she differentiated “crush” from sexual feelings without explaining how she understood the difference. I therefore asked her where she thought her sexuality went while she was in the convent?
I just think I felt, I'm not going to feel
this. I'm not going to
deal with this. It's too scary. It's just too scary. I don't want to
feel this. Another reason for entering was there was a very strong
spiritual yearning at a young age. I could have joined the Salvation
Army or something, but I entered the convent. The other reason was a
great fear of the world, fear of men and sex, fear of life really. I
was thinking of God, and fearing what I would do when I was out of high
school. So there were many reasons for entering--all the fears, the
need to belong to a big family. There was a spiritual need and there
was a need to do something big for the world and I think the convent
filled all those needs for me.
Margaret was vociferous with praise for her convent years. Following her experience of being the victim of incest at the hands of her brothers and their friends she proclaimed at 15 years “nobody will ever do that to me again.”
I went to the convent with the idea that now
I can be a good
person. Going to this order seemed like a wonderful place to be, and
it turned out to be a wonderful place to be. I loved those people.
There were 125 of us who entered the year that I went in. Those poor
people who were in charge of us; I look back now and think how in the
world did you put up with 125 adolescent kids? There were a few
college kids but “yes that was it.” So we had a great time; we had a
lot of fun. I was lonesome I wanted to go home. I had this idealistic
picture that we had this wonderful family; that we all cared about each
other, that my parents were wonderful. It took me a long time to
realize there's some big problems. I loved the structure, knowing
nobody is going to break this structure. Nobody came from behind and
said now we're going to do this. It all worked with the rules. I
liked this stuff. The biggest thing the convent did for me was say
you're a woman, and you have power as a woman. You have talent and
we're going to find it and use it. I got through school. I got to be
a teacher. It was something I respected and felt good about. I feel
they helped me become a very strong person compared to what I was. Not
strong, maybe because I hadn't begun to deal with the incest yet. So
there was a lot to be done before I got to a point where I really felt
good about who I was. I wound up with a lot of good people to live
with; not everyone. There were some that I didn't like, but they would
never have known. I was a “yes” person. But the rest, I loved them.
So the convent was a real growth place for me. They gave me the
opportunity to be away from the sex when I didn't want it and didn't
even want to think about it or deal with it, but also gave me a time
where I could grow back into the idea that it's not a terrible thing.
I went from being a kid to being an adult; and being able to look at it
in a whole new light. To say, “wow, you have choice out there.” Sex
is something that people enjoy and it's something that people don't
look at and say this is bad and it's terrible and you shouldn't do it.
By the time I left, after seven years, it was something I looked
forward to again. I thought by then I'd like to have a boyfriend, I'd
like to have a husband and children. I think it was like growing in a
safe place. In the few times we had sexual instruction in the convent
it was always treated as something that was fine. It was good, and
being a woman was a good thing to be and you should be the best woman
that you could be. I was proud of that. There were lesbians in the
convent, just a few of them. I never quite understood that a whole
lot. I never ran into that as an adolescent growing up. It was way
out some place and nobody ever talked about that you know. Not then
back in the 50s and 60s. Today my 6th graders know about it. I never
encountered any sexuality when I was in the novitiate, maybe other
people did, but not me.
Alison told me she was aware of sexuality in the convent, but saw it in a “negative way”
We were very much prohibited from being alone
in the same room
with another nun, for heaven's sake. If you were caught talking to
someone in the closet, God! They had the Holy Water out, exorcising the
evil spirits that evening. What did they think we were going to do?
Did they think the convent was a breeding ground for homosexuality? We
never talked about it, but I suppose that was the undercurrent. They
were afraid that you would become sexual with one another. But they
never said that. They just said, “don't talk, don't meet.” We had
grown up and gone to Catholic all girls high schools, and all we had
were girl friends. Your girl friends were important to you and just
because you had a girl friend didn't mean you were going to start
experimenting. I just felt that was weird to me and that was the
negative message that we got. I don't ever remember any actual
sexuality between anyone, not in the 11 years I was there. Maybe I was
just naive, it never happened to me. I was never approached. I'm sure
it probably happened, but I didn't know about it. I didn't even know
that some of the sisters got alcohol and drank or went in and got the
altar wine. Oh God that totally blew my mind. Did I have tunnel
vision or what? I just didn't think of it. I didn't know about any of
this until after I left. Did I have such an exalted perception of
religious life that I really felt that I didn't expect people to act on
their sexual impulses? I think on some level I still have that
expectation of people who make vows of celibacy and chastity. Sure
we're all sexual people but those of us who have taken a vow of
chastity and a promise of celibacy don't get to act it and I think
that's probably very narrow minded but I still have that expectation.
Lisa entered because she felt her family had spent her whole life preparing her for religious life. She was extremely introspective having spent many years examining her sexuality in particular and societal expectations in general. One of the conclusions she came to in the interview was that it was rare for our society to explore sexuality. She said,
I think I understood even from very young,
that one can be close to people
spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, but when it came to physically, suddenly that
piece of us was not to be allowed. We're told, “Oops! that wasn't good.” Where
no limits were placed on us around the other emotions, physical touch and
closeness was banned.
On reflection she holds no bitterness or regrets about the decision to enter, and said,
I treasure the decision to enter, and what
it has brought me to. In retrospect, I
think I made that decision for a lot of the reasons a young woman gets married
right away. I was not ready to be out on my own, to go to a public college, to
interface with men, to do the adult thing. I felt so--so, not handicapped, so young.
I felt so inexperienced. I think I felt the convent subliminally as another womb; as
another home, as another place to protect me from making decisions on my own
and challenging my relationships with men, which I was just really fearful of. The
convent was actually my birthplace in a sense. That again, in a protected place, I
was gradually being readied to be an adult in the world alone.
Lisa’s insightful memories have no reference to her feelings toward God. In transcribing the tapes I was struck by this omission. Her childhood was so devoutly religious; all her memories of childhood play were spiritual in nature, yet, when she reflects on her religious life, there was no reference to God. She does say that she did not enjoy all the religious practices in her home but participated because her parents expected it. Also the prayerful nature of convent life, she did not enjoy yet she still felt “called” to religious life.
The process of separating the young women from human love and devotion begins early. Many had already begun the process before entering. Their parents, school and Church prepared them in advance for the sacrifice. The name given to the introductory period in the convent was “formation,” aptly titled since it was a time of change and of forming the character and personalities of a group of individuals into a collective, forever after recognized as a member of a community and undergoing the process of “dying to the self.” Individuality was a flaw, to be disciplined and prayed out of the young women. This was the process in the early 60s and 70s. I realize this is not the case today. Reasons for the bold changes which have taken place over the past two or three decades will be explained in a following chapter.
During formation, life was so ordered and controlled only one of the women addressed the subject of sexuality as being an issue during that time and this was Ione whose incest issues were re-remembered in the first months of convent life. For young women entering the convent every waking moment from the first bell at around 5 a.m. to the last bell announcing the Grand Silence at perhaps 9:30 p.m. was completely full of activity and closely controlled. The desired result of this isolation and indoctrination was the sublimation of the body and the mind. Of course each order was different depending on the particular Rule followed. However, what was systematic throughout the experience of all but two of the women was the reality of control that followed them through each day. According to McNamara (1996, p112), the very strength of character which had enabled the women to choose religious life was “ruthlessly disciplined” in order to “create a harmonious community devoted to self-sacrifice and worship. The proud and adventurous brides of Christ had to learn humility.” The exceptions to this were Ann and Sara who entered after Vatican II. Ann joined an unconventional community, and Sara did her novitiate time in Nigeria with a missionary order. Sara returned to her Motherhouse after her time in Africa, where she did experience many similar restrictions as the majority. The other women in the study had all entered before or during the transition stages. In the pre Vatican II days there was no individual private conversation allowed, particularly during Formation. Two people speaking alone would be considered breaking the rule denying particular friendships or P.F. The definition of P.F. according to Curb and Manahan (1985, p. 369) was that it “refers to friendships between two sisters which exclude others, considered harmful to community living and prelude to Lesbian relationship.” There was plenty of manual labor to tire the body and lots of theology and scripture to tire the mind and their work used most of their energy. Forty of the women received their entire adult education and professional training whilst in their convents. The larger sample data shows 57% went to Catholic colleges and more than 24% attended Catholic graduate school.
All of the group spoke in glowing terms and with great respect for the individual nuns who had influenced them in their early years and the lifestyle they represented. They saw a place where women were exalted, with none of the drudgery of home. As Wendy said,
I saw nothing but female role models.
Who made the decisions?
Who cooked the meals? Who ran the hospitals? Who had power in a group
and who didn't? But it was all women. There was nothing a woman
couldn't do, because in my experience, women did everything.
Often in the interviews I heard stories of kindness offered, motherly love and gentleness shown, guidance and strength from older nuns lovingly showered on the children in their care. This was experienced often at a time of great personal need and tremendous vulnerability to many of these young girls.
This story described by Ione was quite common. Even though Ione’s family situation was more extreme than many, in that she suffered incest at the hands of her father. She spoke about her early experiences with nuns.
I had a Sister when I was in eighth grade.
She became very much
the parental figure for me all the way through college, and I started
to admire the Sisters and found them strong women and having a strong
sense of self, doing more than housework. That was the experience of
the women in my neighborhood. I don't think I was in love with her or
anything, it was more an emotional attachment on a motherly basis. I
would go to her with my problems and she would take the time. That was
in 6th and 7th grade. I found going to Mass really comforting because
my home life certainly wasn't. My story is interesting in the
interrelationship between my spirituality and my sexuality because my
sexual life became part of my prayer life. I had experiences of
dealing with and coming to terms with the sexual abuse and
understanding myself as a lesbian. My prayer life was very much
involved in that. You know the Church doesn't have very good teachings
on homosexuality so there was a certain amount of feeling guilty or wondering
if it's bad. My prayer life was very much integrated in my
coming to a sense of my being lesbian. I realized it was how I was
created, not some aberration or that it was some consequence of the
sexual abuse, because I don't think it was. I know some Sisters have
relationships and remain in the order, but I pretty much feel it's a
question of integrity. You're saying that you're going to be celibate
but not doing it. Some people are having relationships with lay people
or whatever. I feel it's not fair to the person you're having the
affair with because your primary focus is not on the community. A lot
of people think going to the convent is running away from the world.
But when I went, the opposite was true. In the novitiate they gave you
lots of time to go to therapy, to go to spiritual direction, to think
[each woman would have had a personal spiritual director, usually a
priest, who would help with issues of a spiritual nature; similar to a
counselor]. I had to interact with all these people, so all my
personal issues were bubbling up all over the place. You were always
being challenged because a lot of the Sisters are therapists and
lawyers and doctors. When I went to dinner I was challenged
intellectually, I was challenged emotionally, I knew people were going
to challenge me on everything. I was in the convent for five years and
have been out for 10. I was more challenged in the convent than I am
The reasons given for entering religious life were varied. Some said they wanted more choices of career than their mothers and other women in their lives had had. Further, some said they needed to escape an abusive home environment with the added incentive of receiving a good education. The love and adoration of God was rarely verbalized as a reason for entering or for staying. Many spoke with love and fondness for their communities. Yet, it was rare to hear words of adulation toward God. Ione was one of the exceptions and she addressed the issue directly when she said
When I was a young nun I used to struggle with
the idea of being
celibate. There was a place in me that was only for Jesus and that
place was the most intimate thing in my life. I took it very
seriously, but now it seems to have passed.
It was also rare to hear feelings of devotion, intimacy, and utter renunciation of their sexuality in favor of spirituality. Kate and Hazel were exceptions; their stories follow. Where conscious awareness of the spiritual transubstantiation was lacking, there was an understanding in most cases of suppressing sexuality and transposing it with a life dedicated to good works and humanity as a whole. Most of them made the commitment to enter religious life in grade school or during high school. For the remainder of their adolescent and teenage years, they remained loyal to this decision. In the years after they entered religious life many of them matured in the nurture and the safety of the convent.
For those who entered to escape dysfunctional homes, the peace and security and therapy provided by the convents allowed them to recognize their full potential as human beings and also recognize their sexual needs. Many of the women in this study became teachers, their commitment to their designated field often kept them in the convent long after their subconscious had told them to leave.
Kate stayed in her convent for 28 years even though she said she knew three years before she actually left that it was over
I felt to leave would be totally disloyal.
I'd given my word and
I couldn't go back on it. That comes from being the child of an
alcoholic. I'd been disappointed so many times in my childhood that I
thought I'm not going to disappoint anybody. It's like, if I say it,
I'll do it.
Kate spoke about the intensity of her feelings toward God in response to my question if she was aware of the sexuality of others in her convent? She gave an emphatic
No, never, never. I was attracted to
some of the women mainly because they
were assertive and smart, they were the leaders of our community. I was attracted
to those qualities but not in a sexual way. I think I just shut it down, totally,
because since then I found some of my friends that did have sexual relations with
other women in our order. I was even living with one of them while she was in a
sexual relationship with another woman in a different house. I didn't have a clue.
I'm pretty alert, I think I would have picked up on it if it had been blatant, but
people were careful and discreet. Since I left I heard more about peoples’
experiences than when I was in the order. This is very important, and I guess it
was a way of sublimation of all these sexual feelings; I was totally in love with
God. I had this fantastically intense emotional, and well, not physical really, except
that physical in the sense that it would make me smile. I would feel so happy and
proud of how close I felt to God and how really connected we were. So I know I
took a lot of my sexual feelings and sublimated them into this love affair with God.
I think it was really valuable.
Hazel did not speak directly of transplanting her sexuality with spirituality until close to the end of our interview. However, she told me very early in our session about a fellow student nurse who suggested the reason she was going to enter was because she was unhappy in love. Her response spoke for many when she answered with an emphatic,
Oh no, it's all about love. To put my
love, the capability of my
heart, at the service of others. I really did not see myself giving
up, as much as I was gaining something, going into the religious life.
I just didn't see myself as denying anything. Sexuality was not a part
of my life. I think if I was really honest with myself, I wonder if I
just plain didn't think about it, in light of my style that I had
learned early on. I learned “well you just blow that off and you don't
think about it.”
As Hazel said, with her wry laugh and courageous insight, there was a heavy price to pay for that kind of thinking and she began to pay for it in the convent. Hazel initially denied understanding what exactly went wrong after she entered. She speculated perhaps if under hypnosis she might be able to unravel the mystery but said she doesn't try and analyze this anymore. By the end of our two hour interview the mystery unraveled somewhat and she reached some conclusions. She didn't pay particular attention to her feelings toward God as she described her time waiting to go into the convent. On entering very little was said about her emotions regarding a life dedicated to God, and in sexual sublimation. At almost every juncture of her story, she focused on her parents, particularly her father. Three months after she entered she began to have what she now suspects were hyperventilating attacks.
This was in ‘57-58, the year of the Asian flu
epidemic. When I
started to demonstrate these symptoms, lack of balance, I'd almost pass
out. I don't think I ever actually lost consciousness, but the
fainting feeling was awful. They attributed it to an inner ear
She saw many doctors. The nuns were exceptionally diligent in her care, taking her to different specialists. However, her condition continued to deteriorate. The nuns would ask her if she were happy?
They would say, “we don't know what's going
on.” I didn't know
what was going on and they would ask me, “are you happy?” I would say
[cheerful laugh] “I am so happy.” Even the dumb little chores or
charges we had to do, I would do with great joy. Cleaning a classroom,
can you believe it? I look upon that as an indication of how happy I
was. I did not see that as demeaning. I remember the fun things that
would happen in chapel and we would sit there with our shoulders
heaving, we were laughing so hard. We weren't supposed to. I was
always in line reporting that I was in two's. We weren't supposed to
be in two's. I just couldn't get to grips with that; other people were
so important to me. Particular friendships, I'd have to report that
and do my penance, that didn't seem such a big deal but I thought, “oh
well.” We were following the rule of St. Benedict and we were taught
early on, you keep the rule and the rule will keep you. A Christian
burial is the only thing you have a right to in religious life. I
didn't see it as something dreadful, I thought, “isn't it freeing?”
Preparing for the vows particularly the vow of poverty, to be free of
material goods, I didn't see that as a problem at all. Chastity, I
didn't think about it. I just didn't see that as something I needed to
deal with. I mean of course-- sure-- and Obedience--well-- I'll deal
with that as I go along. But I did continue to be sick and they
thought it was part of the Asian flu. The diagnosis and the treatment
were miles apart because they didn't know how to treat it, there wasn't
any treatment. After five months they sent me home. As soon as I got
home I was fine. I was home for two weeks and I was well again. But I
persuaded them to let me go back. I wrote to the powers that be and
said I'm fine, please let me come back, I really do believe that I have
a vocation. They didn't realize and I didn't realize that it was
quite significant. They thought I'd just recovered from whatever the
problem had been. I went back. I picked up where I left off. My
group gave me a great welcome back. I received the habit and I took my
mother and father's names as my religious name and began the canonical
year. I entered into my novitiate year with great delight, but soon
the symptoms came back. I'd be sitting in a classroom and then I'd
become so nauseous from this lack of oxygen, I expect that's what it
was. It went on for months. I was spending more time in the infirmary
than with my group. It got to the point where I was losing the feeling
on one side of my face. I could hardly talk. We went through Lent but
Easter Sunday morning I was in the infirmary again. My Novice Mistress
came to me and said, “I think it's over” and I said “yes I think it is
too.” I knew I couldn't go on. I was home a week and I was fine
again! Well you can imagine how I felt at that point, “Dear Lord, I
want to give you my life, and you don't want it!”
Without further analysis, Hazel went on to describe how her career path had continued. I interrupted her to ask whether her superior in the convent ever suggested she see a psychologist for her problems. She answered
No, they sent me to more doctors. I was
paying an enormous price
for not being in contact with, God knows what. My sister saw me before
I left and she told me later “You were on the verge of a nervous
breakdown.” I don't know what was going on but I sure wasn't able to
cope with what was happening. But you're right, I don't remember them
ever saying if there's something other than physical going on here.
Yet they sent me to the best doctors, and they kept saying “are you
happy?”--“Oh yes, I'm very happy.”-- “Then what in the name of Heaven
is wrong here?” I was broken hearted when I had to go home, and I
truly went through a time when I wondered, “now what?”
Hazel proceeded at this point to discuss her father's failing health and once more addressed her family's propensity for denial. She left the convent in April of ‘59 and she continued
Daddy's health was in bad shape at that point,
and you know I
almost hate to tell you this, my sister and I were talking about this
very thing just a couple of months ago. He died in September of ’59.
There were two practicing nurses in that household and we didn't talk
about how close to death he was. I said to my sister, “what on earth
were we doing?” We were not acknowledging it. He was dying before our
eyes. His heart was just failing by steps and he finally died of a
myocardial infarction. But I think this is just incredible, the
denial. We were two professional nurses and we weren't even talking
together about what was happening to our Dad, Ah, mercy! It's
fascinating, the power of the human spirit to be a force for good, or
not so. I saw instances of both in my life.
This was the end of Hazel's self-analysis of her time in the convent. She came to no conclusions beyond recognizing she was in denial of something. That something remained nameless to her, even as she reflected deeply on that period of time. She thought that it would take hypnotherapy to uncover the reason for her illness. As her life story progresses she gave “The Good Lord” credit for bringing her the man she eventually married. Her total devotion to her God was intact and she exclaimed “But I just loved my order and to this day I'm grateful for that time. It developed a spirituality in me that I'm not sure I would have had if it hadn't been for that. God is my friend, my companion, my lover, my soul mate.” I asked how she conceptualized God as a lover and she answered
It's not a person that's for sure, it's a presence.
My husband is obviously my
lover but God is my lover in the sense that he knows my comings and goings,
anticipating where I'm going to need help. There's a relationship we often talk.
It's due in large part to that time in my convent. Yet there were some
dimensions that they did not complete that had to be completed or opened up over
the years. I have a Masters in Theology, the hunger to learn more was opened up
in the convent, for instance my love of scripture. I'm so grateful for the
I asked how she saw her spirituality and sexuality being merged?
It's so deep, I'm not even sure I knew what
that meant when I was in the
convent. I didn't masturbate or do anything sexual. I had very little
knowledge of my body, even as a professional nurse. Even my language now
when I see God as lover, it's not physical. It's lover in the sense of being
cherished, being special which is true of all of us. I don't mean in any way to
imply that I would see myself as any more chosen than anyone else. I just think
that all of us in some incredible way are chosen. I don't think it's any less perfect
for not being physical because I feel it's been completed by my love for and with
my husband. I don't think I've ever thought of this before, it's like I intuitively
know that, but haven't intellectualized it, put words on it. I don't think I've ever
done that before, this is a great opportunity. I feel these are treasures I'm bringing
up from a long way down and saying look at this, and polishing them. These are
treasures of my past, and it's wonderful to look at them again at this stage of my life.
When Hazel spoke of the treasures that constituted the memories of the past, which she took out now at our interview and “polished,” she said
The clarity of the memories is accompanied
by, hopefully I can say
truthfully for me, an affection. An affection for that young girl, for
that young woman, who was idealistic, not sure of what she was
seeking. It was denied to her, and yet it has still been given to her,
over the years.
Hazel and I discussed the value of looking back over one's life from the vantage point of age. At this point I introduced again the issue of her illness in the convent by asking whether on some level she was aware of wanting a sexual life or a family of her own and if that may have contributed or accounted for her fainting?
I think you're absolutely right and nobody
would say that. And
you know what happened early on in our marriage? I said “Oh Peter,
let's have a family.” Those babies came along boom, boom, boom, six in
seven years. Fortunately he was as pleased as I was. We lived in those
days when we didn't have much choice [All forms of contraception was
still banned in the Catholic Church]. A significant time in my life
came after the last child was born. I suffered a prolapsed uterus. I
can see why. My obstetrician said he needed to take the uterus out. Oh
he was so rough, that was a terrible experience for me. I was a
terrible patient, going to the hospital at the last moment, being
hostile. It was just very difficult to accept the fact that it was the
end of childbearing. I'd come to value that experience. Thank God, I
didn't have any more. I've come to see, Okay I had to go through that,
but that doctor gave me no choice. He told me what I had to do. Having
children was such a value in my life. But putting it in the context of
what you're saying, that I was paying such a price at the convent for
not being in touch with my sexuality, for what I was giving up as far
as love, marriage and childbearing in that order. Nobody asked me that
question, least of all me [the doctor did not ask for her opinion
before removing her uterus which she experienced as a great offense].
Why didn't someone else ask that question? Were the people responsible
for formation back then so out of touch with the psychological well-being
or lack thereof, of their candidates?
Finally Hazel verbalizes what she had always known, that having babies as part of a loving family relationship was what she wanted. Earlier in her story she said how she negotiated at the beginning of her marriage by refusing to argue with her husband. She recognized that it didn't work, seeing the practice as another form of denial. Hazel was in the convent for 18 months. It may appear a short duration to have such a powerful effect on one's life. Suffice it to say the disciplines of convent life are 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year...every single waking moment. Most of the women were well prepared by their family of origin to be docile and obedient. The experience stays with you, as do many of the tactics to protect oneself from the truth. A willingness to explore and comprehend their reasons for leaving was a very common trait.
Sara entered her community after having traveled extensively with volunteer groups around America and having completed part of her college career. She was sent to Africa to complete her novitiate due to lack of entrants into her order. Sara said her “experience in Africa was a paradigm shift” which forever changed her understanding and appreciation of everything she previously believed about her religion. She anticipated major opportunities for women in the Church and wanted to be in the vanguard of those changes. The reality was quite a surprise to her,
I was the only novice for the whole of my novitiate.
consortiums with other convents for classes where they only had one or
two novices also. That was nice, lots of friends. But when I got the
opportunity to go to Africa, I really wanted to go. It was a very
tumultuous time in Nigeria. The Muslims had just overthrown the
Christians and were basically slaughtering everybody that didn't agree
with them, and were trying to undercut the influence of the Christian
groups. I wasn't prepared. They said to me, “do you want to go to the
novitiate in Nigeria?” And in two weeks I was there. There was no
preparation, I was 24 and had been in the convent for a year. It was
horrible. We lived in mud houses on the edge of the desert. I was the
only white thing, well there were two novice mistresses. One Irish the
other American, but they were a little darker so I was treated like I
was weird by the Africans--well not weird, mystical, because I was so
white. I was taken aback by these people looking at me as if they'd
seen a ghost. It was shocking, absolutely shocking to come from
America to absolute basic life, it scared the hell out of me. It was a
lot of culture shock.
On Sara’s first day at the convent station she was witness to the execution of hundreds of political prisoners caught in the coup. The convent was the only place with a television and the message she said had come up on the drums that if people wanted to see what happened to the prisoners to go to the place with the television at a certain time. The relatives of these people came to the convent and Sara watched with the natives as the men on view were tortured and executed slowly by being shot from the ankles up. Sara went on to describe how her spirituality and view on religious life had altered in view of her experiences,
It was totally transforming. It just shattered
understanding, any world view that I had. It just put me back to square
one, scared out of my mind. My symbols, everything I had were gone and
you really had to look at life in a very basic way and re-think things
from bottom up. The Church that I was a part of for the first time
said you had to cover your head and wear a veil and all that, we didn't
wear a habit and it was never anything I'd wanted. It was also very
oppressive of the native cultures. I was so alienated from the
structure I was a part of. I didn't want to be a part of an
organization that was more and more conservative, and I felt the Church
at that time was becoming just that. Spirituality for me was very
different. It was still very comforting but after you've seen and gone
through that kind of an experience it changes you. To me it had more
meat on it and it was a lot more real thing and I felt comfortable
enough to walk out of the structure. I was just about to make vows,
not that I was a sexual person but chastity was a real--Obedience was a
big one, I can't just go along with a structure that I feel is so
foreign and destructive. I don't know if that was just youthful
rebellion or a real life system but it was something that I was trying
to figure out. The community were trying to deal with chastity, and
sexuality and religious life, at a time in the Church when I really
feel women were being relegated to very subservient levels, and not
credited for brains or being capable of ministry or that kind of
thing. I didn't want to be in a structure that was defining me that
way and I was conflicted enough I didn't like the symbols and I didn't
like the superficial level you had to work with people as a religious.
I didn't hear enough people within the community struggle with the
issue of sexuality. We had a number of workshops about sexuality, but
the people who were responsible for you in training to the point of
vows, it just wasn't an issue for them. It was “just pray more, pray
more,” and the more you quote/unquote, “pray more,” and thought about
it, the clearer the questions became. I just didn't find room for
those questions. It wasn't as if I was hanging out horny for anybody,
it was just an area that I ducked from and didn't want to shut myself
off from for my whole life. I knew they wouldn't let me go back to the
missions because they wanted me to work in administration. That's not
where I wanted to go. A lot of them had built their lives the way they
wanted them to go. A lot of them had very close relationships with
priests that didn't stop at spiritual direction. I think it went
further, and there were a number of people who were having ongoing
relationships with other people, men or other priests. I wasn't aware
of lesbianism within the community. I knew of homosexual priests, I
didn't care to find it but I knew of many priests having relationships
with other men. I don't know. I was 30 then, and I'm thinking, I
don't want to live a divided life. I don't want to sit there and say
celibacy and find someone to keep me warm on a cold night. I want
something to be whole for me and I couldn't see it being whole for me
in the community. It wasn't clear that they were willing to put me
through law school, so I put it all together and moved out.
Ill health is not uncommon among those women who repress feelings and continue to force the body and attempt to control the mind in a lifestyle wholly unsuited to their true needs. Of the participants in this study, one woman developed breast cancer, five had nervous breakdowns, one left in a severely emaciated condition, one was diagnosed as being deathly allergic to what she finally decided was the religious life rather than to the physical environment. Clinical depression appears to have been fairly common amongst the women. Unfortunately this was an area that I did not address in my questionnaire and needs further study.
Marian was one of the women who became dangerously ill while in the convent. She prefixes her statement with,
The choice to go in the convent
was a good one, very wise
looking at the whole spectrum of things. I entered at 18 and stayed in
for 13 years so I came out at 31. While I was in the convent I really
repressed things. After a while I was very sick, I had a hysterectomy
in my 20s, and a surgery that was much more dramatic and serious than
Marian thought her condition was congenital, owing to the fact that she thought her mother attempted to abort her. I am inclined to believe that a lot of internal damage may have been done by all the sexual activity she experienced as a very young child. This would seem to be a much more plausible reason for internal organ damage than would an attempted abortion.
As previously stated the length of time spent in the convents does not appear to be as important as having made the decision to enter and been exposed to the rigors of the life. Ursula was in religious life for only six months after having waited until the age of 39 to enter. She told me “My search for God is so ferocious; it is far stronger than my sexuality.” Ursula has spent her life locked in the torment of trying to make peace with herself and her sexuality. Her attempts at denial of the existence of a sexual nature have caused her to spend a great deal of her life castigating herself. The result was that, at over 60 years she finally began to examine the roots, the genesis of her sexual aversion. She discovered the roots lay in the sexual assaults perpetrated in her childhood, compounded by the “despotic” behavior of her mother. Doehring (1993, p. 109), in Internal Desecration, says that subjects who have suffered an extreme level of trauma in childhood and adolescence suffer in adulthood an inflexibility in all cognitive domains. “As adults they may have fixed religious systems as their only means of coping with the representations associated with traumatization, which lie at the deepest level of their personalities.” Ursula illustrates many of the characteristics described by Doering and parts of her story will be included in most chapters. Ursula's representation of God at this stage in her life has moved on from seeing God as angry and now sees Him as her savior. However, after her first lesbian encounter she felt God had deserted her. At this point in her life she believes her love of God to be the only thing that saved her from committing suicide on several occasions when her life became intolerable. Most of those times were when she allowed herself to experience physical sex.
After being denied the opportunity of entering the convent when she was 20 (as described in Chapter Four), Ursula once again attempted to enter a community in her native France, when she was 35 years. The Superiors in that order suggested she may be happier in America since she had lived in this country for five years. At the age of 39 she returned to America and eventually entered a strict, monastic, cloistered order of Carmelites. This was how she reviewed that period of her life
My sexuality had never interfered with my desire
for the monastery.
I forbade myself to think about the monastery when I came to America. I wanted to be
open for maybe marriage because I did not realize exactly, my nature.
At 39 I thought I could go into the monastery and live perfectly normally and have no
sexual desire because I would pray, that's what I thought. There was no sexual
attraction when I was in, although there were some very beautiful women. I was
attracted to them again like a mother because I know that there is something very
important about that lack of mother love. But I fear, fear, so much fear, I was
ashamed because this is something very strong with me, that I am fearful when
facing a beautiful woman. I feel they will judge me, that I am a lesbian. So in the
monastery I never had an attraction, but I had a fantastic fear. So much so that
every day when we had to have recreation together for two hours, facing all of
them, and some of them were very beautiful, I wanted to hide. I was so ashamed
of myself I got diarrhea. Something had to give in my body, and it was the worst
diarrhea in my life. In the end, I was so afraid to go to recreation I would get
diarrhea before we went in and as soon as I sat down it would begin again.
Ursula was finally asked to leave after six exhausting months. Nobody at the convent or at any time in her life suggested therapy or psychological counseling. She was simply asked to leave and went away feeling even more defeated by her own body.
Josephine had a troubled life at home in that her family made multiple house moves throughout her childhood which became traumatic to her. As she approached her senior year in high school she found out her family was about to move again. She described her first retreat where she became aware of a spiritual awakening
On this retreat I felt for the first time I
had a real, personal experience of God.
I was open to a shift in consciousness that actually was because I was so very needy
to have something to cling to as I was about to lose my whole life again. I think I
was open to have the experience of something transcendent. When I entered in
1970 there were some talks given on what celibacy was all about. I thought a lot
of them were pretty ridiculous except for the one where you have a romantic
relationship with God or Jesus. It made no sense to me to be celibate to be more
available to work; that was the most stupid thing I'd ever heard of. I disregarded
that as a possible motivation and that retreat experience was so powerful and
personal it wasn't at all romantic or spousal in its experience. What it evolved
into quickly was spousal in that God became the object of my life desires. I felt
like the Bride of Christ image in as much as that image was being discarded at the time.
That didn't fit with most of the people in my group, but it fit my motivation.
I think a lot of my sexual energy got pulled into the psychological
experience that I was having and so that's what I did with most of it, I knew right
where it was. I couldn't really imagine any other way that it would work.
Lua Xochitl [self named] was one of those women who entered essentially to escape. She shows great insight as she examines her reasons for entering and staying 12 years in the order. In two areas of her story she refers to how she handled her sexuality before and on entering the convent and where she thought the energy went. She said
In high school in terms of sexuality, goodness
no, none of that. Every Friday we
were asked, “what are you doing this weekend?” Who are you going out with?
remember, french kissing is a sin.” They didn't even know what
french kissing was, isn't that a trip? God! Women have been so violated
intellectually. My senior year I decided to go to the convent, never
having shared with a man and done that french kissing. I thought if I
did it, I was going to hell or get pregnant. With all that, as I look
back now on my childhood, I'm wired to be a person of joy but there was
this hiding of the deep pain that was going on. Then I entered the
convent, and took on all that meant. What that meant to me personally
was, being a member of a family. I fell in love with it. On the
surface, up in my head I entered with a thread of spirituality. I was
doing God's work. But deeper down where it really mattered, in my
core, I was running away. I was going, following my higher self. It
was only in my early 50s that I realized that it was integrity that I
maintained during those years. It was then, in my fifties that I was
able to say, the convent saved my life. I became one of those activist
nuns and I really promised myself that I deserved to bomb a Church
before I left this planet. Now it's not important that I do that, it's
dying by itself. Thank you Goddess. Also, I've come to a place where
I know it saved my life. In terms of my sexuality, I was dead, and
where does your sexual energy go? It goes to cleaning up the house,
waxing floors, and cleaning schools; that's what sexual energy was for
in the convent. I wasn't aware of sexuality in the convent. I wasn't awake to it. I remember
talking to one wonderful nun about this subject. We went out on a walk and I
asked if any of our nuns made it with each other or at all? I was so naive I didn't
know. She said “well you know Sister Mary, it's like women in prison. Living in
a convent in close quarters, the more women become affectionate, develop
friendships.” Now we had been taught not to have particular friendships. She
went on “let me tell you, I've never seen anyone in our community doing anything
inappropriate; what would be inappropriate for you Sister Mary?” I said, “two
Sisters kissing,” and she answered; “Well I've never seen that.” Then I said “it
would be inappropriate but it would be fine, wouldn't it?” She just smiled.
I understand now that she was accepting and it was a young woman with no judgment.
One time she said she saw two nuns in the trunk room with their arms
around each other, but that was it. She said she did know of one nun who was
making it with a priest and by that time had left the community. I knew this nun to
be the model of the perfect Sister. What that did for me was a shock at the total
hypocrisy of it all. A voice inside of me said “what a sham.”
The trunk room is the special storage room for the girls’ luggage upon entering. A point of interest about the part of the story of the two women in the trunk room was that both the nuns discussing it overlooked the fact that this may have been the innocent farewell scene between two friends, one of whom could have been departing the convent. There are many such stories of snatched moments of privacy in the trunk room from other former nuns’ memoirs since this was the only private place to speak freely prior to the silent exodus the following day.
Although these words read with an element of bitterness, there was none in Lua Xochitl's demeanor. She spoke dispassionately of her dormant sexuality in those years. Her earlier anger so well expressed was replaced in these years with a certainty, a knowing, a “crone's” knowing as she would have described herself. She has an understanding that she was saved by her years in the convent, and became the strong loving woman she is today because of it, not in spite of the experience.
Elizabeth knew as a first grader that she was going to be a nun. As previously mentioned in Chapter Four, she believed in past lives and felt as if she had followed religious monasticism in many of them. Her awareness of a personal spirituality was evident from the moment I met this quiet spoken, peaceful woman. She told me
I think because I had my heart set on going
to the convent, the sexual part of me
was probably split. And when I did enter, I remember thinking, it's having babies
that I'll miss rather than the sex. I grew up around babies and I wanted babies. It
was very hard for me to give up, but I didn't have a sense of the intimacy, I didn't
have that at all. I think I got that more through prayer, later. But I didn't have it
then. I did violence to myself, I really stifled the joyful, fun part of me to do this
right; I thought, I'll show them. Sexuality, I think it was put into a desire for
celibacy, a desire for more spiritual application so I think that was what happened
at that time, unconsciously. I think I was repressing it and putting it into
spirituality, because that was my focus. I was studying theology for my Master's.
I ran prayer groups and taught religion wherever I went but I think it was
spirituality. So I think I put all my sexual energy into spiritual energy. I always
felt that a lot of the energy that would have gone into being a mother went into
being a teacher; I was really present for my students. That held a lot of satisfaction
for me personally, on one level. I wasn't aware that my needs weren't being
satisfied because they were, as far as I was concerned. I wasn't sexually involved
with any of the Sisters. I don't think there was a lot of that going on when we
were in formation. There was later, I know of two novices who were involved
with each other. I also know of women younger than I am who were seduced by
other people. I was oblivious to it at the time.
Elizabeth suffered many years of very serious illness but remained in the community for 29 years working in high office. The Chibnall et al. (1997) data states
We found also a notable frequency of sexual
trauma perpetrated by
women, often on other Sisters. At least 13% of the respondents
reported some form of sexual trauma as an adult at the hands of a
Sister. Among those who reported sexual exploitation, 25% reported
that a woman was the perpetrator. These percentages are conservative.
If some of the unclassified sexual traumas occurred in religious
community, they would be increased. The respondents reported details
only on the most painful trauma in each category.
Maria, who entered at 16 years old and left almost 20 years later, felt as if she grew up in the convent. As stated she also entered to escape from home. Maria expressed clearly how her students satisfied many of her maternal and sexual needs. She rarely mentioned any religious or spiritual experiences of her years in the convent and when she discussed her observations of nuns and their possible sexuality with each other or with clerics she clearly was aware of close friendships but denied intimate knowledge of physical contact.
I think a lot of my interactions with the high
school kids that I
taught had some growing up for me. I don't remember any stirring or
sexual feeling but a lot of the boys would hang around and we would
talk and listen to “Peter, Paul and Mary” records and hang out
together. So I think I got some satisfaction that way. Knowing that
the boys were pretty attentive to me and liked being around me. Still
to this day, some of them come to see me. Just a couple of weeks ago
one of the men I had in my class over 30 ago came by to see me when he
came to town. Some of the connections have lasted. So I think a lot
of the attention they gave me was somewhat subliminal sexual, nothing
was ever acted out. It was very interesting; if the nuns needed
anything, they would tell me, call your kids. Whenever they could be
used it was an okay thing, but if it was just hanging out then it was
looked upon askance. Somehow, I weathered all that. I wasn't aware of
anything physical between the nuns. There were always pairs of them
that we called “Uncle John and Aunt Ellen.” Those were the names as
nuns, we gave to those people who were always together; they spent the
summers together, things like that. They weren't usually on mission
together but at other times such as holidays. I never had it in my
head that they did anything physical, so I have no idea what acting out
could have been, in that sense. There was one nun when I was about 20
who showed movies on Friday night. We were watching the movie one
night and she leaned over and held my hand, it shocked me, it just
shocked me. It sent shivers through me and I was very concerned but we
never spoke about it. I never said “don't do that” I just didn't have
my hands free from that point on. I think that was an interesting
beginning of seeing how there could be sexuality in the convent, yet I
was pretty strong against that, it was not what I would choose.
This comment from Maria was quite interesting in the light of the transitions she made during the final years of her 20 year stay in the convent. The story of how she met and fell in love with a young priest will follow.
Ann who entered the convent after being sexually active as a teenage prostitute for some time felt
Spirituality is sort of weird for me, partly
because it's used in the “New Agey”
context or it's used to say spiritual rather than religious. So I wouldn't say I think
of myself as all that religious but I was probably more aware of other people's
needs. I think the religious and philosophical background helped me. I always
made my religious stuff political. I always thought of religion as a way to fix the
world rather than this is some practice of the self that doesn't have anything to do
with the rest of society.
Ann was one of the younger woman in the group who entered at the time when religious life was going through major changes as a result of Pope John XXIII's call for reform of all religious houses under the auspices of Vatican II. Ann said the order she joined had just undergone a major change in the structure of their formation years. She was allowed to have male friends and was allowed to go out on dates but was required to be celibate. Although she did become fond of one young man, for the 21/2 years she was in the convent, this former childhood prostitute remained celibate. She told me there was absolutely no sexual contact with male or female. I asked her if before she entered religious life, she fully understood the vow of chastity that she was expected to take and she answered
Yes, oh yes. It was just sort of right;
it made sense to me. It
allows you to be less encumbered. Therefore, you could do more work
for society if you're not tied down to one person and have all the
emotional investment. Because I didn't think I would ever be
monogamous anyway, it didn't feel like that big a shift.
Ann was extremely sexual prior to entering, but it appears from her statements that all her sexual experiences were illicit. I asked her if she had had any relationships or friendships that were within her own age limits and she told me,
I can remember being friends with other little
boys. I would go down to the
boys’ club. My father hated the place because it was mixed races and he was a
total racist. By the time I was ten I wanted to join the Civil Rights Movement.
That was another source of conflict at home, my mother said I was just asking for
trouble. I had all kinds of friends, and I was close to my grandfather, my father's
father. It's strange, my father got me pregnant just after his father died; in some
ways he had been more under control when his father was alive.
It was evident that even when answering a direct question about regular friendships, her conversation reverts back to the illicit relationship with her father and closeness with her grandfather. There appears to be no age appropriate friendships after 10 years old. She does not acknowledge at any time in her interview that her reason for entering religious life was seen as an escape from sexuality. When I asked her what she anticipated religious life would be like regarding her sexuality she answered, “I don't think I really thought about it that much, there's always auto sexuality. It didn't seem that important one way or another.” She told me that a large number of women in her order held a meeting to discuss forming an affiliate convent. This would follow the community spirit and keep the vow of poverty in sharing everything, but not the vows of chastity and obedience, “those were the ones they wanted to get rid of.” When she decided to leave it was because she had become active in the abortion rights movement,
It was against the Rule, it was a scandal.
Some of the older nuns
were more tolerant of abortion, it was a shock to me that a lot of the
more radical young nuns were the ones who said get away from me. They
were strong feminists except when it came to abortion. I knew getting
involved with the socialists meant I was out of the convent.
I asked Ann how long she felt loyal to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in the convent? She answered “Two and one half years,” then qualified the answer by saying, “Yes to poverty, yes to chastity, never obedience. The poverty one I did very seriously, I was committed, I really felt these nuns should be giving a hell of a lot more to charity.” Ann did not address spirituality as an issue. It was my assumption that her politics and the energy she put into working in the church, for the good of others, was interpreted by her to be spirituality.
Where women lay emphasis in their own stories was significant.
For all participants the period when they were in the convent held many
poignant, moving memories. This was where major discoveries happened
for some, where others grew safely and securely in a loving environment.
For some it was the place they learned how to be rebels and branch out
completely away from the Church they had dedicated themselves to.
Ursula's memories of convent life added to her concern regarding her gender
preference, in that to be confronted by “beautiful women” on a daily basis
was difficult for her. For others, the time spent in the convent
was not the most significant area of interest as they scanned the years
of their lives. As the chapters in this work unfold, stories from
other women will be introduced as their own histories apply best to the
points being made.
Continue to Chapter 6
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Front Page