The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns is a reality show on Lifetime candidly chronicling 5 20-something women discerning a call to Religious Life. I joined the Augustinians in my early 20’s, and thought I could attest to the validity of what these women go through in the course of the series. However, there were only two noticeable differences that I will comment on briefly. However, instead of commenting overall what seems true for almost anyone, I would rather comment on what I have related to in one way or another discussing each of the Sisters, and what they are going through.
“God or the Girl” Reality Show about Priesthood Discerners?
But first, a reminder of why this show is effective from the outset. A couple of years ago, there was an awful reality show about young men discerning a call to the priesthood (not religious life). At no time were they together. At no time were they actually put in situations of serving others or showing compassion or charity to others. One of the guys had to make a pilgrimage (Traveling across the country with no money and little resources, dependent on the generosity of others). Another had to drag a cross around in a literal imitation of Christ’s Passion (I mean really?) Dramatic demonstrations of “devotion,” are much more difficult to test commitment for attitudes and motivations than placing someone in service of inconvenient and needy people. Instead of challenges rooted in the Gospel, they were giving challenges that looked good for reality television with competitions and tests of faith. None of it entailed actual discernment. Besides, choosing Consecrated Life as a vocation is not a dichotomy between God or the girl, it is choosing your fullest self, even if romance and marriage are not part of it. None of the young men applied to seminaries after. I was impressed, because this show actually gave the young women challenges that are rooted in the Gospel, but are practical for Religious Life. I am also convinced that the producers received input from the Sisters of the convents that hosted the girls
Personal Difference One: Age
I joined the Augustinians at 22, and lived in a community of Friars that included elderly retired Friars, Friars in full time ministry, and one other pre-novice / postulant who was 19. The young man left within a few months, and I didn’t have people my age to share my journey with. The following year of Novitiate had me move across country, except I had 3 other men in novitiate with me, and only one was younger (that did not, in any way mean we got along). Nowadays I can’t count on one hand the 20-somethings in our Order across the country, and I’m not in my 20’s. I also had two good friends join the Order as I was completing formation.
Personal Difference Two: Cellphones
When I joined, I never used text messages, and smartphones weren’t the standard phone. Facebook wasn’t around. You might have made a call when you had time, and I didn’t use every night to make or receive phone calls. I never had my phone confiscated. In my first year, I was encouraged to visit my dad when I could. In my second year (in WI), I couldn’t but called him briefly at least once a week (mostly to tell him I was alive and wasn’t miserable). On the flipside, from about 16-26 many young men have an overwhelming desire to establish themselves independently, while many young women have an overwhelming desire to bond deeply with the important people in their lives. It is not that women cannot, or never want to establish themselves independently, it is that on average men more often mature by independence followed by bonding, while women do so with bonding and then independence.
Stacey, 26 NY: Sharing Your Life
When I look at young men who visit and discern with us, a major question I have is “Would I want to live with him?” We are not merely looking for people to staff our institutions, we are looking for people to share our life with. I have indicated to our Vocation Director, when we have a visitor/discerner, who would be awful to live with. One thought I have with Stacey is that she would be the person who easily passes this test. She is receptive, attentive to others, while also being lighthearted and serious. I had noticed that in someway she wasn’t being provoked by the producers to talk about issues as much, and she stood out as someone who was really present to the moment, present to the other young women, and present to the people she served in the ministry settings. Were she to have a vocation, any convent would easily be blessed to have her.
Christie, 27, CA: Intentionality & Prayer
I met this girl at a party once. She didn’t talk about Jesus visions. In fact, they played this up with her at the beginning. I do not find it unusual. I did a study on Medieval Christian Spirituality, and found something: While Male Saints tended to write systematically on Spiritual Theology, Female Saints tended to write vividly, descriptively, imaginatively and sensuously. I believe it is much more normal for men, and especially women, than this program let’s on, to experience Jesus in a personal way. In her case, it is often romantic. What I am struck by her is her focus on prayer and intentionality. She wants to spend more time in the chapel and in prayer. Often, Catholics use the busy-ness of ministry as a way to escape the vulnerability that intimate prayer requires. I have been there. But on the flipside, I have also had plenty of times, where I felt like the odd man out wanting there to be more prayer (ie suggesting repeatedly to have more Adoration, or Quiet Prayer in the Chapel as a community). I think that the producers have had a challenge portraying her as the crazy woman with the visions, because in social situations she is actually one of the most fun and well-rounded of the bunch. If she does seem like she could be more balanced (more structured common prayer), I believe that she could experience that naturally in any formation program. Again, I could easily say that she would be a blessing to any convent.
Eseni, 23, NY: Being Broken
Eseni joins this series as one of the most conflicted, in that she is currently in a relationship. I don’t think you could be accepted into any formation program if you left a significant relationship that far in the air as she did. Since she is doing a discernment program that is much different, and I don’t see her as problematic. Further, even though she often comments about trying to reconnect with God and her faith, she has also been haunted by the idea of becoming a Sister for a very long time. If you look over my tips on Discernment, I would say that she has good reason to do a deliberate discernment program as such. Whether or not she stays, it is clear her boyfriend may never understand this calling, as there are people who will never understand it. Were I to encourage her personally, I think she should open her heart to the adventure, instead of getting trapped inn expectations. For myself, I wasn’t in love with someone before I joined, but have fallen in love a few times since then. I suppose I will fall in love again. Married people fall in love with other people sometimes. Falling in love is always a reminder to make a choice with God’s guidance rather than being a slave to whims and feelings. I can also personally relate to Eseni, because she is quite aware of her brokenness, I can’t count the many times I have had to put aside my feelings of brokenness and unworthiness in order to discern. I can also relate to having a person (or in my case several), were anticipating me leaving, or giving me the ultimatum of choosing a friendship with them or my vocation.
Francesca, 21, NJ: The Importance of Spiritual Mentors
Francesca is the youngest, and obviously the most emotionally volatile. I guess I was closer to her age when I joined then some of the other women on this show. She is made to stand out, probably by the producers, for wanting to run away, for wanting to call her family. Unfortunately, she is portrayed perhaps too unfavorably on the show. When you are in formation for religious life, you should meet regularly with mentors, a Prior, a Formation Director, a Spiritual Director. These people are there not to give you easy answers, but to help you process the difficult decision you have to make, as well as your own Spiritual & Ministerial Growth. Finally, opening up to members of your community can help you cement bonds. I remember I had a few times I would visit family during Summer or Christmas, and would get caught up in the drama of some of my old friends. Often, I felt as if I was the only student / seminarian who had to deal with the kind of stuff that I was, so it was difficult for me to reach out for understanding. Maybe Francesca has a lot to learn, and some maturing to do, but much of that is because she is still young, so I wouldn’t be too hard on her. I can appreciate her struggle. I imagine the cameras following her around, as well as taking the risk of appearing amount to a lot of pressure for any 21 year old girl. She is the kind of person who would probably benefit from a check-in each week by Superiors for the first couple months, (ie, one on one time for her to be able to process). I also think that her family has had their share of challenges, and is understandably tight knit. Maybe her vocation would actually flourish if she had a few visits from her mother during the beginning of her formation, were she to have a calling. Of course, I come from the Augustinian background, where Augustine’s Rule permits that each person’s needs are addressed particularly, depending on where they come from. Some other religious communities would disagree with this approach.
Claire, 26, IL: Loving Other People
Claire comes from a homeschool family in Joliet, IL. I assisted with an Augustinian Parish near Joliet, and could have run into her at some young adult gatherings in Joliet that I attended. (At least I don’t recall). She seems to have had a rigorous faith formation, and in some ways has never come across the challenges that have shaped the other young women on the show. In some ways, it appears that the producers picked up on this early, and have been digging into her for comments about the other young women. In religious life, we often use our opinions of other people to distract ourselves from what God is calling us to. Sometimes I would rather be persnickety because some other brother is failing to live up to our ideal in Religious Life than do so myself. Sometimes I would rather make a judgment about another than about myself. I remember during my novitiate, I sat across from the computer room. I made a decent effort to avoid internet use during the day (I was literally sending hand-written letters to friends, as well as reading a lot of awesome books). I struggled, because I had a clear view of the other student Friars entering the computer room with frequency. I also struggled because I was the only student who took up a hobby, or who exercised each afternoon, instead of watching all the Harry Potter movies. I was also perceived as too blunt by my classmates that year (even in comments that were not about them). So I can relate. I just remember learning that I also had to be a contributor to community life, toward it’s delight and enjoyment. Certainly, loving my brothers could be a higher penance than fasting or abstinence, but that I was also to be involved in the delight and flourishing of others (rather than mere toleration). Yet, as the show progresses, the more she immerses herself in the life and service of the sisters, it lessens her noticing the flaws of others.
*** UPDATED: Spoilers ahead for those who have seen the whole series ***
As I said, Reality Shows are often more competitive, and so the dynamic is about stirring conflict and controversy. I believe that the producers didn’t go as far as normal shows, and I believe that the girls sincerely did not attempt to go at it this way. That doesn’t stop it from happening. I am seriously convinced that the Producers took the Sisters at each of the convents, and their wisdom and input, very seriously. I believe that they set the agenda for the girls, and the Producers accepted it.
Some people might balk at the young women speaking candidly about their sex lives on national television. Some Catholics might find it unnecessary, or disgusting that they would. I have found that sexualized images of nuns are a problem on tumblr. I also find it off that in our pornographic culture, people generally feel entitled to that sort of information. Whether or not there were cameras rolling, they would have talked about this stuff. Whether or not the producers had a say, it probably would have happened. It is one of those sad states in our culture. However, their conversations rotated around their past, not about their future. One has no reason to believe that any of them think that a Consecrated Sister should subvert her own Vows of Chastity. I think it also gave one of the girls an opportunity to talk about Chastity as redemptive.
When the girls conclude the discernment program, they end up better off. Some of the girls take their discernment to the next level. Only one walks away from discerning religious life, and she is ends in a better position for herself then when she started. One of them invites some of the sisters over to meet her family. It is very important for anyone discerning religious life to make sure their family is connected. All the parents assume that entering a convent means that their daughter WILL NEVER, IN A MILLIONS YEARS ASSOCIATE WITH THEM. If they actually got to know the Sisters, they would feel happier with them and more at ease.