Get into conversation with a lapsed Catholic like me, and before long we\’re rolling up our psychological sleeves and showing off our scars, the result of wounds inflicted by nuns. They scared us half to death, those nuns, we complain. They killed our joie de vivre and injected guilt into our young souls. We spent our childhood trembling in the shadow of their long habits.
I have, over the years, done my share of scar-showing and nun-blaming. But now that I haven\’t been around veils and wimples for more than half a century, I\’m having second thoughts about the nuns who taught me.
By the time I was eighteen, I had experienced nuns of three different orders and nationalities, in three different countries. My first nuns, in Barcelona, came from Munich, having fled nazism in 1939 only to land in fascist Spain. The school I attended in Ecuador was run by Mercedarian nuns from Spain. And my high school teachers were Benedictine nuns in Birmingham, Alabama.
The German nuns were the scariest. This may have been because their Spanish was sketchy. When they got angry they lapsed into German, and nothing\’s more frightening than being yelled at in a foreign language for failing to follow an order that you didn\’t understand in the first place.
The Mercedarians were the most elegant. They wore habits of creamy wool with contrasting black veils and belts. But their thick-heeled, lace-up shoes looked mannish, I thought, and spoiled the effect.
By contrast with the German nuns, the American Benedictines were a piece of cake. They made jokes in class and actually praised us for just doing our homework, something the Germans wouldn\’t have dreamed of doing. But by then fearing nuns was part of my nature, and I continued to tremble until I left Catholic education and went to college.
Why did so many of us spend our childhood afraid nuns? Was it because we couldn\’t see their hair, ears or legs, or because they were so boldly in charge and so different from our lipsticked, domesticated mothers?
True, they were somber and strict and they taught us some silly things, such as (this from my German nuns) the proper way to sleep at night: flat on our backs, our arms straight along our sides \”and not the hands going all over the body.\” They were obsessed with punctuality, posture, and penmanship .
But they also dinned into us the necessity of being good. They taught us the nightly examination of conscience, which meant going over the day with a fine-toothed comb, looking for sins venial and mortal and also for good actions. In the case of the latter we learned to ask ourselves, \”Did I give my allowance to charity only to impress my teacher, or because I truly wanted to help?\”
At the beginning and end of every class, we would stand by our desks, lower our eyes, and say a prayer. Although they didn\’t call it \”centering,\” that is what it was, and it was a useful habit to develop early.
The nuns taught us discipline, and kept things in order. My classmates and I may, during those years of strict obedience, have had some of our exuberance stymied, but we never had to worry about being bullied or, in our co-ed high school, being threatened by boys. And I never, in twelve years of nun schooling, saw anybody\’s knuckles being rapped.
In the pre-feminist 1950s there weren\’t many role models for girls. But we Catholic-school pupils had them, every day, and we learned that women in authority could be smart and fair but also petty and fallible–human, in short.
Whether they knew it or not, nuns were feminists by definition and history. The founder of the order of my German nuns was a 16th-century Yorkshire woman named Mary Ward. She wanted to affirm the role of women in the Church and in society, and to tend to their spiritual, intellectual and psychological development. Inspired by the Jesuits–the most intellectual of the male orders–she structured her order along parallel lines and left her nuns uncloistered, something highly unusual for the time.
I believe that our fear of nuns was partly dictated by an unconscious sexism, a rebellion against women who were so unapologetically in charge and who, at least within the confines of school and convent, did not have to obey, make themselves attractive to, or in any way propitiate men.
So I apologize to you, Mater Leonarda, Madre Mercedes, Sister Dominica, wherever you are, for having made you the topic of too many party stories. Thank you for keeping me safe, for forcing me to perform in the face of fear, and for teaching me the habit of self reflection. You were tough, and you were women, and we found–and still find–that combination hard to swallow. But that wasn\’t your fault.