Free to Serve

Laura Scanlon | Mirror Columnist

A friend and I were talking a while ago about Catholic schools and what a shame it is that they’re too expensive for many Catholic families.  “It’s because there aren’t enough nuns,” she pointed out.  I hadn’t thought about that before.  Schools don’t have to pay nuns nearly as much as lay teachers.

Growing up Catholic, you read a lot about nuns.  Most female canonized saints are nuns.  In St. Therese of Liseux’s famiy, all five girls became nuns.

It can make a girl feel ashamed of her generation.  We must be pretty selfish these days, seeing how few of us choose religious life compared to generations past.

But it occurred to me:

  • What if I entered marriage knowing I had a substantial likelihood of dying in childbirth?
  • What if there were a substantial likelihood that one or more of my children would die in early childhood?
  • What if I had no reliable way of spacing out my children, if I knew I might well spend decades of my life pregnant or breastfeeding?
  • What if books, newspapers and the internet were not widely available, meaning I had no easy way of pursuing an intellectual life?
  • What if I would need to stay home from mass to care for my young children, possibly for years on end, preventing me from developing my spiritual life?
  • What if I weren’t bombarded by media messages that sex Sex! SEX!! is the ultimate human experience and that a woman’s worth hinges on how sexy she is?
  • What if I didn’t have the modern, romantic notion of marriage being a union of soul mates, and instead I viewed it as more of a practical business consideration, a means of survival?

What if I were in the same boat as Charlotte Lucas, a character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice;

[Marriage] was the only honorable provision for well-educated young woman of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.

Seen in this light, the religious life sounds like a feminist paradise!

A religious sister could possibly pursue intellectual pursuits; she could attend Mass and pray regularly; she might develop skills in nursing, teaching, or perhaps other professions.  At the very least she could have the “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolfe longed for—an opportunity to be by herself and hear herself think!

Nowadays, with the advent of contraception, a married woman can do everything that a nun can.  She can also have sex and male companionship.  All without giving up her independence, legally or practically.  She can have her cake and eat it too.

This got me thinking: what about those of us who don’t use contraception?  Natural Family Planning goes a long way in reducing the drawbacks to marriage I listed above.  Still, if you follow Catholic (or simply Biblical) notions of being “open to life,” you might likely be having babies for a long long time.  Those babies don’t leave much time for developing a career.  Some super-women seem to manage it but most (myself included) find ourselves putting careers on the back burner for decades.  Also they make it hard to hear yourself think.  Do we have any consolation other than an eternal reward?

And has the modern woman really reached a point where she can live free of encumbrances from anyone else?

If so, why did 100 million women seek out the bondage and submission fantasies in Fifty Shades of Gray?  Why do female celebrities more and more go out of their way to portray themselves as sexual playthings?

My theory is that we have a deep-seated psychic need to serve, to give up ourselves for others.  If we forcefully oust this reality from daily life, it will pop up elsewhere in more perverted forms.  Not for every woman, certainly, but in society.  (And of course men are called to serve, also, as are married women without children, but it manifests in different ways.)

One way or another, we are all called to serve.  And I think the convent, or even drudgeries of childcare, are infinitely preferable to handcuffs.

Laura Scanlon
Laura is a full-time mother to two little girls, a part-time lawyer, and a recovering overthinker. She blogs at about books, culture, style, and whatever tickles her fancy.

17 Comment

  1. Not only can I not hear myself think, but I often just cannot think. Full stop. Ha! But, really, the question you post about 50 Shades is one I have often wondered. Reminds me of Theology of the Body. Thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks, Anne. Yeah, the whole phenomenon of women willingly portraying themselves/ fantasizing about themselves as sexual objects is something that TOB has insights on, I think. But I’m only generally familiar w/ TOB, and of course I’m only scratching the surface here.

  2. Brilliant indeed!

  3. As much as I love you and agree that being a sister has always been the ultimate feminist statement, I think you short-change women – and marriage! a hundred years ago. Books, magazines, and newspapers WERE widely available – in fact, that’s where all of Dicken’s original works appeared, as serial publications in magazines. Ladies Home Journal started in 1883 and thanks to Catholic schools, literacy rates in America were pretty good – especially if you weren’t dirt poor. Marriage wasn’t view through a Disney-princess lens, but people still fell in love and married happily.

    I think one of the reason that modern feminism makes so many in roads is by convincing us that we had it so bad in the past – that it’s literally impossible to be happy without all of the ‘advancements’ we’ve made. But I don’t think we’ve advanced on all fronts as much as we think…in some important ways, I think we’ve gone backwards. Adequate representations of our foremothers would help us all to see our situations in a more realistic light and to help evaluate what we’ve really gained, and lost.

    1. Hi Martha, Hmm, I think I’ll have to disagree and agree w/ you. I’m no historian, so maybe my broad brush depiction of marriage 100 years ago is inaccurate. At the same time, I mean, life as a woman as portrayed in Dickens is kind of dreary, don’t you think? At the very least I’m sticking to my basic hypothesis that the reason fewer women now choose religious life is not solely b/c we are less devout overall but also b/c we have more (seemingly) appealing options. Personally, I think if NFP and modern medicine were not available to me, I probably would have chosen the religious life over marriage. It’s kind of disconcerting if I think of vocation as something set in stone, regardless of circumstances, but there you have it.

      BUT I totally agree that we haven’t advanced on all fronts as much as we think. I think the whole 50 Shades of Gray/ Shakira-in-a-cage/ Kim Kardashian/ Miley Cyrus phenomenon–tragedy, really–is proof of that.

      I guess my thesis statement would be, we’ve made some advances, but to the extent we remove loving service as a necessary component of living a fulfilling life, we’re taking a huge step backward.

    2. If anything, I see the opposite: the past is idolized, along with anything “traditional” or “natural.” This can be fairly innocent or healthy, like making your own clothes, or it can be deadly, like eschewing vaccines or having home births without a midwife. I for one am happy to live in a time when I can open my own bank account, own property, go to college, and have a doctor on hand in case a birth goes badly.

      1. I see the past–as it was for women, specifically–both idealized and demonized, depending on what particular issue is being discussed, and who does the discussing. That’s kind of a milquetoast response, I know, but it’s true!

        Overall, I feel fairly confident that the plight of women has improved over the past 100 years vis a vis the factors I listed, in the U.S. anyway. Infant mortality is way down Maternal mortalisty is way down

        Etc etc. But whether we’re better off _OVERALL_ is another thing, if you factor in spiritual wellbeing. That’s my point, really.

  4. Lots of interesting thoughts here, Laura. I had never thought about how different marriage is today from one hundred years ago and how that might play a strong role in the vocational shift of the past century.

    1. Thanks Katherine! It’s just a theory, obviously. Correlation does not prove causation. But correlation suggests causation! 🙂

  5. I hope nuns 100 years ago became nuns not because they were afraid of the cross of motherhood but because they were passionately in love with Jesus Christ and heard Him calling them to live as His bride.

    I do think that you’re on to something. Perhaps life in a convent had less suffering and was more appealing and the opposite is now true. Perhaps the women of 100 years ago were not choosing the easier life – all the nuns I know have had to mourn their previous dreams of marriage and all its goods – but perhaps we are now the ones choosing the easier life. Perhaps both groups of women suffered in the past but now our culture finds suffering to unattractive that we spend all our days avoiding it.

    1. “I hope nuns 100 years ago became nuns not because they were afraid of the cross of motherhood but because they were passionately in love with Jesus Christ and heard Him calling them to live as His bride.” You know, I guess that’s what I’m a bit skeptical about, although I really have nothing concrete to go on. Just . . . today it’s kind of taboo to acknowledge that we might take practical considerations into account when deciding to get married or not. From a secular standpoint it’s “Follow your heart! Do whatever makes you feel the most fulfilled.” From a religious viewpoint it’s, “Follow where you feel God is leading you.” . . . And if we acknowledge that whichever path we take is going to involve suffering and service–unless it’s a very self-centered life–isn’t it okay to take a pragmatic view of which kind of service and suffering you’d prefer? . . . I guess my theory is that’s what women of 100 years ago probably did.

      As to “now our culture finds suffering so unattractive that we spend all our days avoiding it.” Yes! And yet 100 million women find some sort of satisfaction fantasizing about purposely seeking out suffering in BDSM? Something’s wrong here.

  6. Actually, this made me think of Kristen Lavransdatter and how the monk bemoans the decline of nun vocations. His reason for the decline is that parents only send the ugly or stupid daughters who wouldn’t catch a husband, and only if they have already married off daughters. So maybe the vocations crisis isn’t so new after all? 😉

    1. Ha! Touche. I suspect religious vocations have waxed and waned throughout history for many different reasons. My focus here is on religious vocations in the U.S. (possibly in “the West” overall) throughout the past century or two.

  7. A lot of good points, and certainly there were plenty of women, I’ve no doubt, who entered the convent as a viable alternative to marriage. It IS easy to demonize and idealize the past, both, but as early as the middle ages there were trade guilds of just women, and there have been notable women writers at least since the 1700s–msking up in quality what they might lack in quantity, I would argue! However, I have to take issue with referrring to pregnancy and nursing as “drawbacks” to marriage. It could certainly be a “burden” on women of any age, but to view these as drawbacks is, without question, imbibing at least in part some of the spirit if our age, that insists that a woman who chooses children over her career is a lesser woman, that clearly she has no intellectual life because she is being dumbed down and drowned out by her children. What if instead we as women put aside our–yes, I will say it!–our naive belief that a male-type intellectual life is the highest pursuit and instead entered into the wonder and discovery of childhood, learning to see life with that sort if freshness and joy? (for the record, I have a Masters, married late, try to space my children, hope to pursue my PhD etc etc blah blah. None of my life has been “planned”, however, and the seeming-unpleasant surprises have without fail been the greatest blessings.)

    1. Hi Jaime, I’ve been pondering your comment. I referred to being pregnant or breastfeeding for decades on end as being a drawback in the context of having no reliable way of spacing pregnancies. So I don’t know that we’re thinking of the same thing. Regardless, being pregnant or lactating for decades on end is a drawback to marriage in my mind, whether I’m giving in to the spirit of the age or not. . . . But my point here is not so much to propose how we should think (tho I agree w/ you about the freshness and joy of childhood being more rewarding than intellectual pursuits). My purpose in this post is just to point out, wow, we’ve taken all these drawbacks (or challenges or whatever you want to call them), and made them completely optional. They’re no longer a necessary part of having sex. And here we find ourselves (a) short on nuns and (b) fantasizing about sexual abuse. And to ask: Is this progress?

  8. Christine Nussio says: Reply

    Fulfilled religious vocations are also less common in an age that views doing as more important than being. I think our world looks at nuns and asks “What do they do all day?” And these vocations are less common too in a world which does not put real value into the spiritual life. There is a lot of truth in the point that religious life gave women “opportunities” (for lack of a better word) not found in marriage, we also have to be careful of the anachronism which can come of viewing the question through with the eyes of post-feminism culture. At the end of the day, lots of people (men and women) wanted to join the religious life because giving your life to God was considered the highest thing you could do in a society where religion mattered. That’s not our society anymore.

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