By Lise Funderburg
Thanks to pop culture, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on nuns. The religious sisterhood has been widely appropriated as a vehicle for the comic, the dramatic and the sublime. Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Sally Field and Audrey Hepburn have all played roles in habits, proving, in the process, that no one looks great in a wimple. But to actually know what God’s call sounds like; how feminist nuns manage in the still patriarchal post-Vatican II church; or how liberating it is for some brides of Christ to be untrammeled by children, sex and romantic love — none of that is covered in Sister Act 2.
Lucy Kaylin, however, gives careful consideration to just such matters in her absorbing new book, For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun (Morrow; 239 pages; $24). Kaylin, the “daughter of a Jewish-born atheist father and a lapsed Lutheran mother who has since turned to Zen Buddhism,” approaches the subject with a respectful, blank-canvas curiosity. Some of the nuns she interviews are cloistered, emerging only briefly from a shuttered existence. Others live in apartment complexes and work in boardrooms, indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. All seem inclined toward frank discussion of their faith — from describing morning prayers as “spiritual Drano” to accepting the likely demise of their vocation as part of God’s plan. A chapter on sex and celibacy depicts enough furtive sexual encounters to satisfy salacious readers. But Kaylin presses beyond the prurient, and one nun’s view of celibacy as deliverance (from gender stereotypes, makeup and shopping) is far more provocative.
The two most common paths for nuns have been public service or secluded contemplation. Neither seems sustainable as convents become de facto nursing homes, and fewer young women hear — or heed — the call. For the Love of God is a probing ethnography of an endangered American subculture.