I jokingly call Marks a unicorn, since there are fewer Catholic sisters in America today than there were 30 years ago. In fact, I spent three years researching a book about badass Catholic nuns called If Nuns Ruled the World, and even I found they were few and far between.
I talk about nuns a lot. A lot more than the average person, and probably even more than the average Catholic. I am inordinately familiar with the kinds of stereotypes most people have about Catholic nuns. They’re prim and proper, strict and mean, unfriendly, man-haters, lesbians that no man wanted so they locked themselves away. None of these are even close to the truth. Each and every woman I interviewed for my book shattered those preconceptions the first time we spoke.
Nuns love to laugh. They love to hug. They’re brilliant women who love and respect men. I can’t say this enough, but: Nuns are just like us. And, to prove it, I sat down with Sara Marks to talk about what it's like to be a thirtysomething nun in today’s world — a world filled with naked Kardashians, angsty selfies, and an abundance of self-importance. What is life like today for a woman who's taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience?
What were your own stereotypes about nuns and concerns before you joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia?
"There was one night when I went to a house of sisters, and I started talking about hair and makeup. I said 'Can I bring my hair straightener with me? Can I wear makeup and straighten my hair?' One sister looked at me and said, 'If you are saying no to religious life because of your hair straightener, you need to rethink that.' She told me she had three curling irons in case one breaks.
Your living situation is a little different from most 31-year-old women, right?
"I live with three other sisters, and I am the youngest in my house by about 28 years. We live in an old farmhouse down the road from our mother's house. We sit on a nice little property, and every morning I wake up to the deer.
"We are normal people leading normal lives who happen to be committed to living simply, promoting social justice, and speaking out for those who are poor and marginalized. We are centered on God and faith, and we do pray, but we also sit down and watch television and go to the movies, just like anyone else."
Why did you become a sister in the first place?
"I came because I got to the point of thinking about religious life where I had to try it, or I would spend the rest of my life wondering."
I don’t think many people realize just how long it takes to become a sister. Where are you at in the process?
"I started the paperwork to enter in January of 2010, and I started living in community in September of 2010. Then, I entered novitiate in 2011. That’s where you don’t take vows yet, but you are asked to live by them. I made my first vows in August 2013, and we renew for a year at a time for five years. I am still temporary vowed; It is still a time of discovering and seeing if this fits. Every day I wake up and make sure this is what I want to be doing."
What do the vows mean?
"We learned the book definitions but they are very different to live.
"Poverty for me is the simplicity of not living beyond my means in some very real ways. I get $100 a month for clothing, shoes, personal needs, makeup and going out with friends. When you add those things up, $100 is nothing. And, that forces me to make decisions in my daily life. Today I was driving [a homeless] woman who I work with to another shelter, where we hope to get her into a transitional program. By the time we were heading home and neither of us had eaten lunch, we were starving. I knew she was hungry, so we went to McDonald’s. I bought her a late lunch and that was huge for me, because it was about 10% of my total for the month. If it were just me, I would eat the apple in my purse and go back to work. But, in practicing being compassionate and aware of the human dignity of all, it was important to realize I have money — maybe not a lot, but certainly more than she does — and I can do this.
"Sometimes poverty means saying no to the really cute outfit. I went to Goodwill last weekend before I went to a gala at the Catholic high school in Baltimore. I needed a new dress. I found these two super cute dresses. There was a white dress with black swirls that was $5, and the second one was a black Calvin Klein dress with scooped sleeves and a belt. The woman who worked there told me that dress was $30, which was an incredible deal for a Calvin Klein dress, but out of my budget. I put it aside, but she very nicely called her manager and he said that I could have it for ten. The vow of poverty is about making those choices and saying, 'I don’t really need that,' and setting it aside.
"I will say that I openly struggle with obedience, and I am still trying to grasp it. You look at the history of religious life and it is to do what your superiors tell you to do. But, that isn’t our interpretation of obedience today. It is really obedience to God’s word, to really listening to the other sisters, your friends and your family to learn what God is calling you to do. That is all fluffy and wonderful and sounds great on paper, but living that is hard. It is a balance. A good example is when I was a novitiate, I was asked to work on a farm. I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I am not a farm girl. My thumb is not green.' It was a thousand degrees in the middle of the summer (and I hate to sweat!). But that was what I was asked to do, and so I put my whole heart into it, and that summer I fell in love with being on the farm. It became something I loved doing. It changed my spirituality. It changed how I viewed the Earth. And, it was the perfect example of not wanting to do something, doing it anyway, and realizing it was the right thing for me.
"Ahhhh chastity. I am in my 30s; every gene in my body is saying 'HAVE BABIES. HAVE BABIES NOW.' But in all seriousness, obedience is actually way harder than chastity. Chastity is so much more than, 'Did I not have sex today?…Okay check. I’m good.' It is about relationships and how I choose to live with everybody. How am I presenting myself to the world? I’m not going to show cleavage, and that is challenging sometimes because of the way that clothes are made today. It’s not that I’m a prude. I don’t wear turtlenecks every day. I’ve got my skinny jeans and my cute tops and I wear dangly earrings. But, at the same time, I am very aware of what I am saying with my body. If I am saying that I am available, then that is a problem.
"It isn’t about closing myself off. There is an old school mentality that sisters didn’t feel and so they didn’t act. I feel and I choose what to do with those feelings, and take the energy behind those feelings and channel it into something else. There is a guy that I see a lot in my life, and I still look at him and think, WOW. I sometimes joke to the other sisters when I get home, 'I want you to know that I kept my vow of chastity today, and it was very hard.'"
But, you dated before this?
"I dated a lot before I entered."
Do you have any regrets about not getting married and having kids?
"I don’t have any regrets about not doing it. Some of the older sisters have told me that it was a whole different grieving process when they went through menopause, because that meant that their choice was final. What I can say is that I have two beautiful nephews and a beautiful niece and I love them to death, but I don’t think that I want to live with them 24/7. I would not make a good mother, and I think that is okay to say. We live in a society that tells us that women have to be mothers, and there are just some of us who wouldn’t be good mothers.
"I look at my sister, and she is an amazing mom. I see how much she loves [her son], and what she sacrifices in her own life to give him a good life, and I think my sister is a superhero. I just couldn’t do that."
Tell me some things about you that might surprise people.
"I love going to the beach in the summertime. I wear a bathing suit. It is a tankini with little shorts from Athletica. They have phenomenal swimsuits. It’s something I would wear as a thirtysomething woman, and yet it is still modest enough for a sister. I didn’t enter community to become an old lady! I write music and I play guitar. I’m a photographer. I like to travel. I just do it differently, as a sister. I like to dance. I like to camp."
What are you television guilty pleasures?
"When I was a novitiate, we would all gather to watch Chopped. We had our own games and we would vote for the contestants.
"Two of us in my house are totally obsessed with Resurrection. The other two in the house are not. They think we don’t get enough answers.
"Most of the sisters like Criminal Minds and CSI and all of the cop shows. I have tried to get them into Parks & Rec, but they don’t get the humor. I do have them totally addicted to Modern Family. Last summer, they ran a marathon [on TV], and I was like 'You girls are going to love this show!' And, every single night for a month we would watch it in the community room. Now they are all caught up.
"The Back to the Future trilogy is my favorite thing to watch, and I still say that Michael J. Fox is a hottie. Next year, October 21, 2015, is the year they went into the future. I am going to have a big party — I’m a little obsessed with planning it."