What It's Like To Be A 30-Something Nun
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."
I am so happy that orders like the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia will be gone and forgotten very shortly. Hopefully the confusion their disobedience and heresy caused will die with them. And my prayer is that the just God will give them the reward they deserve.
Yeah, yeah, how about those Sisters of St. ….St. WHO? FRANCIS? YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!
I can just hear Francis commending Claire for not being an old lady and complementing her on her "tankini" bathing suit. "Sometimes poverty means not buying a really cute outfit?" This would be hilarious were it not for the fact that these femlibs in pant suits are so deluded. They embrace worldliness and the whole '60's model of social protest and call it "peacemaking". Glad to see that's working' out for ya girls!
Poor Sara Marks. In less than 20 years she will be the only one of these hip sisters left. Maybe the Nashville Dominicans will take her in--if they have room.
Anon 9:06 AM
I empathize completely with your disgust with such orders of nuns, however, let us pray that God does not give them or you or I the just punishment (or "reward" as you ironically state) that we deserve. We must remember at all times, especially when dealing with enemies that God loves them every bit as much as He loves us. We cannot expect God to show us mercy unless we pray for mercy for those who harm us or harm the Church. Instead of wishing for God's vengeance to fall upon them, let's redouble our efforts to pray for their conversion.
Thank you Keyser, for bringing a little true Catholic mercy into this discussion. Like many, my initial reaction seems always to be anger for this kind of stuff, but once I get past that it turns to sadness for those religious orders who have been misled. My hope is that Sara stays in her order and that someday either it is reformed into an order like the Nashville Dominicans, or as stated, that she is accepted into them. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will work on her within the order to bring changes.
Anonymous, I have suspected for quite some time that you are actually a progressive Catholic who posts outrageous comments on this blog in an attempt to make traditionalist look bad. How about if you come clean in a non-anonymous way, and let us know who you are and what you really think. In other words, post your comments as if you were posting them on the Pray Tell blog.
Sarah Marks is 31 yet notes she is the "youngest in my house by about 28 years". Therein lies the crux of the problem for these kind of "secular" type orders. They are not bringing in enough new vocations and so they are dying off. A healthy, growing professed religious congregation or community is evidenced in the number of novices and postulants in formation. It would be nice if the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia and other orders like them would take a look and ask themselves why they are dying off and the Dominicans of Nashville and Ann Arbor (among others) are vibrant and growing.
I agree with Keyser that we should pray for them.
I also agree that Keyser Soze has brought the most "charitable" interpretation of what we should do for this young lady in this state. Thank you Keyser, for something that is more true to Scripture and the teachings of Christ. Post here more often, we need balanced "Glad Trads" like yourself on Southern Orders!
This order of sisters ran the parish school my kids attended. I will never forget asking head Sister (the principal) if we could do a May Crowning with the rosary recited. Mind you, the name of the parish church and school was "Our Lady .......". You would have thought I had slapped Sister's face. After getting some other Moms' support, Sister finally agreed to an abbreviated crowning with one song and one decade of the Joyful Mysteries.
When the children attended a school Mass in the new theater-of-the-round church (once a month), "THERE WILL BE NO GENUFLECTING". Strictly enforced...
In the years our kids were there, the sisters went from modified habit to 2-piece black suits with veils, to street skirts & blouses and no veil.
God bless them. We finally gave up...
"Anonymous, I have suspected for quite some time that you are actually a progressive Catholic who posts outrageous comments on this blog in an attempt to make traditionalist look bad. How about if you come clean in a non-anonymous way, and let us know who you are and what you really think. In other words, post your comments as if you were posting them on the Pray Tell blog.
What???? How could you possibly know what things I post. "Let us know who you are" like you Anonoymous Vianney1100, which of course tells me who you are. You can't be that....what's the word I'm looking for. Uhmmmm. And you want me to come clean and tell you "what I really think"........that's what I've been doing. Not exactly the first in your class were you.
The saddest thing about these Religious orders that have gone off the rails, is not what they do so much but what they don't do. Example, The Sisters of St Joseph, who are in my diocese, used to run Schools, but also ran orphanages and homes for women who were pregnant out of wedlock. If they still were doing the later two, it would make a TREMENDOUS difference to the number of women who get abortions. Those of us who pray at abortion clinics, or who man pregnancy crisis centers, could have the option of saying, "you need to see Sister Mary at the St Joseph home, she'd be able to help you more than those people." But, no, that isn't an option as the Sisters of St Joseph have abandoned their charism to become administrators of parishes, or social justice workers, etc. How many souls have been lost, or could have been saved? I pray for them, and their souls, as I fear for them at their final judgement. Maybe the waning of their order, and others like them is the Holy Spirit leaving them to be dry dead husks to be burned in the fire. So sad.
It is easy to be a nun now…they don't have to sacrifice anything. Giving up sex (with males) is no sacrifice because most of them probably hate men, anyway.
"Sometimes poverty means saying no to a really cute outfit." Really? Can you imagine anything more vapid?
And, we wonder why the majority of nuns are pretty much a laughing stock to most devout Catholics.
Are these the same Sisters of St. Francis that St. John Neumann founded in Philadephia?
Are these the same Sisters of St. Francis order that St. John Neumann founded in Philadephia?
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