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Late and Lost Vocations: the Extinction of “Traditional” Nuns

church-1419796_1280Hands up everyone who is a) a woman, b) single, between the ages of 40 and 50 and c) believed she had a vocation to religious life from her earliest memory. Come on, get ‘em up… you know who you are.

What happened? Was it something like this?

Reaching the age bracket, about 22-35, you finally managed to get up the nerve to go out and look for the right religious order or community, but, it being the 80s and early ‘90s, what you found was only the scorched and toxic wasteland of Marxist feminism in convents full of aging activists in polyester pant suits, talking about abortion rights and the Church’s “oppression” of women. You simply couldn’t find any nuns.

But the desire kept nagging at you, even when you had moved on in your career, and no matter how much success you had in life. You couldn’t help yourself, and continued searching doggedly, visiting communities, collecting pamphlets (several shoe boxes worth, right?) and writing letters, and later scouring the internet. As you visited and talked to people you started to understand just how complete the destruction really was.

You visited convents famous for their “conservative” and more “traditional” style, only to find that under the surface – and sometimes not very far down – neomodernism was rampant in their thought and assumptions. You sat horrified in a vocation retreat conference as they enthusiastically praised the modernist theologians of the early 20th century whose greatest claim to fame was, you knew, to force their heresies into the Church through Vatican II.

Or you visited monasteries that were famous for having retained some of the artifacts of the old, say Gregorian Chant or Latin, only to discover that the nuns were committed revolutionaries who had dedicated their house to developing a Frankensteinian “reform-of-the-reform synthesis,” plastering the externals Tradition onto the New Paradigm. You saw nuns in ancient monasteries approaching Holy Communion and sticking their hands through the grille. You visited beautiful 16th century buildings with fully habited nuns who kept a stack of back issues of the Tablet on the hall table and who became indignant when you asked if they ever used the ancient Chant. Their unsingable “new tones” had been written specially for them by a musician friend in the 70s, you see.

You learned a great deal about the Faith and even more about the extent of the post-conciliar damage. Every place you went you discovered a stack of books in the guesthouse by the modern Church’s great and famous heresiarchs or you were told that you were not allowed to kneel after Communion because it was not the “custom of the house” to “disobey the bishops.” In your conversations with the abbesses or the prioresses or novice mistresses, you were regularly asked if you had come from a homeschooling or even “schismatic” background. You were told that you “probably” didn’t even have a vocation, because the kind of thing you were looking for had been abolished. You were accused of romanticism or aesthetic nostalgia.

You started thinking, ‘Maybe I could just be a do-it-yourselfer,’ so you investigated 3rd orders and, of course, found the same tendencies there as in the rest of the Church.

You heard, especially during the enthusiastic days of the John Paul II era, people in the Church talk a lot about the “single life” as a “vocation.” You found such chants very depressing. It seems obvious now that they were nonsense, and these days you hear very little said about it. You knew fine well that it is not a vocation; it’s the booby prize, the default position for those who never managed to sort it out. You asked once, “How can it be a vocation if you can’t choose it, if it’s something you just get stuck with,” and were met with silence.

You wrestled for years with the thought of the various communities associated with the SSPX, but you just couldn’t go there. “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” kept rolling back and forth through your mind. What if their “theory” of applied jurisdiction was wrong? Are you willing to bet your salvation on it?

In the end you had to give up. You felt like you were getting a divorce, and it never sat well, but there just didn’t seem anything to be done about it. You realized that the window was closing and there was, simply, nowhere left to go. And no more time. Age limits, you see. Formation needs a young and malleable character, and by this time you knew that the bitterness and increasing anguish that had grown during your search had ultimately poisoned you. The slog through the modern Church’s foetid theological and liturgical swamplands had left you scarred and horrified, and you became guarded and cautious and far too knowing. You figure you were left, finally, in a mental and emotional condition that made you unable to receive what any community of religious could have offered anyway.

The clock had ticked right on past. You found out there may be some places in France but you knew you could not adapt to both the rigors of religious life and a different culture and language. Finally, you sailed through your 40s, keeping busy, and realized that the desire was still there, hopeless of fulfillment now.

So, you turned away at last, and concentrated on other things and tried to find solace in good work or an independent prayer life. But truth to tell, you felt alone and incomplete, unfinished, in a way. You still don’t really want anything the world offers, and don’t care very much about worldly careers and money, not even marriage and children. And it turned out that the old nagging thing wouldn’t go away or listen to reason.

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I believe that there is an entire demographic cohort of people who were born at the wrong time for the religious life, but who felt the call, unmistakably, long before there was any hint of a “revival”. We hit the entering-monasteries age right smack in the middle of the Great Collapse. We were in our 20s in the 80s and 90s, just about the worst possible time.

The religious life – a life vowed under the three “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience – is something perennial in the Church, part of her essential makeup. It won’t ever go away entirely. But in our times of the great corruption of ecclesiology, no one seems to think much about it. With the terrible crisis turning into a universal state of emergency, reviving traditional religious life seems to be far from anyone’s thoughts.

Since the 90s, the religious life in some places, notably the US, seems to be ever so slightly on the rise again. But by the time the dust had cleared after the Vatican II Asteroid and the big dinosaurs were dying or already extinct and the little survivors were starting to come out of hiding and were colonizing and even starting to flourish, we were in our thirties and forties and we found ourselves shut out of this small “revival.”

In short, when we were the right age, there was nowhere to go, and when there were places to go, we were told it was too late.

I think I was six, in about 1971, when I first told my mother I wanted to be a nun. I had been given a little children’s saint book about some medieval princess who used to dress up in her maid’s clothes and sneak out of the castle in the wee hours of the morning to bring food and supplies to the poor. This enchanted me. I learned about St. Clare and St. Scholastica. I had pictures of the Virgin Mary and a little statue of St. Therese in my room that I put on the top of my dresser, decorated as an altar. I thought about it all the time, and read books and prayed the Rosary, with a great deal more devotion than I have ever been able to muster as an adult.

All Catholic little girls go through the stage, but I kept thinking about it, all the way through my “lost years,” from 15 into my mid-twenties. I never talked about it at that time, but it was there. When I finally started returning to the practice of the faith, the real struggle started. That was when I started seeing that the Church was, in a sense, in enemy hands, a great city occupied by a hostile invader determined to erase her glorious past. And the first things it destroyed, and that very thoroughly, were the convents.

I searched in earnest through my 30s but that was when I learned that the wasteland was complete, the devastation was everywhere. It is true that there have been some small sprouts, coming up from under the ash layer, but they are few and vulnerable. A bishop here or there allows a community to start and it grows only to see their founding bishop removed and replaced with a “progressive” whose tolerance is only for a progression back to the 70s. It has happened regularly: a community accepted for a while in one place ends up being chased around the countryside looking for a safe haven.

About thirteen years ago, I collected the data for a book on what was at that time, the late John Paul II era, considered the revival, almost a rebirth of the traditional forms of the religious life. I spent a year researching. I visited communities and went to the conferences and corresponded with religious. But all that research showed me was that the time had not come; no real universal revival of the religious life could happen until a genuine revival of the Faith as a whole was under way. That would not happen until the bishops, cardinals and the pope had formally abandoned the path of destruction the Church had been on since 1965. And as we have seen since then, that isn’t happening.

Since I gave up the search – and especially in the last three years – my conviction has only grown that the Novus Ordo and all of Vaticantwoism was not only a catastrophic error but a veritable universal solvent to authentic Catholicism, and especially the religious life. Adhere to it long enough, particularly without a conscious awareness of its menace, and it will start to corrode and dissolve your faith. I have seen the results first hand in some very famous “conservative” religious communities. If you don’t know it to fight it, it will eat you.

Now I’m going to contradict myself a little. I have met many good nuns. I have visited many good convents and heard from plenty of people who have visited and even entered some of these “conservative” Novus Ordo communities who have kept their faith. Since I gave up my search – the last visit was in 2007 – I have modified somewhat my gloomy assessment of 2003. Perhaps it is possible to retain the faith both in your own soul and in a community as a whole with the Novus Ordo Mass and liturgy. But to do so there have to be some extraordinary graces. And, possibly, some simple dumb luck.

I have visited a small number of cloistered communities in the Novus Ordo world who radiate an innocent simplicity that, I believe, the demons cannot abide and can do little to corrupt. The right conditions have to exist; most importantly the bishop can’t be on a deliberate campaign to corrupt the nuns in his diocese, as the enneagram-preaching heretic Remi de Roo was in the Victoria I grew up in.

Nuns who have this supernatural protection, I believe, are those who first cling to the true charism of their order – the guiding spark of their founders, St. Benedict, St. Francis or St. Clare or St. Teresa of Avila. These are the ones, and they are few, who have quietly and politely resisted efforts to undermine them.

And they stick with their primary sources. The Order of the Visitation, founded by St. Jane de Chantal in the 17th century, had their constitutions re-written in the 80s, and as far as I have seen, it was a disastrous move. The original text of the constitutions, drafted by St. Jane and her mentor St. Francis de Sales, is a living testament to the Faith and a rousing call to arms against the heretical trends of its day; a monument of the Tridentine Counter-Reformation. The new constitutions sound like they were written by a committee – which no doubt they were – whose main interest was not offending the sensibilities of bishops keen on “implementing” Vatican II.

Preserved communities have also taken very little interest in the ups and downs of Catholic Church politics. They are focused on their prayer life and do not, for the most part, use the internet or have televisions. Their reading consists of the lives and writings of the saints, and they have maintained their devotional life, most especially to Our Lady. They are nuns, Poor Clares, Carmelites, Dominicans, living the life according to the rules and constitutions laid down by their founders, single-mindedly pursuing the goals of authentic religious life.

I think that a dedicated, simple and innocent devotion to the charism of the order can, for a while, act as a shield against the corrosive power of post-conciliar anti-Catholicism, but it is extremely rare, and it doesn’t last forever. For one thing, this innocence often goes along with a sheer ignorance of the Faith, one that necessarily creates openings to erroneous beliefs and liturgical practices. (The wonderful Poor Clares in my town, for instance, decided just to go ahead and sing the Exultet themselves at their Easter Vigil this year. And don’t ever ask such innocent ladies about the moral liceity of in vitro fertilisation.)

Moreover, I have not often observed this holy preservation in active communities. It seems almost exclusively to be a phenomenon of strictly cloistered contemplatives.

Nuns are uniquely vulnerable to the corruption of hierarchs and clergy because of their dependence on a priest to provide the sacraments and on a bishop to maintain them in a diocese. Even those who would prefer the traditional rites, or who are moving that way, are faced with a hierarchy who would prefer to see them go extinct than allow them to return to pre-conciliar ways. This vulnerability and dependence is perhaps the main reason why on internet websites listing “traditional vocations” there are always long lists of men’s communities, priestly societies and confraternities, and precious few for women.

I can count on one hand the communities in the US who adhere exclusively to the traditional liturgical rites. There are even fewer in Canada, Britain, Australia or elsewhere in the Anglosphere. There is one Redemptoristine house that I know of in South America and a handful of Benedictine houses in France and Germany who use the traditional forms for all their liturgy. There is one in Spain, and none in Italy (unless you count the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, the sister group to the all-but-suppressed Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate). And of course, all these have an age limit of no more than 35.

So, I come back to the question of what single ladies of a certain age are to do. I think there are quite a lot of us, and have been thinking about it more since recently starting to receive emails and messages from women asking what they ought to do about their vocations. Some of these are at the far end of the age limit window, and are discovering the things I discovered. Mainly, that there really is almost nowhere to go.

The key to answering the question is to ask what the religious life is actually for. How do its structures – and all the artifacts that we associate with it like habits and Chant – work together to obtain that goal? Once this is determined, the next question is to ask how a person can obtain those goals outside the supporting structures of convent and monastic life. Is the goal pursue-able by a single person living and working in the world?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the past, in the thousands who fled city life in the 3rd and 4th centuries to live in great “lauras,” loose communities of hermits – pursuing God in solitude but with the support of elders. There is evidence that people are doing this, mostly on their own, under the radar and outside the scrutiny of bishops.

Just over a year ago I made my final oblation (like a third order or a lay membership) to the monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia. This is a newish foundation consisting mainly of American monks, transplants to Italy, and who are dedicated to the ancient Faith in a way similar to such places as Clear Creek monastery in Oklahoma or Le Barroux in France.

I originally came here seeking counsel, an answer to precisely that question: what ought I to do? And oblation was one of the suggestions. I have lived here for about 19 months now, and am still working on an answer. I haven’t yet entirely figured it out, but I have a proposal. Since it is clear that there are other people out there who had similar experiences and who want to talk about it, I’ve been thinking of doing something very modern. I have created a Facebook group so a discussion can be started about what can be done. Those who have things they want to talk about with regard to this subject can request to join the group here.

Nobody else is going to fix this for us. Perhaps, then, we can help each other.

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