The other nuns

Where to begin a journey into religion? How was I, a second-generation None married to a fellow None, supposed to make sense of the sea of choices without benefit of having been handed an affiliation by birth, marriage, or some other unique circumstance?

I wasn’t sure, but after a few months of living in my new hometown, I started to notice the churches. Almost like one of those digitally-patterned images in which a prominent shape emerges if you stare with eyes relaxed, the churches in my neighborhood began to stand out against the backdrop of the town. Maybe it was sensory deprivation, as there wasn’t much else to look at, or perhaps it was that God-nudging thing I’ve heard about. I counted six churches within a mile radius of my house—three if I went one direction and three if I went the other, each housed in a variation of the late 70’s/early 80’s architecture of my neighborhood. The older part of town was peppered with churches, many in beautiful old stone buildings. But driving past, their entrances looked distant and darkly sealed.

I thought I could satiate my curiosity and avoid the church-going issue by taking a page from the life of a poet I admire: Kathleen Norris. She writes about moving back, in her 30s, to her ancestral farming town in her home state of South Dakota after living in New York City for many years. I was drawn to her story because it seemed like an extreme version of my own—her urban experience more urban, her small town experience more rural. Her relocation was accompanied by a spiritual shift as well. Raised with regular church attendance, she had come, for a time, to consider herself an atheist. Her pull towards home was more than an attraction to her family homestead; it was also a return to her religious roots. She rejoins her grandmother’s Presbyterian Church. In addition, she takes her first sojourn to a Benedictine monastery, staying for several weeks with contemplative monks who practice Catholicism.

Instead of attending the churches in my own community, which seemed like a daunting task, I decided to borrow a page from Norris by seeking to stay at a monastery. Preferring my destination to be within a day’s drive of my house, I went online and searched “Benedictine Monastery Washington State.” This little “spiritual vacation” wasn’t meant to be the beginning of anything; it was supposed to be the entire journey. I imagined it as a divine car wash: in one end I would go with the jangled nerves and disconnectedness of modern life, out the other I would appear with the serene smile and beaming aura of the Virgin Mary. What were the events that I thought would transpire in between? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure angels would sing.

Immediately, I hit upon the website of a monastery that fit the bill. Unlike the one Norris visited, this was a 300-acre farm and the “monks” were all nuns. It was as far away from my new town as possible while still being part of the same state; though, technically, it wasn’t even touching the state—it was a few miles off shore, on a small island. Online photos showed habited ladies atop tractors and lippy llamas smiling for the camera. I read that visitors were welcome, especially when they help with chores. I loved the idea of working on a farm, especially if what the website said was true—that it was a “form of prayer.” That this opportunity for a monastic retreat should be an absolute perfect fit for my purposes did not surprise me; as far as I was concerned, the monastery had been founded in the 1970s for the sole purpose of being at the receiving end of my internet search.

To arrange a week-long visit was simple enough: click a link to email a nun. So I did.

26 thoughts on “The other nuns

  1. Applause! Applause! Applause! Now I wait with baited breath to hear about your week with the nuns. Such “retreats” are reflective and special. Try a Buddhist retreat some time. I love your writing style. I’m following your story with great interest. You ask for stories of our personal religious journey. At age 75 I could write volumes so I’ll wait awhile and perhaps write a very edited version at some point. I also enjoy everyone’s contribution to this blog.

      • A beginning: I was born into a deeply religious Portuguese Catholic family in New England. Once I had studied the Catechism with nuns and learned how to do confession and take communion (age 8) it was expected that each Saturday included some fasting with no breakfast on Sunday morning until after mass and communion. I saw the religious life as one I could espouse but had more interest in those “brothers” who were missionaries in foreign lands. Each night I made my little altar in my bedroom and said prayers of the rosary. Even though I didn’t understand everything I was always inspired by my grandmother’s faith. She had to walk a mile to get to the nearest Catholic church and she went every Sunday. Even after she had two strokes and had to limp along she would have us walk with her to church when we visited. I had been deeply schooled by the nuns of that time (early 1950’s) that the Catholic church was the only true church and all the Protestant churches were their children who would one day wake up and return. I believed it. I was curious though. I remember my parents driving by a very pretty stone church . It was a Protestant church. I asked my mother about it and she told me that those kinds of churches we must not enter. I was an adult before I entered my first Protestant church to have a look. In those days we did not read the Bible even though we had a big one in the house with lovely pictures. We received all of our religious instruction through the church. It was the days of the Latin mass. I didn’t speak Latin and didn’t understand a thing except the few words of the homily. I knew all the prayers, however, and even today can say them by heart. The mass of that time ended with three Hail Mary prayers where the priest said the first half of the prayer and the congregation finished with the second half: “Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen. (The nuns had told us that only Protestants say “Ahmen”….Catholics are distinguished by saying “A-men”) A friend of mine and I would often have fun with it trying to see which one of us could conclude those words the fastest at the end of the mass. We would get to rambling and giggling until my mother swatted us on the head. I can’t say that I learned a lot about my church but I did consider it sacred. I loved the silence that was kept in the sanctuary in those days and I felt my holiest when I was walking out and the choir was singing a liturgical song to the accompaniment of an organ. I don’t know why that was experienced as a holy moment but it was. To the chagrin of my parents and my Portuguese relatives I left the church at age 17. Fundamentalism called.

        • And that was quite an interesting beginning, Frank – and you leave us hanging! I was also raised in a Catholic home (Irish Catholic, in my case). The parish was the center of the world for my parents and all social activities revolved around the parish and the extended (Catholic) family. Along with my seven brothers and one sister, I attended Catholic schools through grade 12 – rigorous and restrictive, for the most part. As a child, I lived with the Latin Mass and prayers were everywhere: before and after meals, when traveling by car, after dinner during the months of Oct and May (the rosary in honor of the Blessed Mother). All Advent and Lenten traditions were adhered to and the dinner conversation on Sundays was focused on responses to my father’s quizzes re: that morning’s gospel (read also in English), epistle (not read in English so you had better have following in your missal) and, horrors, the sermon. I memorized a million prayers and the 415 questions that were a part of the Baltimore Catechism.
          I became a “None” when I left home at age 18 – my parents assumed , for some years anyway, that I was going to church but not so much. In fact, I had put that whole conundrum in a box up on a top shelf in my mind, put a yellow ribbon around it, and left it there untouched …. until I had a couple of children on my own.
          I am still a “None”, though not blindly. I am curious and interested in spiritual traditions but I do not wish to be told how to live my life. I wrote a response to Corinna’s article here:

        • Frank, Thank you for sharing. I love the image of two boys competing to see who can say “amen” fastest. It’s the little things. I always read your feedback with interest–thank you for all your comments. I appreciate you!

  2. I went on a silent retreat once, long before I came back to faith. Even NOT believing….or believing more ‘metaphysically’ and generically, it was a glorious experience. I hope yours was as well.

  3. Your writing is fascinating, because it is so open and true. I have evolved to the point in my life where I consider all work a form of prayer, “doing it as unto the Lord” as the Bible says, It goes so much better that way. If we are true believers, we all go through this type of search at some time in our life. Faith is not inherited. My teenage grandson has started his own “search” and has many doubts. I can remember going through the same. Thanks you for sharing so beautifully your own experiences in your faith journey.

  4. I absolutely loved your column on the Nones. I am the author of Religious Renegade thanks Organized religion…pastor at Judson Memorial Church in NYC, ( and we specialize in nones. I also blog at Grace at the Table….on word press like you.
    Let’s get to know each other’s work… You are on the right track — and visiting places of feeble religious expression, like those you find in the Worship Directory, is just right. Let us know what you see!

  5. I am originally from the Pacific NW, and suspect I know the wheat fields that surround your campus town. Earlier post. This is a remarkable journey, but one we all take in a sense. I suspect you are finding more than you bargained for, and what a great message that will be to all of us.
    Moving to Texas 9 months ago we struggled to fit in and find a new church home. So your “church exploration” also rings close to home right now.
    All I can say is you know it when you know it, but I also have learned that it really isn’t about feelings, it is about believing, and when you believe in what you cannot see, but still know is there and real and the most important “thing” in your life – then you will realize that your journey isn’t over, it has just begun.

  6. As a high schooler in a Catholic school in the very tumultuous late 1960’s, I went on two separate “retreats” – both were quite profound in their own way , telling me that even as a 16 year old I was looking for something spiritual (something that I didn’t find in the Catholic Church).

  7. I love hearing about your quest. I would like to suggest that you explore Quakerism, though it might be hard to find an eastern style group where you live. You could contact Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for information. I am proud to be a Quaker. Also, I, too,admire Kathleen Norris.

    • I understand how a “rough patch” can make you sit up and take notice. Been there…and I remember how empty it felt. Now I look back at it and tell people, “I think it was Spirit giving me a kick in the ass and telling me to move on.” I don’t know if you’ve read anything by Pema Chodron. She has a great book titled, “When Things Fall Apart”. In it she talks about having compassion for ourselves when we are confronted with these challenges. We usually find it easy to show and give compassion to others but we find it difficult to give compassion to ourselves. The importance of such self-compassion is that if we sit out with it we begin to love ourselves. Some people dismiss that part of Jesus’ statement that we, “love others AS WE LOVE OURSELVES”. We’re not talking about selfishness here or narcissism. Just plain ole sweet compassion followed by love for the self. Once we arrive at such love, we regain our power and we get empowered to move on. I keep a small card on my refrigerator that I look at when I’m feeling challenged by a life experience: “I have compassion for myself.” Out of context of course, I like to use a biblical phrase: “It came to pass…………” Looks like you might be looking for a way to be more in touch with “being” instead of “doing” and getting comfortable with it.

      • Hi Frank — yeah, I hear you on compassion to oneself – certainly not part of my foundational learning. Growing up in my house, it was always about giving, giving, giving to others – it was a sin to be selfish and giving to yourself in any measure was considered selfish — the theme of sacrifice ran through life as well – Jesus made these sacrifices for our sins and, oh yes, I am a sinner and I must pay for that – pretty grim.
        I think I don’t really know what it means to love oneself – not part of my experience. I have watched out for myself by working hard – securing a strong education, taking care of my physical body with exercise and healthy eating (and recently making a decision to stop drinking ( , marrying a responsible man, and generally being a cultural success. Isn’t that loving yourself?

        • If I’m perceiving your e-mail correctly, it looks like you would like a definition of self love. Maybe these words by family therapist Virginia Satir will be helpful to you: It kind of sets the stage for me that self-love is about transcending or letting go of the baggage of the past and moving into the present with self-acceptance. You have a lot of gifts to give and I note that you give them but for some reason you are not fulfilled in the giving.

          • Hi Frank – Ah yes, Virginia Satir – I attended a weekend workshop with her in Palo Alto in about 1981 or 82 – what an inspiring therapist!
            Yes, I give, that is true. I think I am needing more time to …. UGH! I can’t believe I am saying this! ….. I need more time to find out who I am! WHAT!!!! Yes, the task is ongoing and ever changing. It seems as if I have a 20 year old, a 30 year old, a 40 year old, and a 50 year old all living inside my head. Each of these individuals keeps watching the me who is around right now and they keep saying, “Really? REALLY???? This is what you turned out to be? We never would have thought this is where you would end up. We can’t believe that you appear to have forgotten who you once wanted to be.”
            And I find it odd that the me who lives now has the perfect response. I can say back to them, NOT in a mean, loud way, but in a very measured way, “Just. You. Wait. You know nothing, or really very little. Life is not the way you think it is and you will discover things you never considered. Let’s talk then. Let’s talk when you have some more perspective.”
            Only thing is, I’m not sure what I would say to them beyond that! 🙂

  8. Hi Corinna – will be most interested in your experience with the “real” nuns – as I am in your journey – not sure that we can seek God if God isn’t seeking us – and you seem to be a seeker – I think religion is a framework rather than a goal – it gives us companions for the journey to God – helps us in our search with ritual and structure – and because we are all unique I suspect that some religions help some people more than others. Nuns and monks are part of the “charismatic” aspect of church – always a little bit on the fringes and sometimes the church authorities find it difficult to fit them in. Keep blogging!! Maureen (a nun not a none) p.s. I love Kathleen Norris’ books!

    Corinna Nicolaou posted: “Where to begin a journey into religion? How was I, a second-generation None married to a fellow None, supposed to make sense of the sea of choices without benefit of having been handed an affiliation by birth, marriage, or some other unique circumstance? “

    • Hi Maureen – I am intrigued with your comment : “not sure that we can seek God if God isn’t seeking us” — can you say just a few words about that? How does God seek us?

      • I think that if we are seeking God it is because God is seeking us always – the God I believe in is much larger than any concept or idea I can have and is always seeking us – I believe that God is always present and is found not just in church or religion although they can support or help our search. We find God in so many ways – through people, nature, music, science, art, literature, ritual and prayer. ,It is a case of being open to find God, to be aware and awake.I find God full of surprises. In the end it is letting God find us!

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