My Boyfriend Is Jesus: 7 Experiences Of A Nun
Whether your experience with them comes from years of Catholic school or the epic Sister Act duology, you probably don't know much about the actual life of a nun. What makes someone want to give up their freedom, and all possibility of a romantic relationship, to serve the Catholic Church? And what is that life like? We sat down with three women who were ordained as nuns and eventually left the Church. Alice quit nunning in the 1980s, Liz joined in the '50s and quit in the '70s, and Australian Felicity was a nun-der from down under until just a few years ago. Here's what they told us about why they joined ... and what compelled them to leave:
Christ Wants Child Brides
The Catholic Church is at a major disadvantage when it comes to recruiting young people to the religious life. There's effectively no retirement date, the pay isn't great, and you aren't allowed to get married or have sex. Since young people are increasingly big fans of independence, money, and sex, the Catholic Church has had a difficult time attracting new nuns. Worldwide, their numbers are in sharp decline.
Seventy-two percent in the U.S. alone.
Rather than go nun-less, the Church has developed a two-prong strategy for snagging more Holy women: Get them young when boys are still "icky," and advertise via comic books:
"When I went to 7th grade, we moved to a new school, and kids were more 'mature' there: boys always flirting with the girls, girls always crying their hearts out, and I thought that was very foolish," Liz told us. "So, one day the nun handed out comic books -- really, comic books -- about being a 'Bride Of Christ.' It was like, 'Gosh, I don't have to worry about flirting!' I thought about it, talked about it with the Sisters, and decided that was right for me."
Liz was recruited via comic back in the '50s, but the Catholic Church still dusts off this strategy from time to time, most recently in manga-fied form, circa 2007:
"Gotta convert 'em all!"
The phrase "Bride Of Christ" is taken a lot more literally than you might think. Jesus is treated as basically the perfect boyfriend, and nunhood was a sure-fire path of snagging that saintly hunk and a dream wedding. All without having to talk to icky boys with their existing physical bodies.
"That comic made it sound soooo romantic, like Jesus was some stud," Liz said. "The young nuns even got to wear wedding dresses. I never got one, but that image hooked me. It meant that I was special to Jesus, and, when I got to Heaven, I would be really close to him, I would be able to hug him. It sounds silly now, but I was in the 7th grade."
Way too young to realize that Jesus only cares about chillin' with his bros.
Strangely, while it's technically accurate, absolutely none of the former nuns endorsed us saying that "Jesus likes to hit 'em young."
There Are Actually Two Different Types Of Nuns
There are two main types of nuns: Active nuns go out into the world and do good work, helping the poor and the sick. They are folks like Mother Theresa, responsible for the founding of hundreds of hospitals and orphanages around the world. Right behind Mother T (no relation to Mr.), the second breed of nun are in "Semi-Contemplative Convents." These nuns usually act as nannies for families or teach in schools -- think Maria from Sound Of Music.
Only without the "inviting all of their students to bed" part.
All of our sources were of the second type -- presumably because the Active Nuns were all still out there doing push-ups and wind sprints. Alice and Liz both worked for Catholic schools, which, back in the day, meant learning how to strike fear into the hearts of small children. But, despite what your grandparents, twitching at the mere mention of Catholic school, may have told you, the sisters weren't necessarily out to get the kids. Alice and Liz both told us that they never hurt a child:
"I had the skill of swatting a ruler on a desk about a millimeter from a kid's nose," Alice said. "But, I decided I never wanted to whack a kid -- that wasn't my place."
Liz agreed: "One time, I was told to spank a kid. But, when I got him into the room, I said, 'OK, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make a spanking sound, and you're going to scream.' Afterward, that kid was my friend for life."
Everyone is better off when the other cheek to turn is imaginary.
Our source Felicity joined a Benedictine Contemplative Convent. "They prayed for more than eight hours a day, studied the religion in their other time, and lived in an isolated convent, with locked doors between them and the public ..."
All that, and you don't even come out knowing Kung Fu? Sounds like sort of a rip-off.
Every Little Action Is Dictated By The Order
Nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; the various orders put major emphasis on that 'obedience' thing. The order dictates everything from your schedule to your personal hygiene, and you're made to feel bad about even thinking about straying from what the order wants:
"Every week, we would apologize to God and Mother Mistress for being so unruly," Liz said. "It was such innocent stuff we confessed: having thoughts about being disobedient, or feeling angry at Mother Mistress, or breaking the grand silence in some way."
"I can forgive war, racism, and corporations stealing everybody's money, but women giggling? Flood the world!"
That was on the day-to-day end of things. Alice further recalled that, as a young nun, she was treated like a low-level employee of a spiritual Walmart. She had to deal with an annual evaluation, but with no promise of any sort of raise:
"As an employee, you get annual reviews. When we were novices, we got an annual spiritual review," Alice said. "And it was a Scantron. 'How much do you pray? How often do you read the Bible? Do you embody Franciscan ideals?' And we sat there alone facing while they assessed our spirituality."
"He let the Lord stab his hands and feet. You were five minutes late to evening Grace. For shame, devil child."
For Felicity, it was hard to focus on her spirituality because her basic physical needs weren't being met. The strict regimen of a relatively sedentary lifestyle, coupled with occasional fasting cycles and the order's inability to help her with some of her body's needs, led to health problems. On the rare occasions her parents got to visit her, they were terribly worried about her health:
"I lost, then gained, a whole heap of weight," Felicity told us. "I got very bad skin from not being able to use proper skin washes. Only soap was allowed, and I've got very sensitive skin. I looked constantly exhausted from the demanding schedule. So I wasn't in very good health."
Because Judas used an exfoliating facial cleanser before betraying Jesus, apparently.
Despite all this (or perhaps because of it? We're not doctors), nuns are actually some of the longest-lived people in the world. Some scientists actually use them to study aging because they're so good at it. So that's the secret to a long life: constantly feel and look terrible.
Nunneries Work Like Holy Social Security
The concept of respecting your elders holds very true in the nun world. After a certain point, the older nuns rely on the younger ones to help wheel them around. In a sense, convents worked like Social Security. The younger ones took care of the older ones, with the expectation being that someday there will be younger nuns to take care of themselves.
If you outlast the other elders, you can claim the Holy Hoveround.
"A big thing in the convent is obedience," Alice said. "The Superior General is the mouthpiece of God. And, if you disobeyed her, you disobeyed God."
Liz told us how the older nuns weren't fans of letting other nuns have anything of their own:
"We were given $5 a month to buy our own toothpaste," she recalled. "So, I pinched pennies, bit by bit, and saved up in secret to buy a transistor radio. I had to hide it ... The kids gave me a puppy once, a little Shih Tzu mix. I put her under my scapula, took her home at night, put her in my room, carried her in a box, and brought her back to school. Nobody noticed for about six months until I was walking home one day. The Mother Superior surprised me and startled the dog into barking. I had to give her up."
Go ahead and tearfully hug every puppy in town now. We'll wait.
Alice remembered her order being even stricter than that. "I used to whistle, and that got me into trouble," she said. "Sometimes, we would sing while we were doing the convent's laundry, and we would get yelled at then, too. We were supposed to do chores in silence and meditation. We younger nuns banded together because the older, retired nuns had nothing to do all day but watch the young nuns."
That and spend 10 hours climbing up a flight of stairs by themselves.
If today's older nuns aren't careful, they won't have any young nuns to look after them in their dotage. Right now, only 3 percent of nuns are 40 or younger. In about 30 years, there's going to be a scary number of infirm nuns with no one to look after them. Listen ladies: You have a group of young people doing your laundry for you at no charge, the least you can do is let them sing while they do it. It worked in The Sound Of Music.
There Are Plans In Place To Deal With Lesbianism
Despite what the porn has taught you, nunneries aren't exactly swimming with sweet, hot lesbian action. For one, nuns don't use the l-word -- they call them "particular friendships." Alice explained, "Particular friendship means don't get close to anybody because we don't trust that you won't start snogging in the pew."
"Do you like me? Pray in silence once for yes, twice for no."
It wasn't as if churches were built for quality sexing, but the concern over "particular friendships" had some detrimental emotional effects on Liz: "We were warned about how awful 'particular friendships' could be," Alice said. "They warned us constantly about going in groups of three, not two. Once, I had a one-on-one with the Sister Superior. (You had to kneel to talk to her -- crazy, huh?):
'Y'know, I've been hearing about these particular friendships. What are they?'
'It's when a woman loves a woman.'
'Don't worry, no one could ever love you like that.'
"In fact, Mary Magdalene told me that when you ascend to Heaven, she just wants to be friends."
"For years, I absolutely believed that. It was devastating." Imagine your Sister Superior forcing you to your knees, then viciously informing you that you aren't pretty enough to catch the eye of another hot young nun. Sounds like a pretty good set-up to a BDSM porn, ironically.
Nuns Are A Dying Breed
Entering a convent in the first place is not something one does lightly. It's a deep commitment, and the understanding is that it will be for a lifetime. However, you are given a grace period during your religious education before your "final vows." We're not saying that Catholic nuns are Jedi, but they have an eerily similar admissions policy.
"Prayer leads to more prayer. More prayer leads to ... even more prayer. Even more prayer leads to ... ah, you get it."
Eventually, Alice and Liz found their callings outside of the sisterhood. "At the end, I was stationed in D.C. and my convent would send me out to help teach inner city kids," Liz recalled. "I took my guitar, went with a priest and some brothers, and went to the inner city, played music, took kids to zoos, and, every Sunday, we would play music and sing for them. I realized I could do a lot of good in this world beyond just prayer. So I told Sister Superior I wanted to quit.
'Sister, this is just God testing you.'
'God isn't testing me. I'm just done.' So I had to write to the Pope, 'I'm unworthy to be a nun.' Finally, after a couple of months, they gave me a release."
"Dear me, I'm unworthy to be me. Signed, Me."
Yes: To leave, you have to inform the Pope himself that you suck at nunning. But, no pressure or anything. Despite the guilt-trip drop-out process, Liz said that she remembers it happening all too regularly:
"The longer I was there, I would notice more nuns going missing," she remembered. "'Wait, where's so and so?' And, at the annual gathering, 'Well, where's so and so?' 'Well, she left.' There were less of us every year."
Thirty seconds after this picture was taken, only two remained.
Liz left in the 1970s, and she was just one of many. Since 1966, the number of U.S. nuns has fallen by 72.5 percent. Alice eventually decided to give it up when she got a part in a local play, and the Mother Superior demanded that she quit, lest something as normal as "enjoying her life" distract her from her nunly commitments. "This was right after Vatican II, and I realized I was turning into an angry, bitter old woman at 22. So, I said, 'I'm done with this.' Another nun left the same day.
"Looking back on it now, 30 years later, they were all frightened women thinking, 'All the young ones are leaving, who is going to push my wheelchair around when I'm old?' For the last weeks, no one talked to us. And for a convent of 20 women to not talk to you? When I left, I left everything."
"I miss the wall they made me stare at all day, most of all."
It's worth noting that 88 percent of current nuns say they would probably still choose to be nuns, if they had it all to do over again. Sixty percent of nuns reported their lives as happier than they had expected. So, there are many nuns who never even consider quitting, but there is another way to kick that habit ...
You Can Get Kicked Out For "Demonic Possession"
Felicity was effectively kicked out of her convent because the order didn't understand mental illness. Mental health was not taken seriously, and any time she wasn't behaving properly, she would be punished. She was eventually told to leave the convent because of it:
"It wasn't actually my choice to leave in the end. When I'm telling funny stories about the convent, I tell people I was kicked out for bad behavior. That's actually not too far off the truth. By the end of my time in the convent, I was not coping with life there at all. Instead of realizing I was dealing with an emerging mental illness (I've since been diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder and GAD), they took the view that I was being deliberately disobedient and disruptive.
As it says in Corinthians 14:21, "Ye knoweth not the history of psychiatry, but I doth do."
So, they spent a lot of time punishing me, making me do duties as "penance," and telling me off. It didn't make any difference, except to exacerbate the distress I was always in. So, things went on, getting worse and worse, until the Mother General of the whole group of convents told the Prioress to send me home. It happened overnight -- one day I was part of the convent, the next day they rang my parents and told them to come pick me up.
And so I left. They never contacted me again. Literally. They never rang, never wrote, never showed any interest in how I was doing. My convent acted as if "mental health" was something that didn't exist. In fact, I was told I was acting like I was possessed by a demon. So, there you have it: They were more ready to believe that I was taken over by a demon from Hell, than believe I might have a mental illness."
Four out of five doctors recommend their Dark Lord And Father Of All Lies.
We're not religious scholars. In fact, we're basically the exact opposite of that. But, "kicking sick people to the curb" doesn't exactly sound like behavior that Jesus would dig.
Robert Evans runs Cracked's personal experience article team, and tweets, occasionally.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Hardcore Realities Of My Time As A Mormon Missionary and 5 Harsh Truths You Learn As A Doctor In The Third World.
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