James Martin, SJ

As the number of women religious declines, the public’s fascination with them only increases. One of the most highly praised books published in 2000, for example, was Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake, an exquisitely written tale about the religious experiences of a cloistered nun. Also published that year and now out in paperback (a sure sign of commercial success) is Lucy Kaylin’s For the Love of God. Written by a self-proclaimed outsider, Ms. Kaylin’s book offers a fascinating overview of the state of women religious in this country. And last December, Mary Gordon contributed a long essay to The Atlantic Monthly about her own experiences with women religious.

Ms. Gordon’s article, deeply personal and deeply moving, recounts her early fascination with nuns, her girlhood experiences with teaching sisters (most of them negative), her fondness for movie-nuns (especially Sister Ingrid Bergman and Sister Audrey Hepburn) and her current friendship with three talented women religious. In addition, Ms. Gordon provides us with the results of her fieldwork, which took her to places as varied as Bucharest and Rome. In the end, Ms. Gordon admits that, even she, one of our finest Catholic writers, is unable fully to grasp the mystery of religious life. It is a beautiful essay.

Silently threading its way through the essay is this question: How do they do it? It is an obvious one to ask, given the enormous challenges faced by women religious orders today.

There are a few possible answers. Grace, of course. Nothing worthwhile is done without that. Hard work probably a close second. Flexibility perhaps third.

You might also add wit to the list. For I know no other group of persons more able to see the inherent humor that God offers us in life.

I was reminded of this the other week, after celebrating Mass at the College of Mount St. Vincent, in Riverdale, N.Y., on the occasion of the renovation of their vows by the Sisters of Charity. After a delightful dinner, I was driven home by three cheerful sisters. On the way, they mentioned that two of them had once lived together in a notoriously rough neighborhood in New York City. One day the sisters’ only car was stolen from the street. They were, needless to say, crestfallen. As it happened, it was rather near the time of the canonization of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, their foundress.

But on the very day of the canonization, mirabile dictu, the car reappeared on the street. So we stole it back! said one of the sisters. Yes, said the other, St. Elizabeth’s first miracle as a saint! They laughed at this memory. And I thought that their telling of the tale inadvertently revealed much: their work with the poor, their devotion to Mother Seton, their flexibility and their willingness to see humor in difficult circumstances. Here was a wit born both of experience and hope. Here, I thought, is one way that sisters do it.

On the way home, I told them how happy I was to have been with so many sisters, and related a story that, incidentally, also recalled some sisterly humor. A few years ago, on the final day of a retreat in Nairobi, Kenya, I was surprised to notice that all the other male retreatants had already departed. At a farewell dinner that evening, I looked around the dining room and saw 70 women. I said to my table of sisters, Hey, I’m the only man here! One laughed, And blessed are you among women!

These reflections are not meant to be a simple recounting of funny stories. It goes, I think, deeper than this. The lively wit of sisters reveals a firm confidence in God and an understanding that what some may hold as important (numbers, finances, success) are not as important as what God has in store for us. Their humor also reveals an understanding that joy is the best way of attracting vocations and a knowledge that any vocation is a giftand that laughter is a wonderful response to this gift.

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

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