I was on the subway next to a nun dressed in full habit. You don’t see nuns too often these days. They’re an endangered species. When I was little, they were everywhere.
“Yes, Sister, no, Sister.” It’s how we addressed nuns. They had a direct line to God in the days when nobody had cellphones or the illusion they could ring the Almighty themselves. You didn’t want to make a nun mad.
If a nun said something, it happened. “Go to nine First Friday masses, you’ll go straight to heaven.” That’s one I remember. No matter what I do in life, I’m going straight to heaven, do not pass go, do not give two-hundred dollars to the second collection. Even though I did the nine-mass marathon when I was ten, my fate’s sealed. I don’t even have to be nice.
Being a nun doesn’t bring in money–paychecks are reserved for priests–but it does get that certain respect in society, even today. People hold doors for nuns. They show a certain reverence. I saw it on the subway last week–people nod, smile, give up seats, and move out of the way with that certain deference reserved for those the community regards well.
I wonder why nobody does that for teen girls wearing headscarves and women from other cultures who choose to veil, show modesty, or dress traditionally. Just the opposite. They rubberneck and whisper about “oppression,” or “being controlled by men.” I wish that would change.
There’s a Benedictine Abbey in Connecticut I want to visit. The nuns sing and put on plays. There’s even a nun–Sister Dolores–who, as a former actor and current member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, votes for the Oscars every year. The abbey is cloistered, meaning the sisters are separate from society. No one tries to jailbreak them, tells them they’re being oppressed by men, or that they’re really hostages of a controlling religion and they should remove their veils and break free. No one gawks and stares. The sisters are given respect and the space to live their lives in harmony, taking in guests who apply.
I once knew a cloistered nun–Sister Mary of the Rosary. My parents were doing something in the God department so when we’d visit, they’d dump me off at the visiting area where she’d sit on the other side of the screen in full habit. She’d watch me, passing candy through the window slot. I liked Sister Mary of the Rosary very much, except for one thing.
She told me she’d pray for me to become a nun, that not enough people were becoming nuns these days. I didn’t think I wanted to be a nun. Her prayers must have worked–no one dated me in high school, I went to the prom alone, and it took a good long time to get married and even longer to have the little boy who graces the page of this blog.
But that’s what Sister Mary of the Rosary asked God for, and so it was done. No one messed with Sister Mary of the Rosary. Not even God. Even if she had walked around in public, no one would’ve stared her down and told her to take off her veil, this is America, dammit.
I like discussing society’s conceptions of religion. Sometimes it’s a tough conversation in a majority Christian state, but it’s important. I’m not out to challenge anyone’s faith, I just explore why it’s so hard for society to see similarities between people and seek understanding.
Society needs understanding on a normal day, so on a good day we can head toward love.
I worked at the Jewish Community Center for years and experienced that feeling of discrimination. I could always leave it behind when I went home. I’ve lived overseas where discrimination was far worse. One day, I was treated coldly in public. I asked what was wrong. “Oh, you look Jewish,” my friend said. Wasn’t it obvious?
What does it mean to “look Jewish?”
I’ve had students refuse to believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was Jewish, and had kids in a history class insist that Jesus wasn’t Middle Eastern. Even students from minority Christian groups discuss feeling out of sorts, and I’ve heard Muslim kids told to “just pick the pepperoni off the pizza.”
That’s emergency territory for greater consideration as far as I’m concerned.
Maybe it’s my vegetarian side speaking, but I’m guessing not even a Paleo would slip a nun a chicken breast on a Friday during Lent.
Teaching tolerance is important. Teaching understanding is critical. Life saving, even.
I’d like to see society give everyone a fair shake, especially now when we need it most.
No one messes with nuns. They get respect and appreciation–by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. No one calls their holidays stupid, even though the truth is most Christian holidays were placed on the calendar by Romans conquering the world.
We often rewrite history to serve us. This is an important lesson for kids to learn, so they can do their best to fix it. Kids, after all, are just kids. They learn what we teach them. They play, include, and collaborate–until adults get in the way.
It’s nice to see nuns out there on the subway getting respect. It would be even nicer seeing that respect multiply, until it became respect for all, regardless of religion, gender, race, orientation, and amount of money in one’s pocket.
Photo Credit: Emiliano, “Three Walking Nuns,” Pisa, Italy, 2011.