Martha Fay
Martha Fay

Fellowship Title:

Real Nuns Don’t Wear Habits

Martha Fay
September 4, 1999

Fellowship Year

My latest nuns arrived in the mail today, a pair of slightly thick around the hips Sisters with ankles to match, photographed from behind as they cross a street. Their light colored habits have been hacked off at mid-calf, their matching veils clipped in what some advisor or community committee no doubt deemed a judicious compromise between the practical and the decorous. Whatever trace dignity these outfits permit their wearers in real life is here dispatched by a couple of supermarket flyer steaks, one slapped on as a backpack for Sister-on-the-right, the other making a grainy, oversize carryall for Sister-on-the-left. The resulting composite- meant to be a witty exercise in “How to make a familiar object strange,” according to the artist’s explanation printed on the flip side-is titled “Holy Cow.”

“Deciding which familiar image to use was the hard part,” the artist writes.” I already had the picture of the two nuns, which I found in a magazine. It was one of those 11th hour things where I happened to notice an A & P flyer laying [sic] around and voila! The headline just presented itself.” (No indication as to whether it is the nuns who are the familiar objects, or the steaks, making it hard to know which ingredient has been rendered strange here.)

I am trying to decide where in my gallery of nun images this newest one belongs and what exactly it signifies. Right off the bat, it violates what had heretofore been a closely observed rule concerning habit length and style. Every other Sister’s costume- three-dimensional, photographic, or cartoon—skims the floor, revealing nothing more than black shoe tips, or, if the Sister in question is seated, a bit of discreetly stockinged black ankle between hem and shoe. No stray wisps of hair drift through the coifs worn by any of the nuns in my collection; glasses are uniformly wire-rimmed; faces are scrubbed and bright. These of course are all “real nuns”-pre-Vatican 11 nuns in classic black and white, as timeless and as indistinguishable from one another as a series of silk-screened Marilyns.

The Holy Cow nuns fall outside this tradition in a number of troublesome ways: inelegant, fleshy, distinguishable from one another at a glance, they are unidealizable and therefore anti-iconic. They make hash of the otherness principle on which both nun-nostalgia and nun-lampoonery depend. They are ridiculous but not funny. They are also insufficiently mysterious, too close to ordinary women to credibly fill the fantasy roles others require of them. In the final test, they could never be played by Deborah, Audrey, Ingrid or Julie. Not Susan. Not even Whoopi.

“Real” nuns in any number have been gone from the scene just long enough to have been resurrected as pop-commodities “collectibles” of pious, camp, or—depending on who is doing the acquiring—nostalgic significance. Much of it appears to be extraordinarily affectionate, if not downright sappy. With a couple of exceptions, these are nuns meant to be patted on the head: naive, sexless, inherently patronizable: they are the “good little sisters” who cluster in the background of every nun movie, the near equivalents of one of those sample case squadrons in a World War II movie: joker, innocent, leader, sage, rebel, sourpuss, saint. My own small collection contains an odd little subgroup of otherwise identical nuns in an assortment of sizes and media. The basic model is a slightly startled looking choir Sister holding a thick hymnal at chest height. She wears the same black and white habit in all four versions, a gold cross hanging from a chain around her neck, a second one dangling from the rosary at her waist. Her rosebud mouth forms a tiny elongated 0, as if she has been interrupted halfway through her evening Te Deum. Thanks to friends, I have three of her in the four-inch squeak-toy version, one of her in the eight-inch candle, two of her in two-inch puppet form, one of her imprisoned, ballerina-like, in a sno-globe.

I have yet to get my hands on a pair of nun-earrings, though Mary Pat McKasey, the owner of a stationery and novelty store called Paperworks, in St. Paul, Minnesota, has promised to send me a pair as soon as her next shipment comes in. She tells me that the ones with the nun holding a ruler outsell those with the nun holding a bible; she can’t keep the first in stock. Bigger still is the Fighting Nun, a wild-eyed hand puppet outfitted with boxing gloves. A pair of plastic levers underneath her habit control her left jab and her right hook. She is smiling. I got mine from a toy catalog a friend passed along a couple of years ago. Since 1995, McKasey has sold 1,200 in her store.

McKasey’s store is an almost completely Irish Catholic neighborhood. “Everyone comes in and sees this stuff and smiles; they see the punching nun and they say, ‘Oh, it’s Sister So-and-so.’ Everyone has a name to give to it from their own childhood.”

An occasional non-Catholic turns up and brings a different sort of interest to bear, or simply mystification. “One guy came into the shop and said, ‘Look, it’s a nut!’” says McKasey. “Another one asked, ‘Is it a “Sister Act” person?’”

In the pantheon of domestic tchotchkes, nuns fill a bizarre niche. Clearly they represent a nostalgic reach for Catholics of a certain vintage, for whom the costume calls an entire era up whole. Though in fact most American religious remained in habit through the early 1970s at least, the nuns in the novelty bins and the catalogs have a look of the fifties about them: their natural companions are not their real modem descendants but Annette Funicello in her Mousekateer ears, Dale Rogers in her cowgirl hat, Lucy Ricardo in whipped pink bangs over penciled eyebrows, our mothers in their house dresses, cigarettes in hand.

Nuns in habit are by definition a species of straight-men. In one of the greeting cards in my file, two stem-looking older nuns in stark black and white have been photographed from child height; their lined faces and clasped hands are framed in a gothic archway. The picture carries no caption, and needs none. We know their position, we know their story, do we not? The card opens, and the tagline is predictable: “Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do on your Birthday.” There is also the “Flatulent Nun,” whose passing of wind is captured with a sudden trapeze-like raising of her skirts, and the caption “Here’s hoping your birthday’s a holy blast.”

That nuns should reappear in the culture as simply another form of domestic kitsch. is a considerable comedown. In the old days, they were taken seriously, their circumstances as women a subject of fascination and reverence, of prurient regard, of fantasy, of a kind of glamour that is hard to imagine from this distance. That they appeared to live their lives without reference to the opinions of men, that they measured their worth by a standard apart, was the source of both respect and suspicion. They were not real women; they were afraid of men, or of sex; they could not get a man, which suggested a pitiful or pathetic history, or they had lost one, which suggested both romance and tragedy. The enduring theme of convent literature written by others is escape; on the one hand, escape from the world, on the other, from the confinement of the nunnery itself.

In contrast, the founding narratives of individual orders read like adventure stories for adolescent girls: the heroines are beautiful orphans or rebellious tomboys, society belles whose heads are turned not by suitors but by the faces of the starving poor, wealthy widows whose thoughts turn to others in later life. In these stories, the women do not need to be rescued from anything, only to assert their right to self determination, to spend their inheritances as they will, to found schools, or hospitals, to take in orphans, to turn away from lively society and the ordinary expectation as to what constitutes happiness for a woman; in doing so they not only measured themselves against a different standard, but they conceived their personal dramas differently.

A related distortion can be seen in the continuing popular identification of nuns with their long discarded costumes: never mind that in the protracted and often painful process of renewal begun by most American communities in the mid-1960’s, the question of whether to modify, preserve or toss out their once beloved habits was resolved more expeditiously than almost any other issue. In fact, habits were a perfect reflection of the paradoxical lives nuns were struggling to reinvent, rendering them individually invisible (and to some extent unaccountable) at the same time as they were made collectively conspicuous. Though it never succeeded completely, the habit was intended to mute personality, erase individual difference, short-circuit vanity, keep the world at a distance. At the same time, it placed the Sister in a position of high symbolic visibility. “Nuns were always on stage,”’ was how one wise veteran of the era put it. “That was what the habit was for.”

By adopting contemporary clothing, women religious made a deliberate choice to move off that stage, into the audience so to speak, and toward individual responsibility. “Moving into modem dress had dramatic impact,” former nun Mary Griffin recalled in her memoir Courage to Choose, “It revealed to the world in general the human being underneath the habit. But more important, it revealed the nun to herself: it was an experience in recognition.”

The importance to contemporary religious women of that process of interior redefinition was brought home to me on a recent visit to a pair of Carmelite monasteries in Maryland. Enclosed contemplatives whose tradition dates to the 16th century Spanish reformer, Teresa of Avila, and before that, to the 12th century Christian hermits of Mt. Carmel, Carmelites exist as a sort of holy fraction within religious life and within Catholicism generally. Their work is and always has been, simply prayer, and thus the events of the last three decades might seem to have had less bearing on their lives than on those of apostolic or active congregations. Continuity, moreover, is held in special grace by Carmelites: each convent resembles a family, with the oldest members acting as links to earlier generations and the youngest expected to carry the life into the future. Their member lists have a genealogical feel to them, and a spareness as well, since the Carmelite rule limits each convent to no more than 21 members at any one time. The first Carmelites to found a monastery in America were three American-born nuns and an Englishwoman who arrived in the U.S. from English-speaking convents in Antwerp and Hoogstraeten in 1790. They initially settled on a donated plantation in Port Tobacco, Maryland, subsequently moved to Baltimore, and later to the nearby suburb of Towson, but the community’s uninterrupted line of descent over the centuries can be measured in a hand lettered list of the dead that includes fewer than 120 names, or, by Carmelite reckoning, the four degrees of separation that connect its oldest living member, now 93, to the longest lived of the original founders. Few institutions can claim so unbroken a tradition, yet these women, too, have made a number of considered adjustments to their way of life in order to permit closer contact with the surrounding community for purposes of worship and spiritual counseling. Probably the least important change has been the most visible, their decision to forego the layered habit of brown, black and white that most put on for the first time as very young women years ago, in favor of ordinary clothes and simple white robes slipped on when entering chapel. Like the turn, a lazy-Susan-like device through which donations and prayer requests have passed to enclosed Carmelites from the outside world for centuries, the habit is a thing of the past, fondly recalled in photographs and doll-sized samples in the glass cases of a small museum in the community archives, along with treasures salvaged from the original monastery in Port Tobacco.

As it happened, that site, which long ago passed out of Carmelite hands, had been bought and restored by local antiquarians in the early 1950s, and beginning in 1976, resettled by nuns from several of the more conservative Carmelite communities around the country. Eager to see the original location, I arrived by appointment on a hot Friday afternoon in July and found my way to a small office opposite the restored farmhouse. There was a narrow anteroom fitted with a wooden turn and a sign instructing visitors to ring one or both of the buzzers in the wall for attention. I rang the first, and then the second, and a disembodied voice responded. A key would be placed in the turn, I was told. When it came round, I was to take it to the building across the parking lot marked “Parlor” and enter.

I did as instructed, and found myself in a second, slightly larger anteroom, with a door that opened into what reminded me more of a roadside motel lounge than any of the convent parlors of my youth. I passed through the door and turned to the right as if by instinct, to be met by an openwork wooden grill and, sitting silently behind it, as still as a pair of wax figures, two Carmelites in full habit.

It was like stumbling into colonial Williamsburg, or a weekend reenactment of the Battle of Antietam. The costumes were correct to the last stitch, the ancient decorum observed with fidelity, and yet the effect was not of authenticity but its opposite: a custodial obsessiveness that hovered on the fetishistic and which had the especially unfortunate effect of making these real nuns, each long in religious life, seem like actresses hired for the tourist season. In an inversion of meaning no one could have predicted when the process of renewal began more than thirty years ago, the habit seemed no longer the outward sign of the consecrated life but of the unexamined life and a point of view that fits the punchline school of nun-kitsch all too closely.

©1999 Martha Fay

Martha Fay is a freelance writer in New York who is researching the role of nuns in American society.

Martha Fay
Martha Fay