The Lives of Nuns: A Reading List

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Life inside the cloister is fascinating. Poverty, silence, chastity, obedience: these are not characteristics most of us would devote our lives to. These women find freedom in strictures and structure. What is it like inside the convent walls? Here are five pieces explore the lives of nuns and those inspired by their works.

1. “The Secret Life of Nuns.” (Alex Mar, Oxford American, August 2013)

Alex Mar moves into a Dominican order in Houston: “I traveled here, arriving just yesterday on an early flight, to answer a question that I’ve had for years: Why would a woman make the very specific choice to marry God? […] Why would she choose to live with his many brides and very little privacy and pooled resources; to abandon any and all romantic partners, along with the possibility of ever again touching someone else’s naked body; to set aside every personal need and closely held ambition in favor of the needs of others? I wanted to understand who this woman was—call her a nun or a sisteror a woman religious—and why I’ve harbored a fantasy about her since I was a young girl.”

2. “Sister Bernadette, My Carmelite Aunt.” (Joanna Moorhead, The Guardian, October 2014)

What’s it like to have a family member inside the cloister? Joanna Moorhead shares her childhood memories of visiting with her extraordinary aunt (separated by a grille, of course), getting special permission to spend time in the convent as a teen, and inviting Bernadette into her home as an adult.

3. “The Cloister and the Cradle.” (Shannon Reed, Vela, October 2014)

As she contemplates having children, author Shannon Reed explores the tradition of nuns who cared for wooden baby Jesuses in lieu of children of their own and in devotion to their Lord.

4. “A Nun’s Secret Ministry Brings Hope to the Transgender Community.” (Nathan Schneider, Al-Jazeera, March 2014)

A five-part story about Sister Monica who ministers specifically to trans* folks in the Catholic community, despite backlash from the church’s authorities and teachings.

5. “Writing Life with Nuns.” (Sally Wolfe, Women Writers, Women Books, August 2014)

Before she was a novelist, a teenaged Sally Wolfe attended a “Home for Wayward Girls” headed by the intimidating Mother Geraldine. Despite her strict demeanor, the Mother Superior encouraged Wolfe’s voracious reading and writing, ordering poetry from the city library, putting her ward in charge of the school newsletter, and, ultimately, sending Wolfe to college.

Photo: Chris Brown