Convents and Covens and Popes – Oh, My!

Who knew researching a post on Nuns on the Bus would make me want to scream until my throat bled and my head exploded?

Well, probably anybody who knows me would have predicted it….

It all started with (who else) the Vatican. If you’re not living under a rock, you probably have heard that (according to the Pope and his Papal Posse), U.S. nuns are a bunch of freaky-town wild women espousing free love, queerdom, and baby-killing while ignoring the Good and True Faith of the Fathers. Folks on the Left and Right have weighed in, and U.S. nuns are enjoying a PR renaissance the like of which hasn’t been seen in this country since Sally Field slapped on a habit and went for a fly.

Faced with this threat of a Papal crackdown, a group of U.S. nuns did the only thing they could do. They became even noisier in their protests, launching a multi-state protest in defense of the poor. Some even grudgingly accepting the Radical Feminist epithet—if by Radical Feminist, you mean doing what nuns have been doing for centuries. These plucky nuns have become increasingly popular with liberal media darlings such as Bill Moyers and “fake conservative” Stephen Colbert, speaking honestly about social justice (while ignoring the hate speech on abortion and homosexuality their bosses would prefer they spout).

Of course, many conservative Catholics are horrified. These nuns are flying directly in the face of Papal censure! What next? Legalizing abortion? Decriminalizing homosexuality? Letting stores open on Sunday? (A lot of conservative Catholics have a few years of catching up to do when it comes to The Real World™.)

So…what are these nuns doing that has gotten everybody in such a major tizzy of Penguin Fever? Well, they’re speaking out on behalf of the poor mainly against the proposed austerity budget of Sen. Paul Ryan (R-WI) that decimates such programs as Head Start, Special Education, Title I, Medicaid, and Supplementary Nutrition/Food Stamps.

What a bunch of granola-chewing, Birkenstock-wearing, Lilith Fair-attending hippies they are, right?

Not a New Tale

History, for those who are willing to do even a modest amount of research, is replete with tales of plucky nuns doing all sorts of subversive things under the noses of the popes and bishops.

  • Ancient Women of the Church were leaders in the early Christian faith, leading house churches and acting as missionaries.

    The letters of Paul – dated to the middle of the first century CE – and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer fascinating and solid information about many Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. His letters provide vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally. He greets Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). He tells us that Prisca and her husband risked their lives to save his. He praises Junia as a prominent apostle, who had been imprisoned for her labor. Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3). Here is clear evidence of women apostles, active in the earliest work of spreading the Christian message.

  • Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695) of Mexico was a poet, playwright, and scholar who fought for the rights of women to be educated (before she was smacked down by The Man and died of plague healing the sick).
  • Mother Katherine Drexel (1858–1955), the second American-born saint, founded Xavier University in New Orleans, defending African Americans and Native Americans against racism in the early 20th century, even standing against the KKK with her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

    In 1922, when the Ku Klux Klan threatened the order for their work in Texas, the nuns prayed — and a tornado destroyed the local KKK building and killed two KKK members.

    That is one bad-ass nun.

Of course, when it comes to Bad-Ass Sisters of the Awesome Kind, nobody tops Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who was ironically canonized by the current Pope in 2012.

At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard, known as “Sybil of the Rhine”, produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed.

It seems ironic that this, one of the most anti-woman Popes in my lifetime, would be the one to finally officially canonize her. German-born Benedict XVI, according to the Huffington article, apparently “repeatedly turned to her writings and prophecies to explain his vision in the most difficult moments of his pontificate.”

Making Sense of It

How is it that the Pope who canonized the Grandmamma of Feminist Religious Icons is the same Pope who is now cracking down on U.S. nuns for spending more time feeding the poor than harassing the queers?

Catholicism, as I learned early on in life, is a very odd religion.

You may wonder why I am so enthralled with this topic. After all, I left the Catholic Church when I was in my early 20s, disillusioned and angry at the hypocrisy and misogyny I saw. I spent ten years as an uncomfortable agnostic before settling into my own eclectic blend of paganism, pantheism, and Buddhism. I believe Deity is smart and flexible, and will appear in whatever form works best to get the message of Divinity out to the thick-headed monkey-people of Earth.

My Goddess is fat and wears a huge grin most of the time.

But there is a part of me that will always be Catholic, at least a little bit. And that part of me always loved the nuns. I liked their sense of humor, their pragmatism, and the hard work they did on behalf of women, families, the poor, and other disenfranchised groups.

I even wanted to be a nun, for about fifteen seconds. (“Let’s see. Poverty, no prob. Celibacy? I can do that. Obedience??? To a fucking priest? I don’t think so.”) I thought that living in a community of spiritual women who dedicated their lives to good works, devotion to the Divine, and prayerful living would be awesome.

It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I realized what I was looking for was a coven.

Convents and Covens – They Even Spell Them Alike

I read somewhere that many of the priestesses and witches of the Old Religions chose to join convents when Christianity eventually over-ran the pagan world. A convent of women was highly preferable to many of these women, in that it would at least allow them a modicum of self-direction (a luxury for women in those dark days of forced conversion). The Druid goddess Brigid of Kildare in Ireland eventually became St. Brigid, and for centuries Irish nuns recreated the old pagan rituals as part of the Feast of St. Brigid.

At their best, the two groups (convents and covens) have a lot in common. They are mostly self-sustaining. They are powerful forces of change and good in the world. They are in but not of the world, maintaining a distance that allows for perspective and contemplation.

At their worst, they also have a lot in common. Anyone who has ever dealt with a cranky, domineering nun would recognize many of those same characteristics in a power-hungry or controlling High Priestess.

After all, underneath the robes and the pentacles, beyond the ritual and hierarchy, nuns and priestesses are human beings, flawed but striving toward a spiritual goal.

The Picture of Hope

As a child, I used to love hanging with the nuns. They were a source of mystery and awe, and most of them were really nice to me. As an adult, I’ve been privileged to know a good number of amazing high priestesses. As representatives of the Divine Feminine, despite the fact that Catholics and pagans are about as far apart on the faith scale as possible, they are inspirations to any girl or woman who is looking to live a spiritual life.

But carrying the torch of the Divine Feminism comes at a price in this increasingly anti-feminine world. The assault on women around the world grows stronger every year, from the Republican War on U.S. Women to gender discrimination and violence around the world.

These nuns and their 9-state bus tour remind us that women are not powerless. Women have voices and brains and, as these ladies have shown, courage.

As women struggle towards empowerment, there will be more opposition to come. I fear it will get worse before it gets better.

But thanks to women like the nuns and the priestesses and the protesters and the teachers, I think there is definitely hope.

So let me ask you—who is your Shero? Is she a pagan, a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist, or something else? How does she inspire you to embrace your Divine Feminine? I’d love to hear from you.


2 responses

  1. I read about the nuns catching all that flack and it seriously fired me up. I don’t understand why, when their are groups that really do try to do right like help the poor, they come under such heavy fire. Then they get labeled “feminist” grrrrr don’t get me started… Cool post 🙂

  2. I proudly wear the label “feminist.” Only, the way these jerks are using it is anything but a compliment.

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