About a year ago, I was invited to go down south and give a talk at the meeting of the CMSWR, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. To speak plainly, this is the umbrella organization of what most people call the “traditional” nuns: younger, habit wearing, orthodox, joyful.
The conference center was a good 60 minutes from the airport, so the sisters had arranged for a van to come pick me up, and I was the only passenger. The driver was a friendly African-American woman, very intelligent, though you could tell she had had a hard life. She told me some of her woes: no husband, a son in trouble, trying to make ends meet.
Then she asked me why I was in town and I told her that I was speaking to a group of nuns. She asked me what a nun was, and I told her a bit about nuns and what they do, how they serve God and the Church. She was amazed and asked, innocently, “Are you a nun?” I told her that nuns were only women, and that all the women she had been shuttling around with veils and habits were nuns. She asked why they wear those outfits. I spoke to her of their communal life, living according to love, simplicity, unity and prayer. I told her how the habit gives them all the same identity, that they try to live as one according to Gospel principles by sharing a common life and praising God all day in prayer.
Then from her mouth came to words “Devastatin’. Devastatin’. Just devastatin.” At first I was a bit confused, but I soon realized that she was completely amazed by the idea of living this way and was devastated at the idea of it. Many who live as one? Common life? Common dress? Praising God all day? I saw with new eyes and realized that when you get down to it, that is devastating.
Then out of the blue she asked, “How come some nuns come here wearing blue jeans and regular clothes?” I tried my best to be diplomatic, explaining that some communities don’t wear habits and never have, while others are supposed to wear them but don’t. She gave me a good, southern “uhhh huhhh.” Then she asked “if they live lives of poverty, how come some of them ask me to take them to the casino?” She meant the ones in the blue jeans.
There was no guile in this woman, but I had no answer. I stumbled a bit and mentioned that not all sisters live according to their ideal. That there was need for renewal. Still she said “devastatin’” but it seemed to take on a whole new meaning. “Devastatin’. Devastatin’. Just Devastatin.”