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Chesterton and the Millennial Nun

On an incongruity.

In an essay that appeared some years back in the Huffington Post, Eve Fairbanks asked why after fifty years of decline, millennial women were discovering religious vocations. Fairbanks is not alone in her confusion. Many Catholics are also puzzled: not long ago, traditional women’s religious life, with all the trappings of habits and wimples, appeared to be an artifact from a long-dead world.

Hadn’t Vatican II said we weren’t supposed to be weird anymore? The Catholic Church is bleeding young people, but for those who have remained the answer seems to be no: young Catholics want to do something radical for the Gospel. They tend to be more devout and, frankly, yes, weirder, running to a Church that had promised to come to them and to give Her their young lives.

What is it about these aspiring religious that captures—or vexes—the modern secular imagination? And what is the Church to do with them, as they enter communities that have themselves often aged into the modern world? 

In The Blatchford Controversies, Chesterton addressed a similar question. The character referred to as the “The Secularist” complains that Christianity is “a gloomy and ascetic thing,” full of odd and austere men and women who sold all and suffered much in its name:

The very oddity and completeness of these men’s surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they [the saints] sold themselves. They gave up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy. They may have been mad; but it looks as if there really were such a pleasure. They gave up all human experiences for the sake of one superhuman experience. They may have been wicked, but it looks as if there were such an experience. 

Chesterton accepts the “oddity” of the saints’ offerings rather than trying to reveal hidden rationalist motivations. But he suggests that rather than insanity, their self-giving suggests not only deep conviction but the reality of the object of their faith: “It seems more in accordance with commonsense to suppose that they had really found the secret of some actual power or experience which was, like wine, a terrible consolation and a lonely joy.” The simplest explanation for a soul who desires to give all, to live for just one experience, is that there is, in fact, an “all”—an experience—which is worth it all.

Christian joy and the “silly exuberance” to which it gives rise is mistaken by the dreary Secularist for “mere buffoonery and blasphemy.” One can hear echoes of a similar confusion in a recent article investigating the “disappearance” of a promising young basketball star into the Poor Clares:

They are cut off from society. Sister Rose Marie will never leave the monastery, unless there’s a medical emergency. She’ll never call or email or text anyone, either. The rules seem so arbitrarily harsh. She gets two family visits per year, but converses through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, she can hug her family. . . .

The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.

But why would someone with so much to offer the world lock herself away and hide her talents? Who, staring at a professional contract that would be worth the equivalent of about $400,000 today, would subject herself to such strict isolation and sacrifice? 

Imagine the Kansas legend Danny Manning quitting basketball to become a monk. A world that idolizes achievement and defines freedom and autonomy very narrowly can’t make sense of this “waste” of a life. 

And yet, even as many people flail about in a world in which one can know neither religion nor rationalism, the human heart hungers for surety. And whose eyes meet those of this long-starving heart? The piercing gaze from behind a veil, confronting the notion that we have all we need. On offer through the witness of these young religious is a freeing Christian optimism. The whole problem—and promise—of a young person selling all, donning sandals, and vowing surrender and celibacy is the affirmation that they live for a world in which we do not yet dwell. This is why article after article is written about young people with advanced degrees, Naval service, or Olympic qualifications quietly making their way to convents and friaries. As one Benedictine vocations director remarked to the B.B.C.: “There is a gap in the market for meaning in our culture.” The young sisters in full habits have found it, not by fleeing from the world but by finding their place in it, and as Chesterton writes, becoming “homesick at home.”

The radicality of this resurgence of religious life offers a challenge, not just to a world starving for meaning, but also to a Church tempted to feel herself overly secure or at home in the modern world. About a decade ago, the Dominican Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia remarked that the young new vocations in his province were acutely aware that “the moral relativism and eclectic religiosity of the ambient culture,” which older people in religious life sometimes experience as a sort of adventure, are at their cores “a chaotic but radical alternative to Christianity with which no compromise is possible.” DiNoia’s young Dominicans instead desired the fullness of the Christian life which they had tasted in his order. What a young and zealous Dominican—or Franciscan, or Carmelite—insists upon, he said, is a “radical rejection of the ambient culture, on the one hand, and, on the other, a radical commitment to the Dominican-Catholic alternative way of life.” They desire the romance of orthodoxy, and they will settle for nothing less. They have heard God tell them to go, sell all, and follow, and they have taken up the commonsensical response: they just did that. They embrace and delight in Christianity’s paradoxes and do not wish to see the Church seek reconciliation with a world She was meant to convert. They insist upon the “whirling adventure” of the heavenly chariot, the great promise of that “wild truth reeling but erect.” 

Our late-modern world, starved for meaning and desperate for love, probably will always maintain a kind of fascination with the kind of people who vow their lives away. These vocations offer it not a rebuke or mere rejection, but rather an invitation to the joy of an ordered universe that can be trusted, rather than tested and tested again. To the long-suffering man, isolated and believing only in himself, the religious life promises, in Chesterton’s words, a life of “practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure.”