I decided while Iwas living with nuns that I wanted to be a priest. I live with two of them, Pat and Ellenrita, and a fellow my own age, Mark, who’s also serving a Dominican Volunteer year in the Bronx. The nuns are pretty easy to live with, once you learn to clean up the shower, make sure nobody calls after 9 p.m., never admit to rooting for anyone but the Yankees, get used to at least two episodes of “Law and Order” a night, commit yourself to non-violence, learn how to ask women your mother’s age about their relationship with God, and develop strong cooking skills based on ingredients from a neighborhood store with no tortillas and 67 kinds of pasta. We also pray together, which is really great, except for the days when we pray at 6 a.m., which could be great, if you and your roommate would wake up. The best part of living with nuns is community prayer, mostly because it puts Christ at the center of our lives and the psalms are beautiful, but also because, at 6 a.m., they don’t require too much thought.
I don’t live with nuns in a contemplative order. This becomes quite clear when Pat is watching basketball. Strictly speaking, they are religious sisters, not nuns, and they belong to one of the 33 Dominican congregations in theUnited States. As stated on their Web site (www.opblauvelt.org), the Blauvelt Dominican Sisters were founded in 1878 by Sister Mary Ann Sammon to care for homeless and orphaned children. Today there are over 250 Blauvelt Dominican Sisters and associates committed to continuing her compassionate presence and ministry. Both Pat and Ellenrita have done a lot of work for their Blauvelt Dominican motherhouse in trying to get new sisters. But they call themselves nuns anyway, mostly because everyone else does. When I was thinking about being a priest, I told one of the other Blauvelt sisters I know that I’d really like to be a nun.
“Well,” she said, “The hierarchy is just going to keep you down, I guess.”
Religious women know quite a bit about the hierarchy keeping them down. You get a sense hearing their stories—about bishops giving cold shoulders, dioceses not planning adequately for nuns’ retirement, sisters working tirelessly for the poor only to be criticized for not doing “regular work”—that institutions and some degree of structural sexism have let them down and kept them there.
The women I live with couple a deep love of Catholicism with a simultaneous faith and skepticism about the church and its structures. I was talking to Ellenrita on the drive into Highbridge Community Life Center, an agency of about 100 people in the South Bronx where she works as the program director and I as a case planner with at-risk families. I asked her what she would think if no one else entered the Blauvelt Dominicans, and they died out in 50 years. She looked me right in the eye and said: “Our job is not to maintain institutions. It’s to serve our communities and to live the Gospel. The important question is whether or not we’re doing that and what your generation is doing to keep our work alive.”
These are not the sorts of things I’m typically able to discuss on my morning commute, though I’m grateful, if not a bit intimidated, by the example. And the way I feel I can best serve communities and live the Gospel right now is by entering the seminary, even if I have always worried that my desire to be a priest is a bit too clouded by personal ambition. There are a lot of famous priests, and quite a few of them live very well. They could be my ticket in, my easy access pass to church connections and free food, shelter and health insurance and the opportunity to do all the writing and social justice activism I want.
I’m worried it’s too easy for us men. Dorothy Day wrote about the importance of precariousness in her own vocation, and I wonder how much she understood this, not only as a layperson dedicated to working with the homeless and forgotten, but as a woman, whose role in society (social advances duly acknowledged) is still on the other side of the power balance. I think Day was right when she said there is a real solidarity that arises from this choice to have less.
Pat and Ellenrita seem to think so too. They have dedicated their lives to the people of the South Bronx, just as thousands of other women religious have given themselves to their communities around the world. They’ve got little chance for prominence in today’s church, and they choose careers with low odds of major social promotion or national renown. They have given themselves to Christ for the same reason the first apostles did: because they love him and because they think he’s right.
Most men enter religious life for these same reasons, but I think something about our power limits us. In my experience, women religious—more than men—tend to know how to listen rather than lecture, to be emotionally vulnerable rather than insist on “ontological differences” and to create communities based on support rather than hierarchy. I’ve met a lot of women in both religious and lay communities who can’t do any of these things and plenty of men who can, but I still can’t help thinking that Pat and Ellenrita’s absence from the power structure has made them less dependent on it and more capable of love. We men have a lot to learn from women religious. And I’m not just talking about Pat’s tips on jump shots.
I don’t believe that women are holier than men, that women have a “feminine nature” men should imitate or that sexism is justified by its results. I do believe that I want to serve Jesus as a priest. And I feel that some sisters have shown me how.