Sometimes it seems that it takes a layperson to understand religious life. Recently I had the chance to read a superb new book entitled For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun, written by, of all people, a senior writer at GQ magazine, who was raised with no religious training and has never belonged to any church. Though a number of friends had recommended the book, it wasn’t until I heard the author interviewed on a local radio station that I rushed out to buy a copy. For on that Sunday afternoon broadcast, Lucy Kaylin, who describes herself as a total outsider, spoke movingly and intelligently about a topic that, before she began her research, was for her utterly foreign.
With her new book Ms. Kaylin accomplishes the near-miraculous: in a few hundred pages she presents both a fascinating and judicious overview of the complicated topic of women religious in the United States. And with very few exceptions, the author has hit all the right notes: the fearless spirit of so many American sisters; the manifold understandings of the call; the variety of outlooks on contemporary religious life (from habited, cloistered nuns to jeans-clad, apartment-dwelling sisters); the centrality of (and struggles with) prayer; and, finally, the wistful memories of full novitiates. It’s also a journalistic bookthat is, not so much a dry academic study filled with columns of ibid.’s as a lively and often personal take on the subject.
Sure, there are a few weak points. (For example, a fuller discussion of the theological underpinnings of religious life would have helped better to explain what motivates the sisters’ lives.) But for the most part this self-described outsider seems to get it, at least as far as I can tell. I’ll leave it to women religious to pass a final judgment!
Ms. Kaylin’s fine new book started me wondering why those who used to be called externs are sometimes better able to write about religious life than religious themselves. Reading For the Love of God put me in mind of other recent meditations on the vowed life: Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, in which the author, from a thoroughly Protestant background, spends a year living at the Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minn.; Beyond the Walls, in which Paul Wilkes seeks to incorporate the spiritual rhythms of the Trappist community at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina into his life as a husband and father; and Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, a poetic and beautiful novel about the religious experiences of a cloistered nun in the early part of the 20th century. (I would have added Mark Salzman’s new novel, Lying Awake, tooabout which I’ve heard wonderful thingsif I had read it!)
Other than the proverbial fresh look, what may make these accounts sometimes seem more immediate than those penned by religious themselves is that their authors are freer to compliment religious, and when they do so the reader is freer to take these authors at their word. For example, Ms. Kaylin describes the life of Jean Pruitt, a Maryknoll sister working in Tanzania, as an intense and unrelenting flow of service, love and energy outward. True words, but ones that would be almost impossible for a sister to write without being accused of bias or pride.
Overall, these books are good reminders that priests and religious can benefit from the observations and counsel of a layperson. I’ve often been astonished by lay friends commenting incisively on Jesuit lifeeither with a nod toward a problem that I’ve overlooked or, more frequently, with an admiring comment that illuminates a facet of religious life that I had taken for granted. And it’s just as likely that a layperson can be the recipient of an insightful observation on, say, marriage or friendship by those who live celibately.
In the end, I think, it simply means that all of usreligious or lay, Catholic or otherwiseare connected, all of us in our own ways seeking to participate in the love of God.