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The Power of Chastity

Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia

by Jo Ann Kay McNamara
Harvard University Press, 751 pp., $35.00

Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

edited by Daniel Bornstein, edited by Roberto Rusconi
University of Chicago Press, 334 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Sister Wendy Beckett has been becoming a curious cult figure in Britain over the past year. She is a nun in her mid-sixties who lives in a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite con-vent in Norfolk when she is not otherwise engaged in making films about art history for BBC television. Sister Wendy is the Lord Clark de nos jours. The BBC takes her around Europe from gallery to gallery and stands her in front of Botticelli’s Primavera and Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier. When this eager lisping figure in her wimple and nun’s shoes rhapsodizes on such details as the “lovely and fluffy pubic hair” of a Stanley Spencer nude, she silences the sniggers. Her sincerity is radiant. Sister Wendy still wears the full-length habit, which adds to her authority and mystery. Thick skirts swish around her ankles while she confronts Andy Warhol. There’s the ever-present costume drama of religious black on white.1

Sister Wendy is a powerful example of the practical uses nuns have made of their apartness. Through history the cloistered life, the retreat from the world, has actually opened out the opportunities available to individual women, to scholars and mystics, teachers and healers, political activists, artists and writers, whose creative energies have been focused by the spiritual stillness and repetitive rhythms of communal religious life. The possibilities for expression endemic in lives of dedicated chastity is one of the most interesting themes of Professor McNamara’s ambitious and energetic book.

The clash between religious passivity and vigor is fascinating modern scholars. In the recent anthology There’s Something About A Convent Girl,2 the British feminist and Mariologist Marina Warner recalls her own education in the 1950s at St. Mary’s, Ascot, a convent school near London run by the sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She points to the “rather delicious paradox” of the nuns’ teaching their charges to be docile and silent while themselves being so strongly “independent and anomalous.” McNamara’s book, which in its scope lies somewhere between Warner’s recherché, highly personalized scholarship and Olwen Hufton’s broadly conceived feminist history, favors the strident sisters.3 This is in effect a history of religious resourcefulness:

They served their god and their church and in doing so they fulfilled themselves and laid a foundation for all women. Without the daring and sacrifice of these nuns, it is impossible to imagine the feminist movements of modern times finding any purchase in the public world.

What is new is the emphasis she puts on “syneisactism,” the practice of religious men and women living together in chastity, recognizing equal spiritual capacities. The word “syneisactic” had a positive meaning for primitive Christians. Indeed McNamara argues that syneisactism was the most deeply radical social concept Christianity produced. It is a term with no modern equivalent, although it might appear that her glimmering suspicion of an imminent syneisactic revival is not so unlikely in a Western culture that sometimes seems more or less worn out with sex.

As a historian McNamara is in search of nuns transcending gender, and finds her first examples of their forbears in the oddly assorted syneisactic group of women around Jesus. These were the displaced females of Galilee: childless widows, separated wives, the woman suffering from what was presumably a menstrual disorder resulting in a twelve-year loss of blood. She argues that the syneisactic principle attracted these women to Jesus in the first place. Jesus’ female followers included women from every corner of life, refugees from their own tragic personal histories and the sense of impending political doom. These were panic years for the Roman Empire. As McNamara puts it, Jesus’ followers “had fallen or leapt through the cracks in a dying order.” Out of such bleak conditions the first communities of celibate women in Christendom were formed.

The early virginity movement was primarily an urban women’s phenomenon. House churches, communities of Christians centered in a single household, lasted until well into the third century AD and were by their nature syneisactic. These were radical households that often joined upper-class women and lower-class or slave men in religion. Sexual renunciation acquired its own charisma, the special claim on Christian society which virgin women from then on have tended to exploit. Thecla, the female rebel, the noble girl converted to Christianity and to a life of chastity, became a model for the new religious woman. When threatened with martyrdom she baptized herself in a puddle of water, challenging the emergent male priestly monopoly over the ministration of the sacraments.

There was something very headstrong about Christian virginity. That it was so boldly emphasized made virgins the prime target for Roman religious persecution. The perfect wholeness of the virgin’s body provoked violent excesses: gouging, mutilation, the slicing off of breasts. Though McNamara reminds us that the ancient chroniclers used numbers with abandon, it remains clear that the female victims of the Great Persecution were numerous. They were vulnerable because their unmarried state could not be hidden: irritated suitors or interfering neighbors helped to get them arrested. Legends of the virgin martyrs linger on miraculous scenes of physical transformation and escape. Agnes, condemned by Diocletian to the brothel, finds her body encased in her long hair, which has solidified protectively around her, like a wavy stone sculpture carved by Eric Gill.

With its sentimentality and implicit eroticism, “Brides of Christ,” the early Church’s official name for nuns, is an essentially male concept. McNamara reads into it a kind of sleaziness at odds with how women actually regarded their religious vocation. She complains that “the bridal allegory pinned consecrated virgins to their sexual natures.” The butterfly image is a good one. McNamara likes to concentrate on virgins roaming free, and she writes of the fourth-century female ascetics with the lyricism of a desert virgin manquée. The virgins of the waste traveled alongside men in a chaste partnership, hewing out the new religion, mortifying the flesh.

We have met them before, these strange emaciated beings, in Peter Brown’s The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity.4 McNamara is adept at recreating the details of the distant lives of women who were solitary even when organized as a community, devoting themselves to fasting and prayer. They avoided bathing and did not undress in public. They ate their meals in silence, wearing hoods to protect themselves from the sight of their companions chewing.

Were these indeed women? McNamara comments that we have “no compelling reason to reject the possibility that anorectic women, clothed in monastic robes, silent and prayerful, could have passed for many years as men.” To the Western male mind such mysteries became obsessive and indeed provide the theme for much of the “naughty nun” literature of popular culture now finding its way into the reading lists of gender-related academic studies. Interestingly, a rollicking seventeenth-century example of the genre—Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World—newly translated from the Spanish and somewhat overweighted by scholarly appendages, has been published in the US this year for the first time.5

To fourth-century ascetics the desert had provided a shimmering dream landscape, in which strange things seemed feasible. As McNamara describes it so alluringly, the desert “was more ideal than real, a landscape of the mind.” Women seemed on the verge of creating a third gender. They had become, Saint Jerome commented, functionally masculine. Gregory of Nyssa deliberated over whether he could call his sister Macrina, who refused to marry in defiance of their father, a woman at all “since she has gone beyond the nature of a woman.” Empowered by her chastity, Macrina was to organize what McNamara calls the “foremost exemplum of the female house monastery.” Significantly, this was the period during which women discovered the rewards and joys of friendship and work with other women. In the late fourth century, Melania the Elder’s monastery of fifty virgins in Jerusalem, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, became a female power base at the center of intellectual life.

But women’s voices were soon silenced. McNamara tells a bleak story of an end to syneisactism as bishops began bringing charges of heresy and misconduct against women and men traveling or worshipping together. During the fifth century the wilderness itself became bureaucratized into a system of “cities in the desert” in the uneasy aftermath of the Sack of Rome. The Greek religious tradition in particular developed steadily in the direction of cloistering women. Already during this period the cult of Mary was burgeoning in all its ambivalence. The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity had nullified her wifehood and even subverted her motherhood. As McNamara puts it, “we find deeply embedded in the whole idea a revulsion from the tyranny of the flesh that is peculiar to women.” Women, overcome by the sense of their own sin, became vulnerable to men’s regulations, and were often overeager to incarcerate themselves to save male clerics from temptation. As the first millennium progresses McNamara finds a “growing sense of the church as a male club.”

Amalarius of Metz’s ninth-century rule for nuns was driven by his all-too-clear belief that women left to themselves would simply run amok. In actual fact, over the next few centuries, locked out by their brethren from the reforming movements in most European countries, nuns evolved their own deeply satisfying life. McNamara is magnificent in alighting upon women whose interests and achievements seem to link their lives with ours. One of these is Hroswitha, writer-nun of Gandersheim, who died at the beginning of the eleventh century and whose oeuvre included a volume of plays, a book of poetry, and a history of the reign of her own relative Otto I. Her plays were performed within the convent and also, McNamara believes, outside it, using lay actors. We might see Hroswitha, apparently the only playwright of her period, as an early pioneer of community art.

The great value of McNamara’s book is in its detailed proof that since the early Middle Ages women’s experience of the religious life has differed profoundly from that of men. Nuns tended to be more closely integrated with the local life of lay people, through family attachments. The powerful secular abbesses, such as Mathilda of Quedlinberg, moved easily between the convent and the world outside. Although the 1059 Rome Synod redefined the professional Catholic clergy as a womanless population in which all females—even nuns—had the status of lay people, nuns had their techniques of survival. In the twelfth century there was a sudden multiplication of women’s hospices, houses of reclusion, and beguinages of all sizes, illustrating a peculiarly female holy flexibility.

McNamara defends nuns against the charges of administrative amateurishness that have always assailed them. After all, she reminds us, “belief in women’s financial incompetence has always been an important component of the capitalist gender system.” In one of the most fascinating chapters of the book she describes a finely balanced convent economy of dowries and endowments, agriculture, and manufacture. She has reread the evidence, concluding that nuns in the Middle Ages were much more closely involved with capital enterprise than has ever been supposed. This was not just a matter of rearing sheep or spinning. Burial rights and the possession of relics were essential components in balancing the books. Heroically practical in the last year of her life, Hildegard of Bingen braved an interdict to keep the body of an excommunicated man in her convent’s consecrated ground. She assured doubters that he had received the sacraments on his deathbed. She had seen him in heaven in a vision, she announced.

  1. 1

    A “Sister Wendy Meditation Series” is published in the US by Dorling Kindersley.

  2. 2

    London: Virago, 1991.

  3. 3

    Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, Volume One, 1500-1800 has recently been published by Knopf.

  4. 4

    Columbia University Press, 1988.

  5. 5

    Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, by Catalina de Erauso, translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto (Beacon Press, 1996).

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