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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.

In the High Middle Ages nuns were the major mystics. But McNamara argues that Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, Gertrude of Helfta, Birgitta of Sweden must be seen as part of a wide movement in which virtually all those in the convent lived in hope of transformation. “The cloister was designed as a haven where silence bred devotion, meditation produced intense fantasy, and even the simplest souls might sometimes feel touched by a divine finger.” Here again McNamara is vivid with her detail, describing how nuns’ reenactments of the Nativity involved much kissing and fondling of the figure of the baby Jesus. In this emotive atmosphere visions like that of Anna von Klingenow at Töss, who saw the child Jesus descend from the altar to sit on the spread skirt of her habit, were easily induced.

Clerical hostility became more formidable. “As women grew ever more determined to transform their bodies into vehicles of supernatural knowledge, it seems that men became ever more focused on those bodies as vehicles of carnal knowledge.” There was a heightened witch hunt of worldly or even sexually abandoned nuns. From the twelfth century onward, by a disastrous twist of interpretation, the fact of no sexual involvement could itself be taken as an indication of heresy and the offender burned at the stake. The sexually greedy nun became (as she still is) the delight of the pornographer. Throughout Europe marauding soldiers treated nuns as natural objects of lust. But the confused state of the evidence dooms McNamara’s attempt to make a serious assessment of sex scandals in the convents. Notes of official clerical visitors suggest irregularities—for instance the Cluniac inspector of nuns in Auvergne reported, “Chastity is not always their strength.” But McNamara has the impression that most convents at this period were free of sexual misconduct, emphasizing that when women speak in their own voices they speak convincingly in defense of chastity.

Since the fifth century religious women had been shunned and kept at arm’s length. But by the mid-fifteenth century we find a situation in which male reformers make decisive moves to take cura mulierum—the “care of women”—into their own hands. Martin Luther, Johan Busch of the Augustinian reform movement, and Johan Meyer of the Dominicans called in question not only the practice of celibacy itself but the form of spirituality most closely associated with women: the redemptive efficacy of prayer and sacrifice. Especially in the England of the Reformation, nuns’ estates and incomes were taken over shamelessly to aggrandize men’s. In 1497, the Bishop of Ely closed the priory of Saint Radegund on grounds that the nuns’ dissolute conduct had reduced the foundation to poverty. In fact, as McNamara points out sharply, far from being poor it had sufficient income to found Jesus College, Cambridge, a prosperous male college of the university which has opened its doors to women students only since 1979.

The ironic effect of Protestant harassment was to make the Church in Rome more lenient to women. Nuns were now permitted to begin new orders and expand their work in teaching and caring for the sick outside the convent walls. Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi’s excellent collection of essays by young Italian scholars, Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, published this summer, has already set the scene. The contributors concentrate on such earlier charismatic figures as St. Clare of Assisi and St. Francesca of Rome, visionary women whose work was rooted in the real needs of their communities. The central argument here is that their religious life gave these women a degree of independence and equality they could not have achieved in any other way.6

McNamara’s prize example of such a case is Angela Merici, who founded the Ursulines in Italy in the sixteenth century, clearly inspired by the heroic purism of the women of the early Church. At a young age she had a vision of a heavenly ladder with singing maidens ascending and descending, which sounds like a precursor of Burne-Jones’s Victorian virgin painting The Golden Stairs. Angela was a late developer. The Company of Saint Ursula was not formalized until she was almost sixty. It was a teaching and healing order dedicated to the protection of young girls in a continuous drama of rescue and rehabilitation that attracted many followers. The Ursulines were not cloistered and, in those early years, eschewed the habit. McNamara deploys her statistics very deftly, suddenly illuminating an unfamiliar social situation. By the time Angela died in 1540, one in every four families in Brescia housed an Ursuline.

In her wonderfully thorough exploration of nuns as entrepreneurs, McNamara points out that it was a nun, Mary Ward, who conceived the radical ideal of education for women early in the seventeenth century and defended it ferociously. Mary Ward was an English Catholic sent as a girl to be educated on the Continent, a common practice at that time of Catholic persecution in England. In 1616, when she had already founded a teaching community at St. Omer in Belgium, she petitioned Pope Paul V for permission to set up a new order to educate both rich and poor girls in the community, emulating the methods of the Jesuits. She insisted there was no inherent difference between men and women that precluded women from doing great things.

Mary Ward’s work extended far beyond the convent and became a controversial denial of claustration. Under her direction, the group called the English Ladies opened free public schools on the Continent, from Cologne to Naples, from Liège to Prague. Mary Ward even returned to England, flouting the law to establish schools of the Institute of the Virgin Mary to teach girls Latin, science, philosophy, languages and “disputation,” in itself a revolutionary curriculum. The Jesuits were wary of their association with Mary Ward and her “galloping girls,” and trumped up the inevitable charges of immoral behavior, accusing Ward of overintimacy with her Jesuit confessor and suggesting she was living in a Jesuit community in man’s disguise. Former Catholic supporters turned against her. Mary Ward was imprisoned in Germany, condemned as a heretic. Though Pope Paul V eventually revoked the decree of personal excommunication against her, the Ladies’ schools were closed and her work destroyed. It was left to a future pope, Clement II, to reconstitute Mary Ward’s Institute in 1703 with what amounted to a shrug of resignation: “Let the ladies govern themselves.”

McNamara describes splendidly such coventual tearaways. But she is also patient, and revealing, on the inner lives of convents, castigating the monastic historians who “traditionally refused to see anything but their cloister walls and enveloping veils.” In the enclosed life of St. Teresa of Avila, reformer of the Carmelite order of the sixteenth century, she finds an edge of hysteria, a creative intensity, that in fact fueled and fired Teresa’s re-forms. Convents could be emotionally risky places with their frequent self-flagellations and disciplines which, according to one Clarisse nun, were very prolonged and vigorous “so that the whole choir was bathed in blood and the higher dormitory also.”

Teresa’s zeal in the reforming of her order was comparably uncompromising. McNamara points to the “daring technique” she employed in reviving in Spain the original unmitigated rule of the Carmelites. Her reforming ardor dated from the vision of St. Clara vouchsafed to Teresa when she was in her forties. (It would be interesting to trace the relation of visionary experience and menopause.) Teresa came to interpret poverty as the means of liberating women of all classes, forbidding all property and therefore cutting free from dependence on donors, patrons and even, at least to some extent, on dowries. The Order of Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites was at its most radical in recruiting women from mixed racial backgrounds. At San José Teresa created what McNamara calls “a model egalitarian community,” overriding the principle of “pure blood” so divisively in force in Spanish society at the time.

There was always the anxiety that glorious revelation could be a dia-bolic delusion. Possession and mysticism were a danger because they exposed nuns to intrusion from idle spectators as well as exorcists. In seventeenth-century France there was an embarrassing string of “possessed nun” cases: at Aix in 1611, Loudun in 1631, Louviers in 1642. Worried abbesses and male confessors would be soothing, aware of the perils of what amounted, however innocently, to sabotage from within. Teresa of Avila told her nuns not to compete with one another in outlandish practices. Père Coton congratulated Marie de Valence, a devotee of Mary Magdalene, because the light she radiated during ecstasies was a soft one, and she never thrashed about indecently. But the public-image problems of the convents played into the hands of male spiritual directors. A mid-seventeenth-century edition of the Benedictine rule adapted for women started with the words: “Your sex is weak, fragile and inconstant, if the reins are left loose.”

What McNamara tells us about the secret life of convents serves to underline how little we still know. Scant attention has been paid to nuns’ immense creative output. The impressive tradition of mystical prose, poetry, and drama in Baroque convents still awaits a full investigation. Octavio Paz is one of the few modern critics to have explored in depth the secular work, including erotic poetry and sexual satires, of the Mexican nun Juana de la Cruz.7 Life in a convent could be more fluent, culturally richer, than available alternatives. As McNamara comments, Virginia Woolf’s portrait of the probable fate of Shakespeare’s fictional sister is a dark one. Had Shakespeare’s sister happened to have been a nun in a Catholic country, she might have had a better life.

Chastity’s empowerment is a complicated subject, and McNamara’s survey shows signs of failing stamina once she reaches “modern times.” It is partly a question of structure. Her first 562 pages take the Carmelite nuns up through the horrors of the French Revolution, when some of them cut off their own wimples to prevent the executioner from touching the cloth as he guillotined them. This leaves her only another ninety pages to cover the next two centuries. She hardly gives herself the time even to pursue the tentative rebirth of syneisactism between cloistered Carmelites and missionary projects in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

But, more fundamentally, there’s a lacuna in these chapters. Formidable abbesses are out of fashion. In pursuing a thesis that depends on identifying women of visible achievement, one of McNamara’s problems is the religious understatement of a century that has seen the appearance of the nun in blue jeans. An obvious omission from the modern period is Dame Laurentia McLachlan, English Benedictine Abbess of Stanbrook Abbey near Worcester, and friend of Sydney Cockerell and Bernard Shaw, with whom she conversed with great asperity through the double grille. Dame Laurentia was a scholar, one of the finest liturgical experts in the country and a leading authority on plainsong. Her visual sensitivity was also remarkable. Her knowledge of design and typography transformed the Stanbrook Abbey Press into a private press of international renown. A selection of her correspondence with Cockerell was published in The Best of Friends.8 It contains the most persuasive arguments for enclosure and chastity in the twentieth century that I have ever read. The Abbess claimed that the nun’s life, far from being that of the “caged bird” (as Cockerell suggested), was in many respects freer than the life outside. Her nearness to God, she explained, gave her intense insights, deepening “the sense of human solidarity.” The chaste and cloistered life “makes me interested in every kind of person and work in a way I am sure I should never have been had I remained in the outside world.”

A few years later Dame Laurentia was embarrassed when the Catholic press, including the official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, put about the rumor that it was at her instigation that Bernard Shaw had cut a portion of the epilogue of his play St. Joan. She wrote, “I am not sure whether the Pope will think I deserve the Inquisition or another gold medal!” Dame Laurentia died in 1953. Shaw, who loved her, described her as “the enclosed nun with the unenclosed mind.”

  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).

  6. 6

    See also the forthcoming Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint, the inquisitorial testimony of Cecilia Ferrazzi, a seventeenth-century Venetian visionary who opened houses of refuge for “girls in danger,” published this month by the University of Chicago Press. It has been transcribed and translated by Anne Jacobson Schutte.

  7. 7

    See his Sor Juana or the Traps of Faith (Harvard University Press, 1988).

  8. 8

    London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956.

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