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.


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