Carla told me recently that if I died before her she would be tempted to become a nun and enter into a life of uninterrupted religious devotion and service. I chuckled and told her that I had pondered something very similar: that if she died I might enter a monastery. We're both attracted to the idea of lives of profound simplicity and contemplation and service within intentional community. The fact that we're Quakers and not in the least attracted to ritual and liturgy is a bit problematic, however. But I have great admiration for monastics, be they Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist or whatever.
A few years ago the BBC ran a reality show entitled The Big Silence
in which a group of average (and not particularly religious) women and men were whisked off to an eight day silent Jesuit retreat in Wales. The sudden removal from the hustle and bustle of daily life caused the participants to initially climb the walls in withdrawal from sensory saturation, but ultimately they were each deeply transformed by the experience. The BBC also ran a related reality show called The Monastery
in which five guys (again, most of them not particularly religious) spent six weeks in a Benedictine monastery. Again, the men were profoundly effected (and the show was a surprise hit, which resulted in monasteries and convents in the U.K. being flooded with inquiries). A U.S. version of The Monastery
was also produced, which I haven't seen. I think all of these can be viewed on Youtube.
Last night I watched a new American reality show (via Amazon Instant Video), that is another take on The Monastery
concept, entitled The Sisterhood
. In it, five reasonably devout Catholic women in their early twenties spend six weeks in a convent in order to discern if they are called to become nuns. Each woman wrestles with the tension between her desire to enter religious vocation and the allure of life outside the nunnery. As with all reality shows, one wonders how much of the drama is contrived by the producers and editors. The young women tend to come across as annoyingly shallow and naive. For example, they balk at being asked to eschew their make-up and surrender their cell phones upon entering the convent. But the real treat of the show is the nuns. They are joyous and centered and marvelously down-to-earth. Their interaction with the five worldly young women is gentle, patient, non-judgmental and compassionate. The nuns remind me very much of those depicted in the BBC drama Call the Midwife
. They seem to live more fully in the present moment and give their full attention to those they interact with. They talk frankly about their pre-vocational pasts (including romances) and the challenges of living in close community. "I'm surprised there hasn't been a murder," jokes one veteran sister.
It is nice to see men and women of religious orders depicted in this way, rather than as the stern and bitter and repressed caricatures so often served up by central casting. I wonder if programs like The Sisterhood
and The Monastery
and The Big Silence
and Call the Midwife
are tapping into a growing hunger in 21st century Western culture. As Europe and the U.K. and the Americas transition into post-Christendom and the Church-at-large loses its entitled authority and credibility, many people of faith seem to be seeking out that which is deep and true and real. The last few decades have seen a steady increase in interest in contemplative practices, including those from the rich Christian tradition that fell into neglect around the time of the Reformation.
I wonder if we might see a movement analogous to that of the Desert Monastics where, beginning in the late third century, men and women left the cities in droves to go into the wilderness and form communities in pursuit of genuine and intense spirituality. But even for those of us unlikely to enter the desert or the monastery or the convent, there does seem to be a movement of withdrawal from shallow religion (as evidenced by the phenomenon of "the Nones": mature Christians walking away from their churches and not returning) in search of something more authentic and transformative.