Skip to content

The Wimple Life

American nuns approach the abyss

At St. Scholastica Priory in Petersham, Massachusetts, life for the Benedictine sisters proceeds pretty much the same as it has for the last millennium. Their days follow the cyclical rhythm of the Divine Office, which calls them to prayer seven times daily, beginning with Matins at 5 a.m. By the time I blinked awake at 9:30 one morning in their guest house—which I shared with a practicing Quaker; a tin flutist; a priest from Slidell, Louisiana; and a couple I accidentally caught making out in the communal kitchen—they had already prayed their way through Lauds, Mass, and Terce. I managed to join them each day for Sext, though, and for lunch, which they eat in silence while one sister reads first from the Bible, then the Rule of St. Benedict, and finally from a hagiography of the saints, with its traditional focus on God-honoring deaths. On my second day there, St. Peter of Capitolias had his tongue, hands, and feet cut off; the Blessed Miguel Augustine Pro Juárez was executed by firing squad; and we were served chili and chocolate chip cookies. On my third day, St. Pontianus of Spoleto was beheaded; St. Potitus was boiled alive and thrown to the lions; and I had brussels sprouts, rice pilaf, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. It is easy, especially around the holidays, to forget the Church’s origins as a first-century apocalyptic death cult. Listen to several consecutive lives of the saints, though, and it gets hard to believe anyone has actually managed to survive Christianity.

The Benedictines have survived fifteen centuries and counting. The Order of St. Benedict dates to Benedict of Nursia, who founded twelve Italian monasteries in the sixth century and, while serving as abbot, penned his Rule organizing daily life—often summarized by the Latin phrase ora et labora. The labora includes cooking, cleaning, and caring for guests; it also extends to the entrepreneurial ventures Benedictines adopt to sustain their communities, like cheesemaking, woodcarving, beekeeping, and chandlery. The daily ora, or prayer, includes the Lectio Divina, a mode of reading Scripture that eschews analysis for a direct encounter with God. Unlike apostolic orders that send nuns out into the world—the School Sisters of Notre Dame, for example, supply Catholic schools with instructors—the Benedictines are contemplative. Their main task each day is to pray for divine intercession in our doomed old world, assembled, in the words of the early Christian apologist Tertullian, “that we may besiege God like a marshalled corps with our prayers.” They spend more than six hours each day in prayer, about the length of time I spend thinking about myself when I am not on deadline doing “gonzo journalism.”

Between canonical hours at the convent, I wandered aimlessly around the perimeter and wondered at the mounting intensity of my desire to know what was going on within its heavy stone walls. I had thought that, by visiting St. Scholastica, I would come to better understand the nature of contemplative life, but—watching the sisters chant in Latin from the wrong side of the rope that separates the nave from the sanctuary—all I managed to grasp was its impregnability to the uninitiated. “Our charism is a hidden life of intercession and union with God,” one Benedictine sister wrote to me in the days after I left. “The contemplative leaves the world, separates from it, in order to enter into it more fully.” Perhaps that was what truly prevented me from understanding: not the hiddenness of contemplative life, but its professed capaciousness. The pettiness of my own life gnaws at me. Normally I can soothe myself by saying, At least I’m not on X, but that would mean nothing to a nun who has been cloistered for the last five decades. Her eyes are fixed on something I never quite manage to glimpse.

All I can conclude with absolute, journalistic certainty is that the sisters of St. Scholastica have a good thing going. They describe the experience of contemplative life as one of joy and peace, which is more than most people can say. We celebrated the Sabbath in silence with a thirty-minute cassette of Chopin, a six-pack of Stella Artois, and three boxes of Franzia. Under the table, I could see them petting and sneaking food to their dog, Chaeli, whose name means “One who is like God.” Looking around St. Scholastica, whose placid surface is rivaled only by the still water of the pond behind the convent, it was easy to believe that their sweet, simple life would continue as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. But for most Catholic religious orders, nothing could be further from the truth.

A Deal with God

That nuns have gradually vanished from pews and parishes across the United States is acknowledged with the noncommittal sadness reserved for any species on its way to extinction. I recall asking the last sister standing at my own Catholic elementary school where all the other sisters were—to which she just shrugged, sighed. Dead. Now that nun, my beloved Sister Rita Anne, has passed too, leaving my Connecticut elementary school, like so many others, entirely bereft of women religious. Who, I wonder, will lead the children in Catholic Jeopardy! during class? Who will lay flowers on the church’s gravestone for “all the unborn children?” Who will stop elementary schoolers from eating paper during Sunday School—like the boy I once watched consume a Passion of Christ-themed coloring book, staples and all—or, at very least, pray for their health afterward? And most importantly: Who will keep the remaining Catholic schools, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, retreat centers, bookstores, daycares, rehab facilities, legal assistance centers, immigrant services offices, and transitional housing complexes afloat?

I set about a good, old-fashioned cold-calling campaign, spamming nuns perforce.

These are questions with which the entire landscape of American religious sisters is grappling as their numbers dwindle and their remaining members are gathered home by God. Natural attrition has been exacerbated by a culture much changed since the eldest surviving nuns first entered their orders in the postwar United States. Foremost, perhaps, is the secularization of American culture: we remain in the midst of a steep decline in American church membership (from nearly 70 percent of the population in 2000 to a mere 47 percent in 2020) that has left the Catholic Church struggling to maintain its shrinking congregations. A whopping three in ten Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, twice the amount who professed agnosticism in 2007. Secularization is the product of many forces, from scientific advances that have made evolutionary theory and the Big Bang settled science, to legal and juridical reaffirmation of the separation of church and state.

The attenuation recalls another mass exodus of Biblical import—except instead of the Red Sea, it is the quintessential institutions of Catholic life in the United States that are riven in twain. Even in the New York metropolitan area and southern New England, historically home to large Irish, Italian, Polish, and French-Canadian communities, Catholic churches are contracting and consolidating their schools, parishes, and dioceses under Frankensteinian names that signify mergers: St. Mary-St. Michael, St. Joseph-St. Lazarus, Saints Aedan and Brendan, St. Anne/Immaculate Conception. Few if any are frequented by sisters, growing numbers of whom are cloistered not in convents but assisted living communities. A spate of scandals has not helped the cause of religious revival among the young. Copious and continual allegations of sexual abuse and subsequent coverups in the Catholic Church have sent many of its faithful—no doubt including would-be sisters—to seek God elsewhere: in 2019, nearly two-fifths of Catholics confessed to having questioned whether to remain following the latest revelations.

What some call smoke, others dismiss as hot air. Many members of the r/Catholicism subreddit believe the crisis of institutional faith stems from the fact that the Church is no longer traditional enough. They blame the liberalization of religious life that accompanied Vatican II for the decline of religious sisterhood, claiming that habit-less nuns with matronly haircuts are the ones at fault: “How [are they] going to inspire women to give their life to the Lord?” demands one poster. But reactionary Catholic conservatism has also kept women from becoming Brides of Christ by encouraging them to become brides of man, no doubt an effort to stave off the concurrent freefall in Catholic marriage rates over the last fifty years. Other Reddit commenters counter that the problem is self-evident: “When women religious are faced with aggressive criticism for every action they take (be it the Sister Adorers of ICKSP or a non-habit-wearing Vatican II-loving Order) in intense public scrutiny, how is that motivating for young women?” Chastised, scapegoated, demonized, fetishized, and ridiculed in turn, a sister’s life can be a thankless one. Then there is the perverse possibility that a monastic life of poverty, chastity, and obedience has simply lost its novelty: the average millennial woman can be celibate, maligned, and downwardly mobile without donning the veil.

This widely felt decline is borne out quantitatively. The number of Catholic nuns in the United States is indeed undergoing exponential decay; in the mid-1990s, the number of consecrated women reached ninety thousand—roughly half of what their ranks had been at their peak in 1966. Thirty years later, in 2022, that number had fallen even further, to less than forty-two thousand. A survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that, should the current rate of depletion among the ranks of nuns continue, there could be fewer than a thousand remaining by 2042. Even if that number stabilizes at around ten thousand, that would be a mere 5.5 percent of the nuns once at work and prayer in the United States.

The consequences are already being felt in convents across the country. Other CARA data about communities of Catholic sisters is sorted into two demographic groups: old (when less than 90 percent of the convent is above seventy) and older (when more than 90 percent of the convent is above seventy). I was not surprised when a representative of Sister Rita Anne’s religious order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), informed me that every sister remaining in Connecticut is now in her eighties or nineties. After a lethal outbreak of coronavirus at an SSND house in Wilton, Connecticut, in 2021, its fifty-eight living nuns decamped to a continuing-care facility, leaving their villa up for sale. In nearby West Hartford, a convent once occupied by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambéry has been converted into luxury apartments, its chapel repurposed to house a brewery; the twenty cells of a former Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur convent in New Haven now serve as condominiums for empty nesters looking to downsize. These days, upon being told, Get thee to a nunnery, where is a girl supposed to go? The nearest Tri Delta chapter?

After a few initial dead ends in my search for sisters willing to spill, I set about a good, old-fashioned cold-calling campaign, spamming nuns perforce. In the words of Luke 11:9: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” What Luke forgot to specify is exactly how many times one needs to ask before the thing is given: in my case, upwards of thirty. If the issue wasn’t existential—every convent in my city is defunct, their numbers out of service—then it was epistemological, as with the Servants of the Lord of the Virgin of Matará, who declined my request because it would open a nebulous portal to the secular world, or the Abbey of Regina Laudis, which was too deep in the liturgy to deal with the distraction of guests. My grandfather, for many years, kept the nuns in my hometown stocked up on beer, but they are so long gone that when I called the parish office, the secretary could not even tell me the order to which they had belonged. The Daughters of St. Paul in New York City shuttered their Manhattan bookstore the day before I could visit in December; their Boston order, famous for its TikTok and YouTube presence, informed me that The Baffler was not a “good fit” for them—though they have spoken with The Cut, so this felt personal. And forget about the Pink Sisters, who only interact with the world beyond the cloister through metal grilles; the Discalced Carmelites, who remain unseen by even their priests and oblates; or the Cistercians, who are confined to “purposeful speech,” which, my mother will assure you, conversation with me is decidedly not. I was even thinking about flying out to meet the Sisters of the Valley in Merced, California—but it turns out that they’re not really Catholic nuns, just New Agey Beguine-inspired cannabis farmers who get a kick out of the veils.

It would seem that only those orders with a truly voracious liturgical appetite, like the Benedictines, are managing to resist the erosion of their fellow sisterhoods. While the number of religious sisters has declined overall since the 1960s, according to the many with whom I spoke, the number of young women entering contemplative orders seems to be on the rise—or at the very least, persisting against the odds. Their discernment reflects a renewed American interest in traditional Catholic life that exists despite its overall decline, from the Church of the Holy Innocents (where redpilled Manhattanites attend Tridentine Mass) to the Diocese of Tyler (where a conservative Texas bishop engaged in a lengthy standoff with the pope in 2023 over doctrinal issues, even accusing him of heresy). But why don the habit and enter the cloister when Vatican II just a generation ago deemphasized the importance of both?

One Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Julia, thinks it has to do with the sorry state of the secular world: “There’s been more change and more experience of crisis in recent years than multiple decades combined, and the change is happening much more rapidly,” she says.

We are in a state of climate crisis; there’s major culture wars happening; we’re in a really polarized society. Those trends, those dynamics, in the larger world require—for the sake of the world—a certain number of people going into deeper, prayerful communal life. . . . It’s a natural impulse, but it’s [also] a larger movement that the Holy Spirit stirs: in response to all this chaos, I need a group of people to be over here, really deeply rooted and prayerful.

A Benedictine I interviewed described her trajectory from the classroom to the convent, from apostolic to contemplative life, in similar terms: “I became a teacher because I wanted to serve . . . [but] as my desire to grow closer to God grew, so did my desire to help and serve his people. I soon felt that teaching was just not enough,” she says. “The nun is separated from everyone in order that time and space won’t confine her, and she can be ‘bound up with everyone, interceding for their needs.’” If apostolic orders are like anarchists doing mutual aid on the local level, then contemplative orders are like the communists of the First International, imagining change at a global scale.

But even if Jesus has taken the wheel and the Holy Spirit is driving the car that is religious discernment, there are still plenty of worldly reasons for sisters to steer clear of apostolic life. Women’s religious orders have, after all, spent hundreds of years as the secretaries, kid sisters, and side pieces of the clergy. They have labored for the Catholic Church for little thanks and less money, taking on many of its most strenuous tasks—from staffing its charitable organizations to cooking and cleaning for cardinals, bishops, and priests at tables they are never allowed to join. In contemplative life, however, nuns are free from the overextension and unflappability expected of their apostolic sisters; in the convent, out of sight of the Holy See and secular world alike, they live as they see fit in the eyes of Jesus alone.

Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

There was a time when the convent was the closest a woman could get to both the Lord and women’s lib. The Church might be a founding member of the patriarchy, but each convent is an autonomous entity, set apart from the secular world, free from the clerical hierarchy, and mostly independent of Vatican micromanagement. The cloister is, in modern eyes, an institution of total control, but the concept of the charism—a spiritual gift or grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit, like the Apostles’ ability to speak in tongues—has historically allowed women religious certain exemptions from conventional restrictions on their secular sisters’ comings and goings. The vow of chastity lifted the burdens of early marriage, bad sex, and potentially lethal childbirth; the habit released women from the obligations of beauty; and the requisite knowledge of Latin and a wide range of religious texts required that nuns be well-educated. “I suspect that historians of U.S. women are reluctant to search for sources of female power in the male-dominated church because they seriously doubt that they exist,” writes one historian of Catholic nuns, Kathleen Sprows Cummings. But, in fact, many social services and institutions of social welfare managed today by the state were previously under the purview of sisters, who by the early twentieth century had become pioneers in the realm of social work, before the Vatican called them to focus in on Catholic schooling. “Contrary to contemporary popular belief,” writes historian Susan O’Brien, “taking the veil . . . [has long] meant the beginning not the end of a useful life.”

There was a time when the convent was the closest a woman could get to both the Lord and women’s lib.

The First Estate first made its way to the United States from revolutionary Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The inaugural U.S. convent was established in Port Tobacco, Maryland, in 1790 by four Carmelite refugees from Antwerp. Financial difficulties prevented early American nuns from reconstructing the cloisters of the Old World; instead, they opened some of the first Catholic schools in the nascent country. It was a harbinger of what was to come: as the Vatican was bowled over by a wave of secularization across Europe, the American nuns would have to pave their own way in the New World.

Even as the political situation in Europe improved, coffers remained penurious. The Concordat of 1801, which quelled hostilities between the Catholic Church and Napoleonic revolutionaries, reinstated the Church in France without restoring its assets. By 1808, droves of sisters were appealing to the Church for dispensation from the vow of poverty, so they could earn the requisite money to sustain themselves. With God-honoring hustle, sisters in the United States set up businesses; bought bankrupt properties to convert into hospitals, orphanages, and schools; vied for government subsidies in exchange for their charitable works; invested their assets; directed local development; and encouraged scores of private donations in exchange for tax rebates. In Lowell, Massachusetts, a group of Sisters of Providence even worked as de facto managers at a silk mill—which the French factory workers took as an epic class betrayal. They burned the place to the ground in 1848.

Fire and brimstone was a consistent theme of consecrated life in nineteenth-century America. As new convents went up, others came down, torched by anti-Catholic Know-Nothings and others who speculated that unwilling Protestant girls had been forcibly cloistered for the benefit of Catholic priests by sisters serving as papist fleshmongers. One such incident occurred at an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834, purportedly following the circulation of the manuscript version of the anti-Catholic screed Six Months in a Convent (1835), penned by a former Ursuline postulant. Over the course of two days, Protestant mobs razed the convent, its gardens, and orchards; under threat of a follow-up attack in Roxbury, the Ursulines relocated to Québec. But no amount of anticlericalism—which resurged alongside anti-immigrant nativism in the late 1800s—could eradicate the growing ranks of Catholic nuns in the United States. If they left, they would take their hospitals, schools, asylums, pharmacies, homes for unwed mothers, and orphanages with them.

But trouble was brewing within the Church as well. In the late nineteenth century, the Catholic Church entered a period of turmoil concerning the notion of Americanism—basically, the idea that American Catholics, far from Rome, had adopted a nondoctrinaire modernism and begun to disregard magisterial teachings. In an 1899 apostolic letter, Pope Leo XIII declared Americanism heretical, and to prevent the secularization of the emerging generation of young Catholics, he called for the expansion of parochial schooling as we would recognize it today. Those schools, which sprung up mitotically across the country in the following decades, were staffed overwhelmingly by religious sisters.

While that parallel education system was meant to contest the influence of Progressive Era culture on young minds, its educators represented something like the Catholic strain of “New Women.” This New Woman, in “attending college, earning her own living, working in a settlement house, or otherwise participating in activities outside women’s ‘sphere,’” writes Cummings, “challenged the ideology of domesticity.” While many nuns and New Women found themselves at ideological odds, they shared a “belief in the power of institutions to reform and transform American society” and emphasized that women could play a part in that transformation. Where secular progressives sought to expand the government, however, Catholics maintained that it was the Church “that was best equipped to help its adherents respond to the demands of a new age.” Thousands of sisters had entered schools by the early 1900s, and in the following decades, countless more would fulfill their charism at the chalkboard.

The professionalization of sisters accelerated in the 1950s under Pope Pius XII, who encouraged nuns to receive advanced academic and professional degrees. By 1966, 68 percent of women religious held such degrees, and that number had risen to 88 percent by 1980. The Church encouraged the sisters to immerse themselves in work among the laity—and by the Second Vatican Council, leading Catholic fathers were insisting that the nuns were themselves part of the laity and should look and live as such. “In traditional religious life, the nun held high status in the Church and was esteemed by the laity as set apart for special service for God and the Church,” writes sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh. “As this mystery disappeared after Vatican II and nuns became more like other laity, the special esteem in which they were held faded.” Some sisters began to question whether celibacy, poverty, and obedience, combined with growing professional burdens and the loss of the intimacy of the convent, were too great a price to pay for time to pray. And so, ironically, it was not until the Church tried to ensure its place in the modern world with Vatican II that religious sisters began to depart en masse. By 1993, writes Ebaugh, “many orders [were] shifting their focus from survival to graceful demise.”

In 2008, the pontifex maximus launched the “Great Nunquisition,” a three-year apostolic visitation—i.e., investigation—of American nuns. At the heart of the issue was the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), an assembly of Catholic women’s congregation leaders whose 1,350 members (charged with representing 67 percent of American nuns) meet annually to discuss issues of social justice and service. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican accused the LCWR of espousing “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” particularly with regard to “family life and human sexuality.” Around the same time, a prominent Sister of Mercy and professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University, Margaret A. Farley, drew the ire of the Holy See with Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (2006). The Vatican ruled that it was “in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality”; that it “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling or formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue”; and that it posed “grave harm” to the faithful. Though the Nunquisition and attendant Vatican oversight ended under Pope Francis in 2015, and groups like the Catholic Theological Society of America rallied in support of Farley, the Church’s decision to target nuns for doctrinal deviation while ignoring clerical sexual deviance has left a bad taste in the mouths of many.

Criticism is the least of some nuns’ problems. There are also widespread allegations of sexual abuse of religious sisters. A Vatican publication, Women Church World, dedicated an issue to the subject in 2020, though it has since been scrubbed from their website. In 2021, however, the Vatican approved a Vatican News reporter’s exposé, The Veil of Silence, which features profiles of eleven sisters who testify to abuse, including rape at the hands of a priest. Others describe physical and psychological abuse by fellow sisters: “I understood we were all like dogs. They told us to sit and we sat, to get up and we got up, to roll over and we rolled over,” recounts one. “I just want to follow Jesus, and it’s not possible here,” says another. The worst-case scenario for many sisters is ejection from religious community. The extirpated WCW issue touched on the frightening position in which former sisters find themselves: far from home, without money or job prospects. “There [have been] cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” one cardinal told WCW. “These are ex-nuns!” Pope Francis has quietly opened a home to provide for some of them in Rome.

When it isn’t engaged in hand-to-hand combat—or getting handsy—with women religious, the Vatican largely ignores the sacred feminine. While the Church has spent billions fighting abuse allegations, religious sisters have been left to fend for themselves, with some orders reduced to auctioning off their furniture and, eventually, their convents in order to make ends meet. It speaks to the marginal position that religious sisters have occupied in the Catholic Church, even though their work has been crucial in sustaining said Church since the early days of disestablishmentarianism. With such marginalization comes loss; God only knows how much convent history has died with its makers. When I asked a professor of gender studies if she could recommend any books about lesbian nuns, for example, she hesitated. “Only pulp novels,” she replied, after a moment’s thought.

Nasty Habits

And, boy, are there pulp novels. What religious sisters lack in academic histories, they make up for in their outsized representation in mainstream media. “Women living together hidden from the reach of men continued to be a magnet for prurient curiosity,” writes the Catholic historian Jo Ann Kay McNamara. “Something in the very nature of their inaccessibility, their integrity, and their devotion seems to raise testosterone levels.” In the nineteenth century, the result was attacks on convents; in the twenty-first, the result is more than two thousand hits for “nuns” on Pornhub alone. In between the two came the film and literary genre of nunsploitation, a global phenomenon originating in predominantly Catholic countries in Europe, that birthed classics like Mother Joan of the Angels (1960), The Devils (1971), The Story of a Cloistered Nun (1973), Flavia, the Heretic (1974), Behind Convent Walls (1977), and Killer Nun (1979). Favorite themes include sexual repression, sexual obsession, and, of course, demonic possession—more recent additions, like The Little Hours (2017) and Benedetta (2021) have added mumblecore diabolism and a dildo hidden in a hollow Bible to the sacrilegious canon. Most Catholics below a certain age have probably encountered more nuns in R-rated horror movies than at Mass. “When was the last time you saw a nun?” I texted my younger sister. “In The Nun II, I think,” she promptly replied.

The average millennial woman can be celibate, maligned, and downwardly mobile without donning the veil.

In the early aughts, nunsploitation would enter the age of reality television with the BBC’s The Convent (2006), a four-episode depiction of four secular women spending forty days with the Poor Clares, and Lifetime’s single-season The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns (2014), in which five aspiring sisters “see if they have what it takes” to devote their lives to Christ—the logical jump here being from “bride of Christ” to “Real Housewives of Heaven.” It was panned by the Huffington Post and other outlets for Kardashian-izing religious life, but a group of aging Carmelites (whose charism is to care for the dying) and two other groups of sisters, had, nonetheless, agreed to appear on the show. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every week there was something that showed the actual work of Christ present to people?” one Carmelite explained to a reporter at Global Sister Report. “To capture that for millions of people so they can see that instead of what they do see on TV?” The reporter noted that said sister had otherwise only ever watched the news and Dancing with the Stars.

On social media, nuns feature as objects of fascination and fear. Numerous TikToks document nuns jogging on the street, playing basketball on a New York City court, visiting the doctor’s office, or shopping in a supermarket. One viral clip features two girls drinking nips of vodka in the woods when three Children of Mary, recognizable by their purple habits, pass by on a peaceful hike: “When you’re just trying to eat Chipotle and drink in the woods, like a couple of degenerates,” the poster writes, “but then THREE NUNS emerge from the bushes like an efing [sic] horror movie.”

In response to our culture’s many peeping Toms—as eager to see under nuns’ literal skirts as they are their metaphorical ones—some religious sisters have taken matters into their own hands online. Perhaps the most daring are those on TikTok, like the #MediaNuns, members of the semicloistered Pauline order, which is specially tasked with doing PR for the Catholic Church—no easy task in recent years. If you scroll on #NunTok now, you will find the Pauline sisters hard at work rehabilitating the ranks of women religious with clips of younger sisters racing to prayer to the sound of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Running Out Of Time,” sharing their preferences (between St. Peter and St. Paul, Advent and Lent, black and deep-blue cardigans) to Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Tricky,” and weighing in on popular media. On Loki (2021): “He’s the kind of character that makes me want to pray for him.” On Moana (2016): “It really and truly is the most beautiful presentation of Christian discipleship and the Christian life.” On The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): “It’s almost as if Dickens said, What if Jesus was wrong in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus?” On celebrities: “I have spiritually adopted Miley Cyrus. . . . I keep her in prayers a lot.”

The Paulines’ most prolific poster, Sister Bethany, who entered the convent at twenty in 2011, and took her final vows in 2022, is perhaps the hippest sister. Her trend-forward videos include everything from “POV: you’re a nun so you talk to Jesus about everything. ALL. DAY. LONG.” to a clip titled “Me when I was discerning a Religious Vocation,” set to audio from She-Hulk: Attorney at Law that proclaims, “At first it was fun, then scary, then fun again, then spooky—but in a fun way.” When she describes herself praying, it is in the casual language of a friend in confidence with Christ: “When I was on my annual retreat this year, I was just, like, talking to Jesus, and I was like, Hey, man, it has been [a crazy] couple of years, buddy.” But she transitions effortlessly between those clips and more conventional content, from deep-dives into Matthew 11:28 to meditations on the meaning of the “Our Father.” Even Sister Bethany, however, cannot turn the tide of negativity that has washed over the whole of the Catholic Church in recent years.

That nuns are themselves a subject of discontent comes as no surprise. It seems like every Catholic of a certain age can recount some torturous disciplinary experience at the hands of the women religious, like my mother, who watched a boy get lifted bodily from the floor by the scruff of his neck by one School Sister while everyone else was out enjoying the Summer of Love. Meanwhile, Mother Teresa, perhaps the best-known religious sister of the twentieth century, has fallen from secular grace even as she has been promoted to Catholic sainthood amid allegations of medical misconduct and financial mismanagement. Above all, it is her belief in suffering as the divine will of God—a justification to refuse pain relief to the dying—that has tanked her postmortem PR: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,” she once told Christopher Hitchens. “The world gains much from their suffering.” Finally, there are the Karen-esque nuns of the present—like the Discalced Carmelites who decamped from Brooklyn in 2022, claiming that gang activity, “late night carousing, drinking and drugs, [and] the evidence of satanic rituals just feet away from us,” had made it impossible for them to seek God in Cypress Hills.

Communion Dues

Without the nuns, who will be left of the women religious? I have not the heart to tell the sisters of St. Scholastica about the sedevacantists of Dimes Square or the “Sinful Sister Adult Women’s Nun Habit Halloween Roleplay & Cosplay Costume” that retails from $14.99 on Amazon. Nor about the many videos hashtagged #NunTok that feature professional dancers in habit Halloween costumes getting down to JID’s “Surround Sound,” nor the veiled professional singers remixing Sam Smith’s “Unholy,” nor the college girls dressed as nuns overlaid with audio declaring, “I didn’t become a little bit of a slag. I became a total slut.” I also keep to myself the fact that everyone thinks the days of women religious are numbered; that the Sinful Sisters are well on their way to inheriting the Earth they leave behind—in part because they already know.

It is easy, especially around the holidays, to forget the Church’s origins as a first-century apocalyptic death cult.

Of course, it is unlikely that the sisters are in quite as dire straits as mainstream media would have it. It is not the decline in the ranks of sisters today that is historically anomalous; it is, rather, the enormous number of twentieth-century American sisters. For those stirred by the Holy Spirit, no narrative of decline, or numerical projection of imminent disappearance, can keep them from the convent. What do they find there? As Muriel Spark imagines, in her novella The Abbess of Crewe (1974), perhaps it is the very thing that plagues writers of women’s history as they seek to correct the paucity of work on Catholic nuns: near-impenetrable privacy, to the point of exit from the historical record almost entirely. “Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history,” writes Spark, in the voice of her abbess:

We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. . . . Who doesn’t yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical development. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have consummate satisfaction, we have peace.

Far from the actuarial eye of the secular world, cloistered sisters, like the sisters of St. Scholastica, are free from its expectations of women. They are free from the invasiveness of contemporary culture, with its ceaseless demands for our attention—as well as its consumption of our experiences, which even the Paulines are compelled to feed into the churn of mass media. Fictional representations of Catholic women’s life (religious and otherwise) abound, yes, and historians have indeed managed to reconstruct the experiences of plenty of religious sisters engaged in apostolic charisms. But the cloistered sisters remain separate still. They give to us only what they choose to give: their prayers.

Sitting in Compline one snowy night in Petersham, I was surprised by the intensity of my desire to access their thoughts. Perhaps the sisters who had turned me down for interviews were right. Perhaps they saw me straight away for what I didn’t even know, then, that I was: the latest in a long line of people who have sought to see behind the curtain, beyond the veil—not quite realizing that the veil is the point.