Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 5, 2000
A refreshing account of the lives of sisters
The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns, by Catherine Whitney. New York: Crown Publisher, 1999. 272 pages.
Review by DEAN SARNECKI
Special to the WCR
The life of nuns have always fascinated me. Until the last few years my only contact has been with school librarians (grades 7-12) or former nuns who were teachers.
I have often been puzzled by the perceptions of their lifestyles as depicted in novels, on television, or in movies and how they really live. When the book The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns was recommended to me, I could hardly wait to find out what the life of nun or religious sister included.
I was not disappointed. I found the book an engaging and delightful read, however, it was not about what I expected. The title is somewhat misleading. A Year in the Life of Nuns led me to believe that Catherine Whitney lived and followed an order of nuns for a period of time, documenting her observations and conversations with the women she encountered.
That is not what this book is about. Whitney grew up in Seattle in a devout Catholic home of converts, attending local Catholic schools run by the Sisters of St. Dominic of the Holy Cross.
This is more of a story of growing up Catholic and being strongly influenced by the Church, especially the order of nuns who taught her. Her desire to join that group, followed quickly by her eventual falling away from the Church and Catholicism, and then her reintroduction to the nuns and the Catholic Church some 25 years later.
Following the publication of a number of books, Whitney's editor suggests a book about nuns. This intrigues her and soon after her father, still living in Seattle and in contact with the nuns, dies and she returns to Seattle to bury him. This leads Whitney to a visit to the motherhouse of the sisters who taught her.
Throughout all of her autobiographical wanderings and reflections in the book the reader is able to recognize the inspiration of the nuns in Whitney's life.
Whitney started this book with the intention of describing how women could be called to work and pray in a male-dominated, hierarchical Church but was soon overwhelmed by the thoughts, feelings, and spirit of the order of nuns she grew up with. This challenged her to contemplate and reflect on why she left the institutional Church and what this has cost her in her life and that of her family.
Whitney tracks down and interviews some of her former teachers, many who left the order during the great exodus from religious life in the 1960s and '70s, and tries to determine their motivation for joining the life of a religious order and what this has meant to them.
There are some very interesting anecdotes and lives whose stories can teach us all about God and life. One thing that becomes apparent from these interviews is that once a woman has joined a religious order, even upon leaving it, she can never get that bond of community out of her system. The close connections with other members become a part of her.
I found this book fascinating on a number of different levels: The story of the order of nuns originating in Germany and eventually ending up in Seattle; the lives of the individual nuns and their calling to follow God as a member of a religious community.
The stories of both those who stayed and those who left, their lives in the turbulent 1960s, the impact of Vatican II on the life of the religious, etc., all make interesting reading.
Lastly, Whitney's story is one of hope and challenge as she reflects on belief and the God of her upbringing and what that has meant to her. A very worthwhile read.
(Dean Sarnecki teaches religious studies at Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School in Sherwood Park.)