For the second consecutive week, I am pleased to focus on an amazing work of religion coverage from an unexpected platform: “Why On Earth Are So Many Millennials Becoming Nuns?” by Eve Fairbanks, writing for the Huffington Post longform section, Highline.
Her essay begins (disclosure of my bias) exactly the way I would expect a HuffPost article to begin, when dealing with a subject linked to a traditional form of faith.
It’s all here — right down to the scare quotes in the predictable places. But the key word in that headline is Millennial, a generation wrestling with many hopes, fears and anxieties. Let’s start here:
I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case. …
Catholicism seems especially out of step with contemporary American life. Protestantism easily accommodates rock bands and a personable, almost life coach-esque Jesus. But even liberal Catholic communities require submission to a gold-crowned pope who theologically can’t be wrong (in certain circumstances) and who is chosen by a hundred-odd men — only men — who undergo a ritual of eating the literal body of Christ embedded in a cracker. To say the sex scandals didn’t help is putting it mildly. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that Catholicism lost more adherents in the late 20th century than any other religion in the U.S. About a third of Americans raised Catholic reported that they had left the church.
Still, there’s a certain allure to a high school with public art “depicting the triumph of mathematical logic.” The photo featured with this post, taken from Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., offers one possibility.
Once Fairbanks moves past this scene-setting about how she came to write this essay, she interviews a few different young women — Tori, Rachael, Mackenzie — who are high-achieving idealists.
The key question: Is there more to life than what is offered by a consumerist American culture?
This is long and essential.
Tori was both discerning to become a nun and serving in the Army. As a first lieutenant, she commanded men older than she was, but when she spoke to me over Skype from a base in South Korea, she looked younger than her 23 years. The green military fatigues were baggy on her lean frame, her pale brown hair — dyed blonde on the bottom — pulled away from her sunburned face into a wispy ponytail. She said “wicked” a lot, cursed occasionally and referred to herself as “a super-duper paratrooper!” with a wink and a mocking thumbs-up. It didn’t take me more than a few minutes talking with her to think: This woman wants to become a nun?
In high school, she said, she “had an automatic seat at the cool kids’ table.” She was known for her crazy, uninhibited dancing at parties. She hiked, she kayaked and she was good enough at soccer to earn a spot on a professional-development team. On her Facebook page, she can be seen photobombing group shots on snowboarding trips by sticking her tongue out at the camera. She always assumed she’d marry, have kids and work as a nutritionist.
When I asked Tori what made her stray from this path to become a nun, her whole demeanor changed. Her face got pinker, and she looked almost shy. She asked if she could read the full story to me from her prayer journal. This was too important to discuss extemporaneously.
One afternoon when she was a senior at her all-girls high school, Tori found herself drawn to the chapel. She wasn’t deeply religious growing up, and the chapel was a space she usually avoided: small and dark and silent, with uncomfortable knee-high prayer stools. But on that day, as she sat to pray, a thought occurred to her that was so unbidden and forceful “that I stood up from my seat and physically ran. I mean, I ran out of the chapel. I was so filled with fear.” The thought: What would it be like to wear a nun’s habit?
What’s just as engaging — despite traditional journalism’s discouragement of a reporter becoming part of the story — is how Fairbanks engages not just with these potential nuns’ stories but with the ideas behind their sense of calling.
This is an example of first-person journalism that works. The reporter is working in a state of vulnerability:
Several other young women I spoke to who hoped to become nuns recommended a book to me called “And You Are Christ’s.” Written by an American priest named Thomas Dubay, its subtitle is “The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life.” I am Jewish, and I am not celibate by any stretch of the imagination. I also wasn’t sure what “charism” meant (basically, it’s a special gift conferred on a person by God). But almost immediately upon opening the book, I experienced a strange sensation. It was as if Dubay were speaking straight to me.
“Nothing is ever enough,” Dubay writes of how it feels to live in the modern world. You are expected to give yourselves entirely, 24/7, without wavering, to careers, to hobbies, to lovers, to children. Ideally, you are supposed to spend zero time not loving your job in a dying industry or your husband who fails to absorb the concept of emotional labor. But this is impossible.
And yet, Dubay explains, there is one being who reliably rewards our efforts: Christ. The woman who loves Him, the religious sister, has a calling worthy of her complete devotion and that honors her sacrifices “many times over,” as the Book of Luke says. She has found her “passion.” She has “rest,” “fulfillment,” “enthrallment,” “completion” — precisely the things that I, exhausted, have often wanted.
In admitting that some progressives see religion as a crutch, Fairbanks makes a brief reference to Sister Cristina Scuccia, the singing nun of our era:
When Sister Cristina Scuccia, a 30-year-old habited Italian nun, competed on Italy’s version of “The Voice” in 2014 — she won — a baffled judge questioned her decision to become a nun: “To be able to sing like this — I’m at a total loss, you know?” The implication was that anyone who had the opportunity to do something remotely cool with her life would never become a nun.
Another engaging voice in her report comes from John Olon, who “teaches a junior year theology course at St. Mary’s Ryken, a co-ed Catholic high school in rural Maryland”:
He describes Ryken as your typical Catholic high school — the incoming freshmen tended to have little to zero interest in contemplating the divine. Nevertheless, for years now he has invited religious brothers and sisters to his class to give “vocation talks.”
Typically, the presenter’s pitch would be, “Whatever you want to be, you can be it. And you can also be one of us!” “In a vacuum, that sounds like a good message,” Olon told me. Sometimes a priest would “throw on a DVD with priests looking ‘cool.’” But the kids seemed disengaged.
One priest projected a video of a colleague performing in a high school musical, shimmying his hips to “Greased Lightning” in a chorus line with teenage boys. “Do priests dance?” the presenter kept shouting before the two dozen aghast teenagers. “Yes, we do! We’re just like you!”
Then, a couple of years ago, a sterner priest came to talk to Olon’s class. He was dressed in all black and a tight clerical collar. The way Olon characterized him reminded me of Jude Law’s Pius XIII in “The Young Pope” — at once glamorous and traditional. “You are called to holiness,” the priest exhorted the class. “You are called to be saints.”
“I’m sitting at my desk, wincing,” Olon said. He was thinking, “Yeah, not these kids. We need to tone it down.” And then “this one kid, a lacrosse player, very stereotypical, stopped to ask me, ‘Is that guy coming back next week?’”
“Oh, no, don’t worry,” Olon reassured him.
“But I want him back,” Olon remembered the lacrosse player saying. Other classmates agreed. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ ” …
The more Olon thought about his students’ enthusiastic response to the hardcore priest, the more it made sense to him. Millennials and Generation Z kids report much higher levels of social anxiety, pessimism and depression than previous generations. He’d seen it firsthand in his own classroom. “When I ask kids what they want to do in their lives, they’ll say, ‘I guess I’ll get a job,’” Olon told me. They would explain that they had already done everything. They had destroyed worlds, fallen in love, built communities, made art. Then he’d realize that they meant they’d done this all online.
In real life, they were much more fearful. Everything they said — every youthful, experimental pose they struck — became a part of their permanent record on social media. The stakes seemed so high for even tiny choices. Sometimes, after class, they would ask him mournful questions like, “What have I ever really done that has any depth?” They reminded him of people having midlife crises. Yet Olon noticed that the more cornered they seemed, the more pressured they felt to do something truly wholehearted and unique. To be like Steve Jobs and take a huge risk that changed the whole world. Hemmed in on all sides, they also yearned for a tabula rasa, to tear everything down and start over from scratch.
Here again is a superb case of an open-minded journalist pursuing an idea, seeking people who will help address it, and delivering a solid narrative of people in all their messy glory.