The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Faith & Values: Author attempts to demystify the world of nuns"
By Maria Elena Baca
February 28, 2004
Growing up in a fundamentalist Protestant family, Cheryl Reed wasn't allowed to date Catholics.
She was taught that Catholics were miscreants who went to mass on Saturday afternoons so they could go drinking and sleep in on Sundays. And nuns, in their long, black habits and severe-looking veils and wimples, haunted her nightmares.
She might have been content to believe the lessons of her childhood, but Reed grew up to be a reporter.
Her book, "Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns," which will be released on Tuesday, is part journalistic endeavor but more so a personal quest to find the truth behind the icons, to define the role of modern women in these ancient religious communities, and a spiritual journey. In writing the book, she found a deeper spirituality within herself and an unexpectedly diverse host of "spiritual godmothers" who also guided her and prayed for her when she most needed their help.
After years of in-depth reporting on subcultures including street gangs, AIDS-stricken prostitutes and married Catholic priests, Reed, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, decided to use a research grant to investigate the subculture that had fascinated her since childhood.
Her year of research was punctuated by several newspaper and magazine reports on nuns, but Reed knew there was more. So she devoted the next three years to living and working with nuns in 11 states, including Minnesota -- where she lived -- and Wisconsin.
Her experiences living and working with about 300 nuns in 50 orders shattered many of the stereotypes Reed had learned.
In the course of her interviews, Reed lived with the women for days or weeks and adopted their prayer and work routines. She worked beside one of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in a Chicago homeless shelter and helped to deliver a baby in a south Texas birthing center. She attended protests with the St. Paul-based sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and hung out with Visitation sisters working in a high-crime area of Minneapolis.
"I expected them to be very habited, much more cloistered," Reed said in an interview. "I didn't expect them to be as educated, as feminist, and certainly not as progressive as they were."
She met nuns who rarely left the confines of their monasteries, nuns who used the streets in their outreach to the poor and hopeless, nuns who embed each piece of their traditional habits with prayer and devotion to the institutional church, and nuns who long ago shed both their habits and their blind obedience to the church's doctrines.
"Nuns are not what you think they are," Reed said. "They aren't the meek and subservient caricatures that we have long portrayed them to be. They are very complex women, very independent and progressive and strong women, and we can really learn a lot from them. They've spent a lot of their lives contemplating important issues. I look at them as our spiritual guides and mentors."
One of Reed's objectives was to determine whether there was a place for the modern woman in the Catholic vocations. The sisters she interviewed spoke candidly about sexuality and celibacy, their hopes and regrets and their spiritual struggles. They presented divergent views regarding the value of the habit, of being in the world or in the relative degrees of cloistering; and the role of prayer in their lives.
Although some of the more conservative orders discouraged any challenge of the church hierarchy or principle, many of the nuns echoed criticism that Reed had heard from other feminist women about the direction of the church.
Rather than identifying with the church, many sisters' loyalties lay with their orders and their own communities.
"Some would say, 'I'm Catholic,' but they don't feel really Roman Catholic," Reed said. "They feel really separate from the institution."
Reed recalled the political activist St. Joseph sisters in St. Paul and Sister Margaret Traxler, who ran the Chicago homeless shelter and who publicly questioned the church's stand against abortion, its treatment of women inside and outside of the church.
"These were women who were very strong in their opinions and weren't afraid to challenge the status quo," Reed said. "They were highly educated, they were smart, they were quite accomplished, and yet they didn't have to agree with everything the Catholic Church said, and they were very vocal about what they thought."
These women, she said, also taught her a lot about feminism.
"For women of my generation, using the word 'feminist' is probably not something I would do," she said. "It has a certain tainted feel to it. Being around all these nuns, they used that word all the time. I started using it, not even realizing it. . . . I started to realize that for them, being a feminist is the same as someone who supports civil rights. There is no difference."
While Reed was inspired by the spiritual depth and the relevance of many of the orders she visited, she also had disappointing experiences that seemed to go a long way in explaining the long demise of the vocation.
The mother superior of an order in Philadelphia, for example, barred any of the sisters from speaking with Reed without direct permission; even inconsequential chit-chat was forbidden. She was turned away from a fragmented order of Immaculate Heart sisters, after one nun told her, "It's Christmas, and our sisters don't want to be eating with a stranger."
Of both experiences, Reed said, "I just couldn't take it. I felt incredibly claustrophobic. I felt like I was in prison. It was horrible."
When Reed finished her research, she found herself in her own spiritual abyss. After the terror attacks in 2001, and a series of professional and health challenges, Reed found that her own faith, deepened by time spent in prayer and discussion with women of faith, didn't feel like enough to get her through "God's hazing."
"A lot of my own beliefs are Protestant in nature, even though I'm not Protestant anymore," she said. "If you pray and you're a good person, nothing bad's going to happen to you. . . . Then horrible things happened to me. Ultimately, that doesn't protect you from life. Life happens."
Drawing on life philosophies she learned from the sisters, she realized that her understanding of God had to mature. She learned patience, to trust in the value of life's journey.
"Since then, I can say that there was a reason for all those things," she said. "I couldn't see that then, but it turned out better than if my plan had worked."
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