The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana
"Book reveals wide variation in lives of nuns"
By Stefanie Scarlett
May 8, 2004
Is becoming a nun an act of rebellion? It just might be. Nuns might take the same vows, but they can lead very different lives - from running schools and missions to protesting and working for social justice, as journalist Cheryl Reed discovered.
She spent four years traveling the country and interviewing more than 300 nuns in 50 orders for her new book, "Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns," (Berkley Books; $24.95).
Reed, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, practiced "immersion journalism," by working, praying and living with nuns when possible.
Some of them were living what they described as a "countercultural lifestyle."
"In some ways, they try to compare themselves to hippies," she says, laughing.
"There are nuns protesting, praying to the goddess and wearing street clothes and marrying lesbians in Minnesota." And there are those "who were cloistered and shaving their heads and beating themselves in St. Louis."
She was a bit surprised at how outspoken some of them are and how willing they are to challenge the teachings of the church.
"There are nuns in Chicago who marched (April 24 in Washington, D.C.) wearing sweatshirts saying 'Nuns for Choice.'
"I think that shocks a lot of people. They think of the stereotypes of meek nuns wearing a full habit, . . . that's not what they are," she says.
So why be a nun at all?
Many of the sisters Reed interviewed had grown up in large, Catholic rural families.
"For that era, it offered them an alternative life, a life of power. They ran schools and hospitals. They were doing all the things that men were doing, outside the convent."
Some of the women she met entered later in life, at an average age of 38. About one-third of them had been married with children; most had worked and many had advanced degrees.
"They sort of achieved all the things the world said was important and valuable, but they felt they were missing something," she says.
On the other hand, joining the sisterhood is not for everyone.
"For a lot of women, they feel they could do all the things you can do as a nun, without becoming a nun. You can be charitable and altruistic, without having to give up sex and men," Reed says.
So what's with the title of the book?
"The 'hidden life' is the nun's life, they call it the hidden life. And it's an 'unveiling' of the stereotypes of nuns."
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