Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Young Nuns

Today I watched Young Nuns, a show that I knew from the articles about it in the Guardian and on Jezebel that I really wanted to see and have been mentioning periodically on Twitter (yes, I remembered to watch it). Shows like this don't quite constitute my sausage-wrapped-in-bacon of televisual programming - that honour is reserved for episodes of The West Wing which also featue a heavy medical drama element, e.g. Season 2 Episode 1 - but they come pretty close. I love documentaries, particularly human interest documentaries (although not just from the 'Boy With an Arse for a Face' school of Channel 4/5 voyeurism - and, come on, the BBC is very guilty of that too sometimes - maybe I do want to see a young Scottish man with no visible prospects calling his mother "pure shite" but it's hardly the better angels of my nature which drive this desire), and Young Nuns promised to combine both of these aspects into some kind of awesome whole.

Also, I was raised Catholic. It's not something I go on about a lot (except in order to claim religious immunity when making foul jokes about the Pope and when I want everyone to think I've had a hard life) because faith was never made a big deal of in my house. We were Vatican II and then some. Maybe Vatican IV. My father is something of an outspoken atheist - his response to my childhood questions like, "but whether or not he was the Messiah, do you think a guy named Jesus existed and maybe did some stuff back in the day?" were always met with a roll of the eyes and a kind of 'whether or not he existed is irrelevant because religion is a crock of shit' response. My mother openly admitted that she only took me and my sister to Mass because she wanted us to qualify for a letter from the priest so that we could go to the Catholic school if we didn't pass the 11+ and couldn't go to the grammar school. Even my grandmother, the most prominently Catholic person that I spent any serious time with growing up and the person who used to pray for me (to St Jude, of course) and flick holy water at me when I swore in the house (I think in the hope that it would leave a scald), seems to have come in recent years to the conclusion that whether or not there is a God, He is unjust for the suffering He allows in the world.

Any childhood attempts at religiosity were met with puzzlement by my parents - I went to a Church of England primary school and thought that prayer was an essential part of 'being good' (or else why would the school make us do it every day?), thus whenever I went on periodic 'being good' binges, which were remarkably similar to my occasional present-day 'trying to be a responsible adult' attempts, I tried to include praying in front of my parents as an essential, demosntrable part of my newfound goodness. I think they genuinely feared for me at that point, and, for the record, I never kept up being 'good' longer than about three days, maybe a week tops.

The other reason it isn't really fair to call myself Catholic is that I basically never was. I mean, I was baptised, and apparently that's enough for. It turns out that even if you write to the Vatican and ask them formally to no longer consider you a Catholic, for the purposes of the Day of Judgement they still consider you one of their own - it's the cult you can't ever escape from, even in death - but I never had a crisis of faith or lost my faith because I never had any faith to lose. I was quite the little heathen. I recall asking a priest at the age of six, "If God was Jesus' dad, who was God's dad?" and finding the response that God always has been and always will be, world without end, amen, to be entirely unsatisfactory. I played devil's advocate (or perhaps just plain devil) with the religious kids at school in most RE lessons - hell, I love arguing - although I've mostly given up on faith-bashing as a) faith is a deep mystery and one which I cannot comprehend and b) it made me kind of a dick. I will still go as far as to say that I believe some people are hardwired for faith and others aren't, but as I have no idea why this is or why it should be, I'm content these days to leave things at that.

Young Nuns. I digress. It was fascinating, and not just from the voyeuristic perspective of, 'how on earth can these young women who are the same age as me bear to give up their boyfriends and smartphones and go and sit on their own with Jesus forever?', although it did slightly irk me that this seemed to be the main emotion that the BBC wanted to inspire in people who could relate on the surface to the would-be novices. There was a segment in which some of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, who were the fun nuns who got to drive around in cars and go to help the poor and actually leave the convent, went into a Catholic school to talk to a Year Seven class about what it was like to be a nun. And they did a very good job of engaging the children, and the children did a very good job of looking horrified by the prospect of being a nun and saying things like, "How can they have no makeup when makeup is the one thing girls are supposed to have" and "I don't think I'd like it if I couldn't wear jeans" and other such things which made me despair ever so slightly for the state of the young women of tomorrow. But it seemed to be this kind of response that the programme makers were really pushing for - a visceral, black and white, "I don't want that" kind of reaction which doesn't really engender any debate beyond the absolute obvious - and they backed this up with shots of Catherine, one of the young maybe-nuns (spoiler alert: by the end of the programme, neither of the girls they follow are nuns), taking part in a charity fashion show and talking about how she's a "girly girl" and she loves makeup and the hardest part about perhaps becoming a nun for her would be giving up the chance to get married and have a family. Which seemed to be selling the whole thing short somehow.

On the other hand, the other of the two potential nuns, Clara, was given a somewhat more even treatment (although I can't help but wonder if that's because she gave them much less "girly girl" material to work with - in spite of said more even treatment she was still filmed in skirts, and shopping, and drinking wine with her friends and playing with her younger brothers, all of which are perfectly valid things for a young woman about to enter the novitiate to do but all of which do equally emphasise a stereotypically feminine side). And the lit geek in me did enjoy a tiny thrill that she shares a name with Clara Batchelor, the heroine of the final three books of the Frost in May quartet. Clara was shown in the context of her family, who clearly share a strong faith and were utterly supportive of their eldest daughter's decision, accepting that this was what God was calling her to do even though it would be painful for them to be separated. Catherine was portrayed as much more of a dilettante in the Faith, which wasn't helped by the fact that her abbey of choice decided not to admit her in their next intake and asked her instead to wait a year to make sure she was certain of her decision.

I found it particularly interesting that both Catherine and Clara wanted to enter closed orders as opposed to the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, the fun nuns with whom the viewer spent all the time that wasn't dedicated to the two would-bes. I did think it was strange that the BBC was clearly allowed to film and interview the nuns in these closed orders (and they did so), but they didn't spend nearly as much time getting under the skins of their faith and their choices as they did with the jolly Franciscan sisters. This, for me, kind of devalued the impact of the choice the two protagonists were on the verge of making, and also made me question their choice of a life of contemplation (which at times sounds heavenly, pun maybe intended) over the choice of a life of out in the world. And in some ways this did strike me as a choice of privilege. Becoming a nun in the 21st century is a very different decision with a different range of motivating factors than taking the veil would have been in the 13th century, or the 19th, or even the early-to-mid 20th century. Convents are no longer seen as a dumping ground for the poor, the unruly, the unmarriagable or the unmanageable. In fact, choosing to become a nun entirely out of faith and vocation is perhaps the purest and truest to the heart of the religious life that this choice has ever been, if also the weirdest to modern sensibilities. Both Catherine and Clara appeared to come from comfortable middle-class backgrounds with no obvious impediments to following their vocations. The poor don't tend to want a life of poverty and mortification of the flesh and spirit if they can help it (although far be it from me to speak for the poor). And what of the girl with strong faith and strong vocation who has to care for a disabled family member, or has to work so that her younger siblings don't go hungry? Does she get to sequester herself away from the world for a life of prayer and devotion? I think this would have been another interesting angle for the documentary to have looked at (okay, so I want a series).

The other thought that this programme inspired was also suggested in part by the Jezebel article I linked to at the beginning of this post. The Jez columnist points out, "If something similar existed for female atheists - a quiet single sex residence for devotion to reading, study, gardening, hanging out with your friends, running charity marathons, and singing - the waiting list would be years long." And it's true. I love most of those things (charity marathons I can take or leave, ditto gardening). The idea of reading and singing hymns all the time (okay, so I'm an atheist who loves religious music) sounds fantastic. I'm incredibly drawn to this kind of lifestyle, and have always been particularly drawn to the prospect of solitude - my ideal house, for a long time, was a shed in the woods with a bed and a typewriter, although I think 2011 called and suggested I take my laptop, and Henry David Thoreau also called and told me to quit stealing his ideas and to ask Emerson when he could next come over for dinner. I like the idea of this to the extent that, for a brief time, I questioned whether or not I had a vocation (the answer is no, I think, a] because I'd hope the thought that I might would be a hell of a lot stronger if I actually did and b] because, as discussed above, I am basically the worst Catholic ever). I can definitely see the appeal, though, and thus the programme was interesting for me not just in a raging-against-privilege-and-stereotypes-of-women sense but also in terms of a comparison between myself and Catherine and Clara that ran much deeper than the one which the BBC seemed to be trying to provoke, namely, 'I can see exactly how you would want that; there is some part of me which wants that too.'

Should you watch Young Nuns, which is available on iPlayer for another six days? Yes, probably. If you like that sort of thing.

1 comment:

  1. Is it weird that I have pondered what kind of person I would be if I'd been born in the fourteenth century? Assuming I was a woman, I think I would have wanted to be a nun--hilarious for many reasons, the time, religion really was the only place women had any shot at any form of autonomy. Granted, this was assuming you were a rich widow or daughter who could afford to join a convent, but if you were a woman who wanted her thoughts considered potentially worth listening to--and have the space to work through those thoughts in the first place--your choices were join a nunnery, or pull some Margery Kempe manuver where you transform yourself into a Christian mystic through sheer force of will.

    So...I mean, I say this as an utter heathen, but for me the idea of nuns now seems more bizarre than anything else, because it seems to be providing a sanctuary that no one, even the church, seems to view as particularly needed anymore.

    Anyway, I think the lesson to be taken here is that I will ramble FOR DAYS if given a chance, and all opportunities to go on ye olde tangents should be nipped RIGHT in the bud.