11/19/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Being Out of Order

Why Go In and Why Go Out?

People always want to know why I ever entered the convent in the first place. I try to answer truthfully, but it usually just boils down to a simple matter of culture and personal conviction or, as some might call it, idiosyncrasy. I left the convent for the same reasons as I had when I entered sixteen years earlier: I felt the Spirit's call and the call of conscience. When I was a child, I had the strange experience of seeing a sharp light come out of a cloud and head straight toward me. At the time, I interpreted this as a sign that I was to let the light of God always shine through me. I never forgot about that light and because I grew up in a Catholic family and environment, I assumed that the convent was where I was to be. Sixteen years later, I felt the call of the Spirit in a less dramatic way, but, nevertheless, I knew that the time had come to depart. Spiritus movet.

I left because I had to, because I could no longer accept the construct of religious life within the context of a patriarchal, hierarchal church that neither acknowledged nor respected women except in restricted ways, because I saw that the world was changing and I wanted to be an active participant in those changes, and because I felt that I had become alienated from the experience of being a human being with a sexual and emotional identity.

I was never unhappy as Sister Caritas, later Sister Carole. Community life was comfortable; I loved the framework of prayer and liturgy and our shared values of faith, hope and charity. I wanted to serve God and my students and the world. I had good friends and a large, supportive extended family. I had a wonderful education and I loved teaching English. At the same time, I could see that religious life could no longer be as it was and that our community and others would find that serving the People of God would be very different in the world to come. My generation and I were prophetic leaders in acknowledging and hastening the changes that had to be made in the lives and communities of religious women and in the church at large. We were right; the changes did come, often painfully and slowly, and at other times, joyfully and rapidly.

How I Serve without the Habit

I have always insisted that I left the institution, but not my vocation. And just as I could fulfill my vocation without the institution, so could I be a woman of the Spirit without the habit. The meaning of "vocation" as we understood it in the 1950s, the heyday of people becoming nuns and priests, was the sense of the call coming directly from God to us. We felt that God was calling us to dedicate our lives to him and to serve the People of God. I now think that each person has a vocation, a call within us to become who we are meant to be. Those who follow their call often must do with difficulty and hardship. We have all heard stories about poets and artists who suffer because the world doesn't understand their passion. For me and for many of my generation, the call was unambiguous and we followed what we saw as God's will.

We also left for the same reasons. I felt that the overwhelming male dominance and total authority of the Catholic Church were too controlling for me as a woman in the twentieth century and my peers felt the same. We would no longer be women of the habit, women whose identity was medieval and whose role was to be subservient servants of the male church. I knew that the idea of the "one true church," no matter which church used the term, was false, and that every human being is loved and accepted by God. My conscience would no longer allow me to participate in such an enterprise.

The short answer is that the habit was an emblem of an institutional identity that no longer functioned even within the Catholic Church, except in a few cases. Those of us who left our convents and our habits in the mid-twentieth century are today pretty much doing what we always did, but without so many props. I am still teaching and I am still serving students in the same manner I did when I wore the habit and had the title of "Sister." I used to be amused when students would tell me that I didn't behave like a nun and I would respond, "Yes, I do, because I am one." What they had in mind was the stereotype, which was often true, but just as often, not true. So now, I behave the same and the students and others in my life do not have to tell me that I don't act like a nun, because I no longer am one. Frequently, one or another will try to quiz me on my beliefs and ideas and will comment that they sense something else about me that speaks to the spiritual. I have always tried to teach the subject matter of my discipline well, but also to help my students to think, to question, to look beyond the apparent, to understand that truth is tricky and knowledge dangerous to one's complacency.

Advice to Those Considering Religious Life

In 2013, some of the more traditional communities are retaining the old monastic rules and structure and they are attracting women who want this life. More of the established communities, however, are suffering a loss in membership through aging members and are seeing very few new recruits.

Most communities of religious women have made the adaptations to contemporary life that we signaled in the middle of the twentieth century had to be done, but still the numbers are down. One reason is that Catholic women today, indeed, women in general, have many more choices than my generation had when we were young. A young woman who wishes to serve God and others in an intentional way can join any number of religious organizations. She can join a community which takes vows, or not. She can take vows for a limited time. She can find a group of people who work in the inner city, or go to other countries, or who teach the disabled, or who work toward saving the environment, who serve with organizations like Doctors without Borders or any number of other purposeful groups. There are communities forming of married couples, of lay and clergy and religious, or any combination one can imagine. The Spirit is working overtime to move people toward God and others.

So my advice to a woman wanting to dedicate her life to prayer and service is to examine her alternatives. She should do her homework and take advantage of her ability to choose a life she wants and can commit to.