Book examines life of young nuns

A sociocultural anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis spent 18 months in a Mexican convent in an attempt to understand young women’s motivations for leaving their homes, friends, school and independence to become a nun in the Roman Catholic Church.

Rebecca J. Lester, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, was also interested in understanding “what goes on emotionally, psychologically and spiritually with these women as they try to decide if they should pledge themselves eternally to Christ and the church.”

Lester found while doing her fieldwork at the convent from 1994-95 that the more interesting question was “what kept these women there, day after day?”

In her new book, “Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent,” released April 5, Lester sets out to explain the force of “the call.”

“So what keeps them there, waking up at 4:45 in the morning to bathe with cold water and sit in silent prayer for two hours before breakfast?” Lester writes in the introduction to “Jesus in Our Wombs.” “What keeps them there, working and studying, unable to make even small purchases, write a letter, or make a phone call without permission from a superior? What keeps a woman there, knowing she will never again lead an independent life, will never have a home and a family of her own, but must instead remain poor, chaste, and obedient in the service of Christ or risk the eternal damnation of her immortal soul?”

Though she didn’t live in the convent, Lester spent nearly all day every day there working primarily with a group of 18 postulants — young women in their first stage of religious training as nuns. The women ranged in age from 18-31. They came from relatively large families with strong Catholic roots. Several had given up college scholarships to enter the convent and one had been an accountant.

Lester found that through their religious training, the postulants learned to experience religious vocation not only as a personal calling but also as an urgent social and political obligation.

Lester says that the young nuns formed an altered experience of their own female bodies in the convent, a transformation they see as a political stance against modernity.

She argues that this transformation from postulant to nun is a profoundly personal one, linking the postulant’s concepts of gender and femininity with broader political issues currently taking place in Mexico.

Lester’s interest in the religious experiences of women in the convent grew out of her previous research on anorexia nervosa. “I did my master’s thesis on eating disorders in the United States, focusing on the ritualistic aspects often associated with eating disorders, such as using particular utensils or eating only at certain times of the day,” Lester says.

“In the context of that research, I discovered a book on medieval ascetic nuns that examined whether or not they were anorexic or bulimic. I was fascinated.”

Lester studied more of the ongoing debate over interpreting the medieval nun’s behavior. “These people lived in the 14th century,” says Lester, who is also an assistant professor of religious studies in Arts & Sciences. “When they fasted, they were thinking about God. They were not thinking about being thin in the same way that contemporary anorexics and bulimics do.

“I became very interested in the subject and decided to look at the behaviors of some modern religious women and see how they compared.”

‘The force of the call’

The convent she chose to work with, located in Puebla de los Ángeles, Mexico, housed 65 women. Lester does not reveal the name of the religious order in her book to protect the privacy of those involved.

Based on what she had read in the historical literature, Lester writes: “I arrived in Puebla expecting to find frail, depleted nuns who wished to escape their bodies, disciplined women who saw their materiality as an impediment to saintliness. I didn’t. Most of the sisters, in fact, were plump and were enthusiastic eaters. I did not find the kind of focused, premeditated self-denial and body discipline I had anticipated.”

What she found instead was how uncertain these young women were about what they were doing. “They felt like God was telling them to join the convent but they were still not entirely sure if it was the correct decision,” Lester says. “That really surprised me. I thought surely by the time you make that decision, you would know.”

However, Lester observed during her 18-month field study that “something is going on in the convent that claims these women — something that makes the force of ‘the call’ so irresistible that they willingly, and even joyfully, give up everything to follow it. … These new nuns moved from initially feeling unsure about their own motivations for entering the nunnery to experiencing this decision as reflecting an intimate, personal calling from God that they were compelled to answer.”

She discovered that the women were deeply involved in a process of self-examination, trying to determine not only their place in the convent, but also their place in society and their relationship to gender issues and politics.

“Becoming a nun seemed for these women a way of negotiating conflicting pressures about being a woman in a modernizing Mexico,” Lester says.

Becoming ‘brides of Christ’

During her study in the convent, Mexico was experiencing a rapid transition from the old Third World model to a First World nation.

“As a result of that process, there is a lot of economic and political upheaval,” Lester says. “People in Mexico are very concerned about what that transition means. They are deeply concerned about not forgoing their Mexican traditions in an attempt to become more like the Americans.”

Changing gender roles seem to be very emblematic of that transition. “Many Mexican women now feel like they need to go out and work, but they are confronted with a broader societal concern that this suggests that the family isn’t as important as it traditionally has been in Mexico. There is a noticeable rise in divorce,” Lester says.

“They feel caught,” Lester continues. “Young women no longer want to be like their mothers and that generation, but at the same time, they aren’t quite comfortable with this new way of thinking.”

She found that becoming a nun allowed the young women she worked with to find another way of being female that seemed to mediate between these conflicting sets of expectations. “They are independent in a sense because they aren’t living at home, they have a career, they aren’t married and they don’t have children,” Lester says.

But, at the same time, she discovered that becoming a nun allowed them to “find another option of being a woman, because in the convent they do become wives and mothers, just in a different way. They become brides of Christ and mothers to the poor.”

“It’s socially and politically relevant in a time of great upheaval,” Lester continues. “It’s religious and very personal, but at the same time it provides these women a sense of independence and allows them to make a political statement.”

As Lester writes: “The sisters understood the process of religious formation as reclaiming a submerged authentic femininity and then mobilizing that femininity to heal a world ravaged by violence and injustice.”

In the book, she outlines seven stages of this transformation from entering the convent to becoming a nun. The stages are: Brokenness, Belonging, Containment, Regimentation, Self Critique, Surrender and Recollection.

“In naming their feelings of brokenness, the postulants learn to identify their discomforts in the outside world as a call to a radical rejection of temporal understandings of self. Through living and working side by side with other women, they learn new methods of perception and imagination that tie them to a community of others whom they come to recognize as significantly similar to themselves in God’s eyes.

“In this way, new entrants achieve a bodily transformation of self which draws its meaning from a particular cultural and moral universe.”