When I was in first grade I went home and told my mother that the principal of my school, Sr. Loretelle, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I also said she smelled good (I actually remember this and I still would argue she smelled good! I looked her up online to confirm how to spell her name, and sadly discovered she passed away in 2006). One of the best teachers I ever had was in third grade, Sr. Berenice, also at St. Fabian in Farmington Hills, MI. This is to say I have always had a thing for nuns.
So when Lifetime– yes the same network that also brings you Dance Moms– started advertising The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, I knew I was in.
This show drew me in like few others, and I think this is partly because the show seemed real (in most respects, not all of course) and opened a window into an area of life many don’t know or understand. Having attended Catholic school for 12 years (as I write about here), I already knew about agape love, vows, sacraments, etc. But watching this show as a mother in my 30s I understood in a way I hadn’t before that becoming a nun is like becoming a wife and mother. Just as you don’t expect a wedding at 21 to work out terribly well, neither will joining a convent end well. Women need time to “date” the Church and a community, be engaged, and plan a wedding. These things rightly should take years and not six weeks.
So that’s the first way in which the show isn’t the most real. Discernment isn’t six weeks long, that was for a reality show.
The other way in which I felt the show was contrived was with the appearance of Eseni Ellington. I joked on Twitter that OF COURSE I find a pageant connection, even here. While it was never mentioned on the show, she has competed in Miss New York USA several times. I wonder if joining a convent ever came up in her judges’ interview?! I don’t want to question anyone’s true intentions, especially with a matter like this, but with her red acrylic nails (that miraculously– pun intended– stayed for SIX weeks), boyfriend drama (more on that in a second), and penchant for stirring the pot I think Eseni and/or the producers had their own agenda. Turns out that the boyfriend, Darnell Robinson has over 134,000 followers on Twitter, and has a reality TV history of his own, appearing on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 back in the day as he is the son of the president of Sugarhill Records. Reality TV worlds collide.
As for the other women, they clearly were on a very real journey. It’s clear that some started out further along in the process, like Claire and Christie, and others have some journeying to do in other ways. I found it interesting that some of the women’s families, like Stacey, have hopes that at least one of their children will lead a religious life. This seems like it might be a lot of pressure (in a way joining the family business of medicine or law isn’t). In fact, Stacey posted on Twitter last night that she has decided God is calling her to be a wife and mother.
On that note, as someone who consumes a great deal of reality TV, I appreciated that the show was filmed so recently and brought to air. Filming in August and airing in November is great– especially when you watch shows on Bravo like Real Housewives of New Jersey that air almost a year after filming. I also appreciated that all five women and many of the nuns are on Twitter and shared their thoughts (including break-out star Sr. Beth Anne).
I found Sr. Beth Anne’s comment that women today have so many choices ever so true (and, pageants connection again, I say something similar). This shows that women who join really know they want to do it. They aren’t running away from something (a la Sound of Music Maria). Religious women, like Sr. Beth Ann, were portrayed as multi-faceted in a way that reminded me a bit of the sisters portrayed in one of my favorite BBC shows, Call the Midwife.
If there is a season 2– either with some of these women or with others– I think the producers should give a bit more detail about the steps to becoming a nun. Like, beyond discernment there is postulancy, then novitiate, vows, perpetual vows (let’s hope this mom who just lit Hanukkah candles got that right). The sociologist in me always finds hierarchy interesting and I’d like more beyond “it takes a long time.” I would also love to see a religious order that doesn’t wear the habit. As was alluded to the 60s saw turmoil in the sisterhood and I thought it was off that all three orders shown wear a habit when so many no longer do that. US nuns have always been a bit “out there” (check out an unrelated article from just this week in the Times about the Vatican’s ongoing investigations into American convents).
On a final note, I’d love to get a sense of how much competition there is among religious orders in the US for new nuns. It was clear that Sr. Beth Ann’s order is almost desperate for sisters, saying they have been praying for more. While they say that they sometimes refuse some women, I am guessing when a women is serious about becoming a nun she could have orders fighting over/for her?
Now I need to go learn how many religious orders for sisters there are in the US. Anyone know?! All fodder for Season 2, Lifetime! More of this, less Abby Lee, please.