“Habits are the new radical.”

I just heard this remarkably positive story on NPR’s All Things Considered, about a vocation boom for young Dominican sisters in Tennessee.

I almost never come into contact with sisters or nuns, and kind of forget they exist, to be honest, so I’m not automatically interested in stories about them.  But I defy you to listen to this story without feeling refreshed.

The story is a good read, and has accurate information that you rarely hear from secular sources — but it’s really worthwhile to listen to the audio:  Even to hear anyone speaking with such evident joy about their lives is a restorative experience — but to hear it on NPR!   An excerpt:

It’s a mysterious call to what they describe as a love relationship with Jesus. And for them it is literal: They consider the white habit a wedding gown.

“It’s beautiful, and it’s a reminder that you are a spouse of Christ,” says Sister Mara Rose McDonnell. But it’s more than that.

“It tells others that there’s a reality beyond this world. There’s heaven. We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven,” she says.

To the world, the habit is the most visible symbol of their commitment — one they all acknowledge exacts a price.

Sister Beatrice Clark trained as a litigator before entering the convent five years ago.

“Yeah, like motherhood and children, that’s the desire of a woman’s heart,” says Liederbach. “And being desired, and pursued by a man, that’s something for sure that’s a real sacrifice.”

But Sister Anna Joseph Van Acker says she’s weary of shallow relationships rooted in texting and Twitter — and finds the depth she’s looking for in God. “He has the love you don’t find by someone leaving a message on your Facebook wall,” she says. “It’s way better than someone saying, ‘I’m eating pizza for dinner right now,’ or whatever your Facebook status says right now. You don’t get fulfilled by that. Ultimately, all you want is more. And here, we’re thirsting for more, but we’re constantly receiving more as well.”

Nicely done.


  1. Whenever I read of the habit being a wedding gown or of nuns being the spouses of Christ, it makes me squirm. I’m not mystical enough or something.

    But I really like the rest of the story.

    • Eileen,

      While in a sacramental (with a small “s”) way religious sisters are particularly espoused to Christ, that same marriage is true of all Christians. Discovering ourselves as Bride – even men like me – can be one of the most profound revelations of our walk with Christ.

      The Song of Songs provides such a beautiful image of our God as lover, as Bridegroom, and we as the beloved, the Bride. It’s good to put a little romance into our spiritual life 🙂

      Merry Christmas!

  2. How nice that this convent is getting widespread attention. They were on the top of my short list when I was discerning my vocation, and I have personally met several of them. They really are as joyful and as “real” as the article makes them out to be.

    They’re also not the only place stuff like this is happening. The Cistercian Abbey near the University of Dallas (my alma mater) has ordained something like 5 or 6 new priests in the past four years, three of them former classmates of mine (so ages 29 and under).

    • I was actually accepted into the University of Dallas a few days ago! Do you have any advice? I’m trying to decide between UD and St. Edward’s (in Austin).

  3. Four Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia teach at my children’s school here in Kennesaw Ga.

    One of the sisters held a door for me and then thanked me. I asked her why she thanked me – shouldn’t I have thanked her for holding the door – and she said that she was grateful for my having given her the opportunity to serve. I have been truly blessed that my daughters have both been taught chastity by the sisters.

    The title of the article is telling as they use the term “Radical.” I tell my friends, there is nothing more “Radical” than Catholicism becuase there is nothing more “Radical” than eathing the flesh of God.

    Thanks for pointing out the article.


  4. ‘Liberal’ sisters take note: women discerning a religious vocation are only going to look at orders where the nuns are nun-like. If I wanted to be single, cut my hair short and wear flowered skirts, and live alone or with a roommate in an apartment- I would just be single! No need to be a nun

    – does this make sense? My brain is in a fog from sewing too much

    • I agree. I attended a high school run by the Ursulines, and the older sisters had modified habits (in my mother’s day–she went to the college that was run by the Ursulines–they had the HUGE habits that stood out around their heads, the full, long black habit and giant rosary beads). But some of the sisters wore plain street clothes, and had short hair, no habit. One sister, our guidance counselor, even wore earrings and perfume. It was very confusing.

      It was very confusing when my algebra teacher showed up at a basketball game wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. I kept forgetting to call her “Sister.”

      I like my sisters and nuns to look like sisters and nuns. Just like I like my priests to be wearing their collars when they’re out and about.

  5. Eileen, it’s OK if the bridal imagery isn’t for you. The monastic tradition is that the habit is one’s baptismal garment.

    EVERY soul is the spouse of Christ because the Church is the spouse of Christ and we are all members of the one Body.

    Nuns and Sisters are called to image this more radically to the rest of the world to remind us of our ultimate calling that we received through Baptism.

    Jmhj5, you are right; nuns have solemn vows and are usually cloistered; sisters live the active life. It’s not just a name change, either, but a real difference of being.

  6. You said, “I almost never come into contact with sisters or nuns, and kind of forget they exist, to be honest” How unfortunate.

    We are privileged and I mean privileged to live and worship in a community with the most amazing nuns we’ve ever encountered. In the words of our pastor, “They are a blessing for our community.” They are the “running nuns” of St Charles Childrens Home in Rochester, NH. They do far more than take care of troubled children. That they do very, very well growing them into solid citizens, many of whom come back to visit time after time.

    But they also immerse themselves into the community, making themselves visible everywhere. Their running excapades have been featured on national television. They participate in all the ministeries of our parish, and they exemplify the meaning of “sister.” Oh, and they wear habits too!

  7. Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard a lot of good things like that on NPR. Maybe you should listen more often? They also had an excellent blog post on their website at one point (during the latest flare-up of the pedophile priest scandals) by a Catholic explaining why the fact that there are sinners within the Church does not make being a Catholic a bad idea.

    • I don’t know, I still hear some awful things, so I think you still have to take the bad with the good if you listen to NPR. I was listening to This American Life recently, and the theme was Christmas jokes, featuring standup comics doing jokes about Christmas. So this one guy told about his boyhood and growing up Catholic. To make a long story short, when he was older his mother was debilitated by severe back pain, taking too much pain meds and going a little delusional. She was convinced she was dying and asked her son when she was going to hell. He told her she would never go to hell, and she said, “I’ve done some bad things in my life that you don’t know about.” So from that point on, he couldn’t believe in a religion that had convinced his mother that she was going to hell. Except on Christmas. I swear to you that was the punchline of the joke, nearly verbatim.
      It was outright Catholic bashing, and they shouldn’t have included it in the piece.

  8. I’m amused to see this photo of the sisters playing basketball. My husband & I attended the recent meeting for the 3rd order laity at the motherhouse here in Nashville–during a snowstorm. Bitter winds, snow, just nasty weather. The sisters were out taking walks and flying kites (seriously, flying kites). These are not shy, shrinking, timid women. They’re amazing!

  9. Thank you for the article! And nothing more radical than Catholocism, indeed. I was uplifted even before I went on to the original article. 🙂

  10. The thing that I always try to remember about consecrated religious – both active religious and cloistered – is how they pray.

    The Cistercians (Trapppists) pray seven hours each day. The Dominician Sisters of St. Cecilia send us Christmas cards, usually with a note stating that they will pray a rosary for my family on a certain date or that they will pray a holy hour for my family on a specific date.

    When we forget or are too busy to pray or just plain don’t care enough about ourselves to bother to pray for our own needs, the consecrated religious are there praying for us and for the world. I sometimes email my prayer requests to monataries throughout the world, confident in the knowledge that they will receive them and pray them.

    John Paul II called the consecrated religious “The lungs of Christianity.”

    No, they are not timid. The Monks I have met are all hard as nails.


  11. Regarding them being “sisters” versus “nuns”…

    In the Dominican Order, there is a distinction in the way we use those words. The nuns of the order are fully cloistered (i.e. they live papal enclosure), contemplatives whose primary and only “apostolate” is one of prayer and penance. They live in monasteries and normally speaking do not leave except under truly exceptional circumstances, e.g. to receive necessary medical care. There are over a dozen monasteries of cloistered Dominican nuns in the country, several of which are growing with many young vocations. One such monastery is located in Summit NJ, you can read about them at http://nunsopsummit.org/.

    The sisters of the Order, on the other hand, live in convents and have an active apostolate “out in the world.” There is still a contemplative component of their vocation, but also a strong active one as well. In the case of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, that apostolate is teaching. Other congregations of Dominican sisters have other apostolates.

    Not all religious orders have this distinction between nuns & sisters, but us Dominicans definitely do.

  12. You are proving yourselves to be true ‘brides of Christ’ — I’m so VERY proud of you.
    I’m a 64 yr. old widow of 3 sons but love the Catholic Church thru and thru and doing my best to serve the Lord
    . I’ve reached the pt. in my life where I truly no longer fear death because I know that this life is about focusing on serving God and running the good race at St. Pauls says. However my end will come when our good God chooses and there could be many crosses yet to come..
    But you are you are such beautiful women of Christ & I delight in the fact that you have chosen to wear simple attire rather than being sucked in by vanity.
    St Claire had it right all along. Your courage is l00x what the women’s feminist movement possesses – they’re worldly & blind to what this life is all about..
    God bless you all.
    Within the Peace of Christ,

  13. This is why I love NPR; it’s the only radio station I listen to!

    And the pic of the nuns playing b-ball reminds me of a retreat I once went to at a Benedictine monastery that was located close to a convent (I forget which order). Anyway there was a big sort of field-day for the retreatants in the woods and fields that separated the two, and some of the monks and nuns came out and played frisbee with us retreatants. It was raining pretty hard that day, and by the end of it their habits were covered in mud, but gosh it was fun!

  14. I live near this order’s Retreat House about 50 miles west of Nashville. I believe the closest retail outlet is about 5 miles away and that’s a gas station/convenience store. Yet it’s not at all unusual to observe the Sisters walking purposely down the road, in animated conversation…on the hottest summer days.

    More remarkable is the strenuous effort I see exerted as they cut grass, hack away brush, trim trees, and pull stumps.. again in hot weather, in full habit, and in a locale whose most prominent inhabitant is the loathsome tick.

    Much of this work is being accomplished, I believe, in preparation for the completion of a new Retreat House which is currently under construction. Many in this largely Christian (but non-Catholic) area are awaiting its completion. This is as close to Rome as many will get and already the Sisters’ obvious work ethic and always-pleasant demeanor have done much to ameliorate some long-held misconceptions.

    God bless them as they continue…

  15. I’m so glad you brought this to my attention. I enjoyed the article and the discussion very much. It’s wonderful that in the Church we can take the long view–centuries long. Things are difficult now? All we can do is try to live God’s will for us now, and let Him take care of how everything will work out.

  16. My sister entered the Missionaries of Charity thirty years ago. I was in my early 20s and remember visiting her in New York. I was pretty disillusioned by the social and dating scene, but was really inspired to see all those beautiful, joyful young women. I remember hoping that there were young woman of joy and faith out there who hadn’t received a vocation to the religious life.

    It’s wonderful to know that there are other orders that adhere to a traditional life. I really believe that the future of vocations lies with the challenge of living a traditional life of faith in spite of our crazy world. Making religious life more “modern” or worldly or easy is not the answer. I tend to think of the sisters (and nuns) as beacons of love and stability in turbulent and unpredictable times.

  17. It is only proper, that Sisters or Nuns should wear their habits, in fact Pope John Pual II stated, “If you appear in my presence, Yyou will wear your Habit, as a sign of respect to your Rerligious Order”

    Yes the Habit is worn to signify that they are the bride of Christ, and the also wear a Wedding Ring for the same reason

  18. We just moved away from Nashville, and I found this post made me ache for my favorite part of living there: the very tangible witness my girls saw in the Sisters at their school. How do parents encourage girls to examine a vocation if there is nothing to witness? Sure, they can visit convents, but are dependent on a quick impression. In Nashville my girls had the gift of familiarity and the example of another ‘normal’ vocation. I MISS OUR SISTERS!!!

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