Tapping into the past to see how ideas and structures took form

By  Sr. Claire-Monique Lerman FMM, Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2007
{mosimage}Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700 by Silvia Evangelisti (Oxford University Press, 304 pages, hardcover, $39.95).

Even if a period of our history may seem foreign, it may offer insight into creativity, daring and commitment — qualities still so needed to become the sisters God hopes to always see in each of our convents. God saw it through the stories of women like Ana de Jesús (faithful companion of St. Teresa of Avila). Surely God can still see it today.
Silvia Evangelisti presents a detailed portrait of convent life from 1450 to 1700. She places this reality in the social, economic and political context of these three centuries. One discovers “that nuns’ lives were not at all remote from those of their contemporaries.” I found this a fascinating journey to a distant past which shaped the reality I try to live today as a Franciscan Missionary of Mary. It is good to go back to a history which tells us how certain structures and ideas took form. We need to understand where we came from.

{amazon id="0192804359" align="right"}Evangelisti deals with only one of the steps in the development of what nuns and religious have become today. Convent life started before 1450 with St. Scholastica and the founding of Benedictine convents at the beginning of the sixth century. It continued undergoing major transformations after 1700 with the development of many contemporary and missionary communities, such as mine, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Vatican II, with its review and redefining of religious life in the 1960s, is a key moment not addressed in this book. This needs to be stated, because the ecumenical Council completely retuned how convents define and understand themselves.

Evangelisti does not offer an understanding of what modern convents are all about. But she shows us the journey did not start in our century. This has been a very long and rich process. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that throughout history others have also tried to find answers to issues we grapple with today, such as living in community.

As I read this book, I kept asking myself if in a span of more than 1,500 years I would have chosen the same slice of history. I was delighted to be reminded that this is a key moment in the church’s history. “The period covered by the book allows us to look at some much-discussed aspects of European history from the gendered perspective of female monastic communities,” Evangelisti writes. We grasp the spiritual renewal of the mid-15th century, the major reform program of the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, the flourishing of ideas during the Renaissance and Baroque age, as well as the birth of socially oriented communities in the 17th century. I ventured further in my reading to see if some of these realities had marked our own church history in Canada. Then the names came vividly to mind: Marie de l’Incarnation, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Catherine de Saint-Augustin. As I recalled these women and their time, I realized what a gift they have been to our faith. Our medical, educational and social service systems were founded in large part by these daring women and their religious communities. Many of their hospitals, schools and social agencies stand to this day.

What most fascinated me was Evangelisti’s careful description of nuns’ lives through the testimonies of the ordinary, plain and humble sisters. It is true that great women like St. Teresa of Avila transformed religious life, but this was possible because thousands of women lived in convents. I was touched that someone finally took the time to hear their story. It is not always glorious. We see pain and hardships, but we also glimpse what made religious life relevant. In its obstacles, questions and darker facets, we stand amazed that it survived, transformed itself and even persevered to our own times.

There is a heritage to be treasured in these simple nuns’ lives. There are often vital lessons. In my own religious life, I have been molded and shaped by the great minds of our religious family: St. Clare of Assisi and Mary of the Passion, our foundress. I owe, however, a large part of my story to the lesser known members of our religious institute. They are the women who taught me how to persevere in fully living this call to God. I will need a lifetime of thanksgiving for the words of Sr. Léoncienne Boucher, fmm, in her 60th year of religious life, during an amazing Gospel sharing. “Lord, I stand before you a little more fmm than what I was yesterday and a little less than I will be tomorrow,” she said.

This book reminded me I must spend time with these incredible libraries that are our sisters. They teach us even in the frailty of the end of their lives. When asked how one makes it through 60 or 70 years of religious life, Sr. Béatrice Sylvain, fmm, stated this simple truth, “Take time to find the light switch.” If you have ever attempted to live in community like me, you will know the lifesaving grace of this tiny sentence.

Is this book “A History of Convent Life?” No, it does not accomplish this. This is an overview of a slice of time in the entire life of convents throughout history. As with all overviews, it leaves elements out and brushes too broad strokes over others. It does open the reader to an interesting discovery. Because it presents the topic through the eyes of women over three centuries, it “invites us to speculate about the many sides of nuns’ history that are still to be uncovered.”

Maybe Evangelisti’s gift has been to send me back to our own roots. To discover how women such as Clare of Assisi and countless Franciscan Missionaries of Mary have pondered and grappled with the same questions nuns still ask today. As a religious, I may find a pearl or two to help me on my way. Looking at what appeared to be such a distant and remote past, it may dawn on us there are life threads that connect us together.

(Sr. Lerman, FMM lives in a community of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary on Bathurst Street in Toronto’s downtown west end.)

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