A scene from the 1966 film 'The Trouble with Angels'.

Sr. Helena Burns: Every life is fascinating — a nun’s too!

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  • January 12, 2022

I was recently interviewed by a secular news outlet about a new fictional film featuring nuns. I almost didn’t do the interview. Why not? Because I know better.

I’ve done many of these types of interviews. They usually don’t turn out well. How so? More often than not, the interviewer is woefully ignorant of and not interested in religious literacy. These journalists often don’t come with an open mind — meaning that they’ve already formed their opinions, the article is already written in their heads and they just need a veiled specimen to weigh in a with a few quotes (often twisted and taken out of context in order to sound more adversarial or just plain kooky).

Even if one of these inquisitors might have some good will, you can be sure there’s an editor hanging a sword of Damocles over their head to produce something controversial and sensational.

Said scribes often have an axe to grind with religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. They can’t fathom her teachings, personally embrace something quite contrary, and because of that, in our woke culture, don’t understand that their job is to present an impartial news story, not advocate and agitate for their cause. 

To top it all off, the nun movie in question was a particularly lascivious one. (I only watched the trailer and “had seen enough,” but the reporter still wanted to interview me.)

A veteran New York media professional reached out to me and told me I shouldn’t have dignified the film with my commentary and “let it profit from your rightful objections,” citing that “no publicity is the worst kind of bad publicity.” I shared with him how and why I took the bait. I had actually done a 90-page paper for my Media Literacy Masters entitled: “The Image of Priests and Nuns in Film,” so I was rather prepared. And couldn’t resist.

Needless to say, my most brilliant points did not find their way into and shape the rather shallow and cursory end-product.

The problem with bad nun movies is that they run on stereotypes. There are typically six. 1. The mean nun (often Mother Superior). 2. The sexy nun (often a lesbian, but that’s not a requirement). 3. The mentally ill nun (believes she’s having supernatural experiences). 4. The ditzy nun (super cute, but one crouton short of a Caesar salad). 5. The naïve nun (invincibly innocent and dreamy). 6. The mousy nun (scared of her own shadow — religious life is her safe space).

Why these six? Because these are the only categories the filmmaker has! If the filmmaker is an atheist, or a believer but not a Catholic, the lives of nuns are unfathomable. To the atheist, we are deluded women who have married our invisible Friend in the sky. To the non-Catholic believer, there must be something else wrong with us. It couldn’t possibly be that God is real and He is more than enough for us. It couldn’t possibly be that we simply want (because God has called us) to radically dedicate ourselves to love of God and neighbour.

I was taught in film school that a screenwriter should “write what you know.” This doesn’t mean to limit yourself only to your experience, but to write about emotional territory that you know. This knowledge can be transferred into any lifestyle, profession, geographical location, set of relationships, etc., but… you gotta know what you’re talking about. That rarely seems to happen with (bad) nun movies. At least do your homework!

What other cinematic figures would get such shoddy treatment? Puhleeeeze. You can find a decent-looking habit with a simple Internet search. We do not wear rosaries around our necks, let alone wall rosaries. (If you’re not familiar with a wall rosary, it’s a large decorative rosary you hang on a wall. The beads are the size of golfballs.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of well-done nun flicks. My favourite will always be The Trouble with Angels. I guess my stereotype is the spunky nun.

To finish off my hour-long interview, I was asked a wonderful, thought-provoking question: “What would you like to see in nun movies and religious movies in the future?” I had to think for a moment, but then I had it.

“I’d like to see holiness,” I said. Ordinary people striving to live out their vocations with all their highs and lows. And that doesn’t mean boring. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone’s life is fascinating. Everyone’s life is an adventure. Especially when you let God in.

(Sr. Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. HellBurns.com  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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Stereotype of nun who only wears turtlenecks

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