Ask a nun...(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Nuns have certainly been in the news lately, and today we are privileged to welcome one to the blog, answering your questions!

Sister Helena Burns is a member of theDaughters of St. Paul, an international congregation of Roman Catholic Sisters founded to communicate God's Word through the media. She is finishing her M.A. in Media Literacy Education,  has a B.A. in theology and philosophy from St. John's University, NYC, studied screenwriting at UCLA and Act One, Hollywood, and holds a Certificate in Pastoral Youth Ministry. She is the movie reviewer for “The Catholic New World,” Chicago’s Archdiocesan newspaper, and is currently writing and producing a documentary on the life of Blessed James Alberione.

Sister Helena has been giving media and Theology of the Body workshops to youth and adults all over the U.S. and Canada since the 90’s, and believes that media can be a primary tool for sharing God's love and salvation. Her book for young adult women, He Speaks to You, comes out this June. She blogs here, and you can find her on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

We had nearly 100 questions roll in for Sister Helena, and despite the fact that she is in the midst of an incredibly busy travel season, she responded with wisdom, wit, and grace. Enjoy! 


From Elizabeth: Can you share a bit about when you realized you were called to be a nun and what the journey to actually becoming one was like?

I never wanted to be a nun. I was all about saving animals, conservation, and the environment. I wanted to be an ornithologist, but I had an existential crisis when I was 15, and this is how our amazing God answered me! 

I didn't really believe in anything till I was 15. I was raised Catholic and dragged to Mass every Sunday, but I only really believed in a kind of Creator-force, not a personal God, and certainly not Jesus or the Trinity. I was on a search for the meaning of life—I had always been a very philosophical kid—and was starting to despair that there wasn't one. People gave me pat answers. My friends said: "Why ask why?" I became depressed (not clinical or teenage hormonal depression--it was truly existential).

One night I thought: I wonder if this God-thing could hear me? I had been taught to pray but never did because I thought it was the stupidest and cheesiest thing I had ever heard. It was obvious that people did NOT get what they prayed for, and it was so grabbing and greedy: gimmee, gimmee, gimmee. People prayed not to die or get sick (or for their loved ones not to), which didn't seem to help. But I thought it was worth a shot here. This was my prayer: "O God, if you exist and you can hear me, please tell me why I'm alive, because I don't want to live anymore," and I went to bed.


The next morning I woke up with an incredible sense of peace. I could feel God's presence. I knew He loved me. I knew He was personal. It was like infused knowledge. Many of my questions were answered without anyone spelling the answers out for me. I knew death wasn't the end and that heaven was real and God was more excited about me being in heaven with Him than I was about getting there. It really didn't matter exactly what I did with my life: I didn't have to be successful, make a lot of money, try to make myself happy--it was all about this relationship.

Four days later I get this voice: "Be a nun." I barely knew what that meant, even though after K-8 in public school, I was at a Catholic high school run by nuns. At first I was excited and said "yes." Then I backpedaled. Then I said "yes." Then I backpedaled. This went on for two years. One night I decided: "That's it. No more nun stuff. I'm so glad to know you now, Lord, and thanks for the special invitation, but no thanks. I want to go ahead with my life as planned." I threw all my nun literature out and went to the movies, determined once and for all to forget it. I was planning to have a great time that night, but I was miserable. I came home, (I can still see exactly what I was wearing), and knelt by my bed and surrendered. I realized that if this was just my will, my crazy idea, there would be no problem, no struggle. But there were two wills duking it out. It was like Jesus' agony in the garden. I told God: "OK. I don't know how to make me happy, but You do. I'll do whatever you want (this nun thing), but please just make it very clear that this is really Your will." Again, an interior voice: "This is My will."  Alrighty, then! 

Some people say God's call is not like a thunderbolt, that He works through ordinary means, (which He usually does in my life), but the initial call was pretty sensational. Then I had to choose a congregation—which was a whole 'nother process of discernment. In the end, after a lot of prayer, I realized God was calling me to a spiritual mission—(I really loved Mother Teresa's Sisters and thought seriously of joining them)—to help people like myself who were searching. Ordinary people. Help people go deeper with God. Help people in spiritual pain, and so it became clear that the Daughters of St. Paul were it for me (evangelization with media). What better way to bring God directly into someone's mind/heart than with a book, a song, a film? I also loved that their particular spirituality was Eucharistic Adoration (to adore Jesus in His body, blood, soul & divinity in the Blessed Sacrament), because part of my journey was Him speaking to me from the Tabernacle in my church. 

From Charity: What, in your opinion, is the biggest misunderstanding or stereotype about nunnery? In reality what are the positives and negatives of being a nun?

 Um, I get the "Wow, a young, happy nun!" thing all the time. Like we're all old and cranky. One of our Sisters who was young and beautiful got the (other) non sequitur: "But you're so beautiful, why did you become a nun?" She answered, without missing a beat, "because God doesn't want just the old potatoes."  

The best thing about being a nun is that I don't have to deal with Jesus leaving the seat up. Nooooooo! Just kidding! It's really all about Him—to be all His and nobody else's, to have luxurious prayer time carved right into my daily schedule, and it's my duty to stop what I'm doing and go see Him. I know that if I wasn't a nun (I'm already so busy), I'd just become an activist and never seem to find time for Him.  The downside is the same thing, I think. Not to have a hubby and kids. That's the greatest sacrifice of the life. Transfers are also very, very difficult!

From Eric: Given that you've studied screenwriting, what do you think of the way nuns are portrayed in the movies or other media? Specifically, which such movie would you say is (A) the most realistic, (B) the most misinformed or otherwise ridiculous, (C) the funniest, and (D) your favorite?


 Great question, Eric! I actually did a paper on this: "The Changing Image of Priests and Nuns in Film." My premise is that Hollywood has been observing us through the years and basically gets us right! 

A) The nun (played by Susan Sarandon) in "Dead Man Walking" was one of the most realistic ever. 

B) "The Miracle" was pretty horrendous (a nun flees the convent and the Blessed Virgin takes her place---arrrrgggh), and even "Nun's Story" was pretty bad (all the inhuman nitpicking details of their lives to the point that little infractions of stupid customs were treated like sins). 

C) Can't beat "Sister Act" for the yuks, and actually a certain realism—the ice cream party. 

D) My favorite has to be "The Trouble with Angels." I wrote a blog post on nuns' favorite movies about nuns, and "The Trouble with Angels" came out #1. Although it's Hollywood, a touch schmaltzy, etc., there can be a kind of wholesomeness, bigness, spunkiness and engagement of life as it is by savvy nuns--as played by the great Roz Russell. 

From Katie: I hope this doesn't sound awkward, but I'm curious! How did you commit to a life of celibacy? Is this a struggle for nuns even after years of dedication to their career? What do nuns and priests think of Protestant pastors and elders that generally believe in marriage and marital intercourse in their own lives? Thank you!

 Not awkward at all! More and more I get this question. Our post sexual-revolution world can kind of just assume everyone is pretty much sexually active from their teens on. (I don't mean you assume this, but this is the feeling I generally get when questioned.) On college campuses, young adults just kind of honestly burst out now: "HOW do you DO it?" which makes me kind of think they must be sexually active when they say it like that. And, of course, I can understand their incredulity because sexual activity (of whatever kind) outside of marriage is addictive, while sex within marriage is bonding. 

Celibacy (self-mastery) has come to seem like an impossibility because some psychological camps says it's "unhealthy," and I'm afraid we have accepted a kind of deterministic/instinctual view of the human person: we're not really free—we're programmed. Young people are no longer apprenticed in celibacy. They are given every "good" reason to "go for it," and no good reasons to wait. Even religious people have lost a sense of the transcendent and afterlife. (So this is all there is. and we'd better get what we can, and of course, sex is THE best thing on the planet.)

I was just speaking to some older women in Nashville about Theology of the Body, and I said: "God invented sex. So He can't be all that bad." And one of the widows said: "My husband said: If God has something better than sex, He would have kept it for Himself." Ha ha ha. 

All that being said—I think it's like Jesus said: "Some are celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God," and of course, St. Paul talks a lot about it. It's a charism that some embrace as a lifelong WAY of life. However, everyone who is not married is called to be celibate until/unless married! So celibacy should be rather "normal," actually—at least temporarily. 

YES, YES! The struggle continues! And in my experience, it just gets worse! 1) Partly because you become a more mature, "seasoned" human being, God willing, and more capable of giving of yourself completely to another person. 2) Through Theology of the Body, I have come to just grasp what a great gift the marital relationship is. 3) As you get older, you get more desperate. Ha!  And—here's a kicker for you—if I had to choose which of the seven capital sins I struggle most with? Me, a celibate nun? It would be lust. Not BECAUSE I'm a nun and so lust is heightened and exacerbated, but simply because that's who I happen to be, that's my personal weakness, Achilles heel, whatever. 

The fact that Protestant ministers/elders get married is hunky dory with us! Actually, we don't really think about it that much. What's closer to home is the fact that Eastern rite (Catholic) priests can marry—which is a whole 'nother fascinating topic.

I think God may have allowed these two ancient traditions (East--married and West--celibate) in the priesthood to co-exist (although celibacy is more ancient, and bishops in the East are always taken from the celibate priests) so that we could learn to value both and see that these two vocations are not so much mutually exclusive as complementary. I could explain this more, but it would take a while. Suffice it to say that the true meaning of VIRGINITY=totally God's, body and soul. MARRIAGE=union, body and soul. So, considering those simplest, purest meanings...isn't everyone called to some kind of virginity? And isn't everyone  called to some kind of marriage? Yes! Just that here on earth, you gotta choose (or rather determine what you are CALLED to), because we can't do both, bodily, simultaneously. But in heaven--at the heavenly wedding feast--we will be able to do, or rather, BE both! And let us remember that first of all: "The body is for the Lord." So, first of all, we're all married to HIM! 

I'm sure that was all clear as mud. 

From Hannah C.: How do you respond to those who feel the Catholic Church's positions on issues involving women are harmful to women, and that the Church should change?

Hannah! This is a topic so dear to my heart! 

As a teen, I was starting to hate the Catholic Church, and thought it was oppressive to women. I rejected the Church's teaching on artificial contraception and didn't understand why women couldn't be priests. I think the feminists of the 70's asked a very important question that perhaps wasn't asked seriously ever before: "Why was Jesus male?/Why did Jesus come as a male?" It took me years to answer that question. I found the answer in Pope John Paul II's "Male and Female He Created Them--A Theology of the Body.”

I believe that the Catholic Church is MOST respectful, honoring and celebratory of women's gifts and our feminine identity in Christ. I do whole workshops on this! I would highly recommend this recent book,Women, Sex and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, which is a compilation of women scholars on various current issues, as well asThe Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church by Sr. Sara Butler. Sr. Sara Butler is a world-class theologian who helped the Anglicans get women's ordination and thought it would be a matter of time before the Roman Catholics would ordain women as well. And then she did a 180.

I used to consider myself a feminist—I think because I was searching for my true identity as a woman. Now I consider myself a woman. I don't need any labels, although I'm sympathetic to some feminist causes. I think the feminists went off when they embraced the culture of death (contraception and abortion) and in doing so denied their feminine identity, obliterated and did violence to the feminine, and, ironically, held up the male paradigm as the only good paradigm.

Yup. I'm a woman now--and everyone had better treat me like one. :-)

From Mama2Many: I am a Catholic woman working on a theology degree and (hopefully!) a future career as a healthcare chaplain. I am also the mother of 3 school aged children who has struggled with the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception. After nearly losing my life to postpartum depression, my conscience has led me to no longer follow the Church on this issue, if for no other reason than that my husband, children and others are better served by the life energy I share with them now that further childbearing is not an option for me. I truly feel "pregnant" with God's love which I can now share more fully in creative, life-giving ways that do not include pregnancy, childbirth and the raising of more children. Do you think there is room for me and my prayerful attempt at genuine discernment of God's will for me in the Church's Theology of the Body teaching?

 Dear Mama2, Many—Of course! Are you aware of Natural Family Planning and These are safe, natural, highly effective ways to regulate births. I totally understand the many life-threatening and other serious reasons women go on birth control, but the natural ways are more effective and healthy for you. NaProTechnology has cures for postpartum depression, infertility, severe cramps, endometriosis, etc, etc.

You sound like a very generous person. God love you!

From Hannah: I have the impression overall that monastic communities in the U.S. are aging and dying. Is this true or false? How and why are young people being attracted to religious life? What signs of renewal do you see? 

There are basically two kinds of religious life. Monastic or cloistered communities—the kinds that are enclosed and are dedicated to continuous prayer—have never lacked for vocations. They have flourished for 2,000 years! It's the active religious that have the bigger bumps in the road. The vocation crisis is more in active religious orders, and only in certain parts of the world (mostly the secularized West). Priest/nun/brother vocations are high in Africa, persecuted parts of the Church, Asia, the newer Churches, etc. In the West, the religious orders that are faithful to their charism, have an authentic, vital prayer life and apostolate, (and often a distinctive religious habit), witness to joy, and are welcoming, are the ones that tend to have more vocations! Young people wanna go for it. Young people are the most idealistic and wholehearted about things. So, generally, if they have been given a strong relationship with God by those around them as they grow up, they are more likely to consider a "religious vocation."

From Heretic Husband: What has being a nun allowed you to do that you could not have done if you were not a nun?

 Wow. I have led a wild and crazy life of adventure and met the most awesome everyday people everyday because I'm a nun. My horizons just broadened exponentially in every way. I had no plan B once God zapped me.

From Brenda P.: Have you ever second-guessed your decision to become a nun? If so, how did you work through that?


No. Which is unusual! Most do have "vocational struggles." My calling was so clear from the get-go, and I had so many initial struggles, that when I entered, I really loved the life and it was such a good fit. I did have all kinds of other problems/crosses/crises within my vocation, but the only time I ever felt that maybe God wanted me to leave (I didn’t want to leave!) That happened when things around me got so antagonistic and impossible (it wasn't anything internal), I thought maybe it was a sign that I should leave. And I prayed and struggled and finally got a good priest to help me through it. But what I heard in my prayer was this: "You're free. I trust you. It's your decision." It was like God wanted me to make the choice. He would not give me any direction. It was like He was saying: "You've had all the formation and experience. You know what it's going to be like if you stay, more or less. I respect your decision. I will love you no matter what." The utter freedom He gave me was really astonishing. Not that I didn't feel free before; it was just that it became so explicit! So, what is called the "noonday devil," or "midlife crisis," or "the second yes," became a day-to-day YES again to God. My YES became MORE free, and my non-negotiables about externals in my life became very, very clear.

From Chris: For those of us that are not in monastic communities, what are suggestions that you have for living more contemplatively in day to day life?

I would simply say, first of all, carve out some prayer time every single day and be faithful to it. "Half of life is showing up (and the other half is sticking around)." But God speaks in all the noise and bustle, too. We can never stop thinking or feeling. So one of the simplest ways to pray, is just to continually remember to consciously open up your thinking and feeling to God (esp. when you have to concentrate on some work or something). Just keep saying: I want You to see what I'm thinking and feeling--I want You to enter into it. And just chat to Him like a friend. Tell Him everything. Be utterly, utterly honest with Him. He loves it, and you'll love it, too. And sometimes you can hear Him laughing....

Check out the rest of our interview series—which includes an atheist, a Catholic, a pacifist, a Pentecostal, an evolutionary creationist, a humanitarian, a Mormon, a Mennonite, a gay Christian, and many more—here.

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