Monday, June 6, 2011

Writing A Ghostly Nun Tale

by Julia Buckley
From the time I entered first grade to the day I graduated from high school, I benefitted from the teaching of Dominican Sisters. I suppose it's no surprise, then, that the second book in my Madeline Mann series, LOVELY, DARK and DEEP, is heavily populated with nuns.

The premise of the book: Madeline is approached by her former high school English teacher, Sister Moira McShane, about the death of a nun named Sister Joanna. Moira fears that Joanna's death--ten years in the past and deemed an accident--was foul play, but her only evidences of this are her own troubling dreams. Madeline, skeptical in her faith and about this case, takes it on merely as a favor to her beloved teacher. In the ensuing investigation, she finds out that even nuns have secrets, and it becomes her task to expose those secrets . . . and a murderer.

So why did I write about nuns? I suppose they are very much a part of my consciousness, and certainly they shaped who I am today. But as Madeline points out in the book, women religious are often misunderstood, and what people don't understand, they turn into stereotypes or caricatures. Yet the nuns Madeline encounters are women of faith and humor; they are regular human beings who are willing to live their beliefs in a structured way.

And their numbers are dwindling. Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, wrote that "It is true that the numbers of U.S. women religious declined precipitously, by tens of thousands, from the highpoint (at least 120,000) in the mid-sixties to something around 60,000 today. This was due principally to two factors, not identical, namely, the sharp drop-off in numbers entering religious life and a major exodus of professed religious from the life. These phenomena were largely simultaneous which leads many people to fail to distinguish between them."

I went to a parish school in the 1970s, so I was still enjoying the benefits of a large and diverse population of nuns who had many talents to share. What did they give me?

First, a fine education. The women who taught me were professionals who possessed vast knowledge about their fields.

Second, a belief in excellence. These women did not settle for second best, and that has influenced the way I see the world.

Third, an open attitude toward faith. The nuns who taught me theology weren't horrified by students who questioned Catholic doctrine or vocalized their doubts. They wanted their students to think for themselves.

Fourth, a full investment of themselves in the classroom. These were energetic, joyful, intelligent women who wanted to share their knowledge of Latin, English, math, science, theology, chorus. They were women who believed in the pillars of Dominican life, especially prayer, study and community.

So it's not surprising, I suppose, that Dominican sisters would find their way into my writing.

And if Madeline's encounter with the sisters is something that interests you, you can find LOVELY, DARK and DEEP on Nook and Kindle. ;)


Diane said...

Julia, you mention the dwindling numbers of women becoming nuns. At least here in the US. I have also heard that there are a dwindling number of men entering the priesthood, too. And I'm wondering if that isn't true of all of our faiths in this country. At least the Christian ones. And I wonder why. I'm not particularly religious myself. But I do see so many adults who were at least raised in one religion or another who no longer attend any church. I actually only know a very few who do. I can count 5, and they comprise between them 3 different faiths: 1 Mormon, 1 Unitarian and 3 (2 teens and their Mom) Catholic.

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, I've thought about this a lot. One article I read suggested that many people entered religious orders in the 1960s because they still sought a post-war (and mid-war) spirituality.

In my last graduate class, one of the women was writing a paper about the shift between religious fiction to "spiritual" fiction, and she suggested that it linked with people no longer affiliating themselves with one religion, but with a general, universal spirituality.

I've also heard that in Europe the shift is even greater, and that many grand old cathedrals have become museums.

Leslie Budewitz said...

I've long thought that a major reason fewer women have entered the convent since the mid 1970s is that women now have so many other career options. Before then, the convent was the best way to get an education and have a career, though it was largely limited to teaching or nursing, esp for a woman with the talent and ambition to manage a large business. Where but a hospital or school could she do such a thing?

The nun you quote distinguishes between fewer entering and more leaving -- but to me as a teenager in the 70s, in schools run by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, they were two faces of the same coin. Most of the nuns I knew from 1970-74 later left, and only one girl from my school entered the convent.

A fascinating bit of cultural history.

Julia Buckley said...

An interesting point, Leslie. Within the structure of the convent a woman could tap into many talents that other careers potentially only allowed to men.

And don't get me started on the fact that they couldn't (and can't) be priests.

Steve Moore said...

Yep, those nuns can be spooky, especially with a ruler in their hand. By the way, one of my favorite LPs was, and still is, The Singing Nun...c'est si bon!