She [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. Luke 10:39
As an English major, I enjoyed reading Shakespeare. The title is from Hamlet and is a quote by Hamlet who is speaking to Ophelia. It starts with “If thou doest marry….Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumnity. Get thee to a nunnery.”
What’s not obvious today is the dual meaning of the word nunnery in Shakespeare’s time. It was both a place for pure women and a house of prostitution. Hamlet is effectively telling Ophelia that she is both pure and impure at the same time.
Fast forward to today, where we live in a post-Christian culture and a large percentage of millennials are “Nones”, which means they have no religious preference. The term comes from the U.S. Census form where there are choices of religion: Christian, Moslem, Jewish….or None.
According to a 2016 Pew study, 78% of the Nones were raised in a religious family before they abandoned their faith background as adults.
Surprisingly, there is a trend of millennial Nones becoming Nuns. That’s not a misprint. Millennial women are becoming nuns after a 50-year decline.
Until recently, the average age of women desiring to become a nun was 40. Now it is 24. There is even a website – Nuns and Nones – which has a subtitle of “An unlikely alliance across the communities of spirit.”
Another website –VocationWatch.com– is described as a “dating site for nuns”. Patrice Tuohy, the publisher, says there has been a significant uptick in interest in becoming a nun. Last year, she received 2,600 queries, up from 350 not long ago.
I am intrigued by this phenomenon, because it is a reversal of the millennial mantra “It’s all about me” which now becomes “It’s all about God.”
An article by Eva Fairbanks titled “Behold the Millennial Nuns” discusses this trend which, on the surface, seems to be a contradiction for a generation that has all but abandoned formal religion.
Fairbanks, who is Jewish, notes that in 2017, 13% of American women between the ages of 18 and 35 who responded to a Georgetown University survey said they had “considered becoming a Catholic sister”.
Fairbanks traces the paths of several millennials who are considering becoming a nun. I found it interesting because Catholicism, in particular, seems to be out of step with millennials, particularly in the aftermath of sex scandals and the #MeToo movement.
The Catholic church lost more members in the 20thcentury than any other religion in the U.S. according to a 2008 Pew Study. The U.S. population of nuns declined from 180,000 in 1965 to 50,000 in 2008. There are more nuns over 90 than under 60.
And what makes this trend even more surprising: the millennials seeking to be nuns are more doctrinally conservative than their predecessors according to Eva Fairbanks.
To someone who has studied the Spirituality of the millennials, I find this fascinating. Millennials, after all, are known as the “Me, Me, Me” generation. Becoming a nun is a direct contradiction to being self-absorbed.
It’s hard to draw generalities from this trend because the individual choice of choosing a lifestyle of a nun is…well….it’s an individual thing, not a collective response.
Still, the trend is so interestingly millennial counter-cultural. Fredrich Nietzsche, a philosopher, might have been on to something when he suggested that western civilization had killed God, replacing him with ourselves.
Nietzsche also said that underneath it all, there still “simmered a yearning for religion.” Nietzsche predicted that in our lifetime, “the world, and America in particular, would turn back toward more conservative, moralistic forms of religion.” I pray he is right.
I find this trend a positive indication of a spiritual yearning of millennials that is just now surfacing. It is playing itself out in interesting ways, including the interest in becoming a nun.
John Olon teaches a theology course at a Maryland Catholic high school, He was surprised when students wanted overwhelmingly to hear a conservative (as opposed to a liberal) speaker. He attributes it to some of the anxiety, depression and pessimism which permeates his students.
Olon says that the level of anxiety of the next generation is leading them to having midlife crises, only it is happening early. They are asking questions like “What have I ever really done that has any depth?”
Olon concludes that, while his students felt cornered, they desired to do something “truly wholeheartedly and unique”. They find the superficiality of getting likes on Instagram or Facebook is not a meaningful pursuit.
The next generation is complex: some have learned that being self-absorbed is not a path to enlightenment.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: A relationship with Jesus may play itself out in lots of ways. Mentors can help mentees work through those life options.
FURTHER READING: Eva Fairbanks – Behold the Millennial Nuns
Nones and Nuns website.
MentorLink:For more information about MentorLink, go to www.mentorlink.org.
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