I am never surprised by what medical science learns about nuns. That they are latently afflicted with dementia, if at all. That they enjoy better health in later years compared to cohorts. That they live longer. That they write well and think clearly into old age.
I was educated K-12 by nuns: Sisters of Mercy in grade school and Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet in high school. Let me share what I know about nuns: a more forgiving group of women you will never find. In fact, the overarching atmosphere of my high school was one of forgiveness. I have no doubt the students at my girls-only high school disappointed the nuns on more than one occasion with, at the very least, some profoundly poor decision-making. I know I did. And yet, I knew in my heart the power of true forgiveness because they modeled it so effortlessly.
They had other gifts of grace. Sr. Rosemary, a fireball with a keen intellect, issued tough philisophical challenges in the Ethics class we all took junior year. Is it immoral to speed down Wornall Road at 2:00 AM if there are no other cars around? Not, mind you, is it illegal, but is it immoral?
First of all, no one in our lives back then would advocate for teenage girls to drive anywhere at 2:00 AM. Sr. Rosemary wouldn’t either, of course, but that was not the point. She let us imagine in that scenario that we could. Wornall was a main drag a block from our school that most of us drove on regularly. We knew the street well, and we knew it was primarily residential through that stretch and unlikely to have much traffic at 2:00 AM. We knew we’d be inclined to speed under such circumstances.
Her hypothetical was entirely plausible, which was brilliant. We struggled, we argued, we made cases, we thought about the implications of our decisions. Thirty four years later, I still contemplate the complexity of this question. I also know now that Sr. Rosemary has spent a lifetime, both in and out of the classroom, making people think hard about life’s hardest questions in regard to life and death, most recently through her work in the area of practical bioethics.
She also instructed us that telling someone to “shut up” was the most obscene thing we could say to another human being. She had us dissect the catch-phrase to appreciate fully its impact. Even now I can barely bring myself to utter that term in jest.
Nuns were also the best educated folks I knew, most of them having attained master’s degrees if not PhDs, since they spent many a summer studying toward them in between their teaching gigs during the school year.
I have seen them practice what they preach: unconditional love. They loved the bad kids and the good kids and the invisible kids and knew that all kids desperately needed love.
They lived in communities. The younger nuns respected the older nuns even if they disagreed with them or wanted to institute different practices. They figured out how to go along to get along and mastered the fine art of compromise—finding ways to make sure the group’s needs got met with a willingness to sacrifice their own if necessary, genuinely appreciating the transitory nature of desire.
They always made time for us even when they were busy. We were a priority: our education, our behavior, our values, our futures. Really, we were their children and they took enormous pride in our accomplishments and the epiphanies we experienced while in their care.