Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and “silver white winters that melt into springs.”
Sigh. “I wish there were Lutheran nuns.”
It wasn’t the first time Sara, my best friend since fourth grade, had said it, only half tongue-in-cheek. It wouldn’t be the last.
We knew almost nothing about nuns beyond their trademark black and white habits — just a few tidbits we’d pieced together from movies like Sister Act, Nunsense, The Sound of Music, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. At fourteen, though, we were already somewhat weary of the world and scared to death (though we might never have admitted it) of the perilous mid-90’s dating landscape looming before us. We both felt a mildly wistful longing for a cloister to hide away in, set apart and safe from the temptations and profanities of modern life. We yearned for a more peaceful, consecrated existence where we could be free, really free, to devote ourselves whole-heartedly to seeking God and serving others. And since almost all of the people closest to us at the time were girls — friends, sisters, cousins — the idea of a perpetual, sacred community of sisters held a powerful allure.
Sara’s comment was, of course, pure pipe dream. There were no Lutheran nuns (at least not in the Missouri Synod), and we had no real desire to convert to Catholicism simply for the privilege of living in a convent. Before too many years had passed, I came to find that God had prepared a very different (very joy-filled) vocation for me: that of wife and mother. Sara, too, is now happily married.
Yet I have never lost my fascination with the Catholic religious orders — so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Elizabeth Rapley’s book, The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World on Eerdmans’s Spring 2011 list. At last I’d have a chance to get some real answers about the life I that had so piqued my interest as a teenager. At last I’d know more about monks and nuns than I could learn from Hollywood.
Of course, I really had no idea what I was diving into.
The history of the Catholic religious orders is massive. It reaches back to the Egyptian deserts in the third century and stretches through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the way to the twentieth century and beyond. Moreover, the religious orders have been so intricately intertwined with Western culture and civilization that reading Rapley’s book at times feels like reading the story of the whole world, or at least all of Europe, rather than just one relatively minor portion of a larger narrative.
What’s more, it’s complex. In my Protestant ignorance I always just figured that boys become monks and girls became nuns — end of story. I never before would have thought to notice the obvious difference between the contemplative orders (think The Sound of Music) and the active orders (think Sister Act II), or even between the monastics (monks) and the mendicants (friars). I would never have guessed at the dizzying array of orders available to Catholics interested in the religious life: Benedictine, Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Cistercian, Jesuit, Carmelite, Salesian, Vincentian, and many, many more, each with its own unique history and its own unique approach to piety, austerity, and service.
In almost any other volume, this would all be too much to absorb — a sheer overload of information. Seventeen centuries of history. Dozens of orders. Scores of individual personalities. Yet Elizabeth Rapley manages it stunningly.
It helps that she’s a gifted writer with a flair for words and sentences that makes her work a joy to read. Her writing is at times dramatic — but then, so is the subject matter. Rapley’s lively writing brings all the many characters to life. She’s quite right to call her book the story of the religious orders. (Here’s an excerpt, if you’d like to see for yourself.)
As I close the book on The Lord as Their Portion, it’s pretty obvious to “grown-up me” (as it kind of always was to my teenage self) that I will never take holy vows. But I also will never lose my respect and admiration for the men and women that do. Though Rapley doesn’t gloss over the ignoble moments (or even the ignoble eras) of their history, I am in no way deterred in my awe of this sanctified and increasingly rare way of life: a life single-mindedly devoted to God, to the church, and to fellow humanity.
And although, in her epilogue, Rapley expresses uncertainty about whether the religious orders, now so often dwindling, will endure indefinitely into the future, I cannot foresee them ever vanishing completely. Indeed, one of the many patterns I see lacing itself through Rapley’s broad history is this: in every age, human beings hunger for the divine — and always, there are many who long, sometimes with very private sighs, for the opportunity to make a more radical commitment to God.
In fact, I’ll play prophet here and predict that our culture is now ripe for a new blossoming of consecrated religious life. As I witness the emphasis being placed on organized piety by my fellow Missouri-Synod Lutherans this Lenten tide, as I hear rumors of a new monasticism springing up among young Evangelicals — even as I listen to NPR on my evening commute — I see the old spirit of the religious orders not only surviving but gaining ground.
In an age of jaded hyper-sexuality, the religious orders offer chastity. In an age of rampant consumerism, they offer voluntary poverty. In an age of spiritual apathy and relativism, they offer steadfast faith and moral certainty. In an age of unbridled license, they offer structure and discipline. In an age of isolation and loneliness, they offer community.
No, I don’t think the story of those who take “the Lord as their portion” will be ending any time soon. Now, about those Lutheran convents . . .
For a note from Elizabeth Rapley on the countercultural men and women we call monks and nuns, read her blog entry From Maternity Ward to Death Row.