The Nuns of Fiction: Experts in Affliction and Awe

By Claire Luchette

A group of crows is a murder; pandas, an embarrassment; nuns, a superfluity — a term that dates to the Middle Ages, when nunneries were overcrowded, lice-ridden and destitute. Today, there’s no such thing as too many nuns, as few women are taking vows. But the nuns who are among us remain ecclesiastical workhorses. Ordained men can stand in persona Christi, allowing them, for example, the superpower of transubstantiation. But if priests stand at the front of the church as middlemen between God and the faithful, nuns are at the front lines of suffering: They bring God to the meek, poor, sick, imprisoned — those, in other words, whom society has deemed superfluous and disposable.

“It’s the nuns who keep things running,” Alice McDermott writes in her excellent nun-dense novel “The Ninth Hour.” Her Little Sisters of the Sick Poor are prime examples, as the name suggests: They spoon-feed the toothless, comfort the grieving, scrub floors, clean wounds, change diapers, empty bedpans. The backbreaking work is unpleasant, but they’re dauntless; they’re committed to providing a “pure, clean antidote to filth, to pain.”

Nuns aren’t always in stories to serve as exemplars of goodness, of course: Chaucer’s nun was a phony. And the vow of chastity has long made nuns a target for eroticization. Boccaccio’s nuns are carnally insatiable; Isabella’s virtue is up for grabs in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”; temptation and obsession drive Rumer Godden’s “Black Narcissus.” Other times, nuns are targets for politicization: Anti-Catholic authors of Gothic novels — Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Brontë — were brutal to their sisters, beating them bloody or rendering them as evil, vindictive ghosts. In these stories, nuns are made objects of fantasy, lust and loathing.

But in more recent fiction, the extent of nuns’ otherness makes for tension and rich characterization. Nuns keep themselves physically and culturally confined, ostensibly concerned with salvation and the celestial, but they, more than any other group in the church hierarchy, bump up against the world and all its ugly suffering. In that friction lies much narrative potential.

McDermott’s nuns insist on showing up for those who suffer, and insistence might be the unspoken fourth vow of sisterhood, after poverty, chastity and obedience. Consider the hard-nosed Sister Edgar, who first appeared in Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda” and later in “Underworld.” She drives through the “lost streets” of the South Bronx during the AIDS crisis, in neighborhoods populated with “burned-out buildings and unclaimed souls,” and distributes food. After a 12-year-old girl is raped and thrown off a roof, people swear her face miraculously appears on a billboard for Minute Maid orange juice. The spectacle is both sublime and prosaic, easily reasoned away (a papered-over ad shines through), but reason is cold comfort for Sister Edgar. Craving a modern miracle, she gazes upon the billboard and insists she can see one. She allows herself some awe.

Can wonder be conjured, insisted upon, or is it something that happens to us? For Sister Edgar, it’s both: Sometimes transcendence comes about by matter of necessity. Who else but the poor and the suffering, she asks a younger, more rational nun at dinner, would have visions of heaven? “Do saints and angels appear to bank presidents? Eat your carrots.” Awe is not a luxury, DeLillo suggests — it’s humble. A quiet reminder that feeling is not the same as knowing, and that suffering can give way, if only for a moment.

Edgar opts to wear the old-school habit and veil, and in the South Bronx in the 1990s, a habited nun is an appropriate image, she thinks. “What figures could be so timely, costumed for rats and plague?”

The Black Death comes to Oby, a 14th-century Benedictine convent, early in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel “The Corner That Held Them.” But the plague is just one of a litany of hardships in the book. Warner’s nuns aren’t out moving among the suffering; they bear the suffering themselves. The novel renders the dailiness of life for a cloistered superfluity — no one woman matters more than any other, and plot is done away with; there’s no tidy narrative arc or chain of cause and effect. There’s only minutiae: The nuns make structural repairs; weather happens. They fret about prioress elections and daily expenses — “the high price of pins, the extravagance of little loaves, the wastage of candles” — more than they do the Black Death.

It’s a world run by women, with its own rules and rhythms. But this can be suffocating. One nun bemoans her loneliness, even in a crowd. “There can hardly be intimacy in the cloister: Before intimacy can be engendered there must be freedom, the option to approach or to move away.” The convent is dedicated, with a wink from Warner, to the patron saint of prisoners.

Elsewhere, the cloister is a haven. In Lauren Groff’s new novel, “Matrix,” set in 12th-century England, 17-year-old Marie of France is cast off to a crumbling, indigent convent because she’s “really rather remarkably ugly,” not fit to be a wife. Marie is a force of nature: Over many years she transforms the place into one of prosperity, complete with a scriptorium, lush fields and a secret passageway “so complex it would dismay all but the most determined visitors.” She remains determined, throughout, to keep her fellow nuns safe from the outside world. For Marie, monastic life is beautiful and safe. She makes a refuge of a home for unwanted women, a superfluity for the superfluous: “There is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult, in this enclosure there is love enough here even for the most unlovable of women.”

Does such a place exist, off the page, in 2021? We ache for want of so much shelter. It’s as Sister Edgar asks, in DeLillo’s story: “Now that the Terror has become local, how do we live?” How do we reconcile fear with duty, the heavenly with the lowly, the sublime with the grim? The nuns of fiction can teach us to do away with reconciliation. Let each coexist, but do what you can to tip the scales in favor of more wonder, more goodness.

Sometimes this necessitates transgression — McDermott’s nuns overlook certain edicts and call in favors to work around the powers that be. Other times, it necessitates art-making. Authors give us books about nuns as their own stays against mortal agony. There is a moment in Warner’s novel when the bishop’s clerk journeys to a leper house and participates in an impromptu recital of Ars Nova, a new style of polyphonic music. He’s overcome with rapture, astonished to hear gorgeous singing amid disease and filth. “Such music,” he exclaims, “and such squalor!”

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