The Other I

January 29, 2008

A nun’s final vows

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 5:28 pm

It’s a little embarrassing to look back and see what was so obviously going on when I made my final vows as a Maryknoll nun.  Final vows are supposed to mean final commitment, no going back, no changing your mind, no breaking the promise.  So it takes some fancy footwork to explain how I managed to take final vows, and why I am sitting here now a very married and thoroughly non-nun for more than 40 years.

I will start  with the more ego-enhancing part of the explanation which, I admit, I’ve only recently thought up.  It is that the Catholic Church itself sees final vows as less irrevocable than getting married or becoming a priest.  In fact, women outside of marriage don’t have a commitment that the Church sees as irreversible.  Men do but not women.  I think it makes it just that little less significant, that little less binding.

Baptism, and marriage, and ordination to the priesthood can’t be undone, even by the Pope.  I can’t go to Rome and say I want my original sin back, that it was removed from my soul when I was baptized and before I was old enough to give my consent and that it’s not good enough to say I can easily produce many more sins of my own.  This was my first sin and it was an original. 

I can’t go to Rome and say I don’t want to be married to X anymore either.  If I have enough money, I might be able to convince the powers in Rome that it was never a valid marriage in the first place, but if I can’t achieve that, I’m irrevocably married until one of us dies.  Likewise, priests can be unfrocked and relieved of their priestly responsibilities, but they can’t be un-ordained.  Being made a priest is a permanent state for life.

Becoming a nun, even taking final vows after many years on probation, never becomes irreversibly permanent in that way.  Rome reserves the power to release nuns from their vows. 

So perhaps the fact that I took my relationship with Peter more seriously from the start than in retrospect I took my final vows at Maryknoll was in part the result of a subtle socialization.  I always knew it didn’t really have to be for keeps.

But there are other explanations, too, for which I must take a greater share of personal responsibility.  About which, more on another post.


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    Comment by comet tail — May 31, 2013 @ 3:07 am | Reply

  4. I always thought, when one takes a VOW before GOD, whether, married, single or religious, public or private, it can NOT be undone, revoked, expired etc. Vows and Oaths made to God, whether in marriage, religious life or a Chaste Virgin single life, that are broken, will be accountable for in the next life, as they are ALL BINDING! Just as those whom God has called to take VOWS, to marry/ religious/ or the Chaste Virgin single life, and do their OWN WILL, instead of God’s WILL!
    It works both ways…


    Comment by Joyce — September 23, 2013 @ 9:27 pm | Reply

    • Yes, many people think that vows are binding and irrevocable, but that is theologically incorrect. Interestingly, a priest’s ordination, and the vows of marriage are irrevocable, and even Rome cannot revoke them. According to Rome, only death can end a marriage or bring a man’s priesthood to a close, whether or not he has technically left the priesthood and even been defrocked. But one can be released by Rome from many vows, including those taken by nuns. The night before I took my final vows, I asked my spiritual adviser if I could take them legitimately, because I wasn’t sure I belonged in the convent for life. He told me I should take them. Rome released me from the vows before I left.

      But to me you sound a little eager to remind me that not doing God’s will will result in my ultimately being punished. But I think the mark of a true Christian is not one concerned with punishment but with forgiveness. Jesus, in the midst of the excruciating agony of crucifixion prayed “Father, forgive them.” He didn’t call for vengeance, or punishment, or remind his persecutors that it works both ways…


      Comment by theotheri — September 24, 2013 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  5. Having been a nun myself for five years. I made temporary, not final vows. before I decided it was not the life for me.
    After going to Thailand several years ago with my husband I learned that Buddist monks and nuns make temporary vows too, all the time, (though some decide to make it permanent) and live an itinerant prayerful life for a while then return to normal, secular life.

    Culturally, there is no stigma attached to this temporary experience, as there was when I left “in secret” according to “the rule” back then, many decades ago. I mention this in my book, THE CHOSEN SHELL, and strangely enough, I had to go to a couple happy ex nun reunions before it dawned on me that I’d never said goodbye many years before to many of these talented and caring women with whom I’d become friends. Consequently, it was wonderful to renew these friendships many decades later.

    So I think this Buddist practice should be adopted for any nun or priest or minister who truly wants to try a contemplative life for a while, knowing they freely can leave at any time without sad consequences or judgement from others.


    Comment by Kas Sartori — July 6, 2014 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

    • I agree. I too remember people being forced to leave without any farewells and no contact with them after they were gone. What a strange concept of community. I don’t know about the community of which you were a member, but I know that the Maryknoll sisters not only no longer secret people out the door in the dark, but have apologized to those to whom it happened, and every year there is a reunion at the motherhouse in which all nuns and ex-nuns are welcome. It is hugely healing for some.

      I also agree with the Buddhist practice that recognizes that a contemplative life does not have to be for all of one’s life in order to be immensely valuable. It’s not a failure to return to the active life, anymore than going on a weekend retreat and then going back home is a failure.

      I am familiar with your book The Chosen Shell and recognize many of the themes. I think it can help a lot of people understand the angst of convent life, especially in the 1960’s, when we were both nuns.


      Comment by theotheri — July 7, 2014 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

      • I am surprised you already knew about my book, since I’ve never mentioned it until this previous comment. May I ask how you heard about it?


        Comment by Kas Sartori — July 9, 2014 @ 12:58 am | Reply

        • Sometime ago, someone asked me if I thought your story was an authentic reflection of convent life and its aftermath. I have not read your book, but they told me much of the story line, and I said that although sex is not the primary problem for all celibate religious, it certainly was a frequent conflict. Not everyone dealt with it in the same way, as I am sure you would agree. Some, both men and women, stayed faithful to their religious vows, some stayed within the confines of the religious institution while establishing sometimes quite long-term sexual relationships, others left, some continuing their mission together to serve the poor, often in foreign countries, others establishing new relationships. One of the things that surprises me is how many people of my acquaintance have married fellow ex-religious – ex-nuns marrying ex-priests.

          I do see now that your book is available on Kindle. I hope you are having success in marketing it. Although perhaps the most valuable part of writing it was for you as the writer. I know that is true for myself in relation to my most recent book, The Big Bang to Now.

          Best of luck. Terry

          On Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 1:58 AM, The Other I wrote:



          Comment by Terry Sissons — July 9, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

  6. Sexual relations that nuns were having! Please explain.


    Comment by barbara Morris — August 8, 2014 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

    • Barbara – I do not refer in this post to any sexual relations that nuns were having. I do know now that there have been nuns (as well as priests) who have engaged in sexual relationships over the years. I was not aware of this during the 9 years I was in the convent, however, nor did I have any overt sexual relationships during that time. There are others, however, who have written about this age-old topic. It is, I believe, something which has occurred for as long as there have been priests and nuns.


      Comment by theotheri — August 9, 2014 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

      • Thank you for your reply. I had a second cousin who was a F.S.P.A., for 40 years. I am aware how strict her community was, of course that was in the day. Sister passed away in 1959, gives you a idea about that timeline. I am so happy to read about what has gone on inside convent walls, as we really have no idea, in “reality” . It is good to read about reasons some sisters have left the convent. I have the utmost respect for religious in and ones who have left. Some of what I am hearing about that is going on in this era is very upsetting to me. I am glad to be able to have someone listen to me. God Bless, Barbara


        Comment by barbara Morris — August 9, 2014 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

        • The way I see it, religious, ex-religious, and those who were never religious are all of us human. That means we all are incomplete. And in every group there are those whose generosity and love are outstanding, and those who are caught in a web of their own weakness. Putting on a habit or a Roman collar doesn’t make us more virtuous. Maybe it suggests that we would like to be, but virtue, as you and I know, takes more than changing one’s clothes.

          But you know, when I was a nun, I really did think that I was more “saintly” than those who weren’t nuns. I hope I have outgrown this great delusion. But people treated me as if I was something special, and I thought I deserved it! not that they were the ones who were worthy of praise.


          Comment by theotheri — August 10, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

        • I consider it a privilege to be able to communicate to you. It is refreshing to hear a honest opinion for once. I have never heard of any misconduct in that area about nuns ever in my life. The other clergy, now much different. I do hope in the future it will be taken care of swiftly!
          I am so happy to of found this blog. I remember a close friend of the family telling a story about the time she was on a plane and a little boy asked her if she had hair under her hat, she replied why yes young man and eyebrows to match. I still giggle.


          Comment by barbara Morris — August 11, 2014 @ 4:18 am

        • Wonderful!


          Comment by theotheri — August 12, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  7. Thank
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    Comment by Randell — October 20, 2014 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your positive feedback. If you are interested in any new posts, you might click on the Follow window in the right-hand column. You will then receive an email whenever there is a new post. Again, thanks. TOI


      Comment by theotheri — October 20, 2014 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  9. Terry!
    This is Elizabeth Kelley…Donna Mary. We “connected” around Pat Logan’s death…then just as we were getting started…your furnace went on the blink in November 2013 and my mother at 97 fell on November 3, 2013 fracturing her pelvis in 3 places. We both were busy.
    I remained friends with Jean Van Arsdel (Rhoda) for years. She was one of my best “life” friends. She died in Northhampton, England on September 8, 2011.

    Recently, Maryanne Weinges (Malachy) from my group contacted you and you gave her my number. We’ve had several long talks…so thank you.

    Another Full Circle member of my group of ’59 snet me your writings on the BLOG. I love and resonate to what you write!! It is so refreshing to be able to have a voice.
    When the Vets came home they had their groups to vent…we did not. So here’s to you! Hope we’ll be in touch.


    Comment by Elizabeth Kelley — January 2, 2015 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

    • Oh Elizabeth, what a wonderful surprise! Thank you a hundred times for getting back in touch. And for the nice things you say about my blog. It means a lot – especially on those days when I wonder if I ever say anything vaguely worthwhile, informative, or even just fun.

      Yes, I think the policy of sneaking people out the door when they left Maryknoll – either by choice or force – was hugely destructive, and one which I know almost everyone, including the present Maryknoll sisters, regret. We didn’t even have the knowledge that would have helped us contact each other after we were out.

      Another one of the other big Life Events for so many of us is the experience of the role reversals that so often happens when our parents reach old age. It’s a whole new experience, isn’t it? Parts of which, I suspect, may not always best be shared on a public blog. Let us stay in touch. I have, btw, a photo of you and Pat Logan in the full MM regalia with the tv puppets on my study wall. It reminds me that there was a lot during those years that was invaluable. Terry


      Comment by theotheri — January 3, 2015 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

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      Why the website is loading so slowly, I do not know. The webmaster is WordPress, so it might be worth while testing out another wordpress blog to find out if that’s where the problem lies. I have also found that I can solve some loading problems by changing browsers. I do hope you find the solution. My patience with slow-loading sites is limited. I hope for your sake you find a solution — and besides, I do hope that you come back. TOI


      Comment by theotheri — February 14, 2015 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  11. I left my convent in London, England, in the 60s and my leaving seemed quite furtive to me. When a sister left the novitiate, the Novice Mistress announced it at the end of evening prayers and before Compline in a very brief, formulaic way..”Sister X has left the novitiate. We remind your charities that these things are not discussed.” To which we all bowed our understanding. I do remember hearing some sniffles during Compline and saw a few sisters in distress.

    Also, when I left I recall being addressed as “Sister M” whilst walking with the Novice Mistress along the cloister but once we stepped through the enclosure into the secular parlour, and whilst still in religious garb, I was immediately addressed as Joanne, as if to make quite clear that I was no longer one of them.

    My departure was cold and dismissive and my treatment by the Novice Mistress felt so uncharitable. Only the parlour sister offered the religious embrace as I left, and a smile and a prayer for me.

    I still have dreams of the convent and some sisters. It stays with you for life, those days.


    Comment by Joanne — April 2, 2015 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

    • Your description sounds very much like what went on in the convent where I was in the 60’s, too. I lost contact for years with a very good friend as a result. I don’t know about the order you were in, but the Maryknoll sisters, where I was, have expressed deep regret and have apologized more than once for the hurt and injustice this approach caused. They even have an annual reunion in which all Maryknollers, past and present, are welcome. We can even stay in the rooms originally designated a cells for the nuns. It’s astonishing, isn’t it, how deeply these memories are embedded? Thank you for sharing yours.

      Have you been able to re-establish contact with any of the women you knew in the novitiate?


      Comment by theotheri — April 3, 2015 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

      • Dear sisters, all

        No, there was no possibility of contact with departed sisters in the novitiate. Contact details were never allowed.

        However, I think I now understand why, although it seemed brutal at the time, the departure of a sister was treated quietly and without subsequent public discussion or speculation. Maybe it was a practical way of dealing with this issue. How else would a Novice Mistress cope with all those weeping, sad postulants and novices, many of whom may have been influenced by the departure of a loved sister?

        You all must remember that departures were, depending on your communities, fairly frequent, often because the CC allowed and encouraged very young girls entry to religious orders. Many of us were seriously homesick kids and there was little warmth or understanding that helped us through that, again, because of the “rules” and avoidance of any warmth in the sense of physical contact., i.e. a cuddle for a homesick, scared kid! Maybe wise Novice Mistresses were keenly aware of all of that yet were powerless to change things in the early 60s. They were, nevertheless the “Living Rule” and they were responsible for upholding it. Who knows what they also went through while helping a sister discern whether they belonged in the community, or not?

        My initial post seems unkind now. My Novice Mistress obeyed her Rule and although it seemed to me, in my youth, that my departure was dealt with politely, but with little warmth, who can blame her for protecting herself from a sense of failure in losing a member of the novitiate? Also, she had a whole novitiate to take care of, probably during an evening recreation when someone was missing.

        I have never been able to express these thoughts about my convent life. So glad to have found this website and often wondered if such a site existed. This is a lifeline. I am in the Uk and will keep coming back. Thank you, all.



        Comment by Joanne — April 3, 2015 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

  12. Joanne, Thank you again for sharing your novitiate experience. I know how wounding it was for so many, and also have seen that sharing the experience of that time has been healing for many of us.
    BTW, I don’t know if you have discovered this, but if you scroll down the right-hand column on this website to “Select Category,” and click on “Life as a Nun,” you might find some other posts and comments that are of interest.


    Comment by theotheri — April 4, 2015 @ 6:49 am | Reply

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      Comment by theotheri — July 18, 2015 @ 6:43 am | Reply

  14. When I was a kid (in the sixties) I attended a Catholic school in Montecito, CA (Our Lady of Mt Carmel). I loved the nuns there. They were so gentle, kind and good. Out of the blue, the nuns were booted out of the church. I mean the ENTIRE ORDER was excommunicated! I think they were from the Immaculate Heart order. It was bizarre and it did serious damage to everyone involved. I’ve always wondered what happened to those ladies. Sr Theresa, Mother Superior Sr Elaine…many others … It was heartbreaking. I don’t think the church gave a hoot about the women or the children who relied on them. SMH. I’ve remembered that fiasco all my life. It’s one of the reasons I left the church.


    Comment by Chris Chris Wolfe — July 30, 2016 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

    • What a heartbreaking story this is. I don’t know what happened in the particular situation you describe, but I do know of attitudes of arrogance and bigoted superiority emanating from Rome and I would be surprised if it is not a big reason so many of us have left the church.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Let us hope that we have at least been able to learn something from seeing the destructiveness of these attitudes, yes?


      Comment by theotheri — July 30, 2016 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

      • Thank you for your kind reply. I don’t think many people know about the incident. On Wikipedia it is described as “the largest single exodus of nuns in the Catholic Church from canonical (church law) religious order vows in American history.”
        If you’re interested the woman who headed the order (Anita M. Caspary IHM) wrote a book about what happened called, “Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California. There’s also some info on Wikipedia if you look at her bio or the bio of the Cardinal who caused the mess to begin with:
        A year after the mass exodus happened I met up with the “Ex” mother superior and we went out to dinner. I remember thinking that I was looking at a destroyed woman. Her whole life had been the RCC and teaching children. I don’t know what happened to her either. I hope she landed on her feet somewhere. She was an amazing lady.
        I don’t know if the church realizes just how much damage they do to people (or if they care).
        I know that this election cycle has made me extremely aware of how dangerous religion, in particular the religious right, has become in my country. We have a fascist running for president and he’s fully supported by the religious fanatics on the far right. So long as Trump is willing to do bad things to gay people and punish women who have had abortions – they’ll give that idiot their vote.
        The guy will say anything! I don’t think they realize just how sick and twisted he really is. He SURE the hell isn’t a “follower of Christ.” Frankly, I’ve never been afraid during an election. I am now!
        If that idiot wins, I happen to belong to one of the groups he’s promised to do bad things to. SMH. I hate being an American. I’m a veteran too…
        I regret ever serving this crap country. We’re the biggest bully on the planet and it’s not getting any better any time soon. 😦
        Be well,


        Comment by Chris Chris Wolfe — July 31, 2016 @ 5:05 am | Reply

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