"The Calling"

A lapsed Catholic goes back to her roots and explores our fascination with nuns.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The black-robed, guitar-strumming, knuckle-rapping bride of Christ may be a vanishing image, but it's still a powerful one. Nuns hold an irresistible fascination. They represent all that is strange and exotic about the Church of Rome; they are its scariest taskmasters and its sweetest role models. Catherine Whitney, an author and convent-school survivor, understands the mystique of the females who work within an organization not known for its equal-opportunity policies, and in "The Calling" she attempts to discover the real women behind the simple appellation "Sister." Whitney gets too muddled in her own tangents at times, but the slow dawning of her own change of heart is a gently affecting thing to behold.

"The Calling" is subtitled "A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns," but that phrase has almost no correlation to the contents inside. Instead, the book traces the author's return to the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross, the nuns who taught her in her suburban Seattle youth, and does a where-are-they-now with the ones she remembers. Whitney charts the women's histories from their earliest inklings of a vocation through either their continued service, working with the Northwest's neediest, or the relinquishment of their vows. Throughout, she tries to unlock the riddle of that mysterious prize the church dangles before its youths: the calling, the experience of being singled out by God himself. Saints heard voices or saw signs in the sky, but how did these modern woman know what they were meant for? And is a calling something that only those bound for the convent can have?

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Whitney is candid in detailing her own complicated relationship with both Catholicism and the women who instilled its tenets in her, but her thought process is too raw and convoluted on the page. She zigzags from her own history to that of the convent to those of the nuns in a manner that can only be described as slapdash. She freely talks about her agent and her editor, but their presences would have been far better appreciated if they'd been seen less and felt more. Had she truly stuck with the concept of a year in the life, or dug in her heels and written a memoir, the resulting book probably would have been fine. As it is, it feels pulled in different directions, with occasional awkward jerks into cohesiveness. And despite the glossary of Catholic terms Whitney provides in the back, she flubs the meaning of the essential Catholic notion of the Immaculate Conception, referring to it as Christ's conception rather than as that of his mother.

But for all her awkwardness, the sincerity of her adult appreciation of the sisters and of the faith she strayed from is indisputable. While nuns are still largely viewed in popular culture as sassy cohorts of Whoopi Goldberg or dour-faced advisors to death-row inmates, Whitney is determined to show them as women with passions, problems, eccentricities and doubts. If they lose some of their heavenly mystique in the process, they gain a reassuring dose of humanity in its place. Survival depends on relevance -- not on, as they say in the convent, old habits. And if the Sisters of Saint Dominic can convince a hardened Catholic-school vet like Whitney that they still have a place in the world, they can convince just about anybody.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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