“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to nuns. Growing up Catholic, I knew many teaching sisters, from primary school through university. As a historian and writer, I’ve had the privilege to do a bit of research and some popular writing on women religious. My fascination with religion and spirituality, and my passion for women’s history, meet in the study of nuns, and I cherish the memories of long, happy hours as a graduate student poring over documents in convent archives. I find meaning in their stories because, at certain points in history, nuns stand out as feminist beacons in an otherwise patriarchal and often misogynous institutional Church.
In terms of lived experience, however, I have little in common with nuns. Many of the nuns I know live lives very different from mine; we differ in our approach to sex and sexuality, and in our relationship to institutional religion.
But hope is one thing we have in common.
When I stop and think about it, what attracts me to nuns is their hopeful nature. Hope seems to come easily to nuns; most of the nuns I know live and breathe hope, speak hopeful words, wear their hope on their sleeves. In a world where we cross paths daily with jaded and cynical people, nuns stand out. Without fanfare, they teach, nurse, comfort, pray, minister, organize, lobby, advocate… all in the hope of transforming the world.
Nuns also stand out because of their strident belief in collectivity. Our society does not encourage women to live communally, yet nuns have done so for hundreds and hundreds of years. Their hope is grounded in a belief that women together are powerful, and that’s an idea I can embrace.
The same thing that is attractive about nuns, is what draws me to feminism. Feminism is, at its core, hopeful. It is a politics of hope. Feminists, like other progressive, social justice-minded folks, are hopeful. They believe that change is possible, and they work to transform the world, even at times when change seems improbable. The more I learn about nuns, and feminism, the more I see the value of hope.
Still, it can sometimes be difficult to point to what hope is; yet examples of what hope is not are plentiful. Hope does not advocate uncritical optimism, or seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses—though this is often the way hope is promoted in popular culture. Downton Abbey fans are familiar with the wisdom of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith. In a recent episode, the Countess opined, “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us accepting reality.” The Countess’ notion of hope as encouraging an illusory, Pollyanna view of the world is not so far off the mark, in its common usage.
But for people of faith, hope is not synonymous with wishful thinking. In Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris writes, “Hope has an astounding resilience and strength. Its very persistence in our hearts indicates that it is not a tonic for wishful thinkers but the ground on which realists stand.” The hopeful are not the wait-and-see sort; they are people of action.
In her book Hope: New Philosophies for Change, sociologist Mary Zournazi defines hope as “not simply the desire for things to come, or the betterment of life,” but “the drive or energy that embeds us in the world – in the ecology of life, ethics and politics.” Zournazi emphasizes that hope is something that at once moves and embeds us—that it is both dynamic and grounding at the same time. Viewed in this way, the purpose of hope is not to create an idealized and therefore often unachievable vision of the future, but to orient us in a way which moves us forward in the world, in all its beauty and messiness.
With the recent resolution of the Vatican’s apostolic visitation and doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which included probing investigation into the activities of American women’s religious communities, we see in the nuns’ response an example of hope. Throughout the four-year process, which many nuns and laity alike interpreted as unnecessarily invasive and punitive, American sisters did not kowtow to the demands of the hierarchy; rather, they remained grounded in their commitment to a dynamic and evolving religious life. The sisters’ capacity to see the political potential of the space between the present and the future – in this case, the reality of women’s oppression in the Church and the hopeful future implicit in religious life – are reminders of how hope and feminism might sustain both the resolutely faithful and the questioning among us.