From the archives: A feminist’s Christmas with nuns

This post was originally written by Fillyjonk and posted on December 25, 2007.

I just got back from a Christmas service run by about thirty women with guitars, oboes, awful holiday sweaters, and no-nonsense haircuts: the Benedictine nuns. I am not a religious person (in point of fact I’m an atheist, and a Jewish one at that) but I found these women both charming and inspiring. They’re an activist community, not only a religious one — my boyfriend’s mom amused me by pointing out the ones who had recently been arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the war — and are clearly devoted to each other, the community, and especially other women. In a lot of ways they’re better feminists than I am; not only have they expertly and seamlessly excised male pronouns from their prayers, but the time and energy that I might spend on things like clothes and makeup, they instead spend on giving material and spiritual help to women globally and locally.

It’s easy — especially for someone like me, for whom things like toughness and taking no shit are so identity constitutive — to forget that feminism is about women, not just about feminists. We’re all in this together, even the ones of us who aren’t in this, or aren’t in it to the degree we’d prefer. Someone who isn’t ready to embrace feminism or fat activism; someone who has never heard of fat activism; someone who has no desire to embrace her body or rethink the patriarchy: even if these people aren’t allies (yet), they’re not obstacles. They’re the reason we’re here making noise in the first place.

If you’re like me, and I hope you’re not because it’s wearying sometimes, you might accidentally steamroller them, thinking they’re in the way. But just because someone’s not marching behind you doesn’t mean they’re blocking your path. There are people who are learning, people who are waiting, people who are understandably skeptical, people who aren’t interested at all, people who are staunchly opposed to what we’re doing… and we’re doing it for them, no less than for all of you. If I didn’t think this would be a better world for everyone without misogyny, patriarchy, and the beauty standards and lack of body autonomy that attend them, I wouldn’t be here writing your ear off. It’s not good enough to have convictions if you’re only fighting on behalf of the people who share them.

I never felt uncomfortable at the Benedictines’ service, because these women didn’t care that I was a godless liberal sinner who wasn’t taking communion. By virtue of my being a human and particularly by virtue of my being a woman, they were automatically on my side. I could stand to learn a lot from these women in their shapeless sweaters. (Plenty of fatties amongst the sisters, by the way, despite those pesky vows of simplicity and poverty — could it possibly be that many of us naturally expand as we age?) Everything they did, they were doing on my behalf, in some sense, even though I didn’t share their beliefs.

Activism for activists is gratifying but senseless. Activism for the reluctant, the uncertain, and the opposed: that’s a chore, and a mitzvah.

13 thoughts on “From the archives: A feminist’s Christmas with nuns

  1. That was amazing. I’m so glad you reposted it, I didn’t read it the first time it was posted. I don’t think I had started obsessively reading Shapely Prose at that point. That’s such an important point and I far too frequently forget it.

  2. All 3 of my grandfather’s sisters are nuns – Sisters of St. Josephs, which is a teaching order. All 3 have Ph.D.s in Theology.

    I’m a pagan, and they are about the only people I can discuss theology with because they are about the only religious people I know who are secure enough with their faith that other peoples disbelief doesn’t make them feel threatened. They believe in what they believe – and that is what matters to them.

    My aunts are 3 of the best women I will ever know.

  3. I know the Benedictine sisters of whom you speak- they are really awesome. Thanks for this post, it is really eloquently articulated. I’m not sure I read it last year, so it feels nice and new and lovely to me now :-)

  4. Fillyjonk, thank you so much for reposting this! I didn’t even know about Shapely Prose when you posted it the first time and I hadn’t seen it.

    When I was in college in the early 1970’s I was vaguely aware of feminists — but “they” were far off to the side of the issues I was thinking about (including how honored I would feel if someday I could wash a man’s socks as well as my own, and how sad I was that no man was falling in love with me, especially as I lived and suffered in deep unrequited love for one man after another.)

    I remember when “Ms.” was a newfangled honorific. It took me years to start using it because it felt so silly at first. I remember when people started to fuss about gender neutral words and again I thought that was silly.

    Then in the 1990’s I read about an essay about anthropology — the “study of man.” The essay had been written many years previously, and as I read about “man” — “he” does this and “he” does that — I imagined cigar chomping men going about their business and I wondered what the women had been doing. And I remembered thinking something similar when I was 7 years old or so, and asking about it, and people telling me that “man” means both men and women, and “he” means both “he” and “she”. Well, that bothered me at first because it obviously wasn’t true, but I got used to it and eventually I stopped questioning it.

    I’m so very glad that other women didn’t stop questioning it. I’m so glad that other women thought seriously and acted to make things better for all of us.

    So maybe I’m a bit late to the party, but I’m here now!

  5. Good for them for not comforming to something that is long outdated. What pronouns did they instead use for their prayers?

  6. ” I am not a religious person (in point of fact I’m an atheist, and a Jewish one at that)”
    I am an ex Catholic. The best Christmas I ever had was playing Mrs. Santa for a group of Jewish/Pagan lesbians!!! But I know what you mean about the Benedictines. I was educated by them. Truly awesome people!

  7. If I didn’t think this would be a better world for everyone without misogyny, patriarchy, and the beauty standards and lack of body autonomy that attend them, I wouldn’t be here writing your ear off. It’s not good enough to have convictions if you’re only fighting on behalf of the people who share them.

    Oh, this is lovely. Thanks for reposting it.

    (Plenty of fatties amongst the sisters, by the way, despite those pesky vows of simplicity and poverty — could it possibly be that many of us naturally expand as we age?)

    Somewhere I ran across an article rejecting the whole “calories in/calories out” formulation that used St. Thomas Aquinas” (aka “The Dumb [as in silent] Ox”), to demonstrate the fact that a low cal diet and exercise will not necessarily make someone thin, and that people eating the same diet (i.e., Aquinas and the others he lived with) will still display a wide disparaty of body shapes. Would that I had saved the thing…

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