A Real Sister’s Take on The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

Photo: Sr. Irene Wright, FSP

Photo: Sr. Irene Wright, FSP

Starting Nov. 25th, Lifetime® is broadcasting a series called: The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, which uses the reality TV format to follow five young women who want to discern their vocations to religious life, and go on a six-week visit to three convents.

How marvelous that what seems to be a positive portrayal of religious life is broadcasting on prime time. What a huge witness these five young women give in sharing their decision to discern religious life! It’s amazing that a secular TV broadcaster is offering time and space for a reflection on religious life at the very beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life (which runs from the First Week of Advent this year until February 2, 2016).

Moments I Loved in the Show…and Why:

* When one of the young woman arrives at the door for her first visit to a convent, she sits inside saying over and over, “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared…” Why? Because when I first visited the convent, I was so nervous that I begged my mother who was driving me to turn around and take me home.

* The overwhelming, joyful welcome of each young woman to the community. A wonderful genuine moment.

* The description one sister gave of community life: “One of the greatest challenges and one of the greatest joys.”  Because this is absolutely true.

* The appreciation that the families of these young women expressed about religious life. One father says something like, “Religious are beautiful people.” I was inspired, edified, and touched at their respect and love for religious life.

* The mention of Sr. Dolores Hart inspiring one young woman to consider religious life. Because her hidden, contemplative life “shouts” the love of God to the world!

* The support that the young women give to each other. Because this is the beginning of their understanding of community in religious life.

* * *

I’ll be watching the whole series, and I’m very interested in hearing from others about it. Here are some of my first impressions:

★ Kudos to Lifetime® and producers Hot Snakes Media for giving a positive and realistic glimpse of real women religious on prime time—in all their heroic everydayness. The producers have definitely done their homework in understanding religious life and in choosing interviews that are both authentic and fascinating. I think the series might be better called: Inside the Convent, or A First Look at the Sisterhood!

 Prayers for the generous and sincere young women who are discerning religious life, and are willing to encourage others by sharing their journey with us.

 Caution: this show is not portraying a typical discernment journey, and might even be confusing for those who are discerning religious life or another vocation. Vocational discernment is a very sacred, interior journey that one walks with God. It’s about growing in our relationship with God, in our understanding of ourselves and the gift of self that God gives us, and our God-given mission. Although the show follows five young women who seem genuinely sincere about discerning religious life, a six-week live-in would not be a typical first step in their discernment. From what the young women shared, none of them are really familiar with religious life; they don’t know the sisters or communities that they are visiting, and they aren’t well-prepared about what to expect on their visits. In a typical discernment, a young woman would email or talk on the phone with a vocation director before making an initial visit to a convent. And a first visit is typically much, much shorter: an afternoon or a weekend, not a six-week live-in. As a vocation director, in talking with a young woman I would always share with her what to expect when she visited. My main goal was to help her discern her call by deepening her relationship with God, not to put her through a “test” to see if she can “make it.”

Most reality-TV shows have an accepted, contrived framework: a contest, a game, or some other framework created specifically for the show that keeps the show within certain boundaries. And then there are the accepted conventions of a reality TV show: interpersonal conflicts, competition among participants, and self-revelation/exposure that often includes uncharitable talk as one person compares self with others.

In the case of The Sisterhood, in some ways the producers have been able to rise above some of these conventions. But not entirely. First of all, TV has to focus on externals. This already distorts the portrayal of the discernment process because it is primarily an interior journey. In Episode 1, the very contrivance of a six-week live-in at such an early stage in discernment sets up drama and crises that could have been avoided (and normally are). For me, a former video producer as well as a sister who has accompanied young women in their discernments, it raises important questions. How does one avoid exploiting the vulnerability of these generous and courageous young women? How does one authentically portray onscreen a journey that is spiritual and therefore invisible? How does one respect the sacredness of a young woman’s discernment journey and her growing relationship with God, while seeking to portray it on-camera?

As a genuine “first glance” inside a convent, The Sisterhood: Becoming Sisters is wonderful. From what I can see, the show is an inside view of religious life, an initial discovery of what religious life is like, rather than an in-depth portrayal of authentic vocational discernment. I hope that The Sisterhood: Becoming Sisters will highlight the validity of the choice for consecrated life and make it more understandable to viewers who might otherwise never give religious life a second thought. I am sure that the show will offer many insights into the journey of discerning religious life, as well as religious life itself. But I hope that viewers—especially young people who are discerning or who are considering their vocations—will understand that, although the show’s intentions are to be authentic, this is a rather misrepresented view of discernment. I hope the show encourages discerners to seek out sisters (and priests and brothers) who can help them to enter into a true discernment—one whose greatest drama is a growing configuration with Christ.

While I hope to continue commenting on the show in general, I will not be commenting on each woman’s individual discernment journey. Instead, I’d like to close each of my comments with a prayer for Claire, Eseni, Christie, Stacey, and Francesca, and for all the viewers who might be considering religious life. Please pray with me:

Lord, you invite each of us to follow you.
Bless those who take your invitation seriously,
especially young people who are discerning
if you are calling them to religious life—
a life that is a more intense witness to you,
a radical “yes” to the gift of Baptism,
to dying to self and rising with you,
and to sharing your love with the world.
Bless Claire, Eseni, Christie, Stacey, Francesca, and all who are discerning religious life.
Help them to grow closer to you,
to generously open themselves to Your love at work in them,
and to say “yes” to however you call them to follow you.  Amen.

What did you think? It would be wonderful to get your reactions/feedback/questions that arose from watching the show!

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30 thoughts on “A Real Sister’s Take on The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

  1. i am a Dominican Sister and am somewhat frustrated at the program. To me, it seemed to exploit the young women. To throw them, apparently totally unprepared, into a six week long experience is almost cruel. To me, it is similar to having a young woman marry someone she knows absolutely nothing about and has never met. The scenes with the Superior regarding make-up, cell phones, and the uniform dress just reaffirms that Religious life is cruel and unfeeling. I felt badly for the girls and the Sister. In no way would or should a young woman be expected to cut off all contact with her parents or support system. They should have totally known what would be expected. I entered 40 years ago and never spent more than one week in the Convent for retreat- I was fully prepared and knew everything that was possible to know for a 23 year old. So far, this program does a disservice to the whole process of considering Religious Life. By the way, I enjoy the comments by the Sisters themselves. They are spot on!

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    • Thank you, Sr. Julie. You make excellent points. I have to agree that the process of a reality TV program (that requires conflict, drama, comparisons, and surprises) is not the most respectful way to assist a young woman carry out a vocational discernment. I would go so far as to suggest that the generosity and vulnerability of these young women are on the edge of being exploited for the sake of a TV show’s need to entertain.

      On the other hand, “reality TV” is not reality. We don’t know the full context of events, or conversations, that we see onscreen. Nor do we know what the young women were informed about before getting involved. I hope that viewers also understand that this show doesn’t represent the discernment process well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sister i could not agree more with your comments. The issue is not with the girls, but how they are being portrayed. I especially take issue with the way the relationship is portrayed between one of the young ladies and her boyfriend. The young man is from another reality show which really makes his part in this completely suspect, let alone the fact that a sexual relationship has been implied since the first episode; the show leads us to believe they are cohabitating. This is unfair to both the young man and the young lady. As the show progresses, it’s hard to see what good can come of it. The Dominican sisters I know would never have allowed themselves to be part of this and they have more vocations than most other Orders do these days.

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      • You raise good points here. The feedback I’m receiving is very mixed–some is very positive and some very negative. On Twitter during the broadcast, the young people who ask questions of the sisters who are live-tweeting seem to feel very positive about the show, and find it helpful to feel that they are not alone on their discernment journeys. I suspect that those who are more familiar and comfortable with reality TV shows robably enjoy this much more than someone like myself who is not really a fan of the format.

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  2. Hello Sr.!
    This is Stacey- Thank you for your comments on the show! You were spot on. I am so touched that you included a prayer for all of us girls and for others discerning.
    For anyone who is wondering, we all chose to do this and honestly I expected to have our cell phones taken away. Given the genre, I knew they’d choose the most dramatic moments. But we had plenty of bonding time off-camera, and mass and a holy hr every day with the sisters off-camera. It was still a tough process, facing your deepest questions, but the prayer time really gave me the grace I needed to genuinely keep my eyes on discernment and not parading for the camera.
    In response to Sr. Julie, I went and visited the Little Sisters of the Poor 3 times before the show started filming. I wanted to make sure I got an off-camera experience of discernment so that I would have a basis of comparison in case the cameras proved to be very intrusive. However, the cameramen were very respectful. My fears about having a genuine discernment experience proved unfounded, and I had some of the best prayer experiences of my life! Honestly, Im thrilled that I got to do interviews on Access Hollywood, the Today Show, and some other major news networks- not because I want fame, but because I’m proud to represent an often hidden and misunderstood calling. The conversation this show is starting is great! And I pray that God brings grace out of it for everyone who watches. Sure, it’s going to be dramatic. But I think a lot of secular viewers will relate to those of us girls who are at the beginning of our discernment and so used to wearing makeup and being plugged into technology.
    God bless you and all the sisters who have courageously dedicated your lives in service to God and His people 🙂

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    • Stacey, you will be in my prayers, but I do have to ask….so much time was spent in the first episode on the reaction the young ladies had that they would not be allowed to wear any make-up, but the girls are still wearing it, what was the point?

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  3. Stacey,
    Thanks so much for commenting and answering some of our questions. I’m so glad that it was a positive experience for you! I agree that your choice to be on the show is a way of sharing the beauty of religious life with the world. Your courage and generosity in discerning religious life is a beautiful witness to me and everyone who shares this journey with you. You will continue to be in my prayers–God bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really appreciated your insights as a vocation director, Sister Paul.

    I love this: “My main goal was to help her discern her call by deepening her relationship with God, not to put her through a “test” to see if she can “make it.” So true! If a young woman is not called, the Lord will reveal this to her. None of us are perfect!

    Like you, I wrote about the first episode on my blog: http://habituallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2014/11/review-of-sisterhood-becoming-nuns.html

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  5. Thanks for all of your thoughts. Stacey, I am glad you got to know the Little Sisters – they are a great community- as I imagine all of the ones on the program are. I shall be praying that you can truly decide what you and the Lord want to do with your life! And thanks, Sisters, for your thoughts. I agree that a positive image of Religious Life is a rare and beautiful thing. I just hope this program does not reinforce the image of cruel and unfeeling Religious who just upset these willing young women who obviously have an interest in the life.

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  22. I am a Muslim woman who watched this series with her 14 year old daughter. It was so fascinating learning more about nuns/sisters and their daily life. It was interesting to see the differences between the convents and the different types of work they focused on. I enjoyed drawing parallels between our Faiths, like belief in modesty, as well as helping people in need and being there for the sick or dying. The show helped me see all the things my daughter and I could do, as Muslims, to help others and do charity in our lives. I hope they will continue on with this show. It would be so nice to visit more convents!

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