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!