Insights & Contradictions in The Sisterhood, Episodes 3 & 4

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Adoration in our Pauline Chapel

Lifetime’s reality TV show The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns continued last night with episodes 3 and 4 back-to-back. These new episodes highlighted all the conventions of a reality TV show that I don’t enjoy: competition, heightened (over-the-top!) drama, staged scenes, coaching from the show’s producers, oversimplification of relationships and personal journeys, and an overt editing that revealed an obvious manipulation of various events. For me, watching this show has become a study of reality television shows and how “not real” they are!

Yet, if we take these conventions into account, it’s still possible to gain insight, both into religious life and into the process of discernment, as some viewers live-tweeted with other sisters and me while watching the show. I think this is particularly true because of the good will of the sisters and discerners on the show, who tried to be real in their interviews and comments.

Insights that I think could be particularly helpful for those of us who want to live more deeply in a spirit of discernment are:

Insight 1. Do not be afraid, but trust in God! We can often see God’s hand in our lives much more clearly when we look back on an experience, rather than when we are living in it. The most positive moments in the show so far have been when the young women leave one convent for another. In looking back on their experiences there, they talk about being loved, about experiencing God, and about growing as persons.

Yet we have just witnessed that these visits were not easy to go through. So these episodes help us to see that even in the difficult, confusing, or challenging moments of our lives, we need to cling to hope: God will use every event to draw us closer to himself, if we let him. This insight bears repeating for all of us: Do not be afraid! Trust in God, no matter where you are because he is with you.

Insight 2. The power of Eucharistic adoration in discerning. As a Pauline sister, I have a special love for Eucharistic adoration. My favorite description of adoration is something that St. John Paul said when he encouraged young people to go before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and simply “let him love you.”

If you already pray before Jesus in the Eucharist regularly, you know how blessed we are to be able to take advantage of his presence, his love, his availability! When you take quality time with Jesus in the Eucharist—at Mass, receiving Communion, or making some time for adoration—Jesus will transform the rest of your life as well. You cannot, will not, walk away unchanged.

If you don’t already make an occasional or regular Eucharistic Hour of adoration, I encourage you to consider it, perhaps by starting with just 20 minutes. There is something about the tangible closeness and vulnerability of Jesus in the Eucharist that can pierce through our blindness and defenses, helping us understand how loved we are, and how faithful his love is.

For those for whom the silence of adoration is really hard, there can be for a number of reasons, but I hear two reasons repeatedly:

1) We simply don’t know what to do with the silence.

2) When we are silent for a time, all the negative stuff–thoughts, feelings, or experiences–that we carry within us come to the fore, and we’re not expecting that. It can make any time of silence difficult, including time of adoration. It can be really hard if we feel that we have to be “extra-holy” to come to adoration.  But what better place to deal with the “tough stuff” of our lives than with our loving Lord? In the Eucharist, Jesus welcomes and loves us. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and delights in us, no matter what we are struggling with. And when we draw close to him in the Eucharist, we are inviting him to work in us, to heal us, to help us to grow.

What can we do if we struggle with the silence? Here are a couple quick suggestions:

  • Bring whatever is troubling us to Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist. Keep the time of adoration to a length that feels manageable. Even five minutes of adoration can transform our day. And use favorite prayers and Scripture readings to make the time of adoration a real encounter with Jesus.
  • Use a method to guide your time of adoration. Saint Alphonus Liguori’s method is beautiful and easy to use. The Pauline way of adoration is my favorite—you can find more about it below.
  • Use a book like my newly published Soul of Christ to guide your time of adoration.

(For more on Eucharistic adoration, you may wish to check out my book, Soul of Christ: Meditations on a Timeless Prayer, or  another book on Eucharistic prayer.)

Insight 3. Discernment is not about proving ourselves; it’s about love. None of us are “worthy” of being loved or being called to love. If we honestly know ourselves and ponder the heights of each vocation to love—whether it is the vocation to consecrated life, single life, or marriage—all of us find ourselves lacking.

Several times during the show, a young woman referred to “proving” herself to God, or “redeeming” herself in the eyes of others. This highlights for me again that the show can be misleading about competition and comparisons. Discernment is about discovering that we are loved by God deeply and wondrously, and then responding to God’s amazing love.

Discernment is about discovering our call to love.

4. God works with each of us individually. There are commonalities within discernment, but there is also the truth that God has a unique relationship with each one of us.

Every young woman experienced something remarkably different in the aftermath of several events, for example, praying the Rosary in the car after Darnell showed up to bring Eseni home (and thus short-circuit her discernment). From bringing back painful memories for Stacey and prompting her to feel lost, to offering light and clarity for Christie, this moment showed how unique each woman’s journey is. God’s individual guidance was also very clear during the young women’s different responses to the quiet time of  Eucharistic adoration. Some of the young women were deeply touched and one had a breakthrough, while some found the adoration time very difficult—with one young woman needing to leave for some fresh air. (Note: It might have been helpful if the young women had some guidance in how to make an hour of adoration, especially for those who hadn’t done it before.) Because discernment is so individual, a group experience like this—while it has its strengths—also needs to take into account where each young person is. Obviously this wasn’t possible in a show like this.

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Although the young women and sisters offered a lot of support to the young women discerning, both Episodes 3 & 4 had moments that really challenged me to continue watching, when certain behaviors contradicted Gospel values that are sought to be lived intensely in religious life. Especially the moments where participants of the show talk about others on camera, it’s hard for me to see the charity at work there amidst the comparisons, even knowing the comments are taken out of context. As one of our sisters, @SrSeanM so eloquently put in Twitter-verse nuggets last week:

I figured out what’s bugging me about #TheSisterhood. They’re treating #discernment like religious life Boot Camp. And it’s so not!”

#Discernment NOT a matter of seeing whether or not you measure up! It’s a matter of discovering what you are called to.”

“There are no short-cuts to creating a deep loving relationship. Love takes time and persistence. #Vocation is a call to love.”

Ultimately, discernment is a call to love: to discover how loved we are, and to respond to that immense, divine love! I close this post as I have in the past: by praying for the discerners on the show and watching the show. The prayer below is adapted from the prayer given to us by our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, to encourage prayer for priestly and religious vocations: 

            Jesus, Divine Master, who said, “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few,” we lovingly accept your invitation: “Pray the heavenly Father to send forth laborers into his harvest.”

            Inspire a devout crusade for vocations: “All the faithful for all vocations!” More priests! May they be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city placed on the mountaintop for the salvation of humanity redeemed by your blood. More religious–both men and women–to fill the earth with religious houses which welcome your chosen ones, and which will be centers of light and warmth, sources of prayer, gardens of saints, singing “glory to God and peace to men and women of good will.” More husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who testify to your Gospel in the world, at work, in the family, and in the loving formation of their children.

            Mary, “God’s chosen one,” Mother and guardian of holy vocations, pray with us, pray for us, and for all called by God to live our vocations in greater love and holiness. Amen.

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.

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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!