by Teresa M. Hanafin
Episode 1: “I’m not ready”
Well, some maybe could be, and some clearly aren’t. The five young women who are pursuing a six-week “discernment” on the Lifetime TV show “The Sisterhood” to figure out if they want to become nuns are very different. And those differences determined their reaction to the ascetic life of a sister.
And for the Doubting Thomases out there who thought this would be a fake Hollywood set-up? It feels authentic, with sincere young women honestly trying to figure out the meaning of a tug each has felt to develop a closer relationship with the Catholic Church and God.
Here’s a rundown of the characters and what they went through in the first episode:
Eseni, 23, of Brooklyn, New York
Eseni is one of the more interesting characters, given what she has left behind: A cheating father, a devout mother – and a boyfriend.
One of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm at the St. Teresa of Avila Motherhouse in Germantown, NY – the setting for the first show – points out that often, young women who pursue life as a nun are escaping from something. That’s Eseni.
At age 9, she found out that her father had fooled around with another woman and had a child with her, turning Eseni’s life upside down. “Where I live there is nothing but chaos and drama,” she says. The sisters “don’t have drama. Their life is so complete …. I would love to be at peace.”
She’d also love to be able to continue to wear her inch-long orange fingernails, stylish clothes, and three-inch heels, but that isn’t going to happen.
“They have a lot of clothes,” one of the nuns, Sister Peter, remarks to the camera as the young women struggle with suitcases upstairs to their rooms. “Where do they think they’re going? This is a convent!”
Eseni’s boyfriend Darnell is supportive but upset at her dabbling with the religious life. “If she’s serious about becoming a nun, I don’t know what I’d do,” he says. “That’s my love, that’s my heart.”
Sister Maria Therese, the vocation director, can relate to what Eseni is going through. “I was in a relationship,” she says. “I left someone behind.”
Later in the episode, Eseni is so overwhelmed by the experience of living in a convent that she feels faint during morning Mass. She is led out to the hallway, where she sits and says plaintively, “I don’t think I can do this.”
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“Women don’t come in with halos,” says Sister Cyril. “If they’re not being true to themselves, it won’t work.”
Christie, 27, of Glendale, California
Christie can’t decide whether she wants to keep flirting with young men or make Jesus her husband. In fact, she relates that she has had some very intense spiritual experiences while praying: She has closed her eyes and seen Jesus standing there, taking her hand, and then swaying with her. “And I thought ‘Whoa, I’m dancing with Jesus!’ “
“Jesus is like a husband – I can talk to him,” she says. “I have that relationship with God, with Jesus. I tell him exactly what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling.”
But she can’t help her attraction to flesh-and-blood men: “I’m very flirtatious.” She dates, but will not have sex before marriage.
Her mother grows teary at the prospect of her only daughter not getting married and having children. “But I have to die to self and be willing to give you to God,” she says. “I want you to do what God wants you to do.”
Claire, 26, of Joliet, Illinois
Right off the bat, Claire comes off as a bit of a know-it-all.
She and Christie ride in a car together to the convent, and after she listens to Christie’s description of her “dancing with Jesus” experience, Claire says, “I think what she is describing as visions are inner experiences of prayer. I don’t know how much theology she has studied. I think her experience of faith is much more on an emotional level and not on an intellectual level.”
Later, when some of the young women express surprise at having to hand over their cellphones, Claire is unfazed. “I’ve been on silent retreats before where you unplug.” And when Eseni feels faint during Mass, Claire is ready with another analysis: “Eseni has never experienced prayer and the presence of God quite this way before, and it can be overwhelming.”
Claire, a music teacher who loves singing, has been living “dedicated singleness” for about five years.
As for her possible vocation: “One, you’re open to the possibility of that call in your life, and two, you’re asking God what did you have in mind when you created me?”
The nuns’ first take? Christie is the California girl who’s “out there,” while Claire is “more formal.”
Stacey, 26, of Huntington, New York
You can tell the nuns like Stacey. “Stacey is very outgoing, warm, comfortable in her skin,” says Sister Cyril. “But we ask you to move a little further from the world, and that can be very difficult.”
Stacey decided at age 16 that she wanted to be actress, with dreams of becoming a Broadway star. But she was dissatisfied with life, and “the only thing that provided any consolation for me was spending time with God.”
Then she read a biography of Mother Dolores Hart, a successful movie actress (she gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss, Stacey says) who left Hollywood at age 24 to become a Benedictine nun. That got Stacey thinking.
But she’s also torn: About giving up her dream of being a mother, of giving up an artistic life (she also makes dolls).
But right off the bat, she’s impressed with the sisters who meet her outside as she arrives. “They all greeted me with a hug,” she marvels. “Every single one! My stereotype of nuns being cold and distant vanished in an instant.”
Francesca, 21, of Harrison Park, New Jersey
The youngest of the five, Francesca is also the most scared. She’s extremely close to her family and worries that if she becomes a nun, “they could send me anywhere and I’d have to leave my family.”
Her mother also has her doubts; she thinks Francesca is too young to be making such a big decision. But Francesca has been thinking about this vocation for about a year, excited about “spreading the word of God, but also helping others.”
Her resolve melts in the car with her father, as she grows increasingly teary as they approach the convent. “The hardest part is leaving my family,” she cries. “Nuns have been such authority figures in my life, so I’m freaking out.”
Again, one of the nuns can relate. “I was very close to my family,” says Sister Peter. “The hardest was Thanksgiving. I wondered, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ But it all worked out.”
Mother Mark, the superior general of the order, sees that Francesca is “fragile, yet so friendly and outgoing. She’s more vulnerable, possibly, than the others.”
It’s tough on Dad, too: “Take care of her, please,” he implores the sisters before driving away.
* * * * *
Mother Mark is pleased that the young women seem to bond with each other right away. “But they have to get to know the Lord and develop a relationship with him,” she points out.
The first surprise comes when the young women are shown their small rooms — there’s a bed, a desk, a reclining chair, and a sink — and their uniforms. The stylish Eseni is shocked by the plainness of the clothes, Stacey is amused (“That’s my high school uniform on the bed”), while Francesca is excited, describing the “button-down blouse, pencil skirt, and a dope cross that’s really big and nice.”
But Francesca freaks out when Mother Mark informs them that they will have to remove their makeup “to see yourself as the gift you are that God sees you.” Why? She has acne. “If people are looking at my acne, they won’t see me,” she cries.
The other young women rally to her side as they remove their makeup together, hug Francesca, and tell her how beautiful she is. It’s a touching moment that prompts Sister Lois Ann to point out that women who come to live in a convent find that “some of their biggest challenges is community, but their biggest support is also community.”
How that sense of community plays out in the context of the singularity of complete devotion to God could make for some interesting television in the next five weeks. Will Eseni miss her boyfriend Darnell too much? Can Christie survive without flirting? God only knows.