Saturday, June 02, 2012

Book Review: "The Calling", by Catherine Whitney

Every once in awhile, when I'm at the library, a book catches my eye for some reason as I'm walking down an aisle looking for something else. I'll pick it up for no other reason than I take noticing it as a sign that I should read it. I've found some really good books that way, books that I wouldn't have read otherwise.

That's the case with The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1999; 250 pages), by Catherine Whitney. I was walking down the aisle between aisles of books, on my way out of the library on Thursday, when the title of the book caught my eye. I backed up, pulled it off the shelf, read the flyleaf, and put in in the pile of books I was taking home.

It might seem that this book is an odd choice for me to be interested in reading. I'm not Catholic, and never have been. I'm not really a religious person. However, when I was studying anthropology at university, my concentration was in the anthropology of religion. Additionally, I've always been fascinated by the question of why certain people choose to devote their entire lives to religion in a formal sense...those who believe they have a calling, whether it be as a priest or a nun or other Christian clergy, or as a religious professional in any religion. So, a book like this is really right up my alley.

Turned out, it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Yes, it explores the question of how some of the nuns in the teaching and nursing order that Ms. Whitney studied - it was the order that had educated her as a high school student - came to their callings, and how some of them felt that calling even after they left the order. But it also looks at the concept of the calling in a wider sense, in the sense that people often feel called to do the thing that they do, not only to make a living but to feel fulfilled in their lives. The gist of it, I think, is that one's calling is the thing one feels that they must do.

I was left with the impression that doing the research for and writing the book had left Ms. Whitney, who left her church and her faith behind after high school, and after a short flirtation with joining the order herself, with a sense of closure regarding her relationship with the nuns who had taught her. She notes that, when she spent some time with the sisters in the order, some of whom had been her teachers so many years before, they always referred to her as "one of our girls", and that this had left her with a feeling that she really had always been a part of the order, even though she had spent so many years feeling estranged from her high school experience and her religion.

The best part of the book, however, for my money, are the portraits Ms. Whitney draws of some of the women who were members of the order, and who remained, in many ways, members of the order even after leaving, as much members as the women who chose to stay when so many were choosing to change paths for many different reasons. Ms. Whitney does the valuable service of showing that these women, far from being the stereotype of women who became nuns because they were unmarriageable, or running away from the world, are in most cases, strong, intelligent, competent, vibrant women who chose the life they did as a positive step rather than as a "settling" for what was left for them.

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