(The Author with Sister Tesa. Courtesy of Jo Piazza)
Spending an inordinate amount of time with Catholic nuns makes you start to worry about your own vices. Nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the church and to God, but beyond those, they also live relatively vice-free lives.
It isn’t too often that you seen a nun puffing away on a cigarette, sitting at the slots in Atlantic City or doing the things that priests do that so often land them in headlines for the wrong reasons.
All in all, Catholic nuns are a pretty chaste bunch. (Though I have known them to occasionally indulge in a glass of good red wine.)
I was a different woman when I spent three years researching and writing my latest book, If Nuns Ruled the World. As a successful celebrity journalist, I’d written a critically acclaimed book about the dirty secrets of how famous people make money. (Talk about vices.) Still in my 20s, I was on the cusp of actual adulthood, but still indulging in the pleasures of youth that New York City offers: smoking cigarettes, drinking too many cocktails and occasionally being lazy, let’s say, slothful. I had plenty of friends just like me, supporting me in my habits. I was selfish, self-centered, self-obsessed, and this was before selfies became a thing. My world was all about me.
I loved my vices. During that decade they were part of my identity, the same as my West Village address and my disdain for spin classes. Letting go of my vices, I believed, would make me boring, the equivalent of friends who had years earlier settled down into lives that required a tunnel or a bridge to get home.
How could I be happy without my vices? How could I be me?
Here’s the thing I learned about nuns. They’re really happy. I know, I know. You think about nuns and you think about sour old grumps, those ladies who smacked little boys hands with their rulers and tortured left-handed children. The campaign to demonize nuns as scary old school marms has been incredibly successful. The women I met and profiled for my book were nothing like that. They are kind and generous, wise and funny. They laugh a lot and give excellent hugs. More than that, they’re content — very content.
By the time my 33rd birthday rolled around I was ready to be a happier person and at peace, even if that meant giving up some of my vices, even if that meant I would become “boring.”
One of the women in my book is Sister Madonna Buder. Her nicknames include “The Mother Superior of Triathlon” and “The Iron Nun,” both in honor of the more than 366 triathlons she’s done (46 of which were Ironman distances) since taking up running at age 47. Now at age 84, she still competes in Iron Man races.
Talking to me about running, she explained that “not only [has it] helped me solve my problems, it reduced my anxiety and cleared my soul, taking away any brooding darkness that took away my positive attitude.”
I needed some of that. It was Sister Madonna who dared me to give up smoking and start running.
She actually goaded me into it, really put the pressure on. And when a nuns dares you to do something. You do it.
I found that when I ran in the morning, I was less inclined to smoke many cigarettes and enjoy drinking too many cocktails in the evening.
Nuns never think about themselves. Everything they do, they do for another person. You’d think this would become grating and sanctimonious after awhile, but it doesn’t. In fact, it rubs off on you. They make hard choices every single day. Sister Joan Dawber, another nun I profiled, lives in Queens and risks her life to run a safe house for former sex and labor slaves. She never really thinks about how she puts herself in danger. She just thinks about the women she is protecting.
Slowly, but surely, it was the nuns who chipped away at my self-centered shell and forced me to wake the hell up and think about the rest of the world. Each day was less about me. Please don’t get me wrong. I am nowhere near as selfless as the women I wrote about. In fact, if I am late for a meeting, I may steal your cab. (I will feel very bad about it though.) I do spend more time doing service and volunteering. I quit my fancy job writing about celebrities to pursue my dream job as a travel editor at Yahoo. I get to write stories every day that inspire people to find their own dreams around the world.
The best part about writing about nuns wasn’t that they helped me shed some of the vices of young adulthood and usher me into my “boring” mid-30s. The best part is that people aren’t talking about me. They’re talking about nuns. They’re talking about them being heroes and role models and generally awesome women who kick ass and deserve our accolades and respect.
The nuns took away a few of my vices, but I’m glad I was able to give them a voice.