"We are each brought up with different preconceptions about nuns, which I'm sure for the most part, are often unrepresentative of this holy order. My mother, whose classroom teachers in her Irish youth were nuns, often told me tales that indicated her teachers to be as strict as they came. Indeed, some were even spoken of as being cruel, bordering upon sadistic and seemed to derive pleasure from inflicting pain upon their child charges. I once heard of a nun who was a school teacher who got particular pleasure from giving her pupils six of the best. When she retired from teaching, it was rumoured that she took her faithful swish with her.
The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland (also known as Magdalene Asylums), were institutions from the 18th to 20th centuries that were originally established to house 'fallen women'. The first inmates were largely prostitutes but gradually changed to include unmarried mothers who were often forced into such establishments by the combined powers and alliance of the Catholic Church and 'shamed' parents. Many of these 'laundries' were effectively operated as penitentiary work-houses by the Irish nuns and were named after the reformed biblical prostitute, Mary Magdalene.
Many of the classical writers and artists from European countries have, since the middle ages, included erotic images of nuns in their writings and paintings, besides providing copious accounts of the hanky panky they often got up to with priests on the prowl. I have never been able to determine whether such was an accurate reflection of medieval times or the propaganda and vivid imagination run wild of bitter atheists and anti-papists.
None of the many nuns I have known have fitted into any of the above categories and they have usually been cut from the same cloth as the late St-Teresa-of-Calcutta. These nuns give everything they have to give to the communities they religiously and socially serve. I have known them work in soup kitchens or walk the dark city streets in the dead of night administering care, love, advice, food and friendship to the homeless, the prostitute, the alcoholic and the down and out vagrant.
I'll never forget my first cold day on a snowy January when I alighted the Cunard liner (The Sylvania), in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1962, to take a train to Quebec. As I walked into the railway station, my freezing toes inside my foolish English winkle-picker style shoes were dropping off my feet. As I shivered, the first person to greet me with a smile, a free warm drink and the gift of some rosary beads was a Canadian nun. She didn't know that I was Catholic and probably didn't care; all she wanted to do was to welcome me to her country in the name of Jesus Christ. I can still taste the refreshing warmth of that cup of soup, and had I been Protestant, her friendly gesture would probably have been enough to turn me Catholic!
I'm sure that many Sisters of the cloth are no different than the vast majority of us when it comes to giving way to the temptation of the flesh or indulging the satisfaction of our baser instincts. As for the occasional dalliance between priest and nun, or for that matter, nun and nun, I am prepared to believe that there has always existed suspect sisters within our cloisters where a potentially dangerous chemistry has constantly flitted between saint and sinner. I am sure that many of the temptations they face can prove too difficult on occasions to turn away from. As Mae West pointed out, it is a sad truth about life that whenever women are prepared to go wrong, men will usually go right after them! The psychologist in me tells me that is sometimes too easy for us to lose direction in the maze of any convent or monastery. A part of me also suspects that some nuns take on a new habit in order to distance themselves from past ones. Let's face it, most of us are in the process of running away from some uncomfortable aspects of our lives or have done in the past.
During my life, I have dated half a dozen convent-educated girls/women, who would more easily fall into the categories of either saints or sinners, dependent upon how they reacted to their single-sex educational experiences. In the main, the nature of their restriction of thought and the suppression of sexual emotions produced one of two types; the redeemed and the repressed. Whether we like it or not, every life is no more and no less than a march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice; and as we journey along this road, both God and the Devil will beckon us to their side to take up arms in their cause. It is the choices we make that determine our eventual destination and the nature of the habits we adopt.
The writer's part of me would love to sneak into the mind of every nun as they grapple with their demons as you or I might be occasionally tempted. I can imagine some nuns sneaking a puff of a cigarette late on at night, or drinking the odd can of beer during a hot day while working out in the garden, or even daring to splash about in the sea like a pair of giggling girls when the Mother Superior's eyes are elsewhere. I can imagine a group of them gossiping about the eccentricities of another, and were I to stretch my imagination far enough, I can even accept that constantly playing with their rosary beads during lonely nights must prove a valuable distraction to some and prevent them from playing with more forbidden things.
Now then, come on girls; we want none of that around here; it's Sunday!" William Forde: November 13th, 2016.