When we think of monks, we usually think of a man in St. Francis of Assisi’s attire, chanting, gardening, studying the Word of God, explaining theology, and held up as someone who is wise. In more modern pop culture, we may think of Friar Tuck from “Robin Hood” who was a noble man. In general, we think of educated and astute men, and if we are going to mock them, we will draw attention to their vow of silence. When we think of nuns, we get a much different picture.
We generally think of nuns as ones who wear habits, and slap children’s hands with rulers in school when they misbehave. In pop culture, their vow to celibacy is the punchline to several jokes (but monks are never made a joke for the same vow), or they are portrayed as comics as with the “Flying Nun”, a sitcom that starred Sally Fields, or the comedy movie, “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg. If anything positive is portrayed of a nun, they are either nurses in a hospital, Mother Theresa, or Maria from the “Sound of Music”.
In fact, I challenge you to do a Google image search for nuns, and then do a Google image search for monks. You may be surprised the different attitude and reputation that are portrayed in each of them.
However, as we look back in history, women in monastic history played a large part in Church History, but they still somehow get lost behind Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome (with all due respect to these monks).
When a woman became a part of the monastic practices, she was held in high regard. Her vow to celibacy was to be praised, because it was a reflection of the influence of the Virgin Mary. Women who were in the monastic practice held several advantages over women who chose to be married with/without children. These women were able to write, teach, preach, and contribute to theology.
Hildegard of Bingen (who lived 1098-1179) has become one of my favorite nuns to learn about in history. She did work that we wouldn’t typically imagine for a nun or a woman in her day. For example, she was the founder of the first abbess of Benedictine. She was known for her mystical visions, her various writings, music, and her letters to various people. Hildegard preached sermons and was requested on several occasions to write them down. James E. Kiefer says that Heldegard was like the “Dear Abby” of her day, answering letters from people of all economical classes, and her presence would be requested for advice on various topics. Did you catch that? She led both women AND men!
Throughout her life, Hildegard wrote 70-plus songs, and 70 poems. She also wrote 9 books: 2 which were filled with medical and pharmaceutical advice, also, she wrote a commentary on the Gospels, a commentary on the Athanasian Creed, as well as three books about theology and visions. Kiefer states, “Although she would have rejected much of the rhetoric of women’s liberation, she never hesitated to say what she thought needed to be said, or to do what she thought needed to be done, simply because she was a woman. When the pope or emperor needed a rebuke, she rebuked them.” (Biographical Sketches)
I think it’s time for us to redefine our cultural prejudices against nuns we have in America. Women have done some great things in Church History and it’s certainly something for us to start talking about in a positive sense!