Shared with permission from my friend and author, Brian Doyle
Do we take them for granted? Yes, we take them for granted. We nod to them in friendly fashion when we see them here and there, and then we forge ahead to the bank or the bakery, and we do not stop for a long moment to consider that this quiet woman swore to devote her entire life to light and love and mercy and epiphany and kindness and tenderness and the battle against arrogance and greed and cruelty and lies and violence. Probably she made that vow when she was all of eighteen or twenty or twenty-two, and she kept that vow ever since, in a world where vows are shattered so often that you can see the shards in the street like slush in the gutter.
These women are the objects of amusement and derision on stage and screen. They are quite often a cliché or a trope in current culture. They are quite often said to be collectively in precipitate decline. Every story about them, few as such stories are, mentions their average age of seventy or so, and their wan trickle of new recruits, and the fact that fifty years ago there were three times as many of them in America as there are today. No stories about them ever note that collectively they donated their creative and diligent labor to Catholic education for two hundred years without being paid a penny. No stories about them note that they arguably had a greater effect for good on millions of American Catholic children than priests and brothers and bishops and cardinals ever did.
For every one who is remembered as mean and testy and stern and quick to anger there are a hundred who were very much like aunts and grandmothers to children whose home lives were scarred and painful and dark and fearful and lonely. For every one pilloried on stage and screen there were a hundred who gently quietly tenderly showered attentiveness and witness and love and empathy on the children in her care. For every one remembered as hard and cold in class there were a hundred who served as nurses and cooks and managers of the shelter, the food bank, the clothing drive, the fundraiser, the fifth-grade basketball team, the wake and funeral of a fellow pilgrim on the road to light. They ran schools, they counseled those who asked the loan of their considerable wisdom, they ran hospitals and clinics and hospices, they wrote lovely books and columns and essays and poems and songs, they succored those who were ill and imprisoned and crushed by despair, they ran libraries and monasteries and companies and colleges and museums, they did uncountable other things small and huge that no one can account but the Chief Accountant, who must often look upon them with unimaginable tenderness and pride and gratitude.
Do we take them for granted? Yes, we do. We always have. By rights we ought to pause once a day at least, every one of us who speaks and sings Catholicism, and bow our heads, and in the silence of our hearts thank the fifty thousand American nuns brilliantly at work today, and the hundreds of thousands who worked so hard for love and light during their lives and then went home to the Love itself. They were and are extraordinary women. They are beacons and pillars and exemplars and walking enfleshed evidence of what we say we believe when we say that we are Catholic. If you say that you are Catholic then you believe that light will defeat darkness, hope defeat despair, love defeat the sneer of hate; and when your belief wavers, when you wonder if your faith is foolish, I might suggest that you do as I do, and seek out a nun, and gaze in wonder at a living promise, a woman who gave her whole life to the idea that Christ was absolutely right. And if you are like me you will then wander away refreshed and restored and once again filled with a wild and irrepressible faith.