Ask Richard: How Can I Talk My Friend Out of Becoming a Nun?


May 05, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I'm a male senior in high school, and one of my female friends is going to become a nun. I truly believe she is not meant for that lifestyle: she likes to drink and party, but still wants to become a nun. Every time I try to tell her she is not meant for the convent, she says she feels that God is calling her. Every time I call her a hypocrite, she doesn't want to talk to me and I lose the chance to talk her out of becoming a nun. Do you know any way that I, a closet atheist, can talk her out of it becoming a nun and, in my opinion, throwing her life away in some secluded place where I know she'll be miserable?


Dear Nick,

This is an opportunity for you to learn about yourself and how you interact with other people. Your letter reveals more about you than your friend, and I think you will benefit by looking at what is reflected in that mirror with an honest but compassionate attitude– just as I'm going to be honest but compassionate with you.

I'm not surprised that your friend says she doesn't want to talk with you about this, because you're taking the position that you know what is best for her better than she does. You say that you truly think that she is not meant for the convent lifestyle, but I cannot help but wonder if you simply disapprove of that lifestyle in general.

The fact that she likes to drink and party does not mean that she is "not meant for the convent," nor does that make her a "hypocrite." She's not a nun yet. Drinking and partying is not a deal breaker for a young person considering this kind of service. Having lived a life of perfect piety and purity is not a prerequisite. People and their lifestyle behaviors can and do change. Nuns are not born; they decide.

They also have a long time to think about it before they decide. I can't think of a profession that has so much time and encouragement to reconsider built into its internship. Typically, to become a Catholic nun, she would need to undergo six months to a year of initially testing the life, a period called a postulancy. Then she would become a novice for between one and two years. After that, she would take temporary vows lasting one to three years each, which she can continue to renew for at least three years but not more than six. Finally, after as long as nine years from her initial entry into this process, she would take her permanent, solemn vows. At every step, either she or the nuns supervising her can decide that this is not her appropriate path.

The modern use of the word "nun" can also mean a religious sister, such as the Sisters of Charity. Their vows can be different, and they don't necessarily live in secluded places such as convents. Sisters often live and work amidst society, doing charity work or ancillary work in hospitals, for instance.

Nick, by saying things like, "she is not meant for this" or that you know she will be miserable, you seem to be professing God-like knowledge. You cannot actually know this. You have your opinion. You don't agree, you don't like it, and that is all perfectly okay for you to express as an opinion, but not as a certainty. You'd probably prefer that she became a teacher, pilot, nurse, businesswoman, scientist or a bus driver. If I knew her, I'd probably have such preferences, too. But I could not pretend that I know what walk of life will be best for her or best for the world around her.

She's considering a very powerful, very public commitment to her beliefs, and I'm sure that there are many people in her life besides you who disapprove and are trying to dissuade her. You, on the other hand are a "closet atheist." She is putting herself out there while you are being careful. Perhaps that is wise of you, but it puts you at a distinct emotional and tactical disadvantage for debating this with her.

You've made your opinion clear to her. Now try trusting your friend's ability to know her own mind better than you know it, and trusting her ability to make a careful and well-considered decision.

This is similar to another letter I received about two friends, and like that one, it's an opportunity for you to move above and beyond your preferences and to express a caring for another person that is completely free of an agenda. Such pure caring is not that common, but it does exist. You can be a shallow friend who supports her only if she does what you prefer, or a deep friend who supports her in her journey wherever it may lead. I hope you choose the latter, because we need more deep friends in the world. We need to accept each other far more than we need to conform with each other, and we need to understand each other far more than we need to agree with each other.   unique



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.