On Catholicism (As Told By an Ex-Nun)

By Elizabeth Murad

I was born and raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, in 1939, the eldest of six children. My dad was a CPA, my mom an at-home multi-tasker. Our family was devoutly religious, but not painfully so. Mass on Sunday and mac and cheese on Friday were as natural as any weekly events. We moved to Hasbrouck Heights in 1950, and I started 7th grade in a new school. It was rather a culture shock; the kids there were a lot more mature; boy-girl relationships seemed to be the main focus of attention, and I felt in over my head.  

It was during this period that I began to think about being a nun. I became very absorbed with religion; I wrote about religious topics for almost every assignment. Even my science papers were about reconciling evolution and genesis– much to the dismay of the sisters. This continued into high school when I was forbidden to even say the word “evolution.”

No one knew of my hopes to become a nun. When I finally told my parents, they were pleased with my choice of vocation but wanted me to wait till I had a college or at least a high school education. Our parish priest convinced them that if I “lost” my vocation because I waited to follow God’s call, we’d all go to hell. So, off I went, at age 15, to what was called the “juniorate” to begin my religious life.

Talk about culture shock! Here we were, 30 to 40 girls, ages 14 to 18, living, dressing, working, schooling together. At that period, we should have been learning to dress, to use make-up, to carry purses, to notice boys, to become women. Our instincts had to be smothered or redirected. We wore identical uniforms, were make-up free, and we were to focus our attention on God and Jesus and how to please them. (The way to do so was to please our superiors.) Probably the most difficult adjustment for me was the absence of any signs of affection. At home, we kissed and hugged at every hello and goodbye, at every good morning and good night. Here, there was “untouchability”; one was not allowed to show any physical signs of affection. We were to be “Brides of Christ,” and all our love was to be directed heavenwards.

All was not misery; we had a wonderful choir/choral group; I sang 2nd soprano. We performed at mass and other religious ceremonies, but we also gave concerts for the public. One of my classmates was a gifted musician and wrote a series of songs that were professionally recorded. (I wrote one of the songs and still have the record!)

In August of 1957, I was accepted into the convent proper. The stages of “nundom” are as follows: novitiate, which consists of one year each of postulancy (the first stage), noviceship, and first professed. Then there are five years of annual renewal of vows followed by a second novitiate of one summer, and then final or perpetual vows. The nun who trained us was called “Mother Mistress.” 

All through the juniorate, we were tantalized by the hint of “secrets” of convent life. Now we were going to learn some of these secrets! There was “Grand Silence” from 1pm to 2pm and after 9pm till morning. Only in extreme emergencies were we allowed to say a word. Silence was a virtue; it gave us the opportunity to think about God. Most of our meals were consumed in silence. As we progressed through the three years, we learned more and more secrets. When one made a request, one knelt in front of mother mistress, kissed the floor and said “Benedicite mother mistress, may I…”

No secret was made as to the purpose of our training; it was to break us down and rebuild us into humble, pure, and obedient nuns. And it was done with our complete and wholehearted compliance. During that first year, we began our courses to get our B.A. in elementary education. 

In the second year, we were given the habit and a white veil and a new name. This last was symbolic of “dying to the world.” My name was now Sister Mary Concordia. We were now strictly cloistered (separated) not only from the world, but from the rest of the convent. We continued our education, but took all the theology and philosophy courses. And learned more secrets! 

You must understand that, in order to be as perfect as possible, it is vital to learn mortification of the senses. There were numerous ways to do this. There was “custody  of the eyes”—keeping one’s eyes cast down so as not to see the world, closing one’s ears so as not to hear it, fasting to control one’s appetite, folding one’s hands under the scapular so as not to touch or be touched. (Funny, there was nothing taught about our noses!)

And then there was the big one—The Discipline. Every Friday evening, we retired to our cells (cubicles) for this ceremony. We had been given small metal whips to mortify our flesh. We threw our habits over our heads and whipped ourselves. We had been told not to do it hard enough to draw blood, just enough to hurt. Another practice was called Chapter of Faults. On Thursday afternoons in the novitiate, we gathered in the community room with Mother Mistress. We’d kneel, place our ropes around our necks, and openly confess our faults. If we forgot one, Mother would remind us! Again there was floor kissing, or at least bending to the floor and kissing our crucifix.

It was during this year that I experienced one of the deepest, most painful lessons of my life. We had heard from the beginning of our juniorate that we must avoid, at all costs, “particular friendships.” It seemed to me that that meant having a best friend. But I realized during this year that it must have meant more. So, during a weekly session with Mother Mistress, I asked her what it meant. She explained that it meant loving another woman as one would love a man. I was shocked; this idea had never entered my mind. I exclaimed, “Oh Mother, I’d never want something like that!” She replied, “Don’t worry; no one could ever love you that much!”

That moment was seared into the very fabric of my being—the sights, the sounds, the scents, the tactile sensations. Time stood still for a brief eternity. At that moment, I realized that I was totally unlovable and that my only hope for happiness was to be a very, very good nun, totally dedicated to God. I actually saw her words as valuable to me, helping me to achieve holiness. There is a theological truth that the more we suffer on earth, the greater will be our reward in heaven. So this misery was a blessing in disguise.

At the end of that year, we made our first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We continued our education, again focusing on religious matters, but also took some basic educational courses in teaching principles. After we renewed our vows, we were sent to various parish schools to teach. We would take one or two courses at night to further our education. When we returned to the Motherhouse for the summer, we would go to Seton Hall and take three to five more courses. It took me 13 years to get my B.A. degree!

Finally, it was time to make our final vows. Although I was plagued with doubts, I was told that it was a test from God (or a temptation from the devil). It was called “the dark night of the soul.” I was told I had to “take the leap of faith.” So, logic and reason be damned, I took that leap and made my final vows. I waited and waited for the burst of joy promised to me. It didn’t happen. 

Looking back, I realize I had been “infected” by an early form of humanism. With the advent of Vatican II, I felt that things would change for the better. There would be openness. But I had underestimated the power of entrenched beliefs. I finally realized that the god these nuns adored was a miserable construct of a puritanical mindset. I still believed in a god, but a much nicer one. Just as man had once conceived and made a god that embodied his most inhumane traits, I manufactured one that typified all the best of humanity.

In 1969, I finally had the courage to request a dispensation from my vows. The first response was to send me to a psychiatrist to see what was wrong with me. (That’s a story in itself!) Then, they sent me on a two-week retreat so I would come to my senses. I persisted in my requests. I had to write a letter to the pope, stating that I was weak and sinful and was not brave enough to continue to keep my vows, but at that point, I would have said anything.

The dispensation came through, and the Friday before Mother’s Day in 1970, I was free! I arrived home the next day, and my mother considered this a Mother’s Day gift. My family welcomed me home with great warmth and love. Lots of hugs and kisses. How I had missed all that affection!  

I finished my last course and received my B.A. in elementary education. I then went on to Rutgers and got my degree in clinical social work. While there, the studies opened my eyes to logic and reason, and I no longer considered them to be temptations. I still believed in a deity; I checked out Judaism, Buddhism and a number of the newer forms of religion—nothing quite fit. 

Neither did I find a satisfactory relationship. It appeared Mother Mistress was right; no one would love me. But I resolved to find a happy life for myself as a single person and I was well on my way to doing so. I moved to Miami Beach, where I was hired for a social work position at Goodwill Industries, and later fell in love with the psychologist who hired me after he left his post to open a private practice.

My life since then has been wonderful, even in the midst of desolation. My Jim died in 2005 after a long illness. Jim had introduced me to the ideals of humanism; it was emphasized in his Ph.D. studies at the Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. As he explained this to me, I realized I was already a humanist, too. Our first letterhead stationary read “Center for Humanistic Psychotherapy.” We had often discussed our newly-found reasonable, logical and, for us, mind-blowing ideas. We were not aware of any local groups in our area; in retrospect, I doubt there were any. But we were content.     

After his death, I longed to talk with someone about humanism and my feelings and beliefs about death, and my life again bloomed when I found two local groups: Treasure Coast Humanists and Atheists of the Treasure Coast.

So, I’ve come a long, long way. I now live with my best friend, Marann (also a humanist), our dogs, Jack and Azziza, and our cats, Romeo and Boots. I wear my humanist pin and chat about freethought. We started a humanist writing group. I’m a hospice volunteer and I emphasize that I am a humanist and especially interested in assisting non-theistic patients.

Life itself is my goal—to live as fully and freely and as long as possible. My mind has become a vast playground where I joyfully read, listen, ponder, speak and write. Unlike some brilliant theologian, my mind is not constricted by such bugaboos as faith and infallibility. There are no “do not trespass” signs. Every idea is grist for the mill of my mind. 

Elizabeth Murad is a former Catholic nun who later liberated herself from the convent and all religious bonds. She was married to her husband, Jim, for 29 years, and now devotes herself to the study and practice of humanism in all forms.

Are you an ex-Christian Scientist, ex-Scientologist, ex-Pagan, ex-Pentecostalist, ex-Muslim, or otherwise ex-religious? Interested in writing about it for Humanist Network News? Write to us at hnn@americanhumanist.org.