As someone who studies the lives of Late Medieval nuns every day and has more than a passing interest in TV talent shows, I’ve watched the unfolding story of a singing nun on Italian television with fascination. Sister Cristina Scuccia, a 25-year old member of the Ursuline Order, entered The Voice of Italy after a successful blind audition, and last Thursday night, triumphed to win the competition – and a record contract – in front of a national audience. But although Cristina is certainly a novelty (some even attributing her success to a ‘Monkey on the Bicycle’ moment), she speaks to a long debate about religious women’s role in the secular world.
Cristina’s audition piece of Alicia Key’s No One has had over 50 million views on YouTube. Her performances, including a duet with Kylie Minogue and renditions of Cyndi Lauper and Bon Jovi, have made international news. Whoopi Goldberg – herself no stranger to a habit and a soul tune – tweeted her support in March.
Wanting to ‘impart a message,’ rather than start a career, Sister Cristina suggested that it was the views of Pope Francis, who ‘invites us [monastics] to go out’ into the peripheries of the world, which prompted her decision to enter. 1 Singing pop songs alongside potential rock stars and boy bands, Sister Cristina doesn’t really fit with what we generally assume a nun to be (enclosed in her convent and dedicated to a life of quiet prayer) but nuns as educators, in healthcare and through charity play a large part in the conception of the modern women religious in our popular consciousness.
Yet, this idea of nuns as both confined to their cloister and yet crucially, of their transcending such restrictions and going into worldly life, is not a modern one. An active and involved secular life has, for many Orders of nuns back to the Medieval period, has gone – not always easily – hand in hand with a deeply internalised spiritual life, with the two together defining the purpose of monastic life for women.
As a historian of English nuns in the Later Middle Ages, I research the communal lives of these women, discovering their deep involvement with their lay communities, their families and their patrons, as well as engaged with new intellectual and spiritual ideas from abroad. In my three case studies, evidence suggests nuns took Latin lessons outside the convent, held relics specifically for the aid of pregnant women in their surrounding communities, and provided, and were famous for, alms, hospitality and tutoring.
Some houses attempted to gain pardons for illegitimate girls to be able to join, fulfilling a vital communal role of providing careers. Wills and book inscriptions demonstrate the continued connections of nuns with family members long after vows have been taken. Women in wealthy abbeys patronised sixteenth-century printers to create devotional manuscripts, with women in rural Yorkshire convents producing and selling wool that was sold across Europe.
Such worldly pursuits were not, however, always without controversy or complaint. The support of a politically dangerous opponent to Henry VIII led to censure of one English abbey. Strict enclosure was often enforced upon nuns after reports of bad behaviour and lax morality, with the idea that a life outside had taken away from their ‘real’ purpose of prayer. During the Reformation, the image of sexually active, debauched and unruly nuns was employed in Protestant rhetoric against monasticism. The Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century took a harder line than ever before on getting nuns back in the cloister.
The dispute over Vatican comments on the largest organisation of Catholic nuns in America two years ago (asking the famously socially involved women to focus less on ‘radical feminist themes’) suggests that these matters have not been entirely settled, and that it remains a difficult balance to maintain. Indeed, criticism of Sister Cristina has focused around her wearing of an instantly recognisable but no longer necessary habit on stage, with many pointing out that she may do so more for dramatic effect than as a symbol of her calling.
The contentions of enclosure and secular life have always informed debates about the role of religious women in society, prompting consistent re-assessment of the importance of nuns and their work, and what, exactly, their work is. Yet for the women themselves, both now and six hundred years ago, the boundary can arguably be more porous: their involvement in the world is prompted by, reflected in and further informs, their spirituality.
Negotiating this boundary of worldliness and enclosure is something Sister Cristina will have to continue to do. As she makes plans both to record her debut album and to return to the choir in her Milanese abbey, what remains certain is the tradition of a two-way spiritual and secular life that she continues.
Elizabeth Goodwin is a second-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, writing her thesis on the communal experiences of reform of English women religious in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. You can find her on twitter @ElizMGoodwin.
Image: Street nuns by Alex Proimos [Wikicommons]
- I’ve taken this translated quote from a Catholic news blog; such information is found widely online, but the comments on this post are revealing about certain attitudes towards nuns, enclosure and secular life: http://cnsblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/the-singing-ursuline-sister-i-have-a-gift-to-give/ ↩