ABC has just bought a new series from Shonda Rhimes—whose Shondaland production company has created such hit shows as Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder—on nuns. Yes, nuns.
Something in Variety‘s announcement of Ms. Rhimes’s latest venture makes me think the show isn’t going to be much like PBS’s endearing Call the Midwife. Variety reports that the as-yet-unnamed show “revolves around a group of Catholic nuns fighting the closure of their Bronx-based convent who must suddenly deal with three young novices whose arrival unearths long-buried secrets.” Well, at least they’re getting vocations.
Before I quit watching Grey’s Anatomy, a show about self-involved doctors who tamper with clinical trials, bake cookies for their dogs, and, when not stabbing each other in the back, have sex in the supply-closet, I used to think, “Dear Lord, if I am in a car wreck, please don’t let me end up some place like Seattle Grace (the fictional hospital in the show).” If Shondaland can turn one of our most caring professions into a mass of shallow, sex-crazed, scalpel-wielding, ambition-machines, God only knows what Ms. Rhimes can do to the good sisters. Rhimes, by the way, is the product of a Catholic high school, but that doesn’t necessarily bode well.
And indeed Variety predicts that the show, an ensemble drama, “will throw into question everything you think you know about the ‘Brides of Christ.’” Cosmopolitan chimes in, asking, “What kinds of secrets are they hiding under their habits?” Nuns with secret sins makes for an enticing idea for a TV drama, but real nuns may, alas, be disappointing. I had a priest friend who used to hear the confessions of an entire convent. The experience, he said, was “like being stoned to death with popcorn.” I predict that the buried secrets of Shondaland nuns will be far more interesting.
We don’t know anything about the secret-ridden Bronx nuns beyond a few lines in the Variety story, but ladies of the habit have long been a staple of the big and small screen. Who has forgotten the understanding Mother Abbess, played by Peggy Wood, in The Sound of Music? Mother Abbess is gentle but firm in encouraging novice Maria, who is obviously unsuited to religious life, to leave the convent to marry the man with whom she has clearly fallen in love. Mother Abbess is a serious but kind and balanced woman—or as balanced as you can be when belting out campy songs and battling Nazis.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sister Agnes in Agnes of God is stark raving mad. When a strangled babe is found in her room, she claims it is the product of a virginal conception. Under hypnosis, Agnes reveals that she’s been seeing a man named Michael (like the Archangel—get it?) in the barn. To top it off, she gets the stigmata. And if that weren’t enough drama, Agnes’s agnostic shrink Dr. Livingston (played by Jane Fonda) discovers that Agnes was molested by her mother before entering the convent. The convent as a seedbed of dysfunction is an oft-repeated and outrageous trope in pop culture, unfortunately.
Then there is the nuns-as-comedy-prop perfected by Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Sister Act, which isn’t really a story about a nun but about a lounge singer hiding from a mob boss in a Poor Clare convent. The movie and its sequels even spawned a Broadway version of the story, which New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood, in extremely bad taste, characterized as “this sentimental story of a bad girl showing the good sisters how to get down” which had “all the depth of a communion wafer, and possibly a little less bite.” In the movie and the musical, the would-be novice succeeds in getting the uptight nuns to ditch their beautiful chants for Whoopi-style gospel music. After watching the movie, I’m with the uptight nuns.
Wimples and incense are great props, naturally, but television or movies about nuns aren’t really interesting or likely to endure unless they deal with the serious business of being a nun: the struggle for holiness. No, it’s not as boring as it might sound.
The 1959 movie, The Nun’s Story, stars Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, a brilliant medical nun who struggles with obedience and humility. The movie is riveting because it is a serious study of a woman who tries, but after many years ultimately rejects, religious life. It is loosely based on the life of Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse, who left her order but remained a devout Catholic.
One of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen is In This House of Brede, the 1975 movie based on Catholic convert novelist Rumer Godden’s book by the same name and featuring Diana Rigg as Philippa Talbot, a successful professional woman who becomes a cloistered Benedictine nun. The movie has some hauntingly moving scenes, such as when the bishop takes scissors and cuts the new nun’s hair in the clothing ceremony, but it also grapples seriously with the matter of purpose in life—or vocation.
And then there is the 1995 film Dead Man Walking about Sister Helen Prejean. The film tells the story of a non-habit wearing, post-1960s nun and prison chaplain, played by Susan Sarandon, who crusades against the death penalty. Whatever your views on capital punishment, or on Sister Helen’s recent intrusion into the Tsarnaev Boston Marathon Bomber case, Sister Helen, like Sister Luke and Philippa Talbot, grapples with holiness.
That’s what nuns are supposed to do. The real lives of nuns—not the overly sentimentalized or overly sexed up version—make for riveting stories. Let’s hope Shonda Rhimes understands that.