by Julia Lieblich
Although Julia Lieblich, who is Jewish, had never met any nuns until 1982, she writes that she was always fascinated with their portrayal in literature and film. Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette was a favorite, Lieblich writes, because “she had that cosmic connection with God that eludes us mere mortals.”
A former FORTUNE reporter and currently a graduate student in theology at the Harvard Divinity School, Lieblich explores that connection through mesmerizing portraits of four contemporary nuns. Like the author, readers may approach the topic with some preconceptions: that nuns almost always wear habits—or at least drab garb—not the jeans and T-shirts favored by Sister Darlene Nicgorski of Mississippi, who was convicted of “conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens” from Latin America (her lawyer argued in court that they were political refugees); that contemplative nuns speak in hushed, pious tones, not “loudly and clearly,” like Sister Catherine O’Reilly, who describes docile sisters as being “nunny”; that a vow of celibacy means a sister is not permitted to feel a deep, spiritual love for anyone but God. Through interviews and observation, Lieblich turns such conventions inside out. But she never—and this is the trick—condemns either the Church or the sisters. Even when writing about the Sanctuary Movement and abortion rights, Lieblich lets the sisters tell their stories.
But she asks pointed questions about serving a Church that denies women some basic rights or even opinions on such fundamental topics as women in the clergy. “Would you change denominations to be ordained?” Lieblich asks a group of nuns. “No,” comes the defiant reply. Why not? “Because it’s my Church, too, damn it, and they need to know I’m out there. They need to know that my voice is as valid as anybody else’s.” Now, thanks to Lieblich’s probing and insight, we know they’re out there too. (Ballantine, $20)