Religious Life in the Movies

This is a clip I posted on Youtube  from the 1958 Movie, “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn as a young woman named Gabriel Vandermal who becomes Sr. Luke of a fictional French Women’s Order. The movie, as you shall is stunningly beautiful and the liturgical scenes are carefully done. This movie is available for purchase at and I recommend it to your library.

However the following should be noted. The movie presents a rather negative portrait of Religious Life by emphasizing its hardships and demands to the exclusion of its joys and benefits. It more than suggests that many aspects of Religious Life at that time were unreasonable and unnecessarily harsh. Perhaps they were at times. Some older Sisters I’ve talked with tell me that many aspects of this movie are accurate and things were tough in the old days. An interesting aspect of the portrait presented is that primary source of the hardships was the women toward each other. It is common in some current narratives, especially from older women religious, to speak of the old Church as patriarchal, male dominated, and hence oppressive to women. Yet in this piece from that actual period, the clergy are distant figures, and the main interplay is with the women and how they both support and also oppress one another.

If this movie is a reasonably accurate portrait of religious life in the first half of the 20th century (sounds so long ago now!) then it is clear that reforms were needed. However, as an outside observer who is both male and barely old enough to remember the old Church, I must say I deeply regret that the reforms that may have been necessary got so out of balance for many women’s Religious communities. An over-correction seems to have set it in in many, though surely not all. The abandonment of the Religious Habit, community life, a common apostolate, and deep love for the Church seems to have been lost, in some. Thankfully there are many Religious Communities of women which never succumbed to the radical notions that swept others. Also, there are many new, thriving and exciting new Communities of Women religious as well. In my own convent are the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara. (they wear a blue and gray habit).  They are imbued with deep love for the Lord, our Lady and the Church. They seem quite happy and foster great holiness within their sisters. They seem also to have found a good balance between the following of a clear rule and of doing so in a way that is respectful of the humanity of each each sister. There is nothing of the robotic and unhappy obedience depicted in this movie. The Sisters I know are quite alive and experience their religious life in a deeply human way.

The movie The Nun’s Story surely has a strong point of view that could have been more balanced. I cannot imagine that it was quite as strict or unhuman as this movie depicts. Further, Sr. Luke makes a decision in the movie that is problematic from the point of view of the vows she made. Nevertheless, with these cautions I strongly recommend the movie. It is beautiful, though controversial in some aspects. I post the clip here in the interest of seeing a brief look at Religious life in the wider culture and in the movies. Enjoy this beautiful video.

8 Replies to “Religious Life in the Movies”

    1. I thought cutting the hair was a part of the vow of poverty. You know, long hair is often seen as a sign of vanity in many cultures and places. I honestly don’t know if they still do it anymore either but I am curious about that.

  1. What a beautiful chant they were singing…..

    Veni Creator Spiritus

    COME, O Creator, Spirit blest,

    And in our souls take up Thy rest;

    Come with Thy grace and heavenly aid

    To fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

    Great Paraclete, to Thee we cry,

    O highest Gift of God most high,

    O Fount of life, O Fire, O Love,

    And sweet anointing from above.

    Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;

    The finger of God’s hand we own;

    The promise of the Father Thou!

    Who dost the tongue with power endow.

    Kindle our senses from above,

    And make our hearts o’erflow with love;

    with patience firm and virtue high

    the weakness of our flesh supply.

    Drive far from us the foe we dread,

    And grant us Thy true peace instead;

    So shall we not, with Thee for guide,

    Turn from the path of life aside.

    Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow

    The Father and the Son to know;

    And Thee, through endless times confessed,

    Of both the eternal Spirit blest.

    All glory while ages run,

    Be to the Father and the Son,

    Who rose from death; the same to Thee,

    O Holy Ghost, eternally. Amen.

  2. Reading the lives of St. Teresa of Avila and more so St. Therese it’s evident that some of the other sisters were downright cruel at times to one another. Petty jealousies are par for the course when it comes to relationships among women. Religious life isn’t necessarily a haven from human weakness.

  3. “The Nun’s Story” the book is even better than the movie, not sure who wrote it, but it is really beautiful.

  4. I recently attended a funeral service for an elderly nun at a convent. I brought her cousin (who was unable to drive) and did not know the sister personally. In her eulogy, among the many cheerful representations of her, one of the other sisters told us that in her personal bible, the deceased sister had at some point in her life crossed out the word “follow” in Psalm 23 (surely goodness and mercy shall follow me) and written in its place “pursue.” I felt as if I knew her then, since that revision spoke volumes to me. Also, the sisters were welcoming, cheerful and I felt encouraged to see how well they cared for each other (I found myself chuckling at the idea that many married women of a certain age would wonder if they had chosen wisely if they could witness the convent experience–Jesus is after all the only perfect spouse.)

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