Carol Ganim. Being Out of Order: The Prophetic Generation of Nuns and Sisters
Vandamere Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-918339-77-5. $19.95
Reviewed by Kate Conmy
Being Out of Order: The Prophetic Generation of Nuns and Sisters by Carole Ganim is a refreshingly practical retelling of her journey as an Ursuline sister from 1956 to 1972. Offering verisimilitude to the often-obscured life of a young novitiate, Ganim’s voice brings color to a generation who transitioned from “Sister Formation” to the changes of Vatican II to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. Interviewing over twenty sisters and friends, Ganim traces her own formation from breaking up with her high school boyfriend and being so nervous that she ran her yellow Studebaker convertible into a curb, to her eventual “breaking” of her vows sixteen years later.
Being Out of Order is a generous reflection. Ganim dances a line of irreverence and comedy to describe the sincerity, confusion, and genuine vocation of her time in the convent. Using only first names, the story trustingly resembles a familial storytelling session, leaving no adolescent curiosity unturned (e.g., “do nuns menstruate?”). These are the voices of friends, of women you know, and of the arrested development of so many Catholics.
There is a sense of cinema to some of Ganim’s stories, as the young novices trip over themselves to be obnoxiously pious (“No, sister, after you!”), to a note delivered to the girls with an annual “God’s Will” update (Ganim’s was terrifyingly left blank one year). But unlike many cinematic portrayals of nuns and sisters—flat caricatures often assigned to women—depth comes as our narrator encounters the three dimensions of systemic oppression as a sister: poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Church took a generation of “unwitting prophets,” confronting medieval and contemporary patriarchy, and asked them to make full commitments without being fully in the world, or fully human. No longer sublimating subservience with holiness, Ganim dismantles each vow and how each “took us away from our humanity… and therefore our godliness” (124).
When Ganim left the convent in 1972, not only was society asking new questions about the roles of women, but “theology was asking new questions” (165). In her early thirties, Ganim had earned her Ph.D. in English, a couple hundred dollars, and a lot of “worldly” experience to gain, shared in stories of dating fumbles, style faux pas, and self-empowerment trials. The book traces the losses of those who left the convent and those who stayed, and the losses of a Church unable to truly know women. Ganim also sketches some conclusions of what the future of religious life might look like as women continue to define commitment on their own terms.
The most common question our author hears now is: “Are you sorry you left? Do you miss it?” Questions that many Catholics ask themselves as the locus of a life-giving religion drifts farther and farther from the parish steps. Of course, the answer is always yes and no, yes and no. But in a time of “Nuns on the Bus” celebrity, and flushes of a genre of “sister-stories,” this work reminds us of the true breath of vocation: the yes and no of an institution, the ordinary and the extraordinary journey of women who follow God.
This review originally appeared in the Women’s Ordination Conference newsletter, NewWomen, NewChurch (Fall 2013/Winter 2014)