In North America, nuns are usually a thing one only see in the movies or during Halloween, which is why I keep expecting the nuns we pass in town to break into a Monte Python song and dance routine. But of course, they never do. They are real nuns.
One may be right to think that the Catholic church changes at a sub-glacial speed, but when it comes to women of the habit, their life have changed drastically in the last couple of generations. Take our hometown Ronda. There are still seven convents in operation here, but just like most places in the world, the numbers of nuns have declined significantly. Our local ‘nunnery’ has seven nuns, compared to the twenty-four nuns who lived there just a few decades ago. The demographics have changed as well, with the average age of the nuns now seemingly well over 70. The younger nuns inevitably are ‘imported’ from Africa, Asia, or ‘the Americas’, like our friend, sor Clara.
Clara was a teacher in Mexico in her former life and took the nun’s habit only a few years ago. She is young, bright and ever so friendly. From what I understood, and of course I may be very wrong, she found her space at the convento through the Internet.
As their numbers decline, the nuns have had to adapt. Though the order is cloistered, these days they go outside to shop, visit doctors or deal with government offices. We met sor Clara one day on the street carrying musical notes. She explained that the nun who used to accompany their mass is getting too old, so she is taking classes to be able to fulfill this task. Somehow our conversation turned to food (a favourite topic of conversation for the Spanish…) and my husband offered to make sor Clara some chicken with mole sauce from her native land. Clara was ever so excited. However, she said, it would have to be this coming week, because she was going back to Mexico for her vacation in August, a perk she had never expected when she became a nun. I do not know if holidays are now an exclusive right for Dominican or Franciscan nuns, or maybe just a special arrangement for nuns of leisure-loving Spain? Or could it possibly be part of a new universal Catholic nun’s employment plan? Regardless, times have indeed changed when cloistered nuns have vacations…
Their role in society has changed, as well. Gone are the days when nuns and monks were responsible for virtually all education in Spain. Equally, distant are the days when you would call on a Hermano or Hermana to heal your ailing relatives. Though some nuns in Ronda still teach school children, they are few government approved and certified educators or legally qualified health practitioners amongst these ladies of the cloth. Just a generation back, cloistered nuns would grow most of their food and literally never be seen outside the cloister walls. They would refuse to see doctors, because they were supposed to take care of their own – and God would see to the rest. Today, the nuns of our barrio have annual medical checkups and receive outside care when needed. Ironically, last time they had their checkup, the only nun passing the test with flying colours was the ancient, tiny and ever-smiling Mother Superior, who makes my 83-year-old mom look like a youngster…
Of course with no more teaching or healing to tend to, the nuns have to think of new ways to bring in funds to keep up their benevolent work. We knew that our convent, like others in town, still make and sell baked goods to have a bit of cash flow, but we had no idea what their other business ventures entailed – until one day we decided to move…
My husband and I have spent two winters in a cold and drafty flat here in Ronda and finally decided to move into a smaller, warmer place before the weather turns this fall. People usually associate Spain with heat and though our summers see temperatures above 40*C, our winters can be very cold. For this reason, traditional Andalucían houses were built with thick stone walls and with small window and door openings. Unfortunately, many ‘modern’ buildings skimp on isolation, combine paper-thin walls with large windowpanes, without double of triple glazing to isolate against temperature dips and loud parties.
Looking for a place to rent in Ronda was easy this time around, in contrast to when we originally got here. We sent out a ‘What’s App’ message to a few friends and neighbours and were offered the future retirement flat of friends of friends. It is perfect and has doors and windows that actually close, so we wont be heating for the crows this winter. We asked our landlady if they had a storage for the 56 boxes of books and art that we brought from Canada, which shook her head. “Ask the nuns’ she said, as obviously everybody in our neigbourhood except us know that the nuns rent out storage space.
We went directly to the convent down the street, ringing the bell at the gate. From the not entirely state-of-the-art intercom system came an “Ave María Purísima” in a quivery old voice. My husband who thankfully was an altar boy in his youth answered ”Sin pecado concebida” and magically, things started happening on the inside. Amazing what can be achieved when one knows ones prayers… Two nuns, one tiny and old, the other more robust and double chinned (both perfect cast for “The Sound of Music”) came to the gate. Still wanting to assure that we were of pure intent, they inquired about our errand from behind the locked gate. Once it was established that my husband was Mexican and even knew Aguascalientes, where sor Clara came from, we were not only let in the gate and through the courtyard. Like long-lost relatives, we were kissed on both cheeks and lead to an inner sanctium and up to the second floor, while the nuns chatted happily on.
Where does one store things in a convent, one may ask? I imagined that we would rent one of the spare nun’s cell and that other unused cells where rented out as similar storage. Though this may be an excellent future business idea for the nuns, I was wrong, Instead, they took us to a large room on the upper floor, with food donations for the poor in one corner, beds and matrasses for single moms and other needy against another wall, broken furniture on the third and a spare corner in between that we could use. The rent was a bit more we had hoped to spend, but for their shining faces, so happy to help and frankly, to have visitors to chat with, and for the story in itself, it was truly priceless.
I mean, who else gets to keep their stuff in Mother Superior’s Mini Storage?