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Jesus in Our Wombs

Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent

Rebecca J. Lester (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 358 pages
ISBN: 9780520242685
April 2005
$34.95, £24.95
In Jesus in Our Wombs, Rebecca J. Lester takes us behind the walls of a Roman Catholic convent in central Mexico to explore the lives, training, and experiences of a group of postulants—young women in the first stage of religious training as nuns. Lester, who conducted eighteen months of fieldwork in the convent, provides a rich ethnography of these young women's journeys as they wrestle with doubts, fears, ambitions, and setbacks in their struggle to follow what they believe to be the will of God. Gracefully written, finely textured, and theoretically rigorous, this book considers how these aspiring nuns learn to experience God by cultivating an altered experience of their own female bodies, a transformation they view as a political stance against modernity.

Lester explains that the Postulants work toward what they see as an "authentic" femininity—one that has been eclipsed by the values of modern society. The outcome of this process has political as well as personal consequences. The Sisters learn to understand their very intimate experiences of "the Call"—and their choices in answering it—as politically relevant declarations of self. Readers become intimately acquainted with the personalities, family backgrounds, friendships, and aspirations of the Postulants as Lester relates the practices and experiences of their daily lives. Combining compassionate, engaged ethnography with an incisive and provocative theoretical analysis of embodied selves, Jesus in Our Wombs delivers a profound analysis of what Lester calls the convent's "technology of embodiment" on multiple levels—from the phenomenological to the political.
List of Illustrations
Part One: Contexts
1. Female Bodies and the Touch of God
2. The Siervas
3. Religious Formation
Part Two: Becoming Women in Christ
4. Brokenness: Restless in My Own Skin
5. Belonging: Sisters in Arms
6. Containment: Producing the Interior
7. Regimentation: Making the Mindful Body
8. Self-Critique: Diagnosing the Soul
9. Surrender: Turning It Over to God
10. Re/Collection: The Temporal Contours of the Self
11. Changing the Subject: Transformations
Part Three: Articulations
12. Mexican Modernities
13. Bodies and Selves: Theorizing Embodiment
Appendix: Glossary of Catholic Terms and Selected Central Prayers
Rebecca J. Lester is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington University.
“Skillfully blends classic psychoanalytic theory and postmodernism. . . . This is a highly original contribution to the anthropological study of embodiment, gender, and religion.”—S.D. Glazier, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Choice: Current Reviews For Academic Libraries
"A stunning first book, Jesus In Our Wombs is a haunting ethnography with fresh theoretical insights. Blending psychoanalytic theories with postmodern imageries, Lester demonstrates that the body is both a source and object of analysis. This is a model ethnography."—Vicki Ruiz, author of From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in the Twentieth-Century America

"In Jesus In Our Wombs, Rebecca Lester uses her rich, evocative ethnography of the first year experiences of nuns-in-training to explore the formation and transformation of selves, the relationships of bodily practices, and the centrality of gender to these intertwined processes of self-formation and embodiment. This work will spark renewed interest in the potential of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theories of change to offer insights for crucial theoretical issues in anthropology and the social sciences more generally. A superb book."—Dorothy Hodgson, author of The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters between Maasai and Missionaries

"This study of young Mexican nuns in their first year of training is a thought provoking and ethnographically rich work that will be an important contribution to the anthropological study of religion, gender, and embodiment. Through her careful analysis of the ways the postulates negotiate their training intellectually, emotionally, and bodily, Lester provides unique insights into the religious processes of personal transformation. A beautifully observed ethnography of life in a Catholic convent."—Joel Robbins, author of Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society

Does a theory of the self require a theory of the body? If so, why? How might the systematic theorizing of an embodied self alter our understanding of subjectivity and social processes? This book is an account of how eighteen young women in a Mexican convent engaged in certain bodily practices with the explicit aim of reshaping their subjective experiences along a particular line of development. As such, it is a grounded engagement with current debates regarding embodiment and experience. But it is also an exploration of the ways in which gendered subjectivities may become politically and socially charged as a means of articulating cultural conflicts about modernity and how these larger meanings take on significance for people on the most intimately personal levels. Fundamentally, then, this book addresses the question of how we create meaning in our lives through embodied practice. I approach these issues within the context of a Roman Catholic convent in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, a highly elaborated domain for the production of embodied self-knowledge.

Puebla de los Angeles, September 3, 1994

At 4:45 the Grand Silence is compromised as eighteen sleepy young nuns tumble from their beds to recite the rising prayer in the cold darkness of the convent dormitory: "I pray, Lord, that you accept all my works, my thoughts, my emotions, and my desires as reparation for the many sins that will be committed today in this world...." In the echoing silence following the prayer, thirty-six bare feet pad across the cold stone floor toward the showers. Arms and legs are scrubbed, faces washed, and teeth brushed in preparation for morning prayers. Hospital-like curtains are pulled around the small beds, and shadows play behind them as the young women slip on the various layers of the blue postulant uniform over white cotton undergarments and arrange delicate black veils carefully over their still-damp hair. In the cool, predawn blackness the young women file out of the dormitory, down two flights of stairs, across the patio, through a hallway, and into the chapel, where they will remain in concentrated meditation for the next two hours.

Another day has begun for the postulants of "the Siervas," a shorthand for the congregation's official name.1 Unlike cloistered orders, which are devoted to prayer and contemplation, active-life orders like the Siervas view it as their mission to labor tirelessly and selflessly in the service of others, particularly those on the margins of society: the poor, the forgotten, the fallen souls. Every moment of every day the nuns mortify their bodies and their souls, their sacrifice a powerful force in the salvation of the world. They strive to become living testimonies of Christ's immeasurable love, and they hope that as His2 brides, each will serve as a humble exemplar of how to be a woman in a world gone mad.

For many in Mexico today the world seems, indeed, to have gone mad. It is a world where politicians funnel eighty-four million dollars from the national coffers into Swiss bank accounts, where protesters sew their mouths closed with black nylon string in politically motivated hunger strikes, where students take to the streets in angry riots, and where policemen slaughter dozens of campesinos and hide their bodies in shallow graves. Divorces and homicides are up, literacy rates and education are down, and many young people seem more engaged with what's happening on Friends than in their own backyards.

But something curious is happening at the margins of the political turmoil and social upheaval. Each year scores of young women—more and more each year—are leaving the warmth and protection of their homes, leaving their friends, their families, their high schools and universities, to march through the convent doors, where they will surrender themselves body and soul to Christ for eternity. The estimates are staggering.3 But despite a general increase, one congregation—the Siervas—stands out, boasting a tripling of new entrants over the last fifteen years.4

What might motivate a young Mexican woman to become a nun at a time when a modernizing Mexico offers her so many new and exciting opportunities not open to women only a generation ago? What might a young woman's feeling of religious vocation tell us about changing constructions of womanhood and femininity in the wake of these social transformations? And what might account for the startling revival of interest in this particular congregation?

I spent eighteen months with the entering class of new Siervas during 1994-95. When I first went to the field I was concerned with trying to understand young women's motivations for entering a nunnery. I wanted to get a feel for what goes on emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually with these women as they try to decide if they should pledge themselves eternally to Christ and the church. I soon found, however, that the question I should be asking was not so much what brought the women to the convent. Most of these young women decided to enter the nunnery, I discovered, with only a vague understanding of what the religious life was or what to expect once they got there. The more interesting question, I realized, was what kept these women there, day after day. The year of the postulancy is a kind of trial period. The door is open. The postulants have taken no vows and, as they are continually reminded, are free to leave at any time. So what keeps them there, waking up at 4:45 in the morning to bathe with cold water and sit in silent prayer for two hours before breakfast? What keeps them there, working and studying, unable to make even small purchases, write a letter, or make a phone call without permission from a superior? What keeps a woman there, knowing she will never again lead an independent life, will never have a home and a family of her own, but must instead remain poor, chaste, and obedient in the service of Christ or risk the eternal damnation of her immortal soul? Clearly, something more is going on for these women than a superficial infatuation with the idea of the religious life or a desire to take advantage of the economic resources the convent might offer to a poor girl from a Mexican pueblo. Something is going on in the convent that claims these women—something that makes the force of "the call" so irresistible that they willingly, and even joyfully, give up everything to follow it. I became interested in how, over the course of their first year in the convent, these new nuns moved from initially feeling unsure about their own motivations for entering the nunnery to experiencing this decision as reflecting an intimate, personal calling from God that they were compelled to answer.

The Argument

I want to be clear that I am not interested in psychoanalyzing these women or discovering what deep-seated conflicts might have prompted them to give up sex and comfort for a life of bleak austerity and sacrifice. Rather, I propose an answer in terms of a transformation of subjectivity. In line with the arguments of Bordo (1993), Probyn (1993), and Luhrmann (1989), I saw that, through the engagement of the specific daily practices of convent life, new entrants to this congregation underwent a shift in sensibilities, perceptions, interpretations, dispositions, and memory—a transformation of subjectivity that the sisters understood as the progressively acute discernment of their true vocation according to God's plan.

My argument is that joining this particular congregation seemed to help these young postulants deal with tensions about being a woman in contemporary Mexico by offering them an alternative to two conflicting cultural models of femininity: the modern, upwardly mobile, techno-savvy, independent woman and the traditional, domestic, morally solid homemaker. The sisters understood the process of religious formation as reclaiming a submerged authentic femininity and then mobilizing that femininity to heal a world ravaged by violence and injustice. Through their religious training the postulants learned to experience religious vocation not only as a personal calling but as an urgent social and political obligation. It was this aspect of the program that seemed to be the most compelling for the women involved.

The transformation to a more authentic, politically engaged femininity in the convent centered on the new nun's coming to experience her body as a site of interaction among different existential domains. She had to learn to understand her experience of who she was when she entered the convent as illusory, grounded in the persuasions of the mundane world. She had to question all the things she thought she knew about herself and the world and to come to see them as partial and often contorted reflections of the truth. At the same time, she had to recognize that she had been called to play an important role in God's larger plan of salvation: that is, she had to understand herself as existing not only in the here and now but as an eternal soul that could be saved or damned and could lead others to salvation or perdition. Each postulant was schooled in how to experience her body as the medium through which these different aspects of self—the embodied, temporal self and the nonbodied, eternal soul—interacted and were made manifest. As she progressed in her training, she learned how to read her body—its sensations, inclinations, energies, temptations, frustrations—as indicators of how successfully she was managing this relationship between worldly and spiritual demands. She learned to view her body as the domain of negotiation between these two existential frames, a negotiation that became manifest in the very inclinations of her flesh.

As the initiates became progressively more adept at experiencing their bodies as mediating worldly and spiritual aspects of self, they were guided to understand this process as one of inhabiting a new and authentic femininity. In a May retreat on the Virgin Mary, for example, one month before they were to enter the novitiate, the mistress of postulants observed to the group that the ten months of the postulancy were like the months of pregnancy—that the postulants were, in a spiritual sense, gestating Jesus in their own wombs. They had become, in other words, simultaneously the daughters, brides, and mothers of Christ, orienting toward a spiritual rather than a physical model of femininity and reproduction. Learning to construct a meaningful new experience of body/self/soul that embraced—rather than denied—such paradoxes as they developed and changed over time was at the heart of the transformation these women underwent in their first year.

I do not, however, want to suggest that the postulants' motivations for entering this congregation were purely intrapsychic. Rather, it became clear to me from spending time with them that this intimate, personal process of regendering in the convent proceeded in direct dialogue with concerns about modernization, political power, and cultural change that were highlighted in the Mexican cultural arena. Specifically, the postulants learned to understand their conflicts about femininity as emblematic of a larger discomfort with modernity. Their engagements with gender, then, entailed engagements with political and social discourses as well. In this way, the postulants' experiences in the convent interarticulated with religious commitments on the one hand and with broader secular cultural issues on the other. These issues became personally meaningful for the postulants as they were guided toward an altered understanding of gendered subjectivity and its relationship to the lived experience of the body. Gradually, initiates came to understand their experiences of the call, and their choices as women in answering it, as politically relevant declarations of self.

In sum, my argument rests on five fundamental propositions:

1.The convent philosophy overlaps with broader cultural concerns in Mexico about modernity, social change, and cultural identity.

2.Gender is one of the principal tropes through which these concerns are articulated, both within the convent and outside it.

3.Selves are always embodied. Embodied selves are always gendered.

4.Gender, then, operates on several different levels simultaneously—from the psychological to the political—though not necessarily in a systematic or coherent way. Indeed, gendered articulations at different levels can and frequently do come into conflict. The congregation's ethos "gets inside" the postulants—shapes their subjectivities—by engaging them as gendered beings, persuading them to feel personally committed to the congregation's philosophy.

5. The mechanism for this transformation is the performance of bodily practices that reconfigure the relationships among body, self, and soul.

Religious Vocation

The core language for articulating the compelling relationships among personal, spiritual, and political concerns in the convent was that of religious vocation. One morning, as we were scrubbing the breakfast dishes, I asked Marta, one of the postulants, if she ever wished she could just stay in bed until noon. She laughed at first but then became quite serious. "People think we have such a hard life," she said. "And it can be difficult sometimes. It's not easy, that's true. But they don't see the other side of it. The religious life is the most beautiful thing in the world! It's so amazing—it's hard to explain. But we're all here because we want to be here. We're here because we're in love with Christ and want to be with Him. We're following our vocation—it's that simple."

But while it may seem simple when phrased this way, the process of discovering one's vocation is, in fact, intensely emotional and complicated. The sisters (in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church) believe that all humans have been given a vocation by God. This does not mean that our lives are predestined or that we will necessarily follow a preordained life path. Rather, it means that since before we were born—indeed, since the creation of the world—God conceived of us in His mind and chose for us a path that is most propitious, both for us as individuals and for the bringing about of the Kingdom of God on earth and the salvation of all humankind. A vocation, then, is somewhat like a potentiality—the kind of life we could lead, the service to God and humankind we could give, if we were to conquer our selfish ambitions and humbly surrender ourselves to God's plan for us. But God, the sisters say, does not force us to obey. He has given us free will. We can elect, then, to follow God's calling, or we can ignore this calling and, by implication, work against the realization of God's plan. The first step, however, is to discern what that calling is. When Marta and the other postulants talked about their vocations, then, they were positioning themselves within this larger theological and existential context from which they could create meaning for their lives.

Whether or not we as outsiders recognize the objective "truth" of religious vocation, it is, without a doubt, very real for the women involved. Immortal souls are at stake. These young women come to the convent searching for meaning, seeking to discover what God is asking of them and whether they are up to the task. The outcome of this process is far from certain. Not everyone makes it through. Some people drop out. Some are asked to leave. Others thrive and become enormously content. I found that the sisters felt themselves to be on an intensely challenging voyage of discovery—of themselves and of God—that had its own developmental trajectory. Newcomers saw themselves (and were seen by the other nuns) as being at the very beginning of an awesome transformational process that would—if their vocations were genuine and their resolve strong enough—slowly change them from "worldly women" into "brides of Christ." This ethnography is an account of how these young women came to experience themselves as divinely called to join the Siervas and of their personal and spiritual transformations during their first year in the convent.

The Class of 2003

The popular image of nuns is that they are depersonalized beings, women who have surrendered their individuality and been reduced to the lowest common denominator of self through uniformity in dress, speech, act, and belief. While this is not entirely untrue, it is only part of the story. In fact, the sisters embrace their individuality—from Mother Miriam's signature red scarf during the winter to the black leather jacket Mother Carmelita likes to sport over her habit whenever the temperature dips below sixty degrees. Excessive eccentricity, of course, is frowned upon, but the sisters are in every sense "individuals"—women with their own histories and dreams, likes and dislikes, personality quirks and special gifts.

Accordingly, the sisters describe the progressive discernment and then fulfillment of their vocations within the order not as whittling away parts of the self to fit into a preset form of "nunliness" but as blossoming into this form. The preconvent self is seen not as too "big" for the demands of the nunnery, but as too "small"—a seed of a self as yet unrealized, as yet unconsecrated, as yet unsacred. Each new sister is seen as bringing to the convent her entire self, faults and all, which will serve as the springboard for her realization of God's plan for her. God, the sisters believe, calls women to the religious life because of who they are, including their imperfections. They should not question His will but only to try with all their might to become what He asks them to become. As I describe this process of "becoming" in the following chapters, it will be helpful to know a bit about these women and what they brought with them to the convent gates.

The autumn I began fieldwork with the Siervas, twenty young women had decided to join. This was quite a large incoming class, but not completely out of synch with the trend the congregation had been seeing in the past several years. Though it was seen as a blessing to have so many vocations, Mother Veronica, the mistress of postulants, confided to me toward the end of the year that having such a large group posed some particular difficulties in terms of group dynamics. This was perhaps complicated by some of the personalities in the group as well. The group was made up of the following young women:

Magda, age 18

Rosita, age 18

Celeste, age 19

Dulce, age 19

Evelyn, age 19

Haydee, age 19

Marta, age 19

Thea, age 19

Alicia, age 20

Carlota, age 20

Pauline, age 20

Surella, age 20

Mina, age 21

Pipa, age 21

Amelia, age 22

Clara, age 22

Abby, age 24

Carmen, age 29

Iris, age 30

Ruth, age 31

I gathered life history information from the postulants through countless conversations and interviews over a period of eighteen months. I was able to collect specific biographical data on eighteen of the twenty women. Two of the postulants (Pipa and Pauline) left the congregation before the first year was over. Here I will present information on the remaining eighteen postulants, with whom I was able to double-check my information throughout the entire fieldwork period and in exit interviews. Tables 1 and 2 illustrate the general demographic data I retrieved.

Though these numbers are too small to draw any definite conclusions, we can tease out what seem to be some central themes. The information suggests that, generally speaking, the postulants were young adult women who came from relatively large families with strong Catholic roots. There seemed to be no significant trend in terms of class background, and the group was fairly evenly split between those who came from cities and those who had grown up in villages or small towns, although the majority of them were from the city of Puebla or surrounding areas.

A few aspects of these data, however, are particularly interesting and deserve special attention. First, the average age at which these women reported consciously feeling that they had been called to the religious life was 13.2 years. This could be significant in that this is the age at which young girls are often entering puberty and beginning their transition into womanhood. Second, while there seemed to be no consistent trend with regard to position in the sibling order, a full 50 percent of the postulants were the youngest daughters in their families. This is notable when we consider that in Mexico traditionally the youngest daughter is expected to remain at home and care for her parents rather than pursue her own marriage and/or career. Third, over one-quarter of the postulants had an education level ranging from completion of at least some college to attainment of a professional degree before entering the convent. This is remarkable, considering that over 18 percent of women in the state of Puebla are illiterate and that 37.7 percent of Poblana women either have never completed elementary school or have received no formal education at all (Instituto Nacional de Estad{ia}stica, Geograf{ia}a e InformAtica 2000). Finally, it is notable that 83.3 percent of the postulants came from families in which the mothers did not engage in any kind of work outside the home but rather confined themselves to domestic duties. The postulants were all young, ambitious, passionate women who wanted to work actively to better conditions in their country and in the world. As I developed close relationships with them over eighteen months, it became clear to me that they found the traditional models of female domesticity most of them grew up with to be inadequate for helping them navigate the contemporary pressures and demands of womanhood in a rapidly changing Mexican society. This factor is, I believe, vital for understanding these women's experience of religious vocation.

The Politics of Faith

I argue that postulants' changing experiences of religious vocation during their first year in the convent become a means of articulating personal and political concerns about the consequences of "modernity." The understanding of modernity in which the postulants are schooled during their formation, while emphasizing selective elements, is not idiosyncratic to this order. It is a view that references larger debates going on in contemporary Mexico, debates about what it means to be Mexican, to be a woman, to be a good person. What is interesting about what goes on in the convent is how the postulants engage this view of modernity from a decidedly religiopolitical perspective and link it to their notions of what it means for them to pledge themselves, body and soul, to Christ.

The most important part of the postulants' education in these matters comes from the study of the history of the Siervas and the vision of its founder. The mission of this congregation, which was founded by a Mexican priest in 1885, enfolds a complex and clearly articulated social and political philosophy in which femininity and the actions of women are central. When woven together with the theological strictures of the Catholic Church and engaged within the context of Mexico's current social and political tensions, the congregation's philosophy seems to provide new nuns with a powerful impetus for a process of unself-conscious transformation of political subjectivity. The recent success of this order in attracting and keeping new entrants may have something to do with the parallel between a larger nationalist discourse targeting modernity (and Americanization in particular) as an evil force slowly eroding a utopianized "traditional" Mexico and the particular critique of the modern subjectivity set forth by the congregation's founder. In both views, modernization is coded as a foreign, masculine entity that first sweetly romances and then dominates and cruelly rapes the traditional female values of Mexican society. The main perpetrator of this violation, in this understanding, is the United States, a bully of a nation bent on forcing its consumer-capitalist ethos on its weaker neighbor to the south.5

The specific experiences of convent life in this congregation were set up by the founder to be technologies for the cultivation of a particular sort of subjectivity that would, if all went according to plan, become the catalyst for the regeneration of Mexican society and the salvation of humankind. In the founder's understanding, this subjectivity—this particular way of knowing, experiencing, being in, and relating to the world—was purposefully and undeniably female, Mexican, and Catholic, as defined against the "masculine" and "Protestant" values perceived to be foundational to American-style modernity.

The postulants enthusiastically engaged this key aspect of the congregation's teachings, which they encountered daily in the classroom, in lectures, in videos, and in conversations with Mother Veronica and other older sisters. As the year wore on, I began to notice that more and more the postulants' comments about women and modern life revealed an unusual mixture of feminist and traditionally Catholic interpretations that seemed to echo their founder's teachings. Comments about the "superior" abilities of women to keep financial accounts and run organized businesses were coupled with observations about how these were God-given duties so women could be effective housewives. Discussions about the acuity of women's intuition and their proclivity for taking extenuating circumstances into consideration before making moral judgments were followed by warnings of how women's imaginations could run wild if not kept in check, making them prone to flights of fancy and to mistaking their own self-made fictions for fact. Observations about women's concerns for social justice (eliciting, on one occasion, cheers of "Mujeres! Mujeres!" [Women! Women!] from Celeste) were followed by disclaimers about how this, of course, did not mean women should forfeit their femininity. "A woman should be 100 percent woman—always" was a favorite saying in the convent.

This view of women and femininity also took center stage in the postulants' discussions of their vocations. At a retreat held on December 14, 1994, at the novitiate the postulants were given worksheets to help them think through issues facing women today. We broke into groups of two to discuss the readings, and Evelyn and I strolled out to the gazebo in the back of the novitiate near the cow pens to do the assignment. As we read through the points on the worksheets, Evelyn began to talk about how difficult it was for women to "be true to their essences" as women today and how this had influenced her decision to become a nun. "Women in the twentieth century don't live like Mary," she told me. "They have too much liberty. I saw a debate about abortion on TV last summer. Those women who call themselves prochoice think they can do whatever they want with their bodies. But it's not true. What they think of as 'liberty' is really preventing them from being free because they're slaves to what society is telling them they have to be. They're not being true to themselves as women, and this makes it impossible to follow the will of God." I asked her where she thought this "false" perception of liberty comes from. "From the media," she said, without hesitation.

What do you see on TV? You see shows like Baywatch and Beverly Hills 90210 and things like that. It's true that in the United States you are much more liberal, and you have a different understanding of what women should be than what we have here. And all of this comes here. And we Mexicans are so enamored with everything that comes from there. We can't get enough of American things! So we think our women have to be like yours. But this doesn't work here in Mexico. It's like taking clothes that don't fit you and putting them on. You end up looking ridiculous.

I asked Evelyn how she saw herself figuring into this situation. "Well, it's hard, you know?" she mused.

It was hard for me on the outside, because everyone wants to be accepted, right? Everyone wants to be in style, to be popular. So you go along with what your friends want, no? You copy what you see on TV, you try to be cool. You do what your friends do, even if you know it isn't really right. And that's what I did. I went out to clubs all the time, wore short skirts, the whole thing. But it didn't feel right. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn't. I kept feeling that I was missing something, that I wanted more. That's when I began to think maybe I had a vocation. It took a long time for me to come to terms with the whole idea, but I started going to retreats and things, and finally, when I started to get involved with the Siervas, I felt like I was on the right track.

In the convent, the postulants learn how to reinterpret these feelings of not really "fitting in" as women in the outside world as the call from God to pursue a different, more authentic femininity. They are aided in coming to see their vocations to the Siervas as part of this larger struggle on the political as well as the religious front. I saw that as the postulants proceeded through the religious formation process in this congregation, their subjective experiences of their vocation seemed to change as they learned what it meant to be a "good Sierva" as defined in the order. They worked consciously to become the prototype of the curative subjectivity outlined by the founder and came to experience themselves as such, with varying degrees of success and difficulty. As this reshaping proceeded, I saw that the postulants' understanding of what it meant to have a vocation was reoriented as well, bringing it in line with the specific philosophy of the congregation as a template for the production of an "antimodern" feminine subjectivity. Over time, the postulants were gradually persuaded to experience joining the Siervas as a proactive moral and national obligation to which they had been especially called.

Changing Subjects

In accordance with Catholic norms, the sisters call the transformational process of becoming a Sierva religious formation. The entire formational process lasts nine years from postulancy to the profession of perpetual vows, though this process is often extended by a year or more of involvement with the community before entry as a postulant (women in this stage are called aspirants). The general outline of the formation process is presented in table 3.

Religious formation is, I learned, a process that is both cyclical and directional: as the postulants move along a particular line of development, they also replicate a pattern of discovery and discernment. Although the core elements of each formation stage are similar, the intensity and depth of the explorations gradually increase as a woman moves along the path of formation. Certain recurring themes, then, appear at different points—and with different intensities—throughout the nine years of formation. This dual cyclical/progressive organization of the formation process reflects the organization of time within the church itself (see Williams 1975) and becomes, as we will see in chapter 10, a key element of subjective reorientation for the postulants as they negotiate their new identities as Siervas. Specifically, formation is a developmental process designed to create in new entrants an altered experience of self as simultaneously rooted in the world and spiritually transcendent and eternal. These apparently contradictory constructions of self are brought together in the domain of the physical body and manifested in its desires, inclinations, vulnerabilities, and triumphs. The goal of formation in the convent is to help newcomers develop a particular sensitivity to these processes and to come to experience them as the voice of God.

From my experience with the sisters, I suggest that there are seven key elements in each cycle of formation and that each element entails and builds upon the preceding while at the same time laying the foundation for the next. These seven elements are (1) a recognition of a sense of brokenness within the self; (2) the search for a feeling of belonging to a community of other similarly "broken" selves; (3) the accommodation to containmentthrough the structuring of boundaries around and within this community; (4) the regimentation of the body according to the values and goals of the community; (5) an intense, unforgiving self-critique to identify the cause of the self's brokenness; (6) surrender of the personal will in the pursuit of wholeness; and (7) therecollection and reordering of one's life through the lens of this altered experience of self.

These processes are not entirely discrete and there is a considerable degree of overlap among them. Indeed, their division into seven distinct "stages" is somewhat arbitrary—the sisters themselves do not talk about the process in this way, at least not explicitly. These are not, in other words, local terms, and this is not a local model (though the sisters certainly do acknowledge and talk about a developmental arc to the process of change over the first year). Rather, my organization of the first year of formation into these seven categories reflects what I observed to be the practical consequences of the formation program as the new nuns learned the skills needed in the convent. As the postulants progressed through their first year, I saw that their attentions were guided toward these different aspects of their formation at different times and that later processes were predicated on their mastering earlier ones. The themes and practices were introduced in a certain order but once introduced remained important and underpinned the acquisition of new skills. Here I am concerned with detailing this cycle—and the relationships among its elements—as it manifests in the postulants' first year in the convent, and how this in turn relates to the transformation of subjectivity these women experienced.

In the first stage—Brokenness—entrants to the convent learn a new language for articulating psychic and social discomfort as perhaps representing "the call" from God. In this process, they are led to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as members in a select group of people who, like them, have been hand-picked by God for special service. The goal of this stage is to promote a specialized form of self/other recognition that involves, somewhat ironically, a heightened awareness of misrecognition of both self and others (as well as God) before entering the convent. As a result, these women talk about a sense of genuinely being seen for the first time in their lives and of coming to truly see others with new eyes—"God's eyes," as they call it.

As the young women officially enter the convent and become postulants, this sense of similarity and common cause leads them to establish intense emotional ties to each other and to the mistress of postulants, who oversees their formation at this level. This is the second stage in the process, Belonging. As the year proceeds, the sense of cohesion and identification is intensified and lays the foundation for the more difficult tasks the postulants encounter in their formation.

The third stage—Containment—involves a process of accommodation to the convent's complex hierarchy of inside/outside distinctions, ranging from the architecture of the building to the social interactions between the sisters to the management of the boundaries of the body. These techniques of enclosure—distinctions between various "insides" and "outsides"—function to highlight not only the qualitative differences between domains (between the convent and the world, between levels of formation, between cloistered and communal areas of the building, between the sisters themselves) but also the boundaries between these two realms as particularly significant foci for the articulation of power. It is at the edge of such boundaries that the convent—as an ideological apparatus—generates its meanings. I suggest that one of the principal consequences of this system is a privileging of "the interior space" (whether inside the convent walls or in the spirit of the person) as holding sacred potential.

The fourth stage—Regimentation—involves the rearticulation of these concerns with boundaries and interiority through the management of the body. As the postulants become habituated to the rigorous life of the convent, their bodies come to mediate between the interior sacred space of the soul and the exterior world of physical demands and temptations. Rather than flee the body in pursuit of a "pure" spiritual experience, however, the postulants learn to manage their physicality in such a way that the tension between the "soul" and the "body" is experienced without being resolved, where the discomfort and concerns of the physical body become a means of spiritual transformation.

Once the body has been successfully domesticated and then effectively mobilized, the focus turns to the fifth stage in the process, Self-Critique. In psychodynamic terms, we might think of this stage as an encounter with the Ultimate Other (for the nuns, God) and the systematic dismantling and reconfiguring of one's relationship to this Other. During this stage the postulants enter a period of intense internal critique, where they are guided to confront their own personal and spiritual failings in a harsh and unrelenting light. They learn that what they took to be a satisfactory relationship with God is, in fact, a betrayal of Him, due to their foregrounding of their own agency (a worldly orientation), even within their spiritual lives. Only when they have fully experienced the depth of their failings in their relationship with God are they thought to be prepared for the next stage of this process.

The remedy to this fractured bond with God, the postulants learn, is to cultivate the subjective orientation of entrega—an attitude of surrender and sacrifice that involves willfully turning over the self to God. This is the task of stage six—Surrender. Entrega is not a complete relinquishing of personal agency but a nuanced renegotiation of this agency characterized by the progressive externalizing of control and internalizing of responsibility. If the postulants are successful in negotiating this part of their formation, they come to experience a sense of release and comfort that stands in sharp contrast to their earlier feelings of guilt and pain for betraying God.

The seventh and final stage of this process—Recollection—involves the narrative (re)integration of the transformations achieved in the previous six stages within an altered developmental perspective of self. In this stage the "official" meanings of formation are more explicitly integrated into each woman's own personal history and experiences, as she literally re-collects bits of her life and orders them in a new way. For the postulants I worked with, I saw that this stage involved recasting and retelling their life stories from the perspective that they have been called by God and that their joining the Siervas at this historical juncture was meant to happen. Postulants reorder past experiences and rearticulate their subjectivity in terms of the transformational process they have undergone, which imparts to these experiences a sense of determinacy and significance that the sisters take to be divinely ordained.

A New Way of Knowing

At the end of this process, the postulants experienced themselves to be significantly changed from their former selves. They described to me a palpable sense of transformation, a feeling of becoming someone new, someone sacred. This did not mean, I learned, that the old self had been obliterated but rather that this self had become mobilized along a different trajectory and was viewed through a new developmental lens. Through these seven stages—Brokenness, Belonging, Containment, Regimentation, Self-Critique, Surrender, and Recollection—the postulants underwent what I came to understand as a bodily transformation of their selves, a reformulation of their subjectivities that hinged on an altered phenomenology of their physicality. Their bodies were enlisted in the development of an alternative way of knowing.

For a young woman to stay in the congregation, she must come to believe, without question, that God has chosen her for this specific life, in this specific place, at this specific time. The sisters' concept of vocation is both existential and practical. Knowing one's vocation not only reinforces key religious and spiritual beliefs but also has very real implications for one's day-to-day existence. After all, discerning one's vocation often determines what a young woman will do with the rest of her life.

Only rarely does the knowledge of vocation come in the sort of lightening strike of revelation described by some of the more colorful Christian mystics. Usually, this knowledge grows slowly, over time, and amid much doubt and questioning. And almost never is a vocation that has not been tested against the harsh realities of the daily toil of the religious life seen as genuine. The sisters say that the knowledge of vocation is a very different kind of knowledge than we are accustomed to in our daily lives and thus that one must go about gaining it in very different ways.

"Knowing you have a vocation for the religious life is like knowing you're in love," Sister Margarita explained to me.

You may have a vague sense that something's happening to you, but then one day you're like, "Wow! I'm really in love!" And that realization changes the way the world looks to you. The colors are brighter, the sun is warmer, all that sort of thing. And it changes your life. But if someone asked you [indicating me] why you love your boyfriend, you could give some reasons, like he's generous or smart or whatever. But a lot of people fit that description. You can't really put into words what it is that makes you love him—and know that you love him—in the way that makes you want to spend the rest of your life with him. It's the same thing for us, except we fall in love with Jesus and want to spend the rest of our lives with Him. Finding your vocation is like that moment when it first hits you that you're really in love, and that it's forever.

And as in the case of human love, the sisters say, you cannot force a vocation that was not meant to be. If a young woman has truly been called to the religious life, she must come to this knowledge slowly, and it must be gleaned from the sensations she feels, the way she performs her work, her physical experiences in prayer, and her emotional attunement to the people and the world around her.

But the relationship with God is not like human relationships, in which we often let things take their course ("If it's meant to be, things will work themselves out"). The sisters engage in a number of activities and practices designed to draw out the feeling of being in love with God, to test it, challenge it, undermine it, validate it, and finally (if the feeling remains) nurture it. As they progress through the seven stages of transformation, newcomers to the order approach an altered phenomenology of embodiment that fundamentally shifts their experience of self. Through living and working side by side with other women, they learn new methods of perception and imagination that tie them to a community of others whom they come to recognize as significantly similar to themselves in God's eyes. By managing their physical bodies they develop a heightened sensitivity to interiorization as a process of bounding sacred potential and harnessing it for radical transformation. By physically placing themselves in the service of authority, they come to inhabit bodily the ideal of entrega. And they learn to retell and reinterpret the stories of their fleshy selves—their struggles and temptations, difficulties and triumphs—as reflections of their changing relationship with God. In this way, new entrants achieve a bodily transformation of self that draws its meaning from a particular cultural and moral universe.

Virtual Selves and the Process of Transformation

I propose an understanding of this process of transformation that draws on and integrates specific theoretical claims from psychoanalytic self psychology, gender studies, anthropology, and embodiment theory. Specifically, I argue that formation in the convent involves a threefold dynamic: (1) selectively "mirroring" new entrants in different ways at different stages of the process, reflecting back to them both who they are at any given moment (what I call their "experiential selves") as well as who they are striving to become as good Siervas (what I call their "virtual selves"); (2) enabling them to recognize with increasing precision the disconnects between their experiential and virtual selves and to engage in specific convent practices that gradually weave these selves together in a personalized understanding of their vocations; and (3) progressively incorporating (both psychologically and, literally, into the body) this new sense of being as fundamental to how they experience and live in the world. In this way, newcomers to the convent gradually learn not only to "read" themselves through praise or disapproval from the older nuns and their peers about their attitudes and behaviors but also (and more importantly) to develop strategies for making themselves authentically recognizable as "good Siervas" in the eyes of the congregation and, they hope, of God.

We might think of formation in the convent as something like walking through a carnival house of mirrors—as one walks along, turns corners, moves back, or moves forward, different perspectives of oneself are reflected in different ways and interact with each other in relatively predictable patterns, based on the positioning of the mirrors in relation to one another and to one's own body. While each person who walks through the same house of mirrors may meet a similar pattern of reflections, the reflections themselves are different for each person. They can also be manipulated by what one does—raising an arm, making a face, sitting down. In other words, the structure and patterns of reflection are objectively present but can be engaged differently on the basis of the characteristics, actions, and intentions of the person herself in relation to these structures.

This metaphor begins to capture something of how I think of religious formation in the convent. But it goes only so far in thinking about the formation process, and it is here that the work of theorists such as Kohut (Kohut 1971, 1977; Kohut, Goldberg, and Stepansky 1984) on self psychology and Benjamin (1988, 1995, 1998) on intersubjectivity become useful. Mirrors unproblematically reflect what is placed in front of them. Though images can be distorted or manipulated if the mirror is concave or convex, a mirror has no personal stake in the process of reflecting or in what the subject makes of his or her reflection, and the scientific principles involved (the reflection of light, etc.) remain unaffected by the subject's feelings about them. In the convent, however, the "mirrors" involved are human mirrors, subjects in their own right who have personal motives, specific intentions, blind spots, and powerful emotions. Thus the mirroring they provide for the new nuns is necessarily partial, subjective, and pointedly interested. Further, it is directly affected by the way the postulants themselves accept, reject, challenge, or elicit aspects of this mirroring. In other words, formation in the convent is an intersubjective process, unfolding within a highly structured institutional environment that shapes (but does not entirely dictate) the terms of these relationships.

In exploring this dynamic, my work differs from some of the more well-known accounts of institutional life and subject formation. Goffman (1961), for example, wrote about "total institutions" (such as prisons, hospitals, and mental asylums that dictate and control every aspect of inmates' lives), analyzing how such entities cultivate specific subject positions and moral orientations in their subjects. He proposed that the all-encompassing character of such settings forces inmates to accept a revised model of reality and, consequently, to learn new strategies for thinking about themselves as part of that reality. Foucault (1973, 1977, 1979), too, was concerned with the production of subjectivities in institutional settings. He argued that the point of leverage for institutional power is the nexus between desire and the body, and he suggested that by figuring and working on the body in particular ways (for example, via the panopticon), institutions come to hold a certain purchase over the domain of desire and hence subjectivity. Asad (1993) has written specifically on the production of subjects within religious settings. His primary concern is with the use of techniques of asceticism and bodily discipline as the avenue through which institutional priorities become individual ones, gradually producing willing subjects of transformation.

Each of these perspectives is compelling, and each contributes important tools for thinking about what I observed in the convent. But at the same time I find them to be limited in terms of understanding the process of formation for the Siervas. The women who come to the convent are young adults with their own unique subjectivities, which they must learn to alter in specific ways in order to continue successfully in the congregation. This subject (re)formation proceeds within a highly specialized context, with certain beliefs, practices, and values that are explicitly different from (yet are in constant dialogue with) those in the outside world and that each initiate must come to internalize as her own. Moreover, this process is facilitated by other women who are themselves distinctly interested participants in the process. Given this, I feel that a simple top-down account of how the convent program inculcates new initiates would provide only part of the story. What is needed is a model of subject formation that both recognizes and takes seriously the distinct subjective experiences of all the participants (the postulants themselves as well as others around them) while at the same time attending to the specific cultural and moral content of this process and how it positions the "new" subjects in relation to existing understandings and categories. In other words, I am interested in how people's lived subjectivities relate to the subject positions they occupy and how, through intersubjective processes like mirroring, these two elements can come to correspond, but always in ways marked by the idiosyncratic features people bring to them.

One of the principal aims of this book, then, is to explore the subtle and complex dynamic of subject formation within the convent as an intersubjective process rooted in particular cultural and moral understandings. This ethnographic argument, in turn, speaks to my main theoretical argument: we cannot adequately theorize about subject formation without simultaneously theorizing processes of gendering and dynamics of embodiment. And to talk about these three processes together, we need a model for thinking about the interarticulation of cultural and psychological processes in a multisubjective social context without falling into the theoretical vortex of extreme relativism. This book sketches the outlines of such a model.

Inner Space: Fieldwork in a Convent

I came to do fieldwork in a convent by a rather circuitous route. I began my graduate studies in 1991 fascinated by eating disorders—debilitating diseases where young women slowly, methodically, and sometimes successfully starve themselves to death. Anorexia is a notoriously intransigent illness, largely because the women who suffer from it cling passionately—desperately—to their disordered eating behaviors, claiming that only in denying themselves the most basic nurturance do they feel liberated and alive.

As an anthropologist, I became intrigued by the ritualistic aspects of anorexic food behaviors—meticulously chopping food before eating it; eating only at certain times, in certain places, at a certain pace; using special plates or utensils for meals. I wondered how these activities (which seem to revolve around issues of purity and pollution) might relate to the self-project many anorexic women themselves describe as spiritual or existential. In my first year of graduate school I began working in an eating disorders clinic, and the following year I wrote my master's thesis on anorexia nervosa as a contemporary ascetic practice.

During this time, I also pursued further training in psychiatric diagnosis and psychotherapeutic techniques. As part of the psychiatry and anthropology program at the University of California in San Diego, I attended classes with first-year psychiatry residents and learned about a whole range of issues, from conducting a mental status exam to differential diagnosis to the neurochemistry of different psychiatric medications. Following this year of instruction, I was permitted, along with the psychiatry residents, to begin psychotherapy training at the university's training clinic near downtown San Diego. I was supervised by a licensed therapist and saw patients part time for approximately sixteen months.

While researching anorexia, I became acquainted with the historical literature on medieval ascetic nuns. There is an active academic debate about whether these women were anorexic in the contemporary psychiatric sense. Describing what he terms "holy anorexia," Bell (1985) makes a psychological argument: he interprets life histories and hagiographical documents as clearly indicating that women such as Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila did indeed suffer from the syndromes we now call anorexia and bulimia. Bynum (1987), on the other hand, makes an essentially cultural argument: she maintains that medieval ascetic women were not anorexics and bulimics because they expressed and experienced their behaviors through a religious medium and made union with Christ, not thinness, the goal of their food practices. I found this debate both riveting and inspiring. But despite the extensive literature on medieval women's mysticism, I found that there were no solid ethnographic accounts of how religious women themselves might understand their self-denying behaviors. I wanted to find out.

Taking my cue from the historical literature, I set out in 1994 to study the contemporary analogues of these medieval fasting nuns. I decided to locate the research in Mexico, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and I settled on the city of Puebla de los Angeles after learning that Puebla has traditionally been the country's center of female monastic life. I arranged to affiliate myself with an incoming group of nuns in an active-life congregation based in the city (the Siervas) and to accompany these postulants through their first year of religious formation.

I arrived in Puebla expecting to find frail, depleted nuns who wished to escape their bodies, disciplined women who saw their materiality as an impediment to saintliness. I didn't. Most of the sisters, in fact, were plump and were enthusiastic eaters. With a few notable exceptions, they seemed to have unremarkably normal relationships to food.

I found something else unexpected as well. As I have noted, I quickly learned that the sense of religious vocation was far from clear to these women when they first walked through the convent gates. Most of them came to the convent with not much more than a vague, undefined sense that they were somehow "supposed" to be there. During the first year this inkling was subject to constant scrutiny and testing, both from the women themselves and from the congregation as an institution. The postulants anxiously looked for any sign—no matter how small—that their vocations were genuine. At the same time, they were wary of their own senses of calling, and they relied on outside validation from their superiors as to whether their experiences were "real."

I did not, therefore, find the kind of focused, premeditated self-denial and body discipline I had anticipated. Rather, what I observed was something much more subtle. I did find a conflict around gender to be central for the nuns I worked with, and, as I will explore in the chapter 12, these concerns did seem to share some features with those expressed by women with eating disorders. But the nuns were concerned not with the thinness of their bodies but with the state of their souls. And their project of transformation was not only a personal quest for existential resolution or wholeness but a mission for the restoration of the Mexican nation. The salience of discourses of modernity and cultural identity in the convent and the centrality of these concepts to how the postulants understood their own religious and personal commitments were unexpected findings, requiring me to reconceptualize central aspects of the original research plan. I became somewhat less interested in what motivated these women to join the convent in the first place and more interested in how they were transformed once they got there.

During my fieldwork I had access to all members of the community and all areas of the convent (except the private sleeping quarters of the professed sisters), but I spent most of my time with the postulants, and my schedule was determined by theirs. The days in the convent are long and are packed with activities carefully orchestrated to ensure the proper formation of the sisters. A typical day for the postulants looked something like this:

4:45Wake up, shower, dress

5:30-6:30Morning prayer




8:00-8:15Visit to the Eucharist

8:15-9:30Morning chores

9:30-11:00Class with the mistress of postulants

11:00-11:30Adoration of the Eucharist

11:30-12:30Class with the mistress of postulants


12:30-12:40Examination of conscience

12:40-1:15The midday meal

1:15-1:30Visit to the Eucharist

1:15-2:30Afternoon chores

2:30-3:30Recreation time

3:30-5:00First afternoon class

5:00-5:45Second afternoon class



6:20-6:30Examination of conscience


7:00-7:15Visit to the Eucharist

7:15-8:00Evening chores



9:00-9:30Silent reflection

9:30Lights out

I did not live at the convent, though the sisters invited me to. I thought it important not to limit my experience of Mexico or of Mexican women to the Siervas but to become part of the larger community in Puebla. Along with my work in the convent, then, I became integrated into the local neighborhood, community, and university networks and built friendships with men and women from all walks of Mexican life. I lived with a Mexican family for a time, had my own apartment for several months, and lived with a single mother pursuing a college degree for another period of time. I usually arrived at the convent at 5:30 and stayed until 6:00 or so in the evening. On many occasions I stayed later.

As I was interested in studying the motivations for joining a convent and the experience of religious formation, attaching myself to an incoming class of postulants was ideal because it allowed me to be party to the intriguing transformation of these young women as they moved gradually from being "outsiders" like me to being "good nuns." I saw the unfolding of the mysteries of the religious life through their eyes and shared with them the exhilaration, fears, anxieties, joys, and frustrations of the sacrifices they were making. I moved fluidly among the roles of student, friend, naive buffoon, counselor, butt of jokes, and shoulder to cry on. These women were convinced that they were part of an awesome project of both social and spiritual regeneration, and I was able to share with them the beginning of their journey.

But the fieldwork posed particular difficulties not routinely encountered in other field contexts. Despite the hospitality and warmth of most of the sisters, my research proceeded in what was effectively their home, their private space, which was not normally opened to outsiders. There was no "public" place where I could inconspicuously hang out and watch the goings on of the convent. Unlike a bustling village square or a dynamic corporate headquarters, convents are characterized by structure, silence, and formality. Every second of the postulants' day was planned, structured, accounted for. "Your life belongs to God now," the mistress of postulants used to say. "If you waste time, it's God's time you're wasting." The days were filled with prayer, meditation, classes, study, meals, and brief periods of recreation. I was included in all. But my conversations with the women were limited, at least in the beginning, to stolen moments between activities, passed notes during classes, the rare meal where talking was permitted, and recreational periods.

I took scattered notes in a pocket-size notebook and wrote up my field notes in the evening or early the next morning. I did not tape-record any conversations with the postulants until the end of the research, when the mistress of novices (the remaining postulants had passed on to the next level of training by that time) kindly allowed me to disrupt their busy schedule for final interviews. I scheduled other taped interviews with various other individuals primarily in the last four months of my fieldwork. Fortunately, many lively and important discussions took place in the classroom, where I could inconspicuously record in my notebook, almost verbatim, what was being said. Many of the direct quotes in this book come from these exchanges.

Another difficulty was that I was, most definitely—in my dress, my speech, my beliefs, and my coloring—an outsider, an intruder in their cloistered halls. While this is a common situation for anthropologists in all kinds of field settings, the particular context of the convent made certain aspects of this difference particularly significant. I am not Catholic. I was raised Jewish. Initially, I was concerned that this might pose a problem for the research, but it proved to be an advantage. I am, of course, not baptized, and the nuns would have much preferred—for my own sake—that I had been so. But the sisters hold great affection for the Jewish people, whom they recognize as God's Chosen People to whom the Savior was born. They talked explicitly and often about the connections between Judaism and Catholicism. "Jesus was a Jew and Our Mother Mary was a Jew!" Mother Lynette told me one day. "The Jews and the Catholics are very close, and we respect and love the Jews as God's Chosen." In short, the sisters tend to view Jews as good, holy people who have gotten everything "right" aside from not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. This, they maintain, can be rectified.

This puts the Jews in a completely different category from the Protestants, who, in the sisters' view, have perverted the teachings of Jesus to meet their own ends. It is one thing to not accept Jesus as the Messiah. It is quite another, the sisters say, to profess this acceptance and yet to promote heretical understandings of what it means. This hostility toward Protestantism on theological grounds is exacerbated in Mexico by the fact that thousands of Protestant missionaries enter the country each year, evangelizing primarily in the rural areas. The sisters, like many other Mexican Catholics, view this as a direct and calculated assault on Catholicism and on traditional Mexican values. I seriously doubt that I would have been allowed to conduct the research had I been raised Protestant.

As a Jew, then, I was in something of a special category in the congregation. I was not expected to have much understanding of church doctrine or practice, so I could ask even the most basic questions without fear of embarrassment or disapproval. I was not expected to believe in the teachings of the church or to profess the Catholic faith. Nor was I seen as a threat in the sense of having any personal or religious interest in undermining the teachings of the church or misrepresenting what I learned in the convent. But though I came to be accepted by the sisters and integrated into the "family" of the congregation in many ways, I was not, and never could be, an insider in the complete sense, particularly in this most intimate domain of faith.

The research was concentrated in the Central House of a particular congregation, but my contact with this world reached much wider. As news of my research interests spread, I was quickly adopted by the religious community of the city and came to know many of the priests, nuns, seminarians and missionaries in the area. I visited dozens of convents, seminaries, and churches all over the city and state. I attended perhaps three hundred masses, went on missions, sang in Christmas plays, joined vocational retreats, and participated in spiritual exercises. I sat through hundreds of classes in theology and meditation and prayer. Gradually, this world of crosses and candles, incense and whispered silences became more intelligible to me.

Slowly but surely, the sisters let me in, allowing me to experience with them all the highs and lows of the community life, from the intense emotionality of religious retreats and almost giddy excitement of holiday celebrations to the tensions of internal political wranglings and the anxiety and fear that come when a vocation seems shaky. As the research progressed, I, like the postulants, became more skillful at navigating this world populated by subtlety and innuendo, whispers and meaningful glances and the power of the unseen.

Organization of the Book

The book is organized into three parts. Part 1 frames the ethnography by outlining the theoretical questions that shape the study and describing the historical and social context in which the postulants engaged in their process of religious formation. In chapter 1, I situate the ethnography within a larger literature on embodiment and experience and highlight some of the themes that will play a central role in the ethnography as it unfolds. In chapter 2, I sketch the history and political commitments of the congregation, its investment in a particular vision of Mexican national identity, and the location of the order in contemporary debates on social and religious fronts. Chapter 3 considers the structural process of religious formation as a transformational program designed to produce proper subjects who will carry on the work of the congregation in these domains.

Part 2 turns to the process of transformation itself, with one chapter dedicated to each of the seven stages discussed: Brokenness (chapter 4), Belonging (chapter 5); Containment (chapter 6); Regimentation (chapter 7), Self-Critique (chapter 8), Surrender (chapter 9), and Recollection (chapter 10). Chapter 11 is a theoretical consideration of the psychological and social mechanisms at play in this process.

Part 3 extends these analyses beyond the convent walls. Chapter 12 mobilizes the ethnographic specificity of part 2 in dialogue with the current literature on the elaborations of multiple modernities through discourses of religion. Here, I consider the postulants' experiences in the convent as part of a larger nationalist debate in Mexico that centers on concerns about gender and "progress." In chapter 13, I reconsider the fundamental problematic of theorizing an embodied self and offer a provisional model for approaching questions of embodiment and subjectivity.


1.I will use this appellation when referring to the congregation, as well as pseudonyms throughout the book, to respect the privacy of the sisters.

2.I use the capitalized masculine pronouns He, His, and Him when referring to God and to Jesus to be consistent with the sisters' own representations.

3.Exact numbers are difficult to come by because some congregations count postulants and novices in their yearly reports and others restrict their numbers to sisters who have already professed either their temporary or perpetual vows. The increase noted here is based on my review of records at the Centro Inter-religioso de México in Mexico City and numbers reported in the Statistical Yearbook of the Church (Office of Church Statistics, 1984-94) and the Catholic Almanac (Foy and Avato, 1986-94), as well as on interviews I conducted with the vocations coordinators of several congregations, the director of the Office of Vocations in Puebla, and the Vatican liaison for vocational development in Mexico City. While there was not a clear consensus on the actual degree of increase in female vocations in Mexico in the past fifteen to twenty years (estimates ranged from 40 percent to more than 100 percent), all were strong in their feeling that there had been a marked rise, an interpretation borne out by my interrogation of church documents.

4.Based on records in the congregation archives to which I was generously granted access by the sisters.

5.For an orientation to the emerging nationalist discourses in Mexico, see Bartra (1992, 1993, 1994), Bonfil Batalla (1990), and Escobedo Delgado (1988). This issue will be taken up in more detail in chapters 2 and 12.

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