Nunsense: Beauty and the Beastly

It’s a little known fact about the Vicar, but for most of her early life, she harboured a secret desire to be a nun.  But before you get excited about her youthful holiness and rush off to start beatification proceedings, a word of caution.  We think these girlhood dreams had less to do with a vocation to a life of service, solitude and spirituality, and more to do with wanting to be Audrey Hepburn. 

Despite her love of the film The Nun’s Story, and the excellent Australian TV Series Brides of Christ, the Vicar is clearly ill-suited to a life which involves obedience, self-denial, compromising with other people, cleaning things and getting up early. 

Luckily, aside from the odd wobble whenever she goes anywhere near a convent, the Vicar now has her veil envy well in check, and seems unlikely to swap her biretta for a wimple any time soon.

This is probably just as well, because Fr. Antonio Rungi, a priest in Italy, has decided to run the world’s first ever nun beauty pageant.  (Fr. Mountain tipped us off by sending us the story from the BBC.)  Father Rungi, who lives near Naples (go figure), is inviting nuns from across Italy to send him their mugshots.  He will then put all the photos on the internet, and let the public vote for their favourite nun, who will be crowned “Miss Sister Italy.”  There is no bathing suit round.

The good Father’s justification for this tasteless and frankly rather alarming exercise is that it will show the world that:

  1. beauty is a gift from God;
  2. discreet charm is as beautiful as painted ladies on the telly;
  3. not all nuns are “old, stunted and sad.”

Whilst we wouldn’t necessarily disagree with any of the above sentiments, we can’t believe that an internet beauty competition is really the best way to express them.  Cut-throat competition and shameless self-promotion aren’t supposed to be on any convent’s syllabus for the noviciate, let alone haircare and nail polishing tips.  And beauty pageants have a tendency to reduce human beings to mere objects, valued not for their intrinsic worth as people, but only for how good they look in a ballgown.  If we are shocked by the exploitation and sexualisation of children in pageants, shouldn’t we be asking some serious questions about our society which allows anyone – child or adult, layperson or nun – to become simply an object for aesthetic appreciation or assessment?

Christianity has had a rather ambivalent relationship with the human body over the years, and particularly with the female body and notions of beauty and attractiveness.  Despite the clear message of the Incarnation that human flesh is inherently good, the Church has often ended up being rather negative about food, sex and beauty.  

Saint Rose of Lima, whose Feast Day we celebrated on Saturday, was a sixteenth century girl whose parents seemed to value her physical beauty above almost anything else about her, and were constantly trying to put her on display.  She responded by inflicting the most severe tortures upon her own body, including rubbing chilli peppers into her face to erase her beauty.  Whilst Christian girls learnt to disregard or despise their physical appearance, boys were warned to be on their guard against beautiful temptresses out to seduce and corrupt them.

Meanwhile, the world seems to have developed an equally ambivalent relationship with nuns.  On the one hand, they are seen as ugly old crones whose main functions are beating small children with rulers and scaring the living daylights out of everyone else.  On the other hand, they have become a sort of inverted sex symbol – beautiful young women, virginal and pure, shut up in the enclosure and ripe for corruption.

The reality, of course, is that nuns are just ordinary women.  Some of them are physically beautiful, some less so; some are old, some young; some are deeply frustrated, some are deeply fulfilled, most are somewhere in the middle.  They are not, as Fr. Rungi claims, “above all women.”  They are on pretty much the same level as the rest of humanity.  If you want to know about real nuns, go and meet some.

Nobody, least of all a consecrated servant of God, needs to appear in a beauty contest to prove her or his worth to the world.  You humans should take a leaf out of our book.  We don’t judge you by what you look like, what we care about is how you treat us.  At the end of the day, what really matters is not the beauty of your face, but the beauty of your heart:

“for the Lord does not see as humans see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 

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