Let’s say you’re 30. A millennial. Into social justice. A religious “none.” Where do you find community? Camaraderie? The answer for some Nones might surprise you.

Two weeks ago the New York Times did a piece on “nones” and nuns living together for six months. In a convent. The project, called Nuns and Nones, meets two immediate needs. For millennials, it’s community. For the sisters, it fills empty beds.

Convents have available rooms as the number of nuns has collapsed from 180,000 in 1965 to below 50,000 today. Millennials on the other hand increasingly live alone. Today, 35.7 million Americans live alone, 28 percent of households. That is up from 13 percent of households in 1960 and 23 percent in 1980. Many of these millennials don’t like living alone. They seek community. A few innovative ones are willing to try new arrangements.

They’re social activists like Sarah Jane Bradley. She’s an unmarried “spiritual but not religious” professional in her early 30s. Bradley joined Nuns and Nones. While not a practicing Catholic, she came to see nuns “as radical, badass women who have lived lives devoted to social justice. And we can learn from them.”

The learning was not through lectures. It was in living together. Nones worked their day jobs. Nuns did likewise, working in their service projects. In the evenings and on weekends Nones joined the nuns for convent feasts and Easter vigil. They had their feet washed on Holy Thursday. They studied the prophets. They read the Bible.

I’m not sure Nuns and Nones is scalable, but there are some takeaways worth noting.

First, these millennials are most curious about the nuns’ vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Vows derive from older church traditions that see the gospel as God “marrying” us (Isaiah 65:4; Hosea 2:19). The church is his bride. Nuns view themselves as married. Chastity is waiting for the Best Nuptial Union Ever. It is more than abstaining. It is preparing your total life for total joy. “I started to realize chastity was an invitation to ‘right relationship’ and not just about celibacy,” Bradley said.

The nuns also discovered millennials want ritual rather than a belief system. On one of the first nights, a None asked, “So, what’s your spiritual practice?” The first question wasn’t “What do you believe?” It was “How do you order your loves and lives?” One young millennial wanted ritual so much that she started going to Mass every morning.

This echoes Augustine. The first question is not “What do you believe?” It is “What do you love?” Augustine felt the ordering of your loves reveals your actual beliefs.

The Nones also began to see how much of American culture is about forward-moving progress. Christina Tran, a 34-year-old None now believes we’ve forgotten how “there’s this cyclical spiral and these really old wisdom traditions that can feed change. It’s less about building anew; it’s more about remembering.” Interesting. The most common command in the Old Testament is remember. The most common sin is forgetfulness. Many of these Nones are now looking at Catholicism anew, even as they rarely use the word, speaking about it more loosely in the new language of spirituality.

Nones are also feeling drawn to the ancient idea of life as a calling. The sisters embody a tradition that says we collectively discern God’s call. Individuals don’t “figure out” life on their own. The millennials found this fascinating. The nuns began to hear millennials saying they need to “discern what I’m up to this afternoon.”

Cynics will say Nuns and Nones is flaky, in danger of trivializing truth. Of course. But it’s worth recalling that Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. No doubt there are risks. Simply exposing Nones to “really old wisdom traditions” won’t necessarily clear up today’s knotty issues, including gay marriage and abortion rights. But as one None noted, “We engage in dialogue about that.” Doesn’t this seem better than fighting a culture war?

Final takeaway. After six months of living together, many Nones consider the nuns soul mates. They feel the camaraderie. So do the sisters. At the end of one six-month rotation, one Catholic nun wrote a haiku about the millennials she had lived with.

     Eek. What will I say?

     I’m too old for millennials.

     Surprise, we’re soul mates!

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3 Responses to “Surprising Soul Mates”

  1. John Chaffin says:

    Fascinating!

  2. Tom Nesler says:

    While I can understand how nones pretending to be spiritual would be fun for a while, I can’t see them picking up any habits for a lifetime. Most millennials seek pleasure without cost and wonder why their pleasure diminishes the more they indulge. Christianity has dabbled in retreats before. Perhaps we should do more Francis Schaefer style retreats?

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Tom, perhaps… but don’t undersell millennials. I could apply the same sweeping statements you make about millennials to boomers, Gen X, you name it. Nor are these retreats in the sense that we imagine retreats–escapes for a day or two.

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