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Virgin Time: in search of the contemplative life by Patricia Hampl was hailed on the cover as “a religious cliff hanger –intimate, compelling, hard to put down.” I beg to differ. I didn’t see any cliffs from which to hang and found it harder to pick up than put down.  Raised in the Catholic faith but in search of both more and less than her spiritual upbringing, Patricia chronicles her relationship with Donnie, Sister Mary Madonna, a trip around Italy and France visiting religiously significant places, and a stay at a North Carolina monastery.

It was worth a read, however, for a phrase that jumped out at me. It’s in the middle of the following section:

Donnie and Bridget [fellow nun] weren’t defensive about the downside of their way of life, even while they were deeply committed to it. In this, they were like wives who speak of their intimate lives: It’s not perfect, but I love him.

Donnie had a keen eye for the negative, too. ‘Places like this,’ she once said, meaning women’s contemplative monasteries, ‘were often the worst kind of sweatshops. Spiritual sweatshops. The workday was endless, all unpaid, doing all sort of menial jobs for a diocese, plus the maintenance of the place itself. And then getting up at all hours to pray and meditate. And everybody sequestered behind the enclosure in a strict cloister. There were a lot of ‘actives’ –men of course, priests—who wanted those nuns locked up to do their piety for them.

Yes, yes, I know. It’s a section that could lead us down certain theological and philosophical paths. Those paths are for a different time and place. I provide it not to ruffle feathers but to show the context and not merely the phrase: Spiritual Sweatshops.

Prior to this passage I had not

  1. Pondered what a spiritual sweatshops was
  2. Wondered how I might have participated in or perpetuated spiritual sweatshops or
  3. Been on the look-out for them

It’s easy to dismiss this is just a “Catholic thing” with all of the references to nuns, priests, monasteries, and dioceses. Surely, we comfort ourselves, we don’t have those. Or do we? I haven’t come to any clear conclusions, but it’s something I have been thinking about this week. What do you think a spiritual sweatshop might look like? Where might we unknowingly (or knowingly) participate in them? Share your thoughts in the comments and let’s see what we can learn from each other.

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