SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Joy likes to talk to God. A lot.
Sometimes she does it on her knees, in solemn prayer. But often, it's more like a conversation.
Joy (whining): "God, I blew it again. I'm sorry. I want to be a nun but I keep falling down in sin. What's up with that? I guess I'm not worthy."
God (wry): "Well, I guess it's a good thing we aren't relying on your strength, hmm?"
Joy: "Oh. Right. I forgot. You're God, I'm not."
So goes the journey of 27-year-old Joy Payton -- Sister Joy -- a young woman who has spent the last year in southern Florida, living in a convent as part of her quest to become a nun. It's not just her talks with God that are unusual. Statistically speaking, she is an anomaly. The number of Catholic nuns in America is in a freefall, from almost 180,000 in 1965 to 70,000 today, according to researchers at Georgetown University. Those left are dying off, their average age about 69.
And yet here comes Joy in her Birkenstocks, with a smiling, fresh-scrubbed face that wouldn't look out of place on a local college campus. What's more, she's chronicling the stages she must go through to become a nun -- a process some see as ancient and secretive -- on the Internet, posting her activities and conversations with God for all to see as part of a diary she's dubbed "The Convent Files." In its pages she tells of giving up all her possessions and a great job as a computer programmer and then moving far from her family in Tennessee to serve in a foreign land: Miami.
Is she crazy?
She's NOT crazy
"No," she answers with a laugh. "God can call you to be a sister even if you like to go to parties, and like dates and listen to rock music. There are days when I don't feel very 'nunny."'
Because she is so young, Joy gets lots of other questions. What does she do all day? (No, she does not make fruitcakes.) Do they have a phone at her convent? (Yes.) Can they talk? (Of course. And laugh too.) And the one question that everyone wants to ask, but usually doesn't: Is she a virgin?
She answers discreetly, if somewhat vaguely, recalling when she first announced her intention to become a nun.
"I had a serious boyfriend at one time," she says. "Some people thought I had just given up on dating. A lot of ladies were like, 'Don't do it, honey! I can fix you up with somebody!' But I already met Mr. Right: Jesus."
All this interest, from friends and strangers, is why Joy decided to create "The Convent Files." Joy thinks many young people may also be called to spiritual life but are distracted by the "noise" of modern-day living. She tries to reach them through her diary, as well as the new Web site name -- www.be-a-nun.org -- for her religious order, the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She even designed a bumper sticker ("JC seeks SF, Catholic, for lifetime of love") to get people's attention. She says her humor underscores a more serious message.
"I've seen in my own generation a real hunger for something, even if we don't know what that is," she says. "We grew up watching our parents getting divorced, the baby-boomers just sort of fell apart, and we're asking, 'How can we be better people?"'
Local sisters hope her methods work because there aren't that many of them left. Sister Genevra, a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, knows of no young nuns who serve in Broward County. In her convent, there are 10 sisters, ranging in age from their 60s to 80s.
"As they die out, who will replace them?" she asks.
A spring chicken
At 53, Sister Frances Vass is the spring chicken of Christ the King Monastery. Her Delray Beach, Fla., convent suffers from another burden of its members' age: the high cost of health insurance and medical bills, including those for one sister who has cancer. Vass prays God will bring them new members and travels to schools and churches, speaking about the wonder of her profession.
"By being visible, maybe we're planting a seed," she says. "It's a whole way of living that is simple, yet demanding."
Joy spends much of her time at the Miami convent in prayer and quiet reflection. She brings canned goods to a mother of four who struggles to pay the bills. She attends a weekly prayer group with other young people, showing both her serious and playful side as she leads the group in a traditional adoration one moment, then sends a contemporary 'shout-out' to the Almighty:
"Who's in the house?
Says prayer group member Ana Agostini, 30, of Plantation, Fla.: "She's unusual. Her personality just brings people closer. She's definitely a role model (for young people); I just wish there were more out there."
Not entirely alone
In fact, Joy is not entirely alone. Although the local dioceses don't track exact numbers, Sister Karina Conrad, 25, is one of a small number of young South Florida nuns. Having already taken her vows, she serves at the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.
"It's difficult as a teen to discern (whether to be a nun or priest) because you don't see anyone else doing this. So you think, 'I'm weird. I'm not normal,"' Conrad said. "But I am so happy to give my youth to God. I don't like to give God leftovers."
Nor does Joy, who in many ways is a whole new breed of nun.
For starters, she wasn't even raised Catholic. She used to be pro-choice. She has friends who are gays and lesbians, and shudders at the amount of time spent talking about homosexuality when there are millions of children living in poor, brutal conditions.
She says the Catholic Church is flawed. She believes in evolution. At one point, she wasn't even sure she liked God:
"The God I knew was mean and out to get you," said Joy, who grew up in a poor, Pentecostal family. "So I was like, 'You know what God? If you're going to be like that, I don't want to deal with you. I'm never going to meet your standards, so why try?"'
Then she met some friends in college who were Catholic and thought about religion as a caring relationship. Still, she had her reservations.
"I wasn't going to be Catholic because they were so anti-women and backwards," she recalls. "I had a really hard time believing the doctrine. I thought, 'It doesn't make sense."'
Never looked back
Then, one day while praying at a Catholic church, Joy says God touched her. And she never looked back.
Joy converted after college and got a great job as a computer programmer that paid good money and won her recognition. Yet it didn't fulfill her.
"I had tried for months to talk God out of making me a nun, and had even struck a deal of sorts with him. 'Give me a year, then we'll talk,"' she recalls in "The Convent Files."
Then Sept. 11 happened.
"I was angry at the unnamed terrorists. As the shock slowly wore off, it occurred to me that such grave violence could only be born out of desperation. ... The sense of being voiceless, marginalized, and maltreated are the seeds of violent acts."
Joy says she knew God was calling her to serve him "in a world where the struggle to feel relevant, to be relevant, ends in such brutality."
Since then, Joy has begun the long process of becoming a nun and traveled to El Salvador to work with starving children. This month, she concludes the phase in which she was considered a postulant, someone who tries the life without promises. Next, she becomes a novice, completing intense religious study that will take her to Philadelphia. Then comes six years of temporary vows. And finally, she will go to Rome and take her final vows.
Some days, the responsibility of becoming a nun is daunting -- one, Joy acknowledges, that she isn't necessarily ready for or deserving of. But then again, she's used to grumbling about this fact to God. And she's used to hearing his answer in her head.
Joy: "I guess I'm just not worthy."
God: "So let's summarize. You're a sinner, flawed and imperfect. Is this a new thing? No. So why are you indulging in despair? Get a little crazy and try trusting me."