Thoughts on Theses: Lilia Paz
Issue   |   Wed, 11/11/2015 - 01:37

Lilia Paz ’16 is writing a European Studies thesis on an order of Spanish nuns. She was inspired to choose this topic while studying abroad in Spain last year. Her thesis adviser is Smith College religion professor Carol Zaleski.

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: My thesis is about a certain monastery in Seville, Spain. The order belongs to the Sisters of Poor Clares. I am studying nuns. There are two types of nuns: cloistered and ones out in the world. I’m exploring the cloistered ones, whose goal is unceasing prayer. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Due to the decline of the Catholic church in Spain, they’ve also started a tourism industry. So they pose with people, make little souvenirs for tourism. I am exploring the tension between this and the closed nature of their community.

Q: How did you choose this topic?
A: I studied abroad in Spain last semester. I traveled a lot throughout Spain. We kept running into these huge palatial monasteries, and the weird thing is there are only six women living inside because in Spain, people are not joining religious orders any more. I thought it was so strange that these women had huge houses filled with art and a lot of the culture of Spain. They were mostly among these relics. It’s very interesting to watch the death of this lifestyle, and it’s a little sad.

Q: What other impressions do you have of your study abroad experience?
A: Studying abroad probably derailed the thesis project. It wasn’t simply being in Madrid; I was no longer in the studious insular climate of Amherst. Email was very easy to ignore. I wasn’t in a mindset where I was actively doing research and it was one of the few periods in my life when I didn’t feel the need to be constantly disciplined. I was lazy, to be completely honest, and very passive. But I was in an environment very different from New England and California.
Right now, I think I should have prepared more but it was a lot of fun to goof off and be alone in a foreign city. I explored, I got lost, I tried to be a real adult and failed. But it was in those random delays when I wandered into a convent and had a conversation with the cashier. That conversation, about the lives of the women in the castle above us and their scarcity and the fragility of their health is what started the thesis. I don’t know how meaningful my thesis will be to me or what I will keep finding. I’m not sure I picked the best subject but I found it and, I think it found me too.

Q: How far along are you are in to your thesis?
A: The more I read, the more I research, the less close to it I feel.

Q: What is your research process generally like?
A: There is a lot of categories I have to explore, like the order, the rules they have to live by (because they have rules they have to live by, because they were very old — they were founded in 1211) and also religious tourism and the nature of Catholicism in Spain. It’s very tense because Spaniards are not typically religious, even though we think of them. The regions have always had low church attendance, so it’s interesting that we consider Spain a very religious country when they do not.

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about this movement?
A: Most orders govern themselves by the rule of Saint Benedict. For example, the nuns have to open their doors to anyone who needs help. But they are also trying their best to keep themselves away from the world, so a lot of these places are isolated. They are not supposed to be closed to the world. It’s interesting to see how they’ve started to commercialize that aspect of their faith. Nuns have changed radically since the 1960s, because the Vatican decided to open its halls. Something interesting I learned is that they started to change the way they dressed. Christian Dior is a very famous fashion designer. He actually designed a nun’s habit. That’s something I learned.

Q: What was the most surprising, unexpected or difficult thing you’ve encountered so far while writing your thesis?
A: The Catholic Church is hella old. There are a lot of different things I want to explore right now. Like, just reading about nuns in World War II, reading about black nuns in the U.S., so it’s really frustrating because there is a lot more I want to read. It’s hard to know when to stop researching and when to start writing because you could research forever!

Q: What is the most valuable thing to you expect to take away from your thesis-writing experience?
A: I’m learning about this lifestyle that is radically different from anything I’ve known. I’m really glad I’m able to learn so much about them. I am really astonished by the way they live their lives and how strongly they need to reconcile the death of their lifestyle with this new changing world that refuses to acknowledge them.

Q: Could you speak a little more about the juxtaposition of the old and the new?
A: Female monasticism was at an all-time high in the ‘60s and now it is at an all-time low; it’s decreasing every year. They are getting women who are pledging the rest of their lives, but they are older and there are less of them than others. And it’s interesting because nuns are supposed to be uniformed, they’re supposed to wear the same clothes, they don’t make a reputation for themselves. In the centuries, it’s been mostly men who’ve looked at them through a salacious lens. So often their narrative is written by someone who doesn’t know much about them.

Q: Are we moving away from this kind of outlook?
A: I’ve been reading a lot, and there are orders who dress up like nuns. There are other ones who still have a habit and long dresses. And the ones who look to the order and choose to separate themselves from the rest of the world — those are the ones getting more people than the ones who are part of the rest of the world. It’s interesting. They say millennials are being injected into this new spiritual lifestyle. I guess because they are looking for something different.

Q: What role has your adviser played in your thesis?
A: I’m a European Studies major, so the thesis is required. The thesis came first and then the adviser came. She helped me refine it and she helps me deal with the theological side of it — not so much the Spanish side, because she doesn’t know a lot about Spain. She’s very supportive. Whenever I freak out, she tells me not to worry — “get it out and publish and you’ll be fine.” It’s a bit unorthodox. Normally you have an idea of which professor you’d write with. But I was abroad last semester and my idea came pretty late. I didn’t turn in my proposal until September.