Nuns in the 21st century
PUBLISHED: 14:00 22 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:37 11 January 2017
In the whirl of Christmas, it's easy to forget its real meaning. At a Ware monastery and others, Heather Harris spoke to women who have dedicated their lives to Christ, and asked what is it like to be a nun in 21st-century Britain
‘Page me when you arrive.’ Not a sentence I’d expect from a nun. But as I soon discover, nuns are full of surprises. For a start, they’re are not all ancient and not in decline. In fact, the number of women becoming nuns in the UK has reached a 25-year high, according to the Catholic Church of England and Wales. Figures show women taking holy vows trebled in the past five years, from 15 in 2009 to 45 last year, the highest number since 1990. And 14 of the women who entered convents in 2014 were aged 30 or under.
These young ladies don’t all dress like penguins either, or have names like Theresa or Mary, as I found when Sister Zoe emailed to invite me to meet her at the Carmelite Monastery in Ware. Set on top of a hill with fantastic views over Hertfordshire countryside, this modern building was also as far removed from my image of a crumbling stone monastery as Zoe herself was from my image of a nun.
‘There are a lot of different religious orders and not all wear black habits. For us its brown, and we do change into work clothes for gardening,’ Zoe explained with a big smile. And that’s another thing. This 47-year-old from Lancashire laughed a lot. Far more than I thought nuns were actually allowed to.
‘There are so many misconceptions of us. But I don’t blame people. I know we must seem weird!’ Zoe adds, using a term I would never have dared to. ‘The fact is, our life is so increasingly different from the hustle and bustle of today’s world that it’s difficult for people – even our own families – to understand.’
Almost 300 nuns live in the 20 Carmelite monasteries in Britain (15 in England, four in Scotland and one in Wales).
Zoe lives at Ware with 14 fellow nuns ‘of all different ages and personality types from introvert to extrovert’. She has been a nun for 15 years and leaves the building only for emergencies such as visits to the doctor or dentist.
‘We do have books. Some of us access the internet, but we limit our use,’ she says. ‘We need our minds as free as possible from distractions so we can pray. I do know we did well at the Olympics though!’
Shopping is done online and much food is grown in the grounds. ‘Gardening is my favourite pastime as I feel closest to God when I am with nature,’ Zoe adds.
Visitors are received in a room divided by a low counter. This acts as a table as well as a solid symbol of separation. There used to be a grate, rather like something in a prison, but times have changed.
‘We believe our lives of prayer make a difference for the world so in that way we are in solidarity with others, not cut off from them,’ Zoe explains as she passed tea and biscuits to me over the table.
As she took me on a tour of the chapel – built in an L-shape so the congregation and nuns sit out of view of one another – it struck me that this highly personable and intelligent lady who was keen to hear all about my children, was – I dare to suggest – rather wasted stuck behind the monastery gates when she could be out spreading Christian goodness in the community.
But she counters, ‘The reason I am here is beyond language to explain. There are no measurable results or successes. It is hard to explain love but you know when you respond to love that it makes sense. God’s love called me to the Carmelite life.’
Not that she was struck by any sudden thunderbolt, she points out. On the contrary, ‘If you’d told me when I was growing up that I’d become a nun, I would have thought it was a joke! I thought Christians were either old ladies in hats or happy clappers with tambourines!’
She explains that she didn’t go to church and was frustrated by religious education at school, as it didn’t seem to answer the fundamental question of God’s existence. By her early teens, she was a declared atheist.
It was a degree in science and interest in ecology that, perhaps paradoxically, led her to religion. ‘I began to realise that science couldn’t answer everything.’
It took a ‘crisis in my life’ (which I later discover was a break-up with a boyfriend) to make her seek out a Catholic church. Here, she says, she instantly felt at home.
‘When I became a Catholic, I used to visit a monastery and found the atmosphere of silence and prayer very helpful. A monk there put me in touch with this Carmelite monastery.’
As she relates the story now, ‘The thought of being a nun terrified me at first but I soon realised that the sisters wanted what was best for me. They weren’t “recruiting” at all. Deciding on this vocation is very different from a job interview and the process takes a number of years.’
The Carmelite nun’s day starts at 5.30am and is spent in silent prayer or chores. Even meal times are held in silence. ‘Except,’ Zoe says, ‘when we go on a retreat and meet other sisters and then they can’t shut us all up!’
And does she ever worry she has made a mistake in living this life? Her family visit, but find her choice of life hard to accept. She admits that, ‘like a marriage, there are times when we question our commitment, but I know deep down that this is right for me. I am never lonely as I always have God to talk to.’
The impact of a monastic life on her family was something that 26-year-old novice nun Clare Ainsworth was very concerned about. She works as a teaching assistant at Sacred Heart boarding school in Norfolk, founded by the Daughters of Divine Charity.
Although Clare leaves the convent in Norfolk to go to work, she has taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. She was scared of telling her dad about her decision to join the convent because she felt guilty that there would be no grandchildren. Eventually she wrote a letter.
‘He was amazing. He rang me up in tears. He wasn’t shocked at all,’ she says now.
‘You grow up thinking that you’ll get married and have kids. To think anything other than that is hard to get used to. You do wonder what your children will look like, you do long for someone to love and for someone to love you. But another person could never fulfil what I long for. Only God can. I owe him everything.’
Work in the community
Belfast-born Katrina Alton, aged 47, had the same fears as Clare, but her family are slowly coming to terms with her decision to join the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace. Unlike Sister Zoe, Katrina will be referred to as a religious sister, not a nun. She will work in the community, wearing her normal clothes and have access to all the technologies the world has to offer. ‘The Holy Spirit is compatible with Google!’ she laughs.
‘Many of our CSJP sisters have blogs and we use social-network sites to enable women to get to know us.’ She adds that her religious journey feels like ‘a very long engagement’.
Bought up as a Protestant in Belfast during the Troubles, she always felt God was calling her, but was not clear to what. Even as a teenager, she knew marriage wasn’t for her. Like Sister Zoe, it was her career that drew her to the Catholic faith.
This softly-spoken Irishwoman would not criticise those who choose an enclosed order, as it is ‘simply a case of finding the right place for each of us to fulfil our calling’.
As she explains, ‘The first year of the novitiate was a time of stepping back, creating time and space to really reflect if this was truly what God was asking of me. It was hard to leave my work and my friends, but I now appreciate the wisdom of this process so much.
‘During the second year, I spent two months working at a Christian rehabilitation unit for men with addiction issues, and at a play therapy centre. This helped me to discern in which direction God was calling me.’
Katrina has now moved to Scotland where she is in the final year of training as a psychodynamic counsellor. ‘Mental health is vital for our wellbeing, yet it is still the poor relation in the NHS,’ she says. ‘So, I volunteer at a donation-based counselling service. People donate what they can, and are seen for as long as is required. It is a blessing to see the change that can take place in a person’s life.’
With the Faslane nuclear site on her doorstep, once a month Katrina joins a prayer vigil at the site to call for the disarmament.
‘Am I happy? Yes, because no matter the daily challenges of religious life, and the loneliness of having so few peers, I know I am where God has called me to be, and that brings a deep peace.’
Fifty years ago, there would be 10 to 20 women joining the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace each year. In 2015, despite the overall increase in the UK, numbers at St Josephs are low.
‘The reason is that there are now far more opportunities for women in society and it is rare for a person to take one path and stick to it for life,’ Katrina says.
Historically, the only way women could follow a nursing or teaching vocation was through the church – as the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife illustrated, with a cycling Miranda Hart in full habit. Women had far fewer choices in life, so to follow a religious path was not seen as ‘weird’, as it is now.
So, what is the future for a life in orders? Will there still be nuns and religious sisters working for and in the community in the future?
Sister Elaine Penrice, aptly-titled Religious Life Promoter at the National Office of Vocation, is confident that ‘God is continuing to call men and women to devote their lives to Him and to the service of others as religious brothers and sisters, monks and nuns. What can appear as a very strange life choice is actually one which a growing number of people are considering. Quite simply, religious life refuses to die out!’
Which, after meeting some of the remarkable women who have made that choice, is something I’m very pleased about. w