The Carmel Convent, Ware

Across The Divide

15th February 2013

‘Stop the world – I want to get off’… Everyone needs to run away sometimes – to recover from a broken relationship, a bereavement, a failed career – but what makes someone turn their back on the world permanently?

Heather Harris talks to three women who have chosen a very different kind of life, devoted to prayer and service, but who nevertheless see themselves at the heart of modern society.

“Page me when you arrive…”

Not a sentence I’d expected to hear from a nun. But, as I was soon to discover, nuns are full of surprises.

They’re not all ancient for a start. Last year there were just 20 women training to become a nun (in ‘formation’) in the UK, but of these 14 were in their 20s or 30s. And according to the National Office for Vocation, the number of trainee nuns under the age of 40 has risen from 42% in 2006 to 70% in 2011.

These young ladies don’t all dress like penguins either or have traditionally holy names like Theresa or Mary, as I found out when Sister Zoe emailed to invite me to meet her at the Carmelite Monastery in Ware.

Set on top of a hill – and thus with truly fantastic views over the Hertfordshire countryside – this modern building was also as far removed from my image of a crumbling stone monastery as the lady herself was from my image of a nun.
“There are a lot of different religious orders and not all wear black habits. For us it’s brown, and we do change into work clothes for gardening,” says Zoe, with a large smile.

Sister Zoe

And that’s another thing. This 45-year-old lady from Lancashire laughs a lot – and far more than I thought nuns were allowed to.

“There are so many misconceptions about us but I don’t blame people. I know we must seem weird!” she adds, using a term I would never have dared to voice.

“The fact is,” Sister Zoe continues, “our life is [so] increasingly different from the hustle and bustle of today’s worldthat it is difficult for people – even our own families – to understand.”

Almost three hundred nuns live in the Carmelite Monasteries, of which there are 15 in England, four in Scotland and one in Wales.

Zoe lives at Ware with 14 other nuns (“of all different ages and personality types from introvert to extrovert”) and has been a nun for 13 years. She leaves the building only for emergencies such as visits to the doctor or dentist. Her most important work is prayer.

“We do have books. Some of us access the internet but we limit our use. We need our minds as free as possible from distractions so we can pray. I do know we did well at the Olympics though!” she explains, adding that shopping is done online and much of their food is­ grown in the grounds. “Gardening is my favourite pastime… I feel closest to God when I am with nature.”

Visitors are received in a room divided with a low counter, which acts both as a table and a sign of separation. There used to be a grate, rather like 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 says as she passed tea and biscuits to me across the divide.

This highly personable and intelligent lady, who was interested in me and keen to hear all about my children, was – dare I suggest – rather wasted stuck behind the monastery gates when she could be out spreading the word of God in the community.
She’s undoubtedly familiar with that view, but is graceful in her rebuttal. “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. 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 didn’t even go to church and was frustrated by Religious Education at school, as it didn’t seem to answer the fundamental question over whether God actually existed. By her early teens she was an atheist.

It was, in fact, her degree in science and interest in ecology that actually led her to religion. “I began to realise that science couldn’t answer everything,” she tells me while giving me a tour of the chapel, a building that is L-shaped so that the congregation and the nuns sit out of view of each other.

It took what she calls a “crisis in my life” to make her finally go into a Catholic church (I later discovered that the ‘crisis’ was a break-up with a boyfriend), where she instantly felt at ‘home’.

“When I became a Catholic myself, I used to visit a monastery and found the atmosphere of silence and prayer very helpful,” she says. A monk there put her in touch with this Carmelite monastery. “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 takes a number of years.”

Zoe’s day starts at 5.30am and is spent in silent prayer or chores. Even meals are eaten in silence. “Except when we go on a retreat and meet other sisters and then they can’t shut us all up!”

The enclosed life has its challenges; she admits that, “like 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.”
Her family do visit but she admits that they find her choice hard to accept.

That’s just the sort of reaction that worried 24-year-old novice nun Clare Ainsworth as she considered a religious life. Clare works as a teaching assistant at the Sacred Heart School in Swaffham, Norfolk, attached to the convent of the Daughters of Divine Charity, and has taken vows of ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’.

She was scared of telling her father about her decision to join because she felt guilty that there would be no future grandchildren. Eventually she wrote him a letter. "He was amazing. He rang me up, in tears. He wasn't shocked at all”, she tells me.

"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 fulfill what I long for. Only God can. I owe him everything."

Belfast-born Katrina Alton, 45, feels the same. Her family are slowly coming to terms with her recent decision to join the ‘Sisters of St Joseph of Peace’ (CSJP). Katrina is now living in the formation community in Cricklewood, London, with three other sisters, and she has just begun the two year novice programme run by this interntional organisation.

“I know that God has called me to immerse myself in the pain and suffering of our world, especially with the poor and marginalised” she says. “I felt drawn to the CSJP because of their commitment to be a voice for the voiceless, and to work for peace and justice.”

Katrina will not be referred to as a ‘nun’, like Zoe, but as a‘religious sister’. 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…”

Many of the CSJP sisters already have blogs “and we use social network sites to enable women to get to know us,” she says, adding that her religious journey feels like “a very long engagement”.

Brought up as a Protestant in Belfast during the Troubles, she always felt that God was calling her, but it wasn’t clear to what. Even as a teenager she always knew that marriage wasn’t for her.
Like Sister Zoe, it was her career that drew her to the Catholic faith. “About 11 years ago I was working with adults with learning difficulties. I began to appreciate how the Catholic community puts faith into action by caring for the most vulnerable in our society: just as Jesus asked us to do.”

It’s hardly surprising that this softly spoken Irish woman would not criticise the ‘enclosed’ order, although it’s evident that it wasn’t for her. As she explains, it is simply a case of “finding the right place for each of us to fulfill our calling, and in my case it is helping women on the margins of society, and working for peace”.

Fifty years ago there would be ten to twenty people joining the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace every year: currently there are two. “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.”

Historically, the only way that women were able to follow a nursing or teaching vocation was through the church – as the popular BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife illustrates perfectly. Women had far less choices in life, and to follow a religious path was not seen as ‘weird’ as it is now.

So what is the future for a life devoted to religion? Will there be enclosed orders of nuns and religious sisters working in the community in years to come?

Cathy Jones, the aptly titled Religious Life Promoter at the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales) is quietly 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 ladies involved, is something that I’m very pleased about.

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