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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 3
Michaelmas 2011

A Calming Glimpse of Convent Life

by Joanna Bogle

I went to a convent school. As a result, I tended to think of nuns as associated chiefly with school. So if the question came up — and it did, because we’d sometimes discuss it with each other over coffee and illicit cigarettes in the Sixth Form — about ever being a nun, the answer was always a “no”. I liked school and had plenty of friends, but I didn’t in the least want to stay on indefinitely. We all knew that several of the nuns, including the headmistress, had been pupils at our school. They had left, gone to university, and then come back and become nuns at the very convent where they had been schoolgirls. It seemed to us incomprehensible.

Well, in any case, I was growing up in a very different Britain, and in days of considerable change in the Catholic Church. By the middle 1970s I was well embarked on a career in journalism, and all my friends were similarly involved in different jobs, and beginning too to get engaged and married. We were the first generation of young women to have a really wide-ranging choice of careers; we knew we could, if we wanted, do all sorts of things that women had not done before, and the fields were widening all the time. Our mothers had worked in banks or offices or been teachers or nurses or perhaps doctors or civil servants, but we knew that absolutely no career was really closed to us, and there were court cases and campaigns all the time by people who maintained that each and every possible career must be open to women.

We tended to think — and we were not absolutely wrong — that some women had become nuns in the 1950s because it was one way of having an interesting, fulfilling and useful life when the number of career options for women was in many ways quite restricted.

Over the next years — the first couple of decades of my adult life — contact with nuns was fairly limited. I was busy, and doing all sorts of things, including marrying and traveling and making homes in various places as an army wife, writing books, and going on lecture tours. I did meet some very delightful, cheerful, wonderful nuns in America at a couple of conferences, and I would come across nuns from time to time in the normal round of things as a Catholic. That was about all.

But in the past few years nuns have come into my orbit again. A dear friend has been a nun for several years now in a convent on the Isle of Wight. Her letters are wonderful, our visits to her are cheering and fun and she has a sort of wisdom and common sense that inspires and warms the heart. Two friends are nuns in a new order dedicated to helping pregnant women facing difficulties or pressure to abort their babies. I have become friendly with an elderly nun who helped to pioneer a project teaching disabled children to ride.

And just recently I was invited to stay overnight in a convent guest house after a speaking engagement. I arrived late at night and tired, and a note on the door welcomed me to my room. The bed was comfortable, and a Bible and a small book of inspirational thoughts and prayers were on a shelf alongside. There was a small kitchen for my use, and a bowl of fresh fruit on the table.

In the morning I walked through the lovely garden to the chapel for Mass. The nuns were singing their morning Office. Everything felt ordered; it felt right to start the day like this. The Mass was not formal or elaborate, rather the reverse. We sang some simple hymns, everything was in English, one of the sisters did the readings. But, oh the peace of it all, the sense of putting first things first, of a community getting to the heart of things at the start of the day.

These nuns wear a traditional habit, with a white veil for novices, and a black one for nuns who have made their full vows. When busy in the guest house or garden they have smocks and big blue headscarves tied up at the back. They welcome many visitors for retreats and pilgrimages and quiet days. I intend to lead a small group there, and it was cozy sitting in the kitchen planning this.

Do they get young women joining them? Yes, one was due to arrive that very day. It is these more traditional religious orders that attract the younger generation. They want the real thing: a full habit, a sung daily Office, God at the heart of it all. This convent community is not huge, but it is quietly thriving. And, as I left, catching a train back to London, I did so with some reluctance. I would have liked to stay a little longer: to read, to pray, to find out a bit more — no, a lot more — about the sisters’ way of life and ask them some deep questions. As it was, I felt refreshed even by my short visit.

I have a happy home and a dear husband, and duties and responsibilities and a very hectic life doing a great many things. I now see that a religious community forms a sort of sane heartbeat that keeps things steady for us all — conscious or not of what faith and prayer are really all about. The Rule of Saint Benedict was crucial in forming European civilization. The idea of ordered time, of work as something done well and for the glory of God, of justice and fair dealing in a community, of good rest and good talk, and of hospitality and welcome — all this is essential to a civilization worthy of the name, and convents and monasteries live all this.

I will be visiting the sisters again, and recommending to my friends that they do so as well.

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