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Why more women are becoming nuns

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Ruth Gledhill

After years of falling numbers of women taking religious orders, applications to nunneries are on the rise

Until recently, nuns in Britain had fallen out of the habit. In parts of the country, years went by without any women seeking to get themselves to a nunnery. Then, suddenly, convents have reported a spike in interest.

In the past three years the number of women entering the religious life has nearly tripled from 6 to 17 and there are also many more who have entered convents but have not not yet taken their initial vows. This influx is thought to be a result of the Pope’s visit to Britain last year. Such has been the sudden surge in inquiries that religious orders have had to ask bishops how to cope, so unused to receiving new vocations have they become, and so accepting of the received wisdom that, with many convents closing and being sold off, their way of life was likely to be coming to an end.

Now, if these inquiries result in more women taking their vows and becoming novices, numbers could edge back up to where they were in the early 1980s, when more than a hundred women a year took vows as sisters in enclosed and other religious orders.

This week, the media have reported that even a former girlfriend of the Prime Minister has become a nun called Sister John Mary. “I thought of marriage ... then God called,” Laura Adshead, 44, a former pupil of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, told a television documentary about the Benedectine order she joined, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in the Connecticut hills in the US.

Her documentary tells a story of heartbreak and addiction before finding God in recovery. The documentary, God is the Bigger Elvis, shows photographs of her smoking, posing in a leopard-print top and drinking a glass of wine.

She says: “I feel like I tried most things in life that are supposed to make you happy. That journey took me down into alcoholism and drug addiction.” She felt called to the religious life in 2008.

“I remember having to tell my mother, ‘I’m going to join the abbey,’ and she said, ‘Yes, I can see this world has no real meaning for you any more’.”

I looked at this place and saw women who had what I wanted. You make a decision here to surrender your life to God.”

The documentary’s title is inspired by the convent’s prioress, a former actress who starred with Elvis Presley in two of his films, Loving You and King Creole, before becoming a nun in 1963.

Sister John Mary’s journey seems to reflect a new trend in parts of the world, including the UK, where, after years of apparently relentless decline, vocations to the religious life are on the increase.

Take the Congregation of Jesus in York. After years of no activity at all, six women have sought to enter the order in the space of 12 months. At the Society of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton there has also been a rise, with three women due to join the novitiate later this year.

Many young British women have also gone to New York to join the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal after meeting Franciscan friars from Canning Town, East London, who are active at Catholic youth events. The Franciscan Sisters have a house in Leeds, although novices still go to New York for their formation.

Sister Hazel Buckley, novice directress at another order, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood at Clapham Common, London, says she had no novices for 12 years but now has a first-year novice, a woman born in the Philippines but who lived in England for 20 years before joining the order. Two more are due to arrive from Singapore this summer.

“One noticeable thing is that people who are thinking about religious life now are much farther on in their lives than when I started,” she says.

“That was 1958. I was 23 and I was considered a late vocation.

“At that time, people entered on the whole at 18. Now they are making their life choices much later.”

Sister Buckley says that many women were reaching their thirties and forties with deep feelings of insecurity. “They might not have had secure relationships or a secure home. They start to think about what really matters.”

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation, and former abbot of Worth Abbey, West Sussex, who on Friday announced a new national vocations framework for the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, said the three-year-project was a response to the call by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain last year for young people to ask themselves what kind of person they would really like to be.

Father Jamison said: “Many people today, especially the young, find it difficult to listen to their deepest spiritual desires, so the Church needs to offer a structured approach to vocation if the call of Christ is to be heard by more people.”

He continued: “It’s against a background that’s surprisingly upbeat given the general perception of the state of the clergy and religious life in this country. In the last few years, the number of people applying to seminaries has been gradually increasing and, in more recent years, just in the last couple of years, ever since the Papal visit, the number of women approaching women’s congregations has also been increasing.”

It was not fully reflected yet in the figures because it takes time from an initial approach to become a novice, said Father Jamison, “But it is certainly more than anecdotal. There are congregations of women who have been contacting us to say, ‘Could you help us because it’s been a while since we’ve had this sort of response,’ and so we are now happily supporting them in dealing with an increase.”

Judith Eydmann, development co-ordinator of the National Office for Vocation, says: “For young women it is not just the life that is attractive.

They feel that it is what Christ has called them to, the total dedication of their lives to the service of God. We have moved away from a model of recruitment to one of discernment and that gives people a safe environment in which they can make safe choices.”

She says new Catholic movements such as Youth 2000 have been key to the increase. Among the general Catholic population of more than five million across the UK, about 10 per cent have had contact with new movements but among those entering monasteries, convents and seminaries, the proportion is 50 per cent.

In a further new development, one in five of the new vocations are converts to Catholicism, compared with the 1970s when nearly all those seeking to become priests, monks or nuns were cradle Catholics. In spite of Sister John Mary’s story of recovery from addiction, Eydmann says this was not the norm.

“Most people entering a congregation or religious seminary are given a detailed psychological assessment over a whole weekend,” she says. “One of the things that is checked is a person’s motivation. Going to a monastery or religious life cannot be an escape from things such as addiction because a person is confronted with themself in a very profound way when they enter formation.”

It might not be an escape, but in seeking a spiritual path away from the stresses and pressures of modern life and towards a closer relationship with God, it is once more being seen as an option — one that is more than just another lifestyle choice.

Whether these newly formed nuns are finding God, or God is finding them, the religious life is coming back into fashion as one that offers not so much riches, but a way of life exemplified by courage, wisdom and serenity — not bad for women who might be tempted to think they haven’t a prayer.

A day in the life

Nuns come in all shapes and sizes, but most fall into two broad categories. David Cameron’s former paramour Laura Adshead is what is known as a “contemplative” nun — as opposed to “active” or “apostolic”. Whereas the latter are active in their communities, tending the sick or running hostels for the homeless, contemplative nuns rarely leave their convents.

Adshead is a Benedictine nun at Regina Laudis, in the US. Here, most of the day is spent in prayer, in English and Latin, both silent and sung, interspersed with work or study.

The daily routine is shaped by the Rule written by St Benedict, around the year 530. Today it is followed by hundreds of Benedictine monks and nuns around the world, including those of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Benedictine community based in Tyburn, near Marble Arch, Central London.

“This life has taught me time management,” says Mother Hildegarde, laughing. The Australian is a former data operator based at Tyburn. Every day at 5am she rises and goes to the chapel for vigils. The first prayer of the day, at 5.30am, consists of psalms praising God as the day begins, hymns, a Bible reading and prayers for others — the Pope, the Church, for England and for the intentions of the believers who leave prayer requests on Tyburn’s website. Often these will ask for prayer for sick relatives, for breaking marriages, for struggles with job losses or addictions.

At 7am the nuns pray morning prayer or Lauds. Mass is at 7.30am, followed by breakfast at 8.15. Then, after a lesson, the nuns will turn to their tasks, which vary according to their role in the community. Mother Hildegarde, as the secretary general of the Tyburn Community, is usually “in the office typing away”, by 10am.

At noon, the nuns gather to pray the midday Office and at 12.30 they have their main meal of the day. Usually this is meat and vegetables. Lunch is followed by an hour’s rest or study. At 2.45pm they have a cup of tea and then gather for more prayer at 3.15pm. Their private prayers may include adoration or prayer before the Eucharist, exposed in the Chapel, or else Lectio Divina, a prayerful pondering of short passages of scripture. Next, from 3.30-4.30pm, is an hour of recreation. “We might play Scrabble or homemade games. We have crafts — some people knit or sew, and sometimes we have a little singsong,” Mother Hildegarde says.

Vespers or evening prayer is at 4.30pm. Around 6.30pm the nuns have supper before going to the chapel for compline, or night prayer, at 8pm.

Lights are usually out by 11pm, and the convent enters the Great Silence, a period where no one speaks usually until breakfast the next morning.

So what, if anything is the point of it all? Finding God, and developing a relationship with him “takes time, like any relationship”, Mother Hildegarde explains.

“God is a God of comfort,” she adds, “and prayer brings peace. We live in an instant world, but God is not an instant God. He makes you wait.”

Bess Twiston Davies

Religious orders

Carmelite nuns Carmelite Nuns form part of the Roman Catholic Church; in Britain 300 nuns live in 20 Carmels (monasteries) across the country and their lives are dedicated to prayer in silence and solitude. Their daily routine consists of rising at 5.30am for a day of prayer, meditation and work — which varies between monasteries but consists primarily of crafts and cooking.

The nuns complete all their work in silence, speaking only when necessary. After 7.45pm the Great Silence begins, during which strict silence is maintained until Mass takes place the following day.

Travel beyond the monastery is restricted to times of medical necessity. Lights go out at 10.30pm.

Benedictine nuns

Benedictine nuns are also a Roman Catholic order. The Benedictine nuns of East Hendred rise at 5am for a day of prayers, sung in English and Latin. Benedictine nuns observe a Great Silence after 8.15pm, which is observed until Lauds, the morning prayer, is sung the following day, with lights out at 11pm.

Franciscan Missionary

Sisters Inspired by St Francis, Franciscan nuns dedicate their lives to his example of “sisterhood with all God’s Creation” and in addition to prayer they commit themselves to the “love and service” of their local community by undertaking parish work, prison visits, teaching and caring for the elderly and homeless.

Dominican Sisters

Dominican life is “characterised by spontaneity, warmth and joy”, according to the website of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Joseph. Inspired by Saint Dominic’s intention that “his brethren should live in the community”, Dominican nuns commit time every day to community recreation in the form of teaching, organising religious retreats and evangelising with young people. The Dominican sisters of Saint Joseph rise at 5.45am for a day of study, work and prayer. The Grand Silence begins after Compline at 8.15pm and is observed until Morning Prayers the next day. Ram Mashru

© Times Newspapers Limited 2012

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