St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns 2012

The feast of St Etheldreda and all holy English nuns tends not to mean much to most people. It is smiled at or quietly passed over, but a thousand years ago, when nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as they have become, it would have got a different reaction. Anglo-Saxon nuns were formidable: many were learned, witty, extremely influential, as well as holy. No one who had dealings with them had any doubt that they were very able. When St Ethelwold of Winchester was a little patronising toward St Edith of Wilton, he was rebuked in no uncertain terms. Nuns nowadays would probably be expected to hold their tongues โ€” or else!

I am sometimes troubled by the unthinking condescension of priests and others who assume, wrongly, that because a woman becomes a nun she somehow gives up, along with her material possessions, every gift of mind and heart with which she was previously endowed. It troubles me because it is unjust, I suppose, but also because it impoverishes the Church by trying to force people into a mould they were not designed for. I know nuns who were research chemists, barristers, university lecturers, doctors, bankers โ€” and that’s just among the cloistered. Of course there is room for the nun as figure of fun, but the joke can be taken too far or can come uncomfortably close to being really nasty. There was an unfortunate incidence of what I mean on a well-known American blog earlier this week (no names, no pack-drill, because I don’t want to publicize it or the comments it evoked).

From time to time we are assured that the Church values the cloistered life and are exhorted to pray for vocations. However, we also have to foster vocations. If we merely pay lip-service to the idea that a monastic vocation is a worthwhile way of serving God and others, then I think we are kidding ourselves when we pray for vocations. We don’t really want them at all. The acid test is: would you be pleased if your daughter were to becomeย  a nun? If your instinctive reaction is, ‘No!’, think again. Could God be asking you to accept the unthinkable, to foster a monastic vocation within your own family?


13 thoughts on “St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns 2012”

  1. BRAVO!!!!! I am with you regarding the great women (human beings) that nuns are. Very impressive persons…

    As to having a daughter as a nun, I thought for a while that I might have one… True, I would not have rejoiced so much when I was younger, but today the idea fills me with awe ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Recalling your post one year ago, I am celebrating with a bowl of cherries.
    Special mention today for St Withburga, a sister of Etheldreda who founded a nunnery/monastery/abbey (reports vary) here in Norfolk. The spring which appeared on her death is still to be found in the town’s churchyard, on the way to the cherry stall.

    • To quote from the Ely Cathedral website –

      ‘Etheldreda was deeply influenced by St Wilfred, who was a great advocate of St Benedict’s Rule. It is very likely that, from the beginning, Etheldreda’s community followed a Benedictine pattern of living.’

  3. Thank you for posting about the Anglo-Saxon abbesses and nuns! Indeed their lives are not well enough known here (again, or yet, or still). We are fortunate to have one of them, St Frideswide, as the patron saint of Oxford, and although our parish is not named for her, the icon of St Frideswide has pride of place at the front of the church, directly opposite that of our patron saint. Orthodox churches in the British Isles celebrate the feast of All Saints of Britain tomorrow – that is, starting this evening.

    • A happy feast to you, belatedly! I’ve published a few minor articles on Anglo-Saxon nuns. My favourite is Leoba of Wimborne and Tauberbischofsheim but I’ll write about her nearer her feastday.

  4. I think nuns are often underestimated. Make no mistake about it, as one who was in their emergency care as a little child, then closely affiliated through participation in parish life, I discovered that nuns are powerhouses of prayer, compassion and action. I’ve found that even the quietest of nuns are deep souls to be counted upon, and yes, we’d be delighted if our daughter chose this vocation and would support her or any other woman who made this move. May I offer a heartfelt thank you to all the nuns with whom I have had contact over my life – you’ve encouraged, challenged, loved and supported me and my family and for that I am prayerfully grateful!

  5. The early anglo-saxon nuns (like Frideswide) were often royal too, which demonstrates the high regard in which the religious life was held for women at that time. (Must have made them rather less inclined to be submissive, too). Monasteries were often founded as double houses for men and women (in separate bits). Anna, did you know that St Ebbe was probably another saxon noblewoman and perhaps the same saint commemorated in the name “Abingdon”?

    • It also helps to explain the close connections between the English monasteries and the crown, e.g. the Regularis Concordia of 973 has prayers for the royal family at the end of the Offices.

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