Holy English Nuns?

In previous years I have written admiringly of St Etheldreda, St Leoba and their peers; and I make no secret of the fact that our community draws inspiration from some of the great Anglo-Saxon saints. This morning, however, when the sun is sparkling on the hedgerows and the cows over the way are contentedly nudging their calves, I thought we could have a little gentle fun.

Almost every day we receive vocation enquiries via our web site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk. We try to answer all of them as well as we can, although the majority are probably not meant for us as they show no sign of having any understanding of what Benedictines are, or the difference between being cloistered (enclosed) and active religious. A few do raise a smile, however, and remind me of some of the less-than-holy preoccupations of our Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

Pets and their accommodation trouble some. ‘I have five cats and two dogs, could I bring them with me?’ asked one. St Edith may have had her menagerie but here at Howton Grove Bro Duncan PBGV reigns supreme and brooks no rival, so the answer was ‘no’. ‘Can I go home for week-ends?’ asked another. The peregrinatio pro Christo idea was more Celtic than Roman, and although we find Chaucer’s prioress on the road to Canterbury, I don’t think the modern equivalent would be a five-day working week at the monastery and two days off at home. ‘Do you drink beer?’ asked one American enquirer. A rather cautious answer there, as most monasteries of women now offer tea or sometimes coffee rather than small beer as a morning beverage, with wine and cider for dinner on high days and holy days.

Personal hygiene and grooming also figure largely in some enquiries. One thinks of Coldingham, and the necklaces and combs affected by some, or Etheldreda at Ely fleeing from the use of hot baths. The brisk soap-and-water answer, that you’ll be expected to shower every day and wear what the monastery provides, is apparently insufficient. People want to know exactly what is or is not permissble. Enter and see, I advise, enter and see. We are living in the twenty-first century, not the eighth. As to leisure time (what leisure time, asked Quietnun), the questions come thick and fast, even though most of them have been answered in our FAQ. ‘Do you watch TV; can you play games online; would I have to give up my smartphone?’ I realise I am about a million years old when I note that in ten years of answering such enquiries, not one person has asked about books and the library — which is about as far from the Anglo-Saxons as we can get.

Smiling at these enquiries is all very well. I must admit they take up more of my time and energy than I want to give, but among all those seeking merely to satisfy their curiosity, there may be one person who is seeking the Lord but does not yet know how to put her quest into words. Sometimes the most unpromising enquiry can lead to  something deeper. It isn’t easy to judge; so I’ll go on doing my best, sometimes  disappointing people, sometimes prodding them into thinking more deeply, always urging them to more prayer. Please join me today in asking the prayers of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns for both our enquirers and the community here, that we may be graced with wisdom, charity and perseverance.

Senior moment: I wrote Lastingham, when I should have written Coldingham—now corrected, and I burn with shame.


20 thoughts on “Holy English Nuns?”

  1. People asking about ‘days off’ may have influenced one new community at Walsingham as I note from their website that the sisters have one day off every week (Monday) when they can go and visit family or have a community trip out etc. They also have 10 days a year holiday and wear denim habits. Perhaps you could point some of your vocations enquiries who are looking for a more ‘twenty-first-century-I-want-to-keep-hold-of-my-smartphone’ experience their way? 🙂

  2. Dear dCatherine, I am so intensely grateful for your daily prayers and comments and thank God for your wisdom an humour. Please give my grateful thanks to dLucy and Brother Duncan PBVG as well.


    • Humour yes, wisdom not so sure; but we are all grateful for your prayers, especially our hairy brother, who keeps hoping we’ll become nicer people and let him eat everything in sight..

    • Quietnun was responsible for our getting Bro Duncan PBGV, so I think she’s a convert of some kind, and I think our hairy brother merits the description of smalle hounde, though he is definitely not a lapdog or cowl-sleeve dog. He was an admirable companion to D. Teresa in her last years and is a very useful watchdog to us now.

  3. Oh dear. I have been asked some pretty daft questions when visiting schools to encourage children to consider an engineering career… But now I am forced to conclude that children have far more sense than some of your correspondents!

  4. Thank you Dame Catherine for that. It brought a smile. I have spoken to groups in schools about Religious Life as I am a Sister of Mercy living and working in Ireland. The best question I was asked recently was “Can you have a boyfriend”? At the end of the 40 minutes with them I invited comments the only one I got was “Sisters of Mercy are cute” These were 17 and 18 year old. I just wonder.

    • Yes, I think we’d better draw a veil over some of the more . . . hair-raising! At a more serious level, religious illiteracy among not just the young but the middle-aged too is becoming more and more of a problem, and I don’t really know what we should do about it. Some people are well-informed, engaged, etc, etc, but what about the others? Prayers for you and your work, Sister.

  5. Bro Duncan PBGV should be pleased he is in good company with St Etheldreda and her Sisters for warding off all threats to the monastery, especially in the story of Gervase, who dreamt she stabbed him through the heart with her abbatial staff and was assisted by her sisters St Wihtburh and St Seaxburh, who wounded him with staves. (Clerk of Oxenford gives the full story in her delightful blog today http://www.aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/lady-etheldreda-nun-and-valkyrie.html ) I think St Etheldreda would be astonished and pleased in equal measure to find that this story not only reached the Liber Eliensis, but also no less an auspicious journal than the International Journal of Cardiology http://www.internationaljournalofcardiology.com/article/0167-5273(86)90275-5/abstract.

  6. Ah, the enormity of religious illiteracy…. I teach history and this year’s gems from Y8 include: “does the Queen have a religion?” and “are there any Catholics still around today”.

  7. Having taken schoolchildren to make a special visit to a Carmelite monastery – the comments from 8 year olds were interesting (Were the nuns very naughty? Because there were bars – between us and them) but the comments from adults would really make you groan. Are the nuns miserable/sad because they have given up so much? Will they know how to speak to children?

    The answers by the way are that the nuns were cheerful and chatted with the children with astonishing humour and ease. I was surprised that a group of mainly elderly women who do not have contact with families on a daily basis were more at ease with inquisitive schoolchildren than most adults…

    I suppose my preconceptions/religious literacy need an overhaul as well.

  8. There appear to be several kinds of holy patience : An important one is the sort of patience that allows God into our lives- letting Him lead us, according to His (not our) plan.
    A (much more difficult??) sort of patience is the patience we need to deal with others.
    You seem to be blessed with both.

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