St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns

Were today not Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of St Etheldreda (Audrey) and All Holy English Nuns. You can read about Etheldreda and several others in Bede if you don’t know anything of them. This morning, however, I am thinking not so much of those for whom we have vitae, letters and other memorials but the anonymous ones we commemorate under that catch-all title, ‘All Holy English Nuns’. There is something immensely attractive to a Benedictine in knowing that she stands in an unbroken tradition stretching back long before the Conquest to a time when Anglo-Saxon nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as their counterparts today. They are an inspiration to us here at Howton Grove Priory. Their zeal for holiness, their learning, their generosity in service are qualities we seek to emulate. The fact that their names are lost to us is unimportant. We can still ask their prayers and follow their example. One area where that example is very telling is that of friendship. You have only to read the letters to and from St Boniface to realise how very good Anglo-Saxon nuns were at friendship.

Striving to be friends of God should surely help us to be friends with one another — and if you have any doubts on that score, just re-read John 15.

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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 — 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 — 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 become  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?

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