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.

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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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