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?
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).
When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?
Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?
I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.
In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.
Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.
There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?