One moonlit night in autumn 1976, I was wearing the full-length white habit, scapular, traditional headgear and veil. It was my turn – yet again – to lock the doors and windows in Maryvale, our pastoral centre in Bramley, Surrey. With the moon shining through the windows, I didn’t bother to switch on the light as I climbed the staircase and turned around the corner.
Unfortunately for two young boys taking part in a school retreat, they chose just that moment to open the door of the room where they’d been peacefully watching television. Who was more scared: the boys who saw a ghostly white figure gliding by, or me, who hadn’t expected their ear-splitting scream as it pierced the darkness? The three of us stood shaking and panting for breath, one apology tumbling after another.
So why do nuns feature in horror stories? On that particular occasion, it is easy to see why, in the dark, my habit scared the living daylights out of two young lads with whom I’d previously been chatting. I think I’d have had a similar reaction to an apparently supernatural apparition. However, after 45 years in the convent and having known nuns since I was four years old, I’ve never met one who, after dark, transformed herself into some mysterious other-worldly being set on bringing horror and creating mayhem.
But then, the cinema loves haunted abbeys, church windows lit by candlelight, graveyards populated by owls, strange rustlings – and ghostly figures of long-dead nuns (or monks) floating slightly above ground level. (Why walk when levitation takes less energy and looks better?)
A new film, The Nun, is currently being advertised on the London Underground, with a Jekyll and Hyde picture of a Sister, partly serene and expressionless and partly with malevolent expression and glowing green eyes. My reaction? Grow up and get a life. Get to know some of the amazing people who really do give their lives to God and you’ll see the reality of the supernatural in their lives.
Take Sister Chris. She was confined to bed for seven years before she died this year. Before that, she had spent 24 years working as a midwife in Zimbabwe, 12 delivering babies in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan and 18 as an assistant prison chaplain in Wandsworth.
Sister Chris was one of those wonderful people whose body might be broken, but whose spirit was alive, and reaching out lovingly to others. She found it hard to be “stuck” in her room, but somehow she was rarely alone. People gravitated to her bedside and always came away feeling better for having spent a few minutes with her. Even when Sister Chris was dying, she knew who had entered her room and smiled radiantly.
Yet her warmest smiles were reserved for whoever brought her Communion. “Have you brought me Jesus?” she would ask.
Perhaps the next time horror screenwriters associate nuns with horror, they might perhaps think of Sister Chris – and drop the cliché altogether.
Sister Janet Fearns FMDM is editor for special projects at Redemptorist Publications
This article first appeared in the September 21 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here