Full and fair disclosure: I am not Catholic. But I did spend seven years at a Catholic convent wanting to be part of the club. Being the outsider really makes you want to belong. I had my Hail Marys, various Creeds and the Stations of the Cross down pat in no time. Genuflecting and crossing myself felt a bit like the first time I kissed someone on both cheeks: part exotic, part secret handshake.
I married a Catholic who had been educated at a monastery and was the grandson of a convert. I know. The flowers at her funeral – by her request – had to be the papal colours of yellow and white.
In marrying a Catholic in a Catholic church, I agreed to bring up any children we had as Catholics. But to make matters more complicated, my husband-to-be was a widower with three young children. When he married his late wife, a devout Anglican, in a C of E church, he had promised to bring up their children in the Church of England. So, my first three inherited children, like me, are “Filthy Prots”, as my husband’s family would jokily (I think) refer to us, and my two birth children are Catholics. As a result, we are very woke in terms of our religious diversity and a little catholic in our tastes.
But in truth I think that many of us have forgotten how much we need church and religion. Addressing our spirituality is a basic need, and I am convinced that that the modern buzzwords of “mindfulness”, “intention setting”, “community”, “social service” and indeed “social media detox” are all very well served by just going to church.
Behind our house we have a wonderful and ancient church, and I have been allowed access to the keys. There is no greater pleasure for me than going into an empty church alone for quiet prayer. It resets me, allows me to order my thoughts and make fresh promises and ponder my behaviour in the previous week.
I also have a bit of an obsession with religious choral music. I have loved it since my convent school days and even considered singing professionally as a career.
I especially love male voice choirs. I used to ask, every time we organised a fashion show, “How about a male voice choir?” And every time I would be told no. No, Anya, no. And then one time we did a particular show and I asked rather tentatively, “Is it time now? For a male voice choir?” And it was. We had the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” rearranged by Stephen Brooker, and a 100-voice male choir came on to the catwalk with the models, and it was absolutely spine-tingling.
Now James and I, with a couple of wonderful and equally nerdy friends, have started heading out on wintry evenings to beautiful ancient candlelit churches, to listen to choirs like the Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen sing things like Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium (in 40 parts), The Lamb by John Tavener, anything by John Rutter or Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre. We always go to the pub for wine and pork scratchings beforehand, and then we sit there in a really happy winey state of mind and we can be home and tucked into bed by 9pm. Oh, such a fashion life I lead!
I also had one of the best bits of advice in a church from a Catholic nun on my first day at school. I will never forget what tall, elegant, imposing Sister Angela said to us.
She welcomed us all to the school and then said she was going to tell us something important. “I am going to say one thing to you that I want you to really remember, girls. And it is this: If you accept that you will never be fully satisfied, then you will be very happy indeed.”
This struck me fully and deeply. It was like a balloon popped in my head: as though I’d been inducted into something important in real life to which my younger, primary-school self, had been blind. Don’t expect everything to be perfect and then you won’t be disappointed when it isn’t. It was a very generous life lesson to share with us and it has served me well.
So, the Catholic faith has loomed large in my life, even if I am officially an outsider. But I hope that I may perhaps be considered an honorary Catholic, and writing for this esteemed publication makes me feel like I am making a step in the right direction.
Anya Hindmarch’s book, If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair: A Manual for Life, is out now, published by Bloomsbury and is out now.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.