I returned to my alma mater, Farnborough Hill, recently. In my day it had been a convent boarding school; these days it is an independent Catholic girls’ day school and the few nuns remaining from the original Community had been living in retirement in a shared house in the grounds of the school. Now they are leaving for good. A farewell and thanksgiving Mass was celebrated for them in the austerely beautiful school chapel, designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott of the church architectural family. The Abbot of Farnborough Abbey, Dom Cuthbert Brogan OSB officiated. It was a sad moment, to witness the departure of these consecrated women who have been a presence in the town and in Catholic education there for over 100 years.
I was at the school just before and during the Second Vatican Council. Doubtless the shock waves it sent through the Church, along with the anarchic youth culture of the 1960s, took its toll on the faith of many former girls at the school. Yet the example of those nuns remains in the memory; they spent long hours every day, either teaching or looking after the girls in their care and it was only many years later that I came to realise that, having sacrificed normal motherhood, they regarded us as their spiritual children, their “family”. However much we might have forgotten them, they never ceased to pray for our spiritual welfare and to be touched and delighted when Old Girls took the trouble to visit them in their retirement house.
On returning home, and with nostalgic memories of daily Mass (in Latin and wearing white veils) at 7.30 every morning and the celebration of feast days such as Corpus Christi (white gloves were de rigeur) mingling in my mind with the soaring voices of the superb chapel choir singing Kitson’s Mass during Friday’s farewell, an old school friend contacted me, to tell me that a former head girl – one of the school’s luminaries when we were mere junior girls – was now a convert to Islam.
According to a Guardian article, it seems that this particular former member of the school converted after a long search for a more spiritual alternative to Catholicism. She had also been influenced by the example of a Muslim woman she knew and said that her new-found faith had brought her serenity, wisdom and peace. My response to this was to feel baffled: how could anyone decide to choose Mohammed over Christ, the irresistible figure that emerges as you read the New Testament; a person of such supernatural beauty, goodness and authority that he could only be God-like. How could the Koran be more “spiritual” than the Gospels, especially the Gospel of St John? I also felt sadness; so many of our attitudes to faith – for good or ill – come about from the example of those we meet or the parish community in which we find ourselves, especially when we are searching for belief and at a time when our own faith has not yet matured. There are many lost opportunities for conversion or re-conversion.
I don’t know about the gradual stages and experiences in her life that took this past pupil from being a member of a school steeped in Catholic life and liturgy, to becoming a keen advocate for Islam, but I am sure that, for the nuns now saying goodbye to the convent where they have dedicated their lives, she and all their other spiritual children remain in fond familial memory.