In Europe and the UK the vocation to become a nun is very uncommon today, especially among the teaching orders. My old school, once a convent boarding school, is typical of many others: although it is still a Catholic girls’ school it is now completely under lay management and staff and the boarding element has long gone, along with the nuns. The beautiful chapel, designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott, where Mass was once celebrated every morning at 7.30 sharp, is now only used on special feast days.
I mention this as I returned there on Tuesday for the funeral and burial of a much-loved former dormitory mistress and Sister. Listening to her life story as it was described by a fellow nun at the start of Mass and also in the homily, I was reminded what a wonderful vocation it is to be a nun – the very opposite of the unnatural and suppressed life of the emotions that a modern secular society might consider it.
In my thoughts I contrasted this dearly loved Sister, born in County Galway in 1919 from a family of ten children and who made her first profession in 1940 during the War, with the life of Anita Brookner whom I blogged about last week. Dr Brookner, who was unmarried, mourned the fact that she never had children; it was a source of grief in her life that no amount of success in novel-writing could mitigate.
The Sister whose memory we celebrated on Tuesday also never had children of her own, for obvious reasons. But she was still a wonderful “mother”. Once asked by one of the girls if she regretted not having children, she smiled and answered with her characteristic robustness, “But you girls are my children!” And we were. All her great maternal gifts were lavished on the generations of girls who passed through the school during her 70 years there. She could be strict and she could be firm; she wouldn’t tolerate nonsense or unkind behaviour; but we all knew she loved us. That was why the chapel was full on Tuesday and why so many former pupils were in tears. We were mourning a true spiritual mother.
The homilist, the abbot from the local monastery, reminded us that true holiness is about being fully human: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”. His own memories of Sister, he said, were bound up with “manure” – as she had often begged the abbey for manure for her rose garden. She had also “always liked a tipple”. As well as being a skilled gardener, seamstress and cook, Sister’s life as I have said, was bound up with her girls. In extreme old age and living in a care home run by fellow nuns, her most frequent question was, “How are the children?”
The Rosary was her favourite prayer and her beads were broken through much use. Love for the Sacred Heart – she had a small statue by her bed – was her favourite devotion. Changes in the Church after Vatican II brought their own sorrows; Sister was sad at the dearth of vocations and the closure of the boarding school, when there were no members of the Community left to supervise the girls at night and at weekends. She was also the only nun to keep on wearing the old black habit with its starched white wimple, when the rest of the community chose to wear a modernised form of religious dress.
She was aware of the waning of the Faith. But it didn’t affect her own fidelity to her vows in the slightest. As a young Irish girl from the country she had given her life to God and she never looked back once she had put her shoulder to the plough. As we laid her in the nuns’ graveyard in the grounds of the school which she had loved and served so well, I thought what a full and happy life she had led, albeit hidden, humble and hard-working. May she rest in peace.