‘I didn’t want to be a nun at all,” the Sister tells me. “The impression that I had is that nuns were miserable people that slept in coffins, who went around with long faces and beat themselves up with long sticks and lived on bread and water. I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting as a way of life.”
Yet here she is, 33 years a Sister in the Poor Clares. She’s currently living in the convent with 21 other Sisters, but her travels have taken her to Uganda and more recently to Bungoma, Kenya, where the Poor Clares have opened a monastery.
The Poor Clares first came to my attention when my sister’s godfather asked for their prayers in order that the sun should shine on the day of her wedding. Never was there a day of more astonishing beauty. He went on to ask for prayers for two other weddings, and the prayers achieved a success rate of 100 per cent. The verity of these tales has undoubtedly been diluted in time, but what remains resolute is the Poor Clares’ dedication to contemplative prayer, which they describe as “silence and intimacy with God”.
The Poor Clares are a Franciscan contemplative order of nuns, founded in San Damiano in Assisi more than 800 years ago. Numbers are dwindling in this country: there were 14 communities on our shores three decades ago, but only eight remain.
The convent that houses the Poor Clares is a large, nondescript red-brick building on the outskirts of Arundel in Sussex, surrounded by neat flower beds that are tended to by the Sisters. All the Sisters “work”, which takes up more than five hours of the day. They are obliged to perform separate duties, but everyone contributes to the community, be it by gardening, laundering, cleaning, cooking, or making icons or greeting cards to sell in the convent shop.
Day-to-day existence is frugal, and the hours are marked by a resounding bell, prompting the Sisters to turn their attentions to the next time slot. The schedule is extremely regimented, curated around prayer and spiritual study, which consumes another five hours of the day. Food is eaten in silence, but one Sister reads aloud. At the moment they’re reading Fr James Martin’s Jesus: a Pilgrimage and Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow’s The Shed that Fed a Million Children.
Meals are modest: porridge or cereal for breakfast, pies for lunch and soup or salad in the evening. Meat is served twice a week, and wine is only drunk on feast days. “We’re not big drinkers, really,” I’m told, “only one bottle of wine to go around the community.”
The Sisters seldom leave the convent except for health reasons, close family members’ funerals (siblings and parents only) or to fulfil their civic duty (the majority of the sisters voted for Remain in the EU referendum). They share a collective love of reading, devouring novels by Agatha Christie, spiritual books by the likes of Fr Thomas Keating and biographies of popes.
The food that doesn’t grow in the convent’s garden is purchased on Sainsbury’s online (“Thank God for online!” one Sister exclaims). The Guardian is delivered daily to the convent, and although there is one television, most Sisters have their own radios. On Sundays, some of the Sisters gather to watch DVDs. They are particularly keen on Mr Selfridge at the moment, and describe themselves as Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife “fanatics”, having “gone off” EastEnders.
So far, their life doesn’t sound wildly dissimilar to that of nuns in textbooks and stories. But despite the structured regime and the innumerable hours of silence, the Poor Clares are navigating through the 21st century, finding new and innovative ways to adapt while remaining true to the Church and its teachings. They are becoming increasingly involved in the local community by opening their doors as opposed to being active in the nearby towns. The convent hosts meetings for contemplative prayer, comprised of “perfectly ordinary people who want to commit themselves to prayer”, regardless of religious inclination. Advent groups, Lent groups and school groups all flock to the convent, as well as the John Main prayer group. There are also L’Arche meetings and Taizé evenings.
“People expect you to go out. But you don’t need to go out to be in contact. It’s amazing how involved we are,” I’m told. And it is amazing, particularly when one considers that 30 years ago the Sisters were separated from visitors by a dividing grille.
Parish Mass is regularly celebrated in the chapel, along with services to mark the Holocaust Memorial Day and the Women’s World Day of Prayer. Locals come for advice and spiritual direction.
“Women are the mainstay of the Church,” I am assured. “I think what is difficult is that the Church is still so clericalised. It is true that women are not used to their fullest capacity – no way,” says one Sister, before expressing a desire for nuns to be more involved with Church administration.
Do they experience feelings of loneliness? “Yes, of course.” And what of male company? “We miss male voices. We love it when we have priests and they’re singing with us, and the deeper voices. And the different viewpoints. Because when our friars come and visit and we talk and we share, you realise what a different viewpoint men offer.”
But by and large, the Poor Clares are doing well to balance the obvious conflict between honouring tradition and adapting in order to serve the community around them. They are confident that convents will survive “in some form”, citing the mixed gender Chemin Neuf community in Storrington as an example of the evolving nature of religious life.
But for now, they are happy in their community in its current form. “We would never have lived together as a group if it hadn’t been for God. He really does believe in variety and He definitely has a sense of humour,” they chuckle.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.