(Bewitched by) Nuns

Perhaps it started with Sister Laurie at St Joseph’s School in North Battleford, right in the middle of the Canadian prairies. 

Sister Laurie was petite and neat and the gentlest soul. When I was six and the new girl from the Old World, she was my teacher. She welcomed me into her classroom and nobody teased me. Her voice was like a song and held us in thrall as her pectoral cross rested on her tunic. She smiled as she walked up and down the rows of desks, her shoes as soft as slippers, and she listened as we chanted the times tables. 

The nun in the story that I am trying to write looks like Sister Laurie. She sits next to the ‘hero’ on the 08:15 train from Granada to Córdoba. She’s petite and neat and has an accent which the hero can’t place. I like her. The hero likes her. She has a chapter to herself. 

Except that her chapter devotes most of her time to the hero’s hangover from hell, and his irritation with Gill and her Estuary English (mollified by her husband, who has the patience of a saint). 

I know that the nun is some kind of angel. An angel with the face of a woman (but a beak for a nose) and words of humanity.

In my mind she fills the carriage with her grace and perception, and fleeting moments of irreverence. But when I read my words back … she is barely there.

So I have engaged in the time-consuming research of a procrastinator, persuading myself that I am digging deep so that I can give the nun life (rather than burying my head in the sand to avoid writing).

I’ve travelled around the Sisterhood and met: learned nuns, legendary nuns, fun nuns, fervent nuns:

The brilliant Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz of Mexico; Mother Teresa who suffered dark nights of the soul; and the artistically erudite Sister Wendy. And Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam, the Honky Tonky Nun, a beautiful musician of Ethiopian nobility, who travelled the world and now lives in a cell in Jerusalem. 

There are basketball players, twitter-savvy sisters, celebrity chefs, and a nun-recruitment show (many of Spain’s nuns come from Latin America, India and Africa). 

I’ve learned of hierarchies and dowries and runaway nuns (one faked her own death in medieval York). And the salvation of music that has lain dormant for centuries.

It is a procrastinator’s paradise. Stories within stories within stories. Endless avenues of discovery which I could pursue for eternity … and be none the wiser as to why my nun won’t shine.

(I should have picked a monk – no problem with him. But a monk won’t do).

I raid my memory bank for clues. 

  • The Sound of Music is an obvious start – the mountains, the children, the curtains for costumes, the Doh-Ray-Mi (which – sidestep – may be either Italian or Arabic in origin). 
  • Nuns walking the streets of foreign cities: my analysis of their habits, shoes, and bags: they are allowed out – where have they been and where are they going?
nuns, story, women, travel, writing
  • Airports – they travel in pairs most of the time, although once I saw a nun with a priest and wondered about that … 
  • At eighteen, I stayed in a Baviarian convent (a weekend jaunt, organised by a friend). The garden was beautiful, the chanting was hypnotic, the timetable was too much, and the cell was … 

Empty, hollow, barren, disturbing.

I counted the hours in chimes that night, and imagined my cell door was locked from the outside. I heard nothing but echoes of echoes. 

Early morning vespers was a lesson in lip service. The air was damp and I remember the relief of our Sunday release after sausages and potatoes for lunch. 

Next, I explore family lore:

  • My mother attended mass as a girl in Worcester, at a place where her great-aunt Winifred was a nun. They never saw her because she and her sisters ‘lived behind bars’ and baked delicious cakes which they left out for guests. 
  • My cousin tells me that Winifred’s sister, Etheldreda (the original was a saint), was with another Benedictine order. She was elected abbess despite her sisters being advised that she was too old (at 65). She lived to be 99. 

Research reveals separate existences: in the 1901 census, the sisters were spinsters, living in Liverpool as shorthand typists. In the 1939 register, Etheldreda is listed along with her fellow sisters as an ‘inmate.’ A label that fails to examine which life offered greater freedom.

Further into the past, I discover that as ‘papists’, members of my family were often labelled as ‘recusants’ and suffered as such:

Alathea Anderton, after her husband’s death, had scarcely enough to maintain herself and her children, of whom she had fourteen. Besides this, she had a far greater cross when three of her children, one son and two daughters, were taken from her, in order to make them Protestants, and taken to a place where they were most cruelly used, although more was taken from their parents’ estate than was left to maintain all the rest. They were kept bare-legged in sackcloth, and their food was flour and water sodden together; if sometimes a bone was cast them from their keeper’s table, it had scarce any meat upon it. Besides this, they were beaten with whips, with crooked pins in them; and once Alathea [the daughter], who was afterwards professed a nun at Louvain, was hit in the eyes, and rendered almost blind.

Where does this leave me with my nun? 

I confess (not to be confused with my childhood confessions in a succession of dark cubicles with priests … weird): 

Nuns comfort me, intrigue me, mystify me. From Sister Laurie to the teenager who disappears from the world forever with her dowry. From Maria von Trapp to the girl who takes the veil to free herself from marriage to a stranger. Holy rebellion to gain loss of autonomy. To become a Bride of Christ. 

My parents told me I could do anything I wanted to do, be anyone I wanted to be. Which opened up the world. I could do anything. Be anything. (Anything but a nun. She even surrenders her name). 

Unable to settle on any single path, I committed to a life of motherhood. With its timetable of cooking and cleaning, and corralling the kids.

And I gave up my name – both first and last. 

And many winters later, one night when the kids stole my peace (again), I let my thoughts scramble on a page: ‘Can’t Escape. Where would I go – To the End of the Road? At the Eleventh Hour? In the Freezing Cold – And Ice and Snow?  I might catch my Death. If I Don’t.

A self-pitying, self-indulgent, self —— I could never be a nun.

I click on a link that Google deems apposite: a clever feminist nun, who lived many centuries ago, once penned this to her lover:

What harmony can there be between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pen or stylists and spindles? …What philosopher, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children…? … What woman could endure…babies?” (Héloïse. Héloïse

I wish my older self could ask Sister Laurie: “What on earth possessed you?” 

I understand and don’t understand. And that matters to me. Life tells me there is every kind of nun; every kind of reason; every kind of story (are there really just seven?). 

And … what invokes that serenity without smugness?  Everyday is the same, but all the moments are different. says Sister Remedios of Santa Paula in Seville.

Nuns’ days and moments seem to be numbered. They are rare birds with a plain plumage (whether caged or tamed or free). 

So I need to take care of my nun. (And my poor hero, who is at risk of losing the plot.) This morning I heard a writer say that it is a great gift to be able to play God with your characters. 

If we weren’t in lockdown, I might go to a retreat to think about that. A tree, being still, birds come to it. 

Note: either this post has nothing at all to do with being bewitched by nuns: the hero of my story does not need to understand the nun. Nor do I, really. Perhaps her chapter is fine as it is. 

(In which case I have nothing to confess. It’s about as pointless as my childhood confessions about hiding my cabbage under my mash, as well as hitting my brothers. The priest would advise me to repent with one Our Father, ten Hail Marys and one Glory Be.)

Or it has everything to do with being bewitched by nuns. Because after this lockdown, this emptiness of time and space, this introspection and procrastination, I think I still stand by the vow I took as a child:

I will never ever become a nun.

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