Young Nuns Go For Life With The Vow Factor
By Riazat Butt / guardian.co.uk –
Clare Ainsworth, 24, was at her cousin’s wedding in August. She had joined a convent in Norfolk the year before and this was the first time she had seen her wider family since leaving her home in Lancashire. “They were pleased I had made the decision but they were a bit disappointed. They said I had so much going for me… that there might be a nice lad waiting around the corner and didn’t I want kids?”
Clare is not alone in choosing poverty, chastity and obedience over careers, relationships and motherhood. She is one of a small but growing number of young women entering religious life. The trend is the subject of a BBC documentary, Young Nuns.
Producer Vicky Mitchell spent six months filming women such as Clara, 24, as they prepared to become nuns. A language and philosophy graduate, Clara, from the north-east of England, was raised a Catholic. “We’ve always taken our faith seriously. It’s not just one aspect of our life, it frames our whole worldview,” she says. “I’ve always been encouraged to foster my relationship with God.” She was 18 and about to leave home for university when she began thinking about her future. “I was thinking about marriage and what God wanted me to do with my life. I got a niggling feeling that maybe God wanted me to be a nun. That feeling never left me.” In the programme, Clara is seen graduating, socialising, praying and shopping for long-sleeved, blue nightdresses and slippers that won’t squeak in the convent’s corridors.
She visited the cloistered community, staying there a few times as a way of helping her to decide if she was ready to become a nun. There are an increasing number of ways young people can dip their toes into religious life, such as discernment weekends, taster courses and retreats. A festival, Invocation, was launched last year to attract 16- to 35-year-old men and women into monasteries, orders and seminaries. And Youth 2000, a five-day retreat for Catholics aged 16 to 30, was held at Walsingham last year, with around 1,000 attendees.
The Catholic church’s National Office for Vocations (NOV) says the age range of people showing an interest in entering the priesthood or becoming part of a religious community is getting younger. They are now 16-18, but 10 years ago they would have been 30 or 40. NOV’s Sister Cathy Jones has witnessed this change: “There seems to be a momentum but it’s quite difficult to get to the bottom of what’s motivating it. There are lots of young women inquiring. At Invocation they were as young as 16, going independently, saying they thought God was calling them. Of the 40 young women, 20 were very young.”
Before she researched Young Nuns, Mitchell assumed that the current generation of women would be looking for a more “relaxed” and “modern” style of religious life. “What was surprising was that most were actively seeking something much more traditional. They wanted a lifestyle radically and distinctively different to everyday life.” But, she adds, they didn’t meet the pious stereotype. The women had friends, strong family bonds and active social lives. They dated and had career prospects. “What surprised me was how much like me they were.”
Sister Jacinta Pollard, 37, who joined St Joseph’s Convent in Leeds nine years ago, also features in the programme. She understands why people struggle with the idea of a young woman entering religious life: “It seemed so radical and so different to what a lot of my peers were doing and all those who I’d gone to college with.”
Ainsworth doesn’t appear in the documentary. She claims to be shy, although when we speak, she cannot stop talking effusively about life in a convent. She works as a teaching assistant at Sacred Heart boarding school in Swaffham, Norfolk, founded by the Daughters of Divine Charity, an apostolic order that performs social work in the wider community. Although Clare leaves the convent to fulfil her duties, she has taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
“I wanted to help people,” she says. “People ask why I don’t become a teacher or a nurse instead but I feel God has called on me to do it this way.”
Ainsworth has not led a sheltered life. She is not running away from anything. But she has had a mixed experience of religion and faith, experiencing “dark times” as a teenager. An only child, she was raised a Catholic but was never passionate about it until high school: “A lot of people frowned on me for practising my faith, they labelled me but that made me cling on to it more. When everything falls apart you realise what’s important to you, I know God helped me through the difficult times.”
She didn’t discuss entering religious life with her dad, she says, but “he must have had an idea. I was always asking him to take me to convents or talking about sisters.” From the age of 16 she embarked on a spiritual journey as well as a literal one, volunteering with apostolic orders from Kenya to Kendal, and joining retreats offering time for reflection and prayer to help her decide whether she was suited to religious life. She has been to Lourdes five times, four of them as a helper.
She was scared of telling her dad about her decision to join the convent – and she felt guilty that there would be no grandchildren. She was so worried about speaking to him that she wrote a letter. “He was amazing. He rang me up, in tears. He wasn’t shocked at all.
“You grow up thinking that you’ll get married and have kids. To think anything other than that is hard to get used to. You do wonder what your children will look like, you do long for someone to love and for someone to love you. But another person could never fulfil what I long for. Only God can. I owe him everything.”
The youngest sister in the convent, apart from her, is 33, the next is 42. In all the other convents she visited, they were mostly in their 50s. “I did find it hard; there weren’t that many young women to talk to,” she says. “It can be quite isolating. The convent hadn’t had an English-born candidate for 40 years. It was quite a rocky start. There was learning from both parties about what young people need today. Now I’m here as a young person I want to attract other young people. Young people bring life and energy.”
Young Nuns is on BBC1, 25 October at 10.35pm.