Monastery of the Visitation



Ruth Gledhill

When our writer joined a contemplative order of nuns at their monastery for the day, she found only contentment and happiness.

It’s five o’clock in the morning and I’m a nun. Through the window of my cell I can hear the birds in the Sussex countryside. Unlike them, I take a rule of silence, although this will be broken later in the day. Some of the genuine articles are already outside, praying under the cherry tree. I do my best to pray where I am, surrounded by bare walls and sticks of furniture. It is all surprisingly homely. There is a vase of sweet peas on the table. I nod off.

I am a visitor here. Of course I am. With the best will in the world, it would hardly be possible to perform my function as this paper’s religion correspondent from a position of such seclusion. I have come to the Monastery of the Visitation to live the life of a nun for a day. But this is no ordinary monastery. It is the place where letters between Cardinal John Henry Newman, soon to be beatified by the Pope, and a nun have been revealed after being hidden behind the walls for 150 years. I want to understand more of what it was like to be in the habit of Sister Domenica, enclosed here from the age of 16 until she died prematurely of tuberculosis at 37 — and in regular correspondence with her close friend, Newman, who was deeply upset by her death.

I know nothing of the workings of these women and their institution, although they turn out to be virtually omniscient on me and mine. They had googled me. When I arrive they already know what I get up to in the course of my work, they know the name of my husband and of our eight-year-old son. If they were journalists you could not have faulted them on research.

It is not just a building that I am visiting but also the concept of being cloistered away from the familiar world of family, work, getting and spending. What a radical concept, yet how contented seem to be the women who have embraced it. Even to someone like me, a vicar’s daughter, it seems a choice of exemplary bravery. However, what I find as the day unfolds is an extraordinary community which, for all its discipline, is soft-edged and playful.

As is common in monasteries, the chapel is divided into two, with one half within the wall and the other outside it, open to the public. The Visitation is the only contemplative enclosed order where a retreatant can live as one with the community and join in services from behind the wall.

Some of the nuns have been married and have children outside, like the founder, St Jane Frances de Chantal, who died in 1641. Another branch of the order is resident in the Vatican, with domestic care for the Pope among their other duties. The nuns are preparing to celebrate their 400th anniversary with a big party in the grounds of their Victorian neo-Gothic mansion near Waldron, East Sussex.

Peter Biddlecombe, a regular member of the congregation, has been researching the letters in preparation for this celebration and the beatification of Newman by the Pope in Birmingham in September. When Dominica died, Newman was distraught. “She was young and I am old and she is taken before me. May I follow her and my soul be with hers!” he wrote to Dominica’s father, John William Bowden, who had become one of the priest and poet’s closest friends after they met at Oxford. Newman’s letters to the nun also reveal another side to the life of the saint — the pressures of work and debt. “I didn’t want the Epiphany to run out without writing to you but I thought never should I manage it from the vast things I have had to do. Besides the ordinary work of a priest, I am sacristan and then we have a school of about 70 boys and I have had to examine them and send letters to their parents,” he wrote to Dominica. “We are going to establish an Oratory in Oxford. Give us some good prayers.” But when the prayers didn’t work and he hit problems, he became quite grumpy. “There is a very bad hitch, which it may take a long time to get over and for myself I am really indifferent whether it is removed or not.” He writes about his money problems: “I have had a good deal to do with Christian bills, and have had some controversial letters forced on me. And I am sadly in arrears.”

Sister Mary Joseph told me of the “great sense of belonging” it gave her to read these treasures, along with a signed photograph that Newman sent to Sister Dominica. They show the human side of Newman and his relevance in the modern era.

When the nuns go off to pray in the afternoon, I meditate by walking around the grounds of the mansion, a former seminary built by a wealthy businessman as a home for his family. In the grounds there used to be a cemetery for all the nuns who had died there. A few years ago, when the nuns were thinking of moving, the bodies were moved elsewhere. A Benedictine monk, who supervised the operation, told Biddlecombe that when they opened the coffin of one of the nuns, all the flowers inside were as fresh and as colourful as the day they were placed there. “Do I believe him? I always believe what Benedictine monks tell me,” Biddlecombe says.

The previous evening, as I arrive, I am greeted by the Mother Superior, Sister Jane Margaret. Within minutes of my arrival the monastery webmaster, Sister Mary de Sales, has blogged about me, complete with a picture that she takes when I nod off during the social and knitting hour. For dinner I am given Spanish omlette, possibly the most heavenly omlette ever made, with succulent home-grown cherry tomatoes. I compliment the nun who cooked it. “It’s Delia’s,” she laughs.

The next day we listen to prayers and a tape of Julian of Norwich, the female English mystic of the late Middle Ages: “Through longing for God we are made worthy.” The “Great Silence” descends at 9pm. The birds carry on ignoring it.

The nuns wear a black robe, a girdle, a guimp or white bib, a bandeau, veil and rosary beads. “I can always tell a fake nun because they never dress properly,” says Sister Mary Joseph, the archivist, whom I encounter as she “presides” at the washing-up after breakfast of toast and home-made jam. “It’s uncomfortable at first but you get used to it.” There is also a less formal blue dress with blue veil, the “working habit”.

Like all the nuns, Sister Mary Joseph wears a silver crucifix around her neck. She opens it to reveal relics of St Francis de Sales and other saints. “I often think when I’m going through Customs, I could hide anything in there,” she says, twinkling.

When I acknowledge the sins of my trade, I am told that I have been “a bit controversial”. But they have been reading The Times for centuries and are quick to forgive. They remember all the nice stories I have written about Roman Catholics, which emboldens me to admit to a need to work on the spiritual discipline of obedience. “It means to listen,” says Sister Jane Margaret, “from the Latin obedire.”

Every nun greets everyone else after lauds in the morning: “Good morning, Sister Ruth. May God bless you.”

Mass at 10am is said by a young diocesan priest, Father Tom.

There are only 13 sisters left, several of whom have been married. Sister Mary Gabriel was a doctor and was also married, as was Sister Paul Miriam, 83, who has three daughters. We sit in the library and she tells her story. She was brought up and baptized in the Church of England. Her father died when she was 6, her mother married again ten years later and her stepfather was a Catholic convert.

“”I first knew him when I was 8 and he took me to the Oratory in Birmingham. I never lost the sense of awe and the feeling of presence,” she says, “but it was a long time before I embraced Catholicism.” She converted at 42. She had married in her twenties, to an insurance broker. They were together for 13 years. “Then he found he preferred his secretary. These things happen.” She returned to nursing to support their daughters, then took early retirement: “I felt I’d run out of steam.” Her daughters supported her vocation at the time, “but I found out a couple of years ago that they were quite upset about it”. She prayed for a long time about her sense of vocation, “but when it came it was an imperative. The girls said, ‘Why you?’ I said, ‘Sometimes God chooses unlikely people’.”

She entered the monastery when she was 56: “I knew this community well because I’d been making retreats here for 18 years. I always felt at home here.” After nine months she was “closed” (the first stage to becoming a nun, when she assumed her habit) and after six years “professed” (took her final vows). “Clothing is a big thing, although we no longer wear wedding dresses like they used to. You are constantly seeking the will of God and looking for what He is saying through the voices and opinions of the people around. There are times when you think, what on earth am I doing here?” Sister Paul Miriam believes that it is a “great privilege” to be there. “It is the richness of the life, and that has nothing to do with the richness of the surroundings. The Blessed Sacrament is down the cloister. We have Mass every day. It is the ambience, the opportunity for silence, regardless of what is going on. But we are not divorced from the world. That is what we are here for.”

I see Sister Mary Joseph again in the library, where there are vow books going back to 1804, containing the biographies of nuns, and letters going back to 1803, on beautiful parchment. The nuns continually communicated with each other around the world and their correspondence has all been painstakingly preserved, a valuable and little explored record of 400 years of social and religious history.

Later I have tea in the infirmary with Sister Francis de Sales, 96, a former nurse and social worker. The lift that once took meals from the kitchens now transports her and other elderly nuns in wheelchairs between the floors. She joined when she was 50, after converting from the Church of England at Farm Street Jesuit Church in London. “It struck me that they were very mature women. They had a sense of humour. All I wanted to be was in an enclosed order and to do God’s will. I had no idea what it was all about.” She had converted a decade earlier: “I had some Catholic friends. One of them a long time ago told me that I was stupid to be a Protestant and should be a Catholic. She encouraged me to go to Mass. Then I was smitten by the Lord.” Her mental faculties are undimmed, despite her great age. “I have great admiration for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is really a very good man. It’s a pity he is not a Catholic but you can’t have everything.”

The nuns rarely go out and only one of them drives a car. Tesco.com has been a lifesaver. The driver is the Mother Superior, Sister Jane Margaret, 64, who plays the psaltery (a harp-like instrument) at some services. In what little spare time she has between the five daily services, including lauds, Mass, evening prayer and the daily obedience, she composes music. Before joining the order she taught in a comprehensive school. “Even when I was a youngster I thought of monastic life,” she says. “When I came here I knew immediately that the Visitation was where I was meant to be.” She was 25. “People have this illusion that you come into a monastery and have lots of time. You don’t really. But it is a different kind of time: we are so blessed in our way of life and a beautiful spirituality.”

After 24 hours I leave, feeling as if I have been bathed in flowers, butterflies, sunshine and laughter.