Nuns and My Novel

I met Sister Mary Tey for lunch two days ago. She is a nun of the Canossian order and was classmates with my aunt and Godmother, Evelyne.

When I was baptised, my Godmother was sitting for university exams and so, Sister Mary stood in for her.

I’ve always been pleased that a nun held me at my baptism ceremony. I loved so many of the nuns who were teachers at the two Convent  schools I attended and I’ve always been curious and intrigued by the lives of religious.

Even as an atheist, I am drawn to the idea of an ordered life, a life of discipline and duty. I enjoy reading fiction that allows me a glimpse of such lives (for example, Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede), and I suppose it’s the same reason I like books about boarding schools and ballet and any kind of study that involves close, focused attention, and great obedience and devotion.

Sometimes I think I would do very well as a nun, but even when I was a practising Roman Catholic, I knew I did not have a vocation. Also, while I could possibly embrace a life of chastity and poverty, I don’t think I could ever be obedient.

In the novel I am working on, Judith, the protagonist considers the possibility of entering a convent. She is intrigued by the mysteries of the sisterhood:

The door that separated the nuns’ quarters from the rest of the school may as well have been a portal into a different world. Perhaps it led to Heaven. Perhaps the nuns were angels. Judith understood, yet did not understand the sisters’ role in the church. She took for granted that they were an aspect of her religion, but she didn’t think of them beyond Cathechism class and handing out pictures of the Holy Family. Once, while still in primary school, she tripped and fell when running to class and the Reverend Mother Esther stopped to help her up.

‘If you are in a hurry it means you are late. Do not be late,’ said the headmistress of the secondary school. She smiled, but Judith was almost paralysed with fear and awe. The Virgin Mary might as well have stepped out of one of those gilded pictures and spoken to her. She remembered then that her father admired the Reverend Mother’s looks and believed that she must have become a nun as a result of a failed romance.

Many people, even Roman Catholics who should have known better, did not understand vocation, and regarded nuns as failed women: They were nuns because they were not good enough for anything else. Later, Judith felt an almost perverse desire to become a nun so she could say that she was a nun because she was too good for everything else.


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