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sábado, 9 de maio de 2009

Inside Britain's first mixed convent

The number of women called to become nuns in Britain has shrunk to just a handful. Yet in Essex, the country’s youngest religious order is preparing to welcome new sisters – and perhaps even the odd brother – as the country’s first mixed convent takes shape

It’s a busy Friday evening in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, and at the Costa Coffee shop in Arrivals, air stewardess Katie Colbran, 32, is recounting the events of her week. Today she was in Milan; yesterday it was Paris; the day before, Amsterdam. Tomorrow she’ll be in Oslo. “It’s an amazing job,” she says. “Sometimes I can hardly believe I’m having such a fabulous time. Constant travel, five-star hotels, great camaraderie with other members of the team… You couldn’t ask for more.”

So it’s strange that Colbran is asking for more – and stranger still when you find out what it is she’s asking for. Because later this year, after she’s paid off her car loan and worked out her notice, she’ll hang up her smart BA suit for the last time. In its place she’ll put on one of the most anachronistic uniforms the world has to offer: the religious habit of a Roman Catholic nun. In her case, it’ll be the powder-blue scapular of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Brentwood, Essex.

From September, she’ll be Sister Katie: instead of the fast-moving, hard-living, sexy, dizzy, international world of air travel, she’ll be surrounded by the peace, tranquillity and well-tended gardens of the community’s House of Prayer. Instead of the Arrivals and Departures boards at Heathrow, her life will be ruled by the ancient rhythm that’s been followed through the centuries by Catholic men and women who have taken up life as a monk or a nun: morning prayer, Mass, the Angelus, Vespers, night prayer. Instead of her mobile phone, she’ll live by the bells of a religious house; instead of eating in a different restaurant in a different European city each night of the week, she’ll be sharing meals around the simple community table with her fellow sisters. And instead of looking ahead to a future that might have included a partner and children, she’ll be choosing a life in which a lover, and babies, can have no part.

In Western Europe in 2009, the life of a Roman Catholic nun seems bizarre – all very well as the subject for, say, the comedy Sister Act (which has just been turned into a West End musical), but nothing to do with anyone’s real life. And what’s equally extraordinary is that the community Colbran is joining is, in these days of dwindling interest in religious worship in general, and in being a nun or monk in particular, almost brand new. Most Catholic orders were founded in the Middle Ages or in the 18th and 19th centuries, by luminaries of the church who went on to sainthood: the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham was set up just five years ago, by the woman who is about to become Colbran’s Mother Superior, Sister Camilla Oberding.

It might seem odd, when there are already hundreds of Roman Catholic religious orders in existence and most of them are crying out for new recruits, to set up a new order rather than help boost the fortunes of an existing one. But when Sister Camilla started searching, a decade or so ago, for the right order to enter as a nun, she found there wasn’t one that provided quite what she was looking for.

“I wanted the poverty of the Franciscans, the zeal of truth of the Dominicans, and the liturgy of the Benedictines,” she says. And she says she felt called to found a congregation whose raison d’être would be to provide others in society with a place where they could take time out of their lives for thought and contemplation: the House of Prayer in Brentwood is run as a retreat centre. Traditionally, orders of nuns have been either “active” or “contemplative” (enclosed); another of Sister Camilla’s ambitions was to set up a community of nuns who would be both “of the world”, and yet rooted in time for silence and prayer.

Sister Camilla – an energetic, fresh-faced 48-year-old – agrees entirely that to become a nun in the first decade of the 21st century is an odd career path. “It’s totally countercultural,” she says. “It’s absolutely not what you’d ever expect, not a decision you can rationalise or understand… unless, that is, you have faith. But precisely because it’s so radical, it’s also prophetic, and as strong a witness as it ever was – even stronger, perhaps, in today’s culture. Because we’re showing that, in the midst of the consumer society, it’s still possible to live totally for God – and while living totally for God, to be entirely happy and fulfilled.”

The inhabitants of the House of Prayer – a large, detached Edwardian residence which, were it not for its numerous statues and cosy chapel, could pass for a rather comfortable guesthouse – certainly look happy and fulfilled. Right now they’re not especially numerous, since two of the original four nuns have since left (one, who later married, has just had her second baby). But currently, as well as Sister Camilla, there’s also Sister Gabriela, and around the time Colbran joins they’re expecting another new member, currently working as a nurse on the south coast.

Lobbying the Vatican

Setting up a religious order in the Catholic Church is a protracted affair that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. The process Sister Camilla and Sister Gabriela have embarked on is almost identical to that followed in the 13th century by St Francis of Assisi when he went to see Pope Innocent III with the men who were to become the first Franciscans, and by St Ignatius Loyola when he went to Rome to seek permission to set up the Jesuits in 1540.

Like Francis and Ignatius, Camilla and Gabriela first had to log their request with Vatican officials in the curia: these officials examined, and then approved, the statutes for the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, and awarded a decree establishing it as an official body of the Catholic Church. It now has permission to take in novices and to require its members to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; in most orders, virginity is not a prerequisite to becoming a nun. But before it can become a fully fledged order, the sisters must show that they can attract new recruits and live a life of obedience to the Catholic Church and to their own rules for several decades.

Sister Camilla is upbeat about the future for her community. Beyond the two women “aspirants” who are about to join, she has eight other young women waiting in the wings: these women visit regularly, and are working out whether life as a nun of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham is for them.

She’s excited, too, about the fact that several men are watching the order’s development keenly, and may take the plunge and ask to join. “It’s not something I anticipated happening so soon,” explains Sister Camilla. “Traditionally, Catholic religious orders are male or female, and convents and monasteries are completely separate. But when men started coming here and asking whether it might be possible for them to join us, I thought: ‘Why not?’”

So it was back to the Vatican again, to ask whether the new congregation could be mixed, and now word has just come through that, yes, Rome has no objections. There are still decisions to be made over exactly what part of the house the monks will occupy, but the die is cast for a community of men and women who will live, work and pray together. “We’ve got one man at the moment who is seriously thinking of joining us as a brother, so it could happen very soon,” says Sister Camilla. “And there are other men who are currently working out their future, and whether they might be being called to be with us.”

The nature of God’s calling

All this talk of new recruits is a rare gleam of sunlight in what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a fairly dark landscape for vocations to Catholic religious orders. Back in the 19th century, as many as 1,000 young women a year were becoming nuns in Britain; even 1982 saw 110 new novices. But since then numbers have declined dramatically: in 2004, the number of new recruits was down to a paltry seven. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, the total number of postulants, or first-stage novices, was 16.

Fewer novices have meant convents and monasteries becoming increasingly geriatric, and this militates further against recruitment. In the past, a young woman joining an order could have looked forward to a future as a nurse, a teacher, a social worker, even a parish worker – today it looks dangerously like a ticket to a life of caring for the elderly.

More opportunities for women in the outside world – combined, some might argue, with the facts that women are still largely disempowered within the Catholic Church, can’t join the priesthood, and have no real voice in the Vatican – are further reasons why the religious life has never been so unfashionable. In years gone by (and still today, in some parts of the world), becoming a nun was, for women of limited means, an escape route out of poverty. Not only that, but it meant the chance to follow an independent career, and have a life that was child-free.

But what could be termed the “liberating” aspects of convent life are now part of history: women don’t need convents to allow them independence, or freedom from men or children.

Sister Camilla, though, won’t be daunted: she’s committed to turning things around, and feels one of her community’s strongest cards is that it’s rooted as firmly as possible in the 21st century. She and Sister Gabriela are perhaps the only nuns in the world whose habit is made of denim. “Our friends call us the Wrangler Sisters,” she says with a grin.

“We’ve also gone for a hood, rather than a veil, which is very unusual for nuns. But we feel it’s an important symbol: when we’re talking to people and communicating and living our day-to-day life, we have our hoods down. But when we want to be alone with God, we put up our hoods – it shows we’re in prayer.” There are other nods to modern life, too: like other working women, Sisters Camilla and Gabriela have a day off (on Mondays), and an annual holiday (they’re just back from a trip to Italy). Sister Camilla keeps the community’s shared mobile phone, is a proficient texter, and runs its website, www.walsinghamcommunity.org, complete with blogs and Facebook links.

But it’s the move towards becoming a mixed-sex community – the first in the UK since the Reformation – that signals the biggest change with past Catholic communities. “I can live without men, but I don’t particularly want to,” says Sister Camilla. “Men bring a different dimension, they add something. And having men alongside us would also be a witness to the fact that men and women are able to live a healthy life chastely, together – in an age that’s obsessed with the sexual relationship between men and women, and forgets there are other dimensions to their relationship.”

And today’s nuns, unlike nuns in the past, are more likely to have had experience of intimate relationships. “I’ve had romantic relationships,” says Katie Colbran. “When I first started visiting the House of Prayer and felt drawn to the life there, I had a boyfriend. But gradually I realised this place was my heart’s desire, rather than this man: I thought, I’ve got too much love inside me for just a family, my vocation is to love everyone.

My best days are when I realise I’ve made a difference to someone – a passenger, a fellow member of the crew – and that’s what I’ll be able to go on doing as a sister, all the time.”

Sister Camilla talks warmly of the man who was her boyfriend at university. “We’re still in touch to this day,” she says. “I did feel very drawn to marriage. But embracing a celibate life is about making yourself available to new people all the time.” Giving up the chance of children, though, was a harder choice. “In your twenties, you don’t really grasp what that’s going to mean. And then in your mid-thirties it can be a lot more painful – but it’s part of the sacrifice, and you have to hold firm to what you are doing and to struggle on through, just as you do in a marriage when the going gets tough. All choices involve sacrifices of one sort or another.”

Sister Camilla grew up in a well-off family in South London and saw the world before becoming a nun at 24: in the House of Prayer there’s a painting of Jerusalem signed “Milly 1984”, a testament to a past life of art and travel. But, like Katie, she wanted something different. For a while she joined a convent in Italy, but then found herself looking again for something more. “I searched for a long time – I was part of a community of young women in London who were looking for a way forward in the religious life,” she says. “It can take a while to work out what your calling is, and it took me a while to work out that what God wanted me to do was help start a new religious order.”

Like most nuns, Sister Camilla and Sister Gabriela are sad about the decline of the religious life. But they believe their formula could be the way forward for some aspirants. One of the things people don’t realise, says Sister Camilla, is how incredibly happy a nun’s life can be. “There’s this stereotypical image of the nun, the image you see in the movies and the media. It’s a woman who’s been let down in love, who doesn’t seem quite real, and there’s a lot of concentration on what’s lacking in her life – men, children – and not so much emphasis on what she’s gaining.

“But the truth is that if young women realised how happy life is as a nun, then communities like ours would be overflowing. There simply wouldn’t be enough convents to fit them all in.”

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