A google image search of ‘nun’ reveals a plethora of results: some humorous, some sordid and some artistic. After all, the ‘veiled’ has a tendency to appeal to the imagination. A veiled remark can cause consternation and when an identity is unveiled its suggestive power is lost. Ireland may not experience the image of a nun as pervasively as it once did but she remains a solid presence in the consciousness of the population. Maeve Binchy who was educated at the Convent of the Holy Child in Killarney realised that “nuns are great box office material” and added that “people are very entertained by nuns’ stories and we all make them much more horrific than they were”. The inclination is to view nuns as characters in costume rather than women in a lifelong habit.
I bear this in mind as I climb the steps into a grand Georgian Convent House where I am to meet Sister Bernadette who entered the sisterhood 48 years ago, at the tender age of 18.
She exudes an extraordinary dignity and is not dressed in a veil, or any form of religious garment. She welcomes me with unconditional warmth and I sense only the smallest trace of guardedness. I am surprised by the surroundings of the convent house. There are no dark corners and no hard wooden benches. All is bright, colourful, cosy. She leads me downstairs to a beautiful basement sitting room where she has prepared a tray of tea and muffins. I sit down and we talk. Not as a prying journalist to a religious instructor but as a young woman to an older and wiser one.
Sister Bernadette had known from the age of 13 that she wanted to become a nun. But what effect did this decision have on her family- especially her brother and two sisters? “I suppose they would have missed me a bit”, she considers modestly. There were four or five from her class who took the same route. “It was an option”, she says simply.
It is an extraordinary decision to make at 18 and one that puts today’s drama of filling out the CAO form into perspective. She agrees that the present-day 18 year-old is far ‘younger’ than it was in generations past. Nevertheless she muses, “It is a time of searching”. Hers was a life-changing decision. Was she not scared? When she made her final vow: yes, a little bit.
Having trained as a primary school teacher, she spent many years teaching at the school attached to the convent. She would encourage all incoming sisters to pursue some form of study or training before entering an order. Her approach is both practical and honest and she doesn’t shroud her life in a religious mystique. I ask her if she would encourage a young woman today to become a nun. She pauses. “It’s a question we ask ourselves constantly”.
The honesty of the response hits hard. I consider the religious outlook of my contemporaries. Would there be any candidates for the religious life? Of the young people I associate with, some are born-again Christians that believe the world was created in seven days somewhere around 6000 years ago. Others are atheists, ardent in their non- belief. Most are just not sure. In our media-driven, western world, we have the opportunity to challenge the meta-narratives in which the generations before us were steeped. At least, we like to think so.
The conversation moves to the place of religion in global politics. I mention Tony Blair’s recent conversion to Roman Catholicism and the constant reference to God in the rhetoric of the candidates in the American election. Is it dangerous for the world’s leaders to bring God into politics? “It’s hard to know”, she says. “On one hand, it is good that they stand up for what they believe”. She points out that Americans have a much more public outlook to faith: “In Ireland, faith is a more private matter”.
However ‘private’ faith may be, the convent setting surely organises its routine around it. So what does the daily life of a nun entail? Sister Maura, a Belfast-based nun with whom I speak on the phone explains that “it varies from convent to convent”. She rises at around 6.30 and engages in “some light exercise before meditating for an hour”. The sisters then pray and have breakfast together. She is a trained teacher and counsellor and spends two days a week working with the community. There is regular communication with their sisters in England and America and at the end of each month regional assemblies are held where themes such as communication and leadership are discussed. She and others are interested in broadening the idea of ‘vocation’ to include the secular professions.
I ask her whether her order has any new incumbents. “There is a young woman about to join us”, she tells me. What must she do to become a nun?
First she must pursue a period of candidacy that can last anything from 9 months to 2 years. Interestingly, she must also pass a medical and psychological assessment.
As a ‘novitiate’ she spends two years living in a convent after which she makes her first professions. The final profession usually takes place a year or two after the first profession. She stresses that the woman may pursue training for other qualifications during this time.
The idea of experiencing life beyond the convent walls was fuelled by Vatican II, Sister Bernadette tells me. With greater emphasis on free- thinking in the Roman Catholic Church, a spirit of independence among its followers was incited. Herself far from single-minded, Sister Bernadette has certainly not been shielded from the world. She speaks of her experience as a missionary in Georgia after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. There she had to cope with a language barrier and the reality that there already existed the well-established Orthodox religion. She cites the appeal of music in establishing congregations. “The organ was one of the biggest appeals to new members”. For her, there are no limits to the art forms that should be executed in the expression of faith- so long as rituals are maintained.
After an hour’s chat and still comfortable in my squishy armchair in the convent house, I finish my tea and thank Sister Bernadette for her time. As I am leaving, she offers me an impromptu tour of the building. In the room next to the magnificent drawing room is a chapel. She opens the door tentatively. We poke our heads inside, only to retract them quickly as we find a nun sitting there in contemplative silence. walk home in the crisp autumnal air and look back at the convent house with a new, unveiled reverence.