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OPINION - Life as a nun

Sister Jessica explains how she was called to be a nun, and what life is like at Mucknell Abbey.

Read time: 8 minutes and 28 seconds

“So, what do you do?”: it’s a common question, particularly when meeting new people. My reply, though, is often unexpected: “I’m a nun.” At this point, the conversation usually goes in one of two ways: either the questioner will say something like, “oh, that’s nice”, and then move quickly on to some other topic, or they will have many, many questions.

...many people will have seen nuns on screen (Derry Girls, Call the Midwife, Sister Act, Sound of Music)

These questions are entirely understandable. Being a nun is not that common, and although many people will have seen nuns on screen (Derry Girls, Call the Midwife, Sister Act, Sound of Music), very few have met one – or more – in real life. Most of what people want to know boils down to two questions: what’s it like, being a nun?, and how did you become a nun?

In terms of becoming a nun, it happens both slowly and all at once. I ‘officially’ became a nun in August 2018, when I was ‘clothed’. This means that I started to wear a habit, and went from being ‘Jessica’ to being ‘Sister Jessica nOSB’. The OSB stands for ‘Order of St. Benedict’, and the little ‘n’ means that I was a novice, one who is beginning to learn what the monastic life is, and gaining practical experience of living it. That’s the ‘all at once’. This was not the end of the becoming, though, and the story of getting to that point, though, had started many years before: the ‘slowly’.

I grew up, from the age of 8 or so, in a Baptist/Free Church. The only nuns I had seen were on TV and I would never have expected to become one. What I did learn, though, at this church was the idea that living a Christian life means that you will live differently to non-Christians. Having a living faith affects all parts of life: how you deal with your money, what media you do (or don’t) choose to consume, how you treat people, how you do (or don’t) go about romantic relationships. I was baptised when I was about 13, and from then on, have sought to follow what I believed to be God’s will for my life.

Having a living faith affects all parts of life

As a teenager and student, a lot of this was about doing the right things: praying, going to Church, reading my bible, trying to live in a way that reflected Jesus’ life as seen in the Gospels. After I finished my degree (French and German), I trained to be a primary school teacher, and spent ten years in that job, loving (almost) every minute. I spent nine years working at a Church of England primary school in outer London, and greatly enjoyed being in an environment where God was, so to speak, part of the furniture.

During this time, I had started attending my local Anglican church, and I was in church one evening when I had a sense of God tapping on my shoulder and saying, “I want you for something.” This sounded very exciting, even though there was no sense of any specifics, but as I thought and prayed about it, I realised that I wasn’t ready to give up the teaching job I so loved. So the answer was, “no – at least for now.”

Fortunately, God is patient...

Fortunately, God is patient, and a few years later, when that tapping resumed, I was a bit more ready to listen, and to act. I spoke to my parish priest, who referred me on to a local vocations advisor, and from there to the very grand-sounding Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO). She primarily worked with people who were considering becoming deacons or priests – i.e., being ordained. I think both of us had a sense that this wasn’t quite right for me, and after several conversations, she suggested that I might want to look at Religious Life.

(An aside: Religious Life is kind of a catch-all term for monks, nuns, friars, sisters, etc. It doesn’t mean that no-one else’s life is religious; it’s just a term used within the church. We also talk about ‘monastic life’, but this strictly speaking means contemplative communities, and so wouldn’t include someone like Sr. Michael from Derry Girls, or the community portrayed in Call the Midwife, as they work outside their convents).

Having heard this suggestion, I did some research about Anglican communities, and made arrangements to visit a couple of contemplative communities that looked as if they might be a good fit. I had already spent time on retreat at a convent local to where I was living, so I had some idea of what to expect: services in chapel throughout the day, silent meals.

Continued below...

Christianity OPINION - Life as a nun

One of the communities that I visited was Mucknell Abbey, just outside of Worcester. They’re a Benedictine community, which means that they take as the inspiration for their life the Rule of Benedict, written as a guide to monastic life in the 6th Century AD. Obviously a lot has changed since then, hence “take as the inspiration” rather than “follow to the letter”.

The first time I visited Mucknell, I was bewildered. I had never really spent any time in the West Midlands, and I couldn’t really place myself on my mental map of the country. I had a chance to meet the community, and spend some time working and worshipping with them. Despite the sense of disorientation, I liked what I had seen and so booked to stay again as a guest for a week in August – not exactly a traditional summer holiday!

I could almost hear my heart singing. It felt like I was coming home...

This second visit, though, was a revelation. As I walked from the bus stop up to the monastery, I could almost hear my heart singing. It felt like I was coming home, and when I left at the end of the week, it was with a promise to return, soon. There was still my teaching job, though, and my little flat, and also family and friends to talk to. The following January, I sent off my application form to Mucknell Abbey, and having received the ‘yes’, made arrangements to move there in August.

The months that followed, between January and August, were a slow process of saying goodbyes, giving up various roles and responsibilities, and packing. It wasn’t always easy, but even through the hard parts, it felt like the right time to be making this move. And so I arrived at Mucknell Abbey in August 2017, to begin a year living alongside the community; this was time to settle in and to experience something of the life first hand before making any kind of commitment. There was a lot to learn, and a lot of new routines to get used to. I also had to begin to make the transition from living alone to being part of a community. After about 10 months, I asked to be clothed as a novice, as mentioned above.

As Benedictines, we make three [vows]: stability, conversion of life, and obedience.

I remained as a novice for a little over three years, and in December 2021, I made my First Vows, a definite commitment and promise to spend the next three years at Mucknell, living, praying and working as part of the community. Our vows give shape to our lives. As Benedictines, we make three: stability, conversion of life, and obedience.

In vowing stability, we promise to stay put, in this place, with these people. Some folk view being a nun or a monk as running away: I’d say it’s almost the exact opposite. We promise to stay put, through thick or thin.

This is not, though, about being in stasis. Our second vow, conversion of life, means being open to change. Open to God and how our relationship with God will change over time and as it changes, will also change us. Open to others, and to the challenges and joys they can bring. Open to ways the community will change, as new people come and go.

And the final vow, obedience, is about so much more than doing as we’re told. The word obedience comes from the Latin ‘audire’, which means ‘to listen’. Obedience then is about listening to God, listening to others, listening to our environment, and acting in ways that seek to honour all these.

We also pray, quite a lot – we have seven services a day, almost every day

Towards the end of those three years, I will have to decide whether to leave the monastery, extend the duration of my First Vows, or apply for Life Vows. If the latter, I will make the same vows as detailed above, but this time with no time limit: it will be my intention that this life carry me into eternity.

Much about the Religious Life can seem odd or unusual, but life in the monastery is often very ordinary: we cook, we clean, we do laundry, we grow vegetables, we read, we study, we spend time together, we spend time alone. We also pray, quite a lot – we have seven services a day, almost every day, as well as personal prayer time. It is through all of these activities that we seek to draw closer to God, growing in love of God and of one another – and all who come to our door. Our life is not about extraordinary heroics, but rather about doing ordinary things with a love and attention that seeks to live into the love that God has shown to us. One of my favourite quotations about this comes from the Dutch writer and priest Henri Nouwen:

“A prayerful life is not a life in which we say many prayers, but a life in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is done, said, or understood independently of [God] who is the origin and purpose of our existence.”