Free Range Plain Clothes Nun

Guest blog by Elspeth R.

On my university halls door, I added to the general random scribbles with a startling statement: that here resided the free range plain clothes nun!

It was a surprising description for an evangelical nonconformist whose ilk was very much about going into the world and gathering with others to meet with God – perhaps quite noisily. Our only silence was between petitioners at prayer meetings; our nearest to quiet reflection was the personal prayer and Bible study we were exhorted to have each day. We disapproved of those who had taken the unbiblical step of withdrawing from the world and found their strange garb – which I now encountered personally for the first time – an anathema. I knew of free range from chicken descriptions, and I’d heard of plain clothes police patrolling shopping centres. But why nun? And why at 19 had I identified something hitherto unknown to me which I have remembered 30 years later?

Because the description was apt and prescient. As I suspect it is for others in Lauri’s circle – hence I’ve been invited to share this.

I’d quickly discovered that the life of an arts student was cloistered. We spent much of our day in solo self guided study with few points of our week in organised teaching. We lived in quadrangles of little rooms with communal areas, like monks and nuns. But I was surrounded by booming basslines and drunken squeals that went on past tierce, and those who did not keep to the early rising and regular habits of my moniker.

For the first time, I had a room of my own and the opportunity to plan much of my day. I took meals when and if they suited me – I was not summoned to a dining table or expected to do chores at a particular time. I was not forced into a pattern, even when I had a timetable. I was not watched over or necessarily missed, except by friends, and more distantly now, family.

I can see that I did fall into a pattern – partly about not having one – but the way I lived then has recurred. Unlike an unemployed friend, I didn’t trace the patterns of my carpet in boredom – I like filling my own day without outside demands. I did not like the jobs where I was told where to be, and even when to pee and have tea. I didn’t like the stipulations that my essay must be in Now (although I’m proud of keeping deadlines) and that book must be read by…thus taking the pleasure out of my reading. Worse still was when I couldn’t read a book which I wanted to because it wasn’t on the syllabus and my academic workload was such that I didn’t have time to deviate.

As I started to forge my adult self, away from home and the school church life I had hitherto known, I felt a sensation which has oft been part of my life: loneliness. My friends were less organised so whereas I made time for relaxation, especially keeping Sundays as a day of rest, they were scrabbling over seminar preparation, or rushing to see their long distance boyfriends. Thus they couldn’t come out for a drink, they claimed, or barely even study with me. I lived feet away from others, hundreds and thousands of people all working towards a common goal – our degree; and yet I often felt disconnected… a nun without a nunnery.

For my church also changed each year, and I scrunched to fit into the Christian Union on campus too.

There are many times of my life where I could describe it thus, and I’m feeling sad as I didn’t realise this as I sat down to write. Perhaps it’s no wonder that I saw affinity in Karen Armstrong’s Spiral Staircase, even during a time of non-nun life. She came to embrace her space, not as a nun – she tells us how she left that life in her first autobiography – but in her writing researching years after. She was also single for many of those years; and although she’s now well known (unlike me yet, and perhaps, you too?) it seems that having her output and gifts acknowledged by the world hasn’t really narrowed all that space.

It was a future I feared and couldn’t imagine myself reconciling to. The law of attraction proponents would say that I attracted to myself more of that which I didn’t want; the ‘realists’ would tell me to make peace with a Karen Armstrong life, or go and get a day job.

I reject both tenets and believe that there are other options, but I do feel more at peace with my life of studying, writing, creating, thinking. I feel that peace because through Lauri, I have met others who do this too.

As one who hates institutions (chain churches especially) and rules, and being deprived of important things (such as the cinema), who needs travel and variety, I cannot see how I will ever be an actual nun. I also know that loneliness and abuse and pettiness occur in those walls. But I was intrigued by a medieval Low Counties phenomenon which came to my city of Norwich. In a much photographed street (you may have seen Clare Danes run to the Slaughtered Prince in Stardust) is a three storey thatched building of c1500. Known today as the Briton’s Arms, its dragon beams allegedly once contained a community of this unusual type of nuns from Flanders. In French they’re beguines, in Dutch, begijns. Their homes are found in Leuven, Brussels and Amsterdam, but perhaps nowhere else in Britain. These were the free range plain clothes nuns of my undergraduate days: they didn’t take permanent vows and remained free to leave or marry. They didn’t wear a uniform.

Beguines seemed a wonderful way to remain an independent woman at a time where your choices were limited and your automony curtailed. I’d like to think that these were communities of companionship and deepening spirituality as well as service.

I was intrigued enough by these begijns/beguines to put one centrally in my first novel, Parallel Spirals, and gave her an imagined friendship with the other chief choice for a single woman: a courtesan. I decided that they may not be as diametrically opposed as they may seem: “‘Are all courtesans as soulless as nuns are passionless?'”

I found in York a group of Catholic women who are as close to living plain clothes free range nuns as I’ve yet discovered. Hiding behind a Georgian secular facade just beyond a city gate, I received a baked potato and a not entirely voluntary tour. By the latter, I mean that I was whisked up the stairs by Sister Agatha Leach, who was clearly not used to visitors saying no…although I kind of did! As she was about to launch into her spiel, I felt God say, “I’m going to bless you through this woman”. And he did. But then she offered to show me their infamous relic…and I felt it was time to leave.

Nun (or indeed monk) hood is not easy, especially when you’re existing outside of the chain and in a time where the monastic life is less prevalent. A modern contemplative can not feel valued or understood. But I think we’re needed – and we don’t need to take on vow which are really about institutional power rather than holiness and commitment to God.

At this time, I’m thinking about another kind of Norwich contemplative – Julian, whose special anniversary is coming up (I’m going to do a service on her on Sun May 7th, 8pm BST – you’re all invited – email me if you’d like to come live). I’m seeing her as the antithesis of my fictional beguine, or even those lively ladies of York. Julian’s vows were permanent and shocking, and utterly unnecessary.

I think that like those beguines, we can also be free to choose a different life; we’re not debarred from partners or families, or the things that give us joy. We don’t need to change our name. But I am seeing this as a calling and a service, and one that still is open for love of all kinds and fellowship and fun; and I know that I am not alone in having that calling, and I know others who find it valuable.

I do wonder if there is a nun or monk wound to heal too – and I am going to offer a special prayer for that; but that our healing can be in our acceptance and in finding and encouraging one another.

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