After the Christmas break, Bishop John Sherrington invited me along to a talk he was to give at the Carmelite Monastery in Ware, Hertfordshire. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘A nice train journey out into the depths of the diocese, record a talk, take a few photos, job done.’
On arrival I was not, therefore, prepared for the Mother Superior to tell me she would send down the sisters she thought would be good to interview after the Bishop had given his talk – which I was not allowed to attend. Cue major panic over lack total ignorance about the Carmelite order and the fact that I would be returning to the office empty handed – as far the speech was concerned.
Not for the first time, a couple of the other interns came to my rescue with insightful questions and information about the enclosed order. I needn’t have worried though as Sisters Zoe and Mary who came in to be interviewed were absolutely lovely – young, funny, image conscious and with inspiring stories of how they came to be a part of the Carmel community.
One of the ‘settings for learning of hope’ talked of by the Bishop was prayer, something the Carmel sisters are extremely practiced in. As an enclosed and contemplative order, an ‘outsider’ could be excused for thinking the Carmel way of life as lonely; Sister Mary was quick to dispel this image she said that she rarely got time to be completely alone.
Both Sister Mary and Zoe acknowledged that there is a general perception about nuns in enclosed orders having shunned the ‘real world’ and chosen to deliberately live in ignorance of many of life’s great complexities, and opportunities. This is a view the sisters reject however, as they believe that they need the peace and quiet of the monastery to be able to fully focus on reflecting on God’s will and to be able to pray effectively. “Some people don’t need this environment to be able to live extraordinarily prayerful lives,” say Srs. Zoe and Mary, “...but we feel we need to be here to be able to concentrate and focus on our vocation.”
One of the ‘settings for learning of hope’ talked of by the Bishop was prayer, something the Carmel sisters are extremely practiced in. Speaking with two sisters after Bishop John’s talk, they said that it is not always easy to give your time so fully to God. During busy periods, they said, it can be easy to become resentful of having to take time to pray but ultimately they believe in the value of their continuous reflection on God’s will and praying for its fruition, for the Church and the world.
The Carmel’s live ‘in solitude in community’, meaning that they do not often leave the grounds of the monastery and must learn to get along with the other 14 women with whom they spend practically all their time. Sister Mary admits, “This can be a challenge,” but the wide variety of ages, ranging from 36 to 85, and backgrounds of the sisters contributes to a rich and welcoming community. All the sisters take turns at doing the necessary household jobs, and are reluctant to say which they enjoy the most as they recognise the value of each job in helping the community as a whole.
Sisters Zoe and Mary confirm that often people do not choose their vocation – rather it chooses them. When asked ‘Why choose Carmel’, both sisters say that providence played a key part in their discernment to join this particular order. Every time they tried to hide from it or find another explanation, they were drawn back to this order and knew it had to be more than sheer coincidence. For this reason, they would not be inclined to give general advice to young women considering the religious life as it is such a profoundly personal journey.
Their traditional habits and enclosed lifestyle belie the reality of techno-savvy, independent, women who show a level of commitment to their chosen lifestyle that few people will ever experience.