TV review: Young Nuns

Choosing the life of a nun is not easy, finds Gary Day, but their days are filled with silence and contentment

November 3, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

It's not true that girls just want to have fun. Some of them want to become nuns. Clara and Catherine, for a start (Young Nuns, BBC One, Tuesday 25 October, 10.35pm). And it's not merely because there are so few jobs for university graduates. Both young women felt that there was an emptiness at the heart of modern life. Clara was puzzled by the way she felt. "It's strange I feel unfulfilled," she said. "I have a wonderful family, I've had loads of opportunities and a great education, but I know there's something more." Catherine, who was more of a material girl than Clara, agreed. Travel, partying, boys. They were all right in their way, but they left her feeling rather flat. As did a brief modelling career. "I didn't find it fulfilling," she sighed.

Clara was busy applying make-up before a meal out with friends. "I just slap it on to cover up the worst bits," she grinned. There were horrified screams in the restaurant as the party learned the fate of Clara's auburn curls. "They cut all of it off?" echoed one girl. "Will we be able to come and see you?" asked another. "Once a year," replied Clara, "and we have to speak through an iron grille." "She's hilarious," said a friend. "She's one of the nicest people I know. I don't want to lose her." Neither did her mum. But "if God has called her", she said, "I must support her."

Catherine had wanted to be a nun since she was four years old. But did she have the temperament? "I'm a girlie girl," she giggled. "I love girlie things." Rain wiggled down the train windows as it rocked towards Hampshire. Catherine was on her way to meet the Dominican Sisters of Saint Joseph. The convent was a place of bells, white walls and gardens. The nuns were playing badminton. A blue tit nibbled on a nut. Did Catherine truly desire to be where springs never fail, where storms never come? She still hankered after marriage and children. One of her sisters, Laura, did not exactly enhance her chances by observing that any husband of Catherine's "would have a lot to put up with".

Sister Jacinta belongs to the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. She was an occupational therapist before becoming a nun. The day she finally gave herself to Christ "was like a wedding. My heart has been captured by the most perfect man." She and two other nuns jump into an old Ford with a sticker on the back saying "Jesus, I trust in you". That will cheer Him up if he is ever stuck behind them in traffic. The nuns are headed for a homeless centre. Sister Jacinta explains their philosophy. You cannot have a rich lifestyle when you are serving the poor. A man with a halo of hair thanks the sisters. He comes from far to see them. They make his heart "glow".

The sisters then head off to a local primary school to sing a song about their vestments, Veil, habit, cincture, sandals. Somehow they manage to fit in "rosary" too. The children are wide-eyed. Do they have any questions? They most certainly do. "Do you have to give up your computer and mobile phone and stuff to be a nun?" Afterwards they discuss what they have learned. "How can you live without make-up!" exclaims one girl. "But they look so cheerful," says another. "Yeah, happy," pipes up a third.

Clara was out shopping with her mother. She needed a blue long-sleeved nightie. "Where am I going to get that?" she said. "Nuns R Us?" suggested mum. There was a shot of dad back home mowing the lawn, with the wind trying to rip the clothes off the line. When the day came for Clara to go, she hid in her bedroom, sobbing. "Hurry up," said mum, "we've got to go." She could have added, "God's waiting", but didn't. Clara's destination, St Cecilia's Abbey, is on the Isle of Wight. It is a largely silent order, with seven hours a day devoted to prayer. Each day they receive enquiries from women for whom the world is not enough.

In the end, Clara found only brief solace in her convent's narrow room. Within a few months, she was back home. Catherine was still umming and ahhing. She was advised to wait a year to see if she really did want a cloistered life. She was disappointed but thought it was God's way of teaching her patience. The nuns had something she wanted, the peace that comes from a sense of purpose. That was worth waiting for. You can question their beliefs, but the nuns radiated goodness and contentment. Jules Renard said that although paradise does not exist, "we must nonetheless strive to be worthy of it". An attitude that alchemises fun into joy.

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