|CFR Sisters who took part in the programme.|
“I know there’s something more...”There was a moment in this documentary at which I was tempted not to watch any further, when the whole programme seemed to have become risible. I had just witnessed a group of four Franciscan sisters driving round Leeds in an H Reg Ford Escort with a “Jesus I trust in you” bumper sticker, and the sight of a further quartet of Dominican nuns playing squash in full habit just made me cringe. Popular culture has already taken the image of a nun in full habit with a beaming grin and ‘indulging’ in a leisure activity as a sign of amusement, hence the proliferation of calendars with nuns on swings, riding bumper cars or indeed playing a set of tennis. In fact, I know sisters who find these images offensive, so demeaning they can be to the life changing seriousness of their vocation.
Thankfully I persevered with what turned out to be a serious and open minded reflection on three different expressions of female consecrated life and the radical step they were taking. Clara and Catherine, both in their mid twenties and university graduates, spoke honestly of the desire in their hearts to follow God’s call to the religious life and of the sacrifices they would have to make in order to do what they believed God desired for them. This was a programme that looked at that decision alone, and although we heard that, for example, the Dominican nuns left the convent during the day for apostolic work, it was not at the heart of the vocation: God was.
It was interesting to compare their journeys and see how similar they were, for even though the charism of their Orders were different, the underlying desire was the same. Both women had found a feeling of belonging and peace when visiting their respective convents and felt affirmed when there. As crazy as it sounded to all their friends and family, for them it just made sense. Just as important was the fact that these were highly capable women who would also quite happily have established careers and begun families. As Sr Jacinta, a solemnly professed Franciscan Sister of the Renewal said when interviewed, those in religious life are not the remnants. The first scenes of Clara surrounded by wine glasses and listening to her friends gasping at how strict convent life would be is one I am sure has occurred for many entering religious life.
Of the two women, Clara’s journey received the most focus, most likely because hers was the most radical step: to enter an enclosed Benedictine Abbey on the Isle of Wight. We saw how her family journeyed with her as she spent her last weeks before entering postulancy purchasing clothes, enjoying time with her family and clearing out her room. Her mother, close to tears more often than not when interviewed, illustrated best how the decision to enter religious life is one taken not just by one person but by all who share their life. She often spoke stoically and with understanding that God’s will be done, though the pain that was causing was not far from the surface.
One scene, in which Clara weeps as she throws away old letters from friends, was the most moving as she mulled over how much she would miss them. Once more, her experience concurred with Catherine’s, who also mulled over the fact that she was – in her own words – a ‘girly girl’, and following what she felt God was asking of her would mean giving up the chance of a relationship. The documentary makers can be praised for highlighting the complexity and untidiness of the decision to enter religious life, and how more often than not there is little certainty involved or revelatory moment of clarity: simply a desire to know and love God more deeply in whatever way He wishes.
It was impossible not to admire their courage not only in undertaking such a radical step but in allowing us the chance to witness the final stages of their discernment. This film was clearly intended to be used as a vocations resource – why else would the production team want to thank Fr. Christopher Jamison so prominently in the credits – yet it didn’t feel like that. Actually the most reassuring thing was that this documentary emphasized the fact these women were testing their vocation. Their final decisions were not as they had expected, but they accepted that at the end of the day they just had to put themselves in God’s hands. If that isn’t a realistic portrayal of discernment, I do not know what is.