Religious Vows III: Obedience

We’re all taught as children about obedience and being obedient to our elders and betters. And what we’re taught is that you do as you are told.

It’s not just about doing what you’re told. The actual meaning is that it’s to do with listening. So we listen to the request made to us, and the person making the request should listen to our response.

It’s also about how you do things. It’s about sticking to decisions made. In my case, one thing it is about is trying not to pull faces when pudding turns out to be stewed fruit, and getting on and eating it without kicking up a fuss. Even though there are a number of things I’d rather do than eat gooseberries!

It’s also about how you deal with a request to take on a job – any job – and how you respond to one that you feel you really can’t do. You don’t ask “why do you think I can do this?” The response is either “yes, I can do that” or “please may I have some time to consider this?” And then, taking the time to consider the task and whether it is feasible, making a list of valid reasons as to why you feel you both can and can’t do it.

For example, when it comes to the placing of Sisters in Branch Houses. The Prioress is the one who makes the decisions, but if a particular Sister feels that she isn’t suited to the work in that particular House, she has to say why not. Practicality is also taken into account. If, for example, a Sister was asked to go to a particular House where the only bedroom available to her would be up a steep, narrow flight of stairs which she would have trouble negotiating, then that would be a valid reason for asking for the decision to be reconsidered.

One great example of Religious Obedience comes from our Foundress, Mother Margaret. It is documented in “The Whitby Sisters” and “Fulfilled in Joy” that when she was a Novice, with the Society of St Peter, Horbury, she was the headmistress of their school, St Hilda’s. However, as the time of her Noviciate came to a close, it was felt she had not spent enough time living with the Sisters (there was at that time only one other Sister on the school staff). For a period of I think about 4 months, Novice Sylvia (as she was known; SSP already having a Sr Margaret meant that Mother Margaret used her middle name there) lived in the Convent with the Sisters and took on the work of SSP at that time, which was prison visiting. It is recorded that one of the pupils at St Hilda’s School said “Novice Syliva’s getting so interested in the penitents she’ll have clean forgotten about us!” or words to that effect. However, for Mother Margaret, the school was her first love, which is why when SSP decided that they would not be able to continue running it (because of the announcement of World War I), she felt moved by the Spirit to leave SSP and found her own community, who would continue running the school. Essentially, St Hilda’s School simply moved from Horbury to Whitby. (Also, for reference, the Society of St Peter at Horbury is now known as the Community of St Peter Horbury.)

My point about this is that Mother Margaret, as Novice Sylvia, rose to the challenge presented to her. There is no record of her grumbling (or mumuring, as St Benedict puts it) about having to leave the school.

I could pull other examples from other OHP Sisters, but those are not my stories to tell. (The above story about Mother Margaret has already been published in “Fulfilled in Joy”, so it’s already in the public domain.)

I think one of my own stories of obedience comes from my Branch House experience. Every novice spends 3 months during her second year in one of the other houses, to learn about the other work that OHP does. I had looked at the houses we are currently running, and knew that my options were out of two houses. The house I would have loved to go to is our pastoral centre/retreat house, St Oswald’s. Where I got sent was the other house, Dormanstown, which is in Redcar, a bit further north up the coast from Whitby and not far from Middlesbrough. I think that actually, in going to Dormanstown I learned a lot more than I would have done if I’d gone to St Oswald’s, as the Sisters there work in two very different parishes.

In the Rule of Life, Poverty and Celibacy are quite clearly defined. Obedience isn’t. We are simply given Jesus as the standard, and that He “learned obedience through the things he suffered. This deeper obedience is hard…”

This is is because it’s hard to define things that involve the heart. It’s easy to say “keep what you need and no more”, but it’s rather less easy to define obedience. It’s a bit like asking someone to define what love is, because it means something different to every different person.

So thus concludes my musings upon the three vows. I have other ideas about things which relate to Religious Life, the hospitality of the monastery and the discipline of the daily office being two of them. They won’t be posted until after Easter, as next week we will be in Retreat or in silence because of it being Holy Week, which also means no internet access.

Religious Vows II: Celibacy

At OHP we vow celibacy. Not that these days it means all that much different from Chastity. I know some people think “that means no sex” and then go on to think “but how?” – but that’s kind of missing the bigger picture.

One Sister has told me of a conversation she had with a small group of youngsters who were trying to get their head around the idea of celibacy. They completely understood the whole “no men” issue, but had to ask directly if the reason behind the “no men” thing was because the Sisters preferred women instead. The answer to that was “no women either”. (Apparently this confused them so much they resorted to asking about football.)

When I was in Redcar on my branch house placement, I had the slightly bewildering experience of being in one of the shops in the town centre, and one of a group of lads, seeing a nun in the shop, decided to be really big and clever and ask me “are you a virgin?” I rather wish I’d thought faster, as instead of ignoring him, I should have answered something along the lines of “why do you wish to know? Are you interested in Religious Life?” or perhaps “no points for originality, please try again with a rather more relevant question”.

Because it’s not about not having sex, or whether you have had sex, or have not had sex, or what your sexual preferences actually are. It’s about right relationships. And that means a right relationship with God, with your family, with your friends, with the others in the community with you and most importantly, with yourself! Which makes the “are you a virgin” question completely irrelevant. And you could also say that a person’s sexuality is about as relevant as what they ate for breakfast that morning, if they’re living the vowed life.

When the Anglican Novices get together on the inter-noviciate study residentials (three times throughout the year, and I think it’s fair to say that we all look forward to them, especially those of us who are “lone” novices) the conversations cover a wide variety of subjects. Depending on who is there, sex may become one of those subjects. There are some people who are happy to talk about their personal experiences (whether that’s a lot of experience or none whatsoever) and there are others for whom it’s not a subject they feel they want to talk about. But whether we talk about it with each other or not, it’s something we will have to think about, and work out what our preferences are and how that relates to us as individuals.

In the case of Religious, we choose not to have the intimate connection with one person. The Rule states about how this frees us to do God’s work, and to be Mother of none in order to be Sister to all. What it actually means is that in some ways, we’ve the freedom that a single person has, and yet at the same time, the responsibilities that someone in a long-term committed relationship has. Paradoxical much?

Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t still find people attractive. Whatever commitment we make to our communities, we are still human, still feeble and frail, still men and women who are subject to hormones same as every other man and woman, still seeking love and attention from those around us, and of course, there will be people out there who find us attractive – in spite of, or in some cases, because of, the habit.

As a random footnote, I was thinking about all the people who say that they’d accept homosexuality if it can be proved to be genetic, rather than a culture thing (nature not nurture). I find that quite an unpleasant thought. After all, no-one seems to object to people having preferences in hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, intelligence, manual ability and other aspects of personality, so why should it apply to sexuality? Also, further to this, celibacy is a valid response for someone to make in regards to their own sexuality, providing that they choose it for themselves and weren’t forced into it. (I’m fairly certain the Roman Catholic Church would have had fewer problems with their priests if they’d been allowed to marry or at least be open with regards to their sexuality.)

So, basically, what I’m saying is, it’s OK to be heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, bisexual, or any of the other flavours of sexuality out there, highly interested in sex or completely disinterested in sex, and still join a religious community. What a vow of celibacy requires is an honesty with yourself about who you are and how you react to the people around you.

Religious Vows I: Poverty

Finally, at the beginning of Lent, I get around to making the first of the three posts about the Religious Vows.

To get one thing clear from the start. Religious Poverty is not the same as poverty such as is witnessed in developing countries, or in the areas of the UK where unemployment is high. It is not about us living without food or shelter or the basic necessities – although we may at times experience this sort of hardship on a temporary basis to help us identify with those who are truly destitute. We cannot live our lives like that, because we would very soon end up being unable to serve God the way we are called, and we would not necessarily be able to identify with those who are genuinely poor either.

Before I could come to OHP, I had to make sure that I had emptied my flat so it could be let, that all the clothing which I could not bring with me was sent to a charity shop (with the exception of 3 dresses and 3 skirts which are at my parents’), that all my books and CDs and DVDs were sent away, that the pieces of junk which I no longer needed, things which I had never used, things which I didn’t even know I’d had any more, were disposed of and recycled and passed on. The hardest thing to give up was my cat. I desperately tried not to cry when in July 2011 I drove her to my friend who was taking her on. I failed. But I’m glad I re-homed her then, and not just before I was about to come, because that would have been harder, and I know she’s happy in her new home and settled.

And I had so much junk. One thing I realised was that I’m really not very good at keeping on top of things. I would open the post, but instead of filing the bank statements and recycling the envelopes, I’d stick the statement back in the envelope and pile it onto an existing pile of stuff. So when it came to trying to sort things out, I really didn’t know where to start. I had help from a friend, who visited my flat several times and told me to not try to properly file things initially, but to do a general sort into four piles – rubbish, recycling, bank & insurance and other serious things, and other assorted bits and pieces such as photographs, stationary, etc. From there, it made life a lot easier. The rubbish went in the bin, the recycling went out, and I could then decide what was necessary to keep and what could be donated or destroyed.

It says in the OHP Rule that “we depend totally upon God, who supplies all our needs.” This part is a bit difficult. I’ve been so used to life being a struggle, to having had to fight and to do everything in my own strength. This part is something which is going to take a lot of work and a lot of trust on my part. I have not just to part with physical things, which on a lot of levels I have done, but I also have to mentally part with a lot of things. I have to remember that I am here not only because of my choice, but because of God’s choice. I suppose yes, I could have chosen to say “no” but that didn’t seem like it was an option. It’s also about remembering that things like computers and mobile phones and so on are just tools to help us do a job. We (meaning the community) own them. They don’t own us.

Poverty is also about receiving what we’re given with the right attitude of heart. Whatever gifts we have, whatever skills we have, are from God. If we don’t use them, He’ll take them away. One really good example of this is my flute playing. When I practice, the sound I make is quite passable. But I’m not very good at getting into the routine of practicing, even though I have the time carved into my day for me, and then when I do play, it shows. I’ve played long enough so I don’t forget the notes, but the things that matter, like timing and tuning and the tone of the sound, are not as good because I’ve not put the time in. It’s the same with any talent that requires skill to keep it at its best.

And it also means that when other people give us things, we have to accept them graciously, even if the item(s) given is something that appears to be rubbish. Expensive gifts have to be reported, in my case to my Novice Guardian. If I were given money over a specific value, I would be required to hand it in unless I had an item I needed to purchase. If I were given an item over that same value I would have to report that as well, and if it was felt that another Sister would benefit from having that item more than I, then I would have to accept that decision and allow the other Sister to have the item. Generally, things aren’t as strict as this any more, but I do know that in the past if a Sister was given (for example) two new vests by her family and the two she had were perfectly wearable, then they would have to be donated to the communal stocks.

Everything is as a result of creation, and creation comes from the Creator. Therefore, we have to look after the things we use, and treat them with respect. And when clothing gets worn, we mend it. One Sister has a patch in the back of a habit, another has what looks like long cuffs on the sleeves of one of her habits from where the fabric has been replaced, another has the same effect with the hem of a habit. Another Sister has a darn on the front of a habit (which she’s had for about 25 years but won’t replace because, in her words “it fits properly”). Yet another Sister has mended and patched her girdle (rope belt) so that it has lasted her for over 60 years.

Of the four habits which are for my use, only two were made specifically for me. One is the habit from my Clothing, and the second is a summer habit. These two habits are worn when I have to be at my smartest – so when in concert or on Sundays. My every day winter habit was made for another Sister, finished in February 2012 and she died 6 months later. It has had to be lengthened, but it has been done in such a way that this habit will probably last me through the next 10 winters at least. My every day summer habit was made for a Sister who died in 2008. It has seen rather a lot more wear, but I’ve let the cuffs down and will have to re-sew the hem as that is now showing signs of fraying unless I do something about before I wear it again.

Part of the vow of Poverty is simplicity. The ideal here is to live careful of resources, and of each other. A Sister could decide to be a vegetarian, but she would then have to stick to it, and not keep swapping and changing. We call nothing our own. Yes, I have my name sewn into my clothing, and if I were to leave, I’d take with me the clothing I brought into community but not the habits or other items supplied by the Order. But that’s a mere technicality. The reason for the names in our clothing is simply so that when we send things to the laundry, we get back not only the clothing which fits us, but is in the styles we like to wear and find comfortable (be it under things or secular clothing). We also grow a lot of our own fruit and vegetables. It’s not enough to supply us throughout the year, but it goes a long way towards right management of the land we have, and cost-effective living.

Our rule also says “As we grow in poverty of spirit, we are able to receive the unsearchable riches of Christ.” I am only just beginning to be able to wrap my head around this. Part of it is that as we detach from worldly things and possessions, we are more free to be with God and to be listening to Him. I think it means that as we have less, we become more humble, and more free to be completely ourselves with God – and more free to allow God to be Himself with us, rather than any pre-conceived idea we may have of Him.

Q&A With Blogger Sister Louisa Ann


I was interviewed for the Social Sisters blog about my use of social media. I was going to use the questions for a whole post of my own, but it seems so much easier to use the tools provided and to re-blog! Many thanks to Amber for her research. Anyone wanting to know more about Religious Life might find Social Sisters another good place to look!

Originally posted on Social Sisters:

If we ignore what technology can do, then I feel that the rest of the world will end up ignoring us.’

FHC blog

Blogger, Sister Louisa Ann, 33 from Yorkshire, is a novice (a stage of becoming a nun). She uses her blog, Faith Hope and Chocolate, to write about her journey to become a sister and teach people about the religious life.

She is part of the Order of the Holy Paraclete and kindly took the time to answer some of the many questions I had for her.

 1. Why did you decide to call your blog Faith, Hope and Chocolate?

 2. What inspired you to start blogging?

The first two questions are kind of linked. Once upon a time, I was a member of an online forum. One of the girls on there who I became friendly with had an account with LiveJournal. Inspired by her, I joined…

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Bono on the difference between Grace and Karma


This explains the gift of Grace perfectly. And it proves too that anyone can talk theology, not just clergy and Religious types.

Originally posted on Resistance & Renewal:

Bono_on_Bono_Cover“It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma…

You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one.  Its clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.  I’m absolutely sure of it.

And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “As you reap, so will you sow” stuff.  Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news…

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Jobcentre Worker: ‘We Are Not There To Help Or Advise’


It’s no wonder the unemployed in the UK are struggling when this is taken into account. I’m beginning to wonder how much longer things will go on like this before we sink into anarchy.

Originally posted on Same Difference:

I think this should go viral.

Kirsty Mum
Please check out this comment posted to this article in The Guardian … it says it all

19 January 2014 9:42am

As a Jobcentre worker who took early retirement last year to get away from the pressures & stress I can confirm what many contributors are saying. Since the change of government in 2010 there was a total shift in emphasis in what we are there for. It is now to “police” the benefit system, “protect the public purse” & deter people from claiming anything. We are NOT there to help or advise people anymore.
We had a mystery shopper process where we would be rung up & visited several times a year & mystery shoppers would ask questions about claiming, ask for leaflets etc. This was fed back to offices & used to improve the service. The new…

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Returning to my Youth to participate in a tug-of-war.

Not that I ever really left it.  While the professed Sisters are all able to talk about “When I was a Novice” or “When I was in XXXX”  (No, not Fourecks to all the Terry Pratchett fans, but just meaning one of the countries outside of England where OHP have had a branch house or still have a branch house), all I can look back on are my years of employment or the cartoons of my childhood.

So when The Jester announced his little tug-of-war, I wondered about the cartoons of the 80′s, and the more recent films.

Would I be on the side of Marvel, with the wonders of X-Men and Spiderman, or would I choose DC, who boast Superman and Batman?

I pondered.  Then I remembered a season three episode of “Bones”.  Where, to celebrate Halloween, the staff at the Jeffersonian Institute have a fancy dress party.  Dr Temperance Brennan dresses as Wonderwoman.

Emily Deschanel as WonderWoman, in Bones Season 3

Image appropriated borrowed from Total Comic Mayhem

The other thing I then remembered was that one of my favourites as a youngster was He-Man and She-Ra, who regularly had to fight against the Evil Horde, Hordak, and Skeletor.

All of these are from or in some way associated with DC Comics.  And there is my vote and my argument.  Not sophisticated, not clever, just showing how some things are remembered fondly years later.