‘I didn’t want to be a nun at all,” the Sister tells me. “The impression that I had is that nuns were miserable people that slept in coffins, who went around with long faces and beat themselves up with long sticks and lived on bread and water. I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting as a way of life.”
Yet here she is, 33 years a Sister in the Poor Clares. She’s currently living in the convent with 21 other Sisters, but her travels have taken her to Uganda and more recently to Bungoma, Kenya, where the Poor Clares have opened a monastery.
The Poor Clares first came to my attention when my sister’s godfather asked for their prayers in order that the sun should shine on the day of her wedding. Never was there a day of more astonishing beauty. He went on to ask for prayers for two other weddings, and the prayers achieved a success rate of 100 per cent. The verity of these tales has undoubtedly been diluted in time, but what remains resolute is the Poor Clares’ dedication to contemplative prayer, which they describe as “silence and intimacy with God”.
The Poor Clares are a Franciscan contemplative order of nuns, founded in San Damiano in Assisi more than 800 years ago. Numbers are dwindling in this country: there were 14 communities on our shores three decades ago, but only eight remain.
The convent that houses the Poor Clares is a large, nondescript red-brick building on the outskirts of Arundel in Sussex, surrounded by neat flower beds that are tended to by the Sisters. All the Sisters “work”, which takes up more than five hours of the day. They are obliged to perform separate duties, but everyone contributes to the community, be it by gardening, laundering, cleaning, cooking, or making icons or greeting cards to sell in the convent shop.
Day-to-day existence is frugal, and the hours are marked by a resounding bell, prompting the Sisters to turn their attentions to the next time slot. The schedule is extremely regimented, curated around prayer and spiritual study, which consumes another five hours of the day. Food is eaten in silence, but one Sister reads aloud. At the moment they’re reading Fr James Martin’s Jesus: a Pilgrimage and Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow’s The Shed that Fed a Million Children.
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