BOOK REVIEW / The habits of a lifetime: Unveiled: Nuns Talking - Mary Loudon: Chatto, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
TEN penetrating tape-recorded interviews with 10 women who differ from one another markedly in age, character, background, experience and daily life. But what they have in common transcends their differences; for all are nuns who, by taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, have committed themselves to a life which the ordinary man finds difficult to comprehend.

Those who are disconcerted by what appears to be a futile renunciation of much that makes life worth living tend to patronise nuns and treat them as neurotic freaks. Nuns are accused of immaturity, of being incapable of making deep relationships, of avoiding the necessity of making a living and the hazards of ordinary life. Mary Loudon's book will surely persuade everyone who reads it that such negative judgements are hopelessly superficial and misguided.

She has ranged widely, including nuns from enclosed orders and nuns who live in the community, both Catholics and Anglicans. One of the most interesting interviews is with a German-Jewish nun who has become a counsellor to Aids sufferers. Another lives on a council estate where many inhabitants are teenage single parents and where 80 per cent live on Unemployment Benefit or Income Support. One 76-year-old nun has abandoned England for an ashram in India, and has incorporated some Hindu ideas into her Christian faith.

Of the three vows, obedience presents the greatest challenge. One nun who was orphaned in childhood said: 'If you've relied on your own insight and intuition from the age of 10, it's very hard to relinquish that.' Poverty, on the other hand, seldom presents problems. Abandoning personal possessions and the need to compete in material terms is often felt as shedding a burden: 'Poverty was certainly a joy, because it was as much simplicity of lifestyle as anything else, and I was never someone who liked to be cluttered with possessions.' Chastity can be difficult, and nuns are not immune from falling in love with either sex. But as one nun put it: 'Celibacy for me has increasingly meant that transcendence of the physical, sexual expression of a union.' Another refers to 'giving up the one human love for something which we know is better, and deeper and stronger, and totally reliable'.

Becoming a nun has for centuries been one of the few ways in which women can escape male domination. From these interviews, it appears that the image of God as a white-bearded father figure is dead. God is felt as an inner presence, a spiritual entity beyond gender and personality.

The call to become a nun is often unexpected and may at first be resisted. But it usually becomes so compelling that doubts about vocation disappear. The religious life affords valuable opportunities for solitude which are hard to come by in ordinary life. Some of the nuns interviewed have always been natural 'loners'; but even those who are not find that solitary prayer and meditation have opened for them doors which would otherwise have remained closed. 'When I enter a place of deep solitude with God, I'm happiest, I'm most at peace.' Several have found gifts and talents unsuspected until the demands of living in a religious community uncovered them. Some recognise that they have a need for total commitment to something or someone which dates from childhood.

Nuns are not used to talking about themselves, and one or two found that doing so revived disturbing memories. But Mary Loudon's unobtrusive tact and rare capacity for empathy has made it possible for her subjects to reveal themselves fearlessly.

These are women who have found themselves; who, however disturbed or unhappy they may have been (or still are from time to time), are entirely convinced that the life they have chosen is right for them. Since Freud, the Western world has tended to assume that sexual satisfaction and close interpersonal relationships are essential to human happiness. One of the many virtues of this fascinating book is that it demonstrates that there are other equally valid paths to fulfilment.