Books: How do you solve a problem like a calling?

Click to follow
New Habits: Today's Women who Choose to Become Nuns

by Isabel Losada

Hodder pounds 7.99

THE cover of Isabel Losada's collection of interviews with novice nuns insinuates an ambiguity that the author is at pains throughout to refute. The cover is entirely black except for a small photograph at the centre, depicting a smiling young woman dressed in a formal nun's habit, with one hand resting on what appear to be the bars of a gate which are raised in front of her face. A nun's experience is either a happy one in spite of imprisonment, or because of it, it would seem to say.

Losada has gathered 10 interviews with women from the ages of 23 to 54, inviting them to give their reasons for abandoning career, home and personal relationships in favour of the cloistered life of the convent. Each interview is preceeded with some personal information about the nun herself and the order she has chosen to join - the degrees of strictness and authority are surprisingly varied - together with the author's own evaluation of the woman she has spoken with.

This is always positive. Losada stresses the "almost raunchy sense of humour" of the youngest novice, Sister Teresa, the "wonderfully, joyfully down-to-earth" Sister Helen, the "vulnerability and sensitivity" of Sister Esther. These qualities do come through in the interviews, which Losada has left as loose as possible to give the women room to open up. As a result they come across as highly individual women with their own voices, emphasising the personal nature of their decision rather than accepted views of the Church they have chosen to join. Many of the novices disagree too about what prompted their decision to become nuns - some testify to the influence of a "vision", while others dismiss the whole notion of "visions" which have nothing at all to do with their own experience.

It is a fascinatingly nosy occupation, asking women why they have chosen to become nuns, but in many of the cases here that nosiness goes unsatisfied. Most of the women interviewed here are frank about their lack of a sex life (with the exception of Sister Rose, none of the women have experienced a sexual relationship), which actually tends to confirm some stereotypes about nuns' experience of the world, rather than mitigate against them. The view that women who opt for this life are "running away" from the responsibilities of the real world is another common perception Losada wants to refute too, but while all the women stress the pressure within the cloister to face up to yourself and your own behaviour, they simultaneously express relief at leaving their jobs and mortgages behind. For many of the women, the final decision to enter an order has clearly come at a point of crisis in their lives, usually work-related or through pressure from a boyfriend to get married. This is a revealing collection of interviews, although ultimately perhaps revealing in the wrong ways.