Books: Shining hours with the divine dishwashers

Alison Joseph praises the modern women who went looking for God - and found Her behind convent walls
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The Independent Culture
New Habits by Isabel Losada

Hodder & Stoughton,

pounds 7.99, 196pp

SOMETIMES I think that God only uses human beings to force her way down here in some way... by changing yourself a lot of prayers can be answered." This book is full of surprises. Sister Rose, quoted above, is one of 10 women interviewed, all novice nuns who have given up their former lives to join a convent. Isabel Losada first got the idea when one of her friends announced that she was going to become a nun. So intense was the response - "You can't be serious!"; "Will they lock you up?"; "Do you hate sex?" - that Losada decided to find out more. She visited a convent, expecting a "joyless silence." She found laughter and peace.

Why would these women give up homes, cars, jobs, relationships to wear, in some cases, medieval habit, to swear vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; and, in enclosed orders, to shut themselves away with only a rare annual holiday in which to see their families?

Losada has allowed the sisters to talk at length, and the results are searching and honest. Yes, celibacy can be hard. Yes, obedience can be even harder: "Before we put the plates in the dishwasher we wash them, and then afterwards we dry them. Why do we need to dry them? If you leave them for just a few minutes, they'll get dried on their own. God will dry them. But no, it's community. So we dry them."

All the women have taken different paths, yet a common picture emerges: of childhoods spent feeling something was missing; of young adults who felt set apart from friends. "One day my family were all sitting discussing what we had wanted to do when we grew up and someone said, `When Judy was four she wanted to be a nun!' And everybody roared with laughter... I thought, Oh help, what am I going to do? I was 20 and I still wanted to be a nun."

Some stumbled upon the religious life through a TV documentary, or wandering into a church, or, in Sister Esther's case, through a vision. What all 10 women have in common is a sense of being, in some way, called "to be ourselves, only more so", as Sister Julie says.

What are we to make of this, those of us living in the secular world, confronted by women who quite openly discuss their dialogue with God? Their language of faith sits uneasily within contemporary discourse of individual desire, tempting us perhaps to attribute the leanings of these women to some kind of subconscious urge projected on to an idea of God. This is why Losada has chosen so wisely to remove herself from the book. For the women's words shine through with such clarity that we are drawn into a world where God's love can be discussed in absolute terms.

Indeed, perhaps it is somehow appropriate, at the end of the millennium, to find a book that gives voice to our human yearning, to this sense of our incompleteness, our desire to be "more fully ourselves". After all, the same language has been spoken in monastic communities for centuries; it has just taken all those same centuries to allow God to be She.