Real Living: `What do I miss? Trashy magazines, watching the soaps. And sex'

Why would a streetwise young woman want to become a nun? Sister Rose, who took her vows at 22, explains
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Idon't come from a religious family. My two sisters and I were christened, but my family didn't know it was anything to do with religious faith. When I asked my nan about God once, she said to me: "Look, you get born, you live, you die and you go in there, that's it." And I knew she was wrong. That made a mockery of this life.

When my nan died, I asked my RE teacher if there was an afterlife and he said he didn't know. I really wanted to talk about God but the people at the Christian fellowship at school were swots, the sorts who were made into head girls and prefects. I came from a working class family in Dagenham and we lived on the largest council estate in Europe, so there was no way I could ask the posh girls about it. Yet I suspected something.

Anyway, I got four O-levels and I left school. No one in Dagenham ever stayed on. I went into nursing, and a few years later I was working as an occupational therapist in a psychiatric ward. One of the nurses knew of my interest in religion and suggested I visit this Anglican convent. I wrote to them and asked if I could bring a friend and could they please not mention God. They said yes, so I went. I remember they had a crucifix in every room, even in the toilet. You couldn't even do a wee in peace, and the first thing I did was take down the crucifix in my room so I could get undressed.

Anyway, I went to the chapel and I could feel the prayer. I didn't know what it was but I could feel it. The last night I was there they had a quarter of an hour silence in the dark with just the sanctum light on, and I was sitting there and I got converted. It was like an injection through me and it completely turned my world upside down. It was wonderful and it was awful and I knew that it was God.

Two years later I joined the convent. I was 22. I spent three and a half years there, did the full novitiate and then I left. The sisters said I needed to live life a bit more. They were happy to have me back after two or three years but they didn't think I was ready to stay and I knew I wasn't.

Over the next few years I did lots of different jobs. I moved to Somerset with a friend and decided to improve my education. I did a degree and I got a 2:1. In the first year at college we did a class on hedonism. When I discovered `hedonist' meant `pleasure-seeker' I thought, "I could do with some of that." I'd tried to be religious all these years and nothing worked out so I thought, "I'll be a hedonist instead." I stopped going to church and praying, and for three years on Sunday morning I'd go to the video shop and get three tapes for six quid and watch them one after the other and I'd read the tabloid Sunday papers. That's what being a hedonist meant to me. It was doing whatever I wanted. It was pathetic, really. It was utterly boring. There was no challenge.

Anyway, one Good Friday God came for me again, and I felt the Holy Spirit, really strongly, just like I had the first time. I sat in the bath and cried and I knew that this was it. I realised that until that moment I'd been on a path to nowhere. By now I had a job as a teacher. I had the house I wanted. I had the car. It was almost like I had to have everything that I thought would make my life great. Well, fine. They were nice. I enjoyed them but they weren't anything deep.

I wanted to finish the school year to see my kids through. The head offered me my job back if it didn't work out and while I was still teaching I learnt all about Franciscan nuns. It was much more "me" than Anglicanism had been - much more liberated - and I joined up.

Since becoming a nun again, I've never been so happy although there are little sacrifices to be made. The thing I miss is trashy magazines. But it forces me to read books, which I really love anyway. At the moment I'm reading Fat Girl Dancing with Rocks, and I've just read Sara Maitland's Daughter of Jerusalem and Three Times Table. I don't do spiritual reading every day. I do it sometimes and then I wait a while until something else takes my fancy.

I miss having the TV to myself. It's not the same with other people watching it. I used to watch documentaries, Casualty and the soaps. I loved the soaps and being able to get videos. We do watch TV, but here you can be halfway through Casualty, say, and someone will come in and tell you they've had a bad journey - and you're sitting watching someone having their leg cut off or something.

I've had sexual relationships but I've never slept around. I miss sex and I'm glad I enjoyed it. I stopped having it 18 months before I joined. I became celibate before I entered because I was really serious about joining. But I wish I'd known that the last time was going to be the last time. Sometimes I feel fine about it, and other times I think that I can't believe I'll never have sex again. If I say the words "for the rest of my life", that is too big a thing to say. But that is what I believe because I wouldn't break my vows. If I really had to have sex, I'd have to leave. I'm not in a relationship with anyone and I wouldn't have sex outside a relationship. If a relationship formed while I was working with someone, I'd have to re-think whether I'm supposed to be in the community, but I don't think it will, because I'm meant to be here.

When I entered the other convent at 22, I hadn't had sex before I went in, and I felt a bit of a fraud because I had nothing to give up. But it means more to me now, because I've got some choice. A lot of church people like to assume you are celibate if you are single. Well, that's their problem if they think that. I never ever felt that I cheapened myself in any way by having sex. I think that sex is there to be enjoyed. I call an orgasm "zinging" because your whole body would zing. And I think that's great. I love a God who can design a body that zings when you have sex. That is an amazing gift to give people. I've chosen to be celibate because you can't have community life and a special relationship - and I've chosen this. But outside the community, if someone's in a happy sexual relationship, I think "Good for you, darling".

I used to think, "Do I want a child or do I just want the experience of motherhood?" I used to wonder what my baby would have looked like. For about two years I hid what I'd have called a "pram ache", but then that subsided. I knew I couldn't have lots of other experiences if I had this one. I've chosen not to have kids and I feel that's the right choice for me.

I call God "She" because I need to get away from this male imagery stuff. The Church in general gets on my nerves like that. It's not so much that I'm thinking of God as a mother because I don't think of God as a father, but more to think of the feminine side of God. When I think of God as female, there is a totally different feel because I think of women as more intuitive. I'm generalising, but I don't care if I am. I think of them as more intuitive, more compassionate and less aggressive. There is a lot of male imagery in the Bible - the armour of God and all that. It doesn't speak to me at all. I like to think of God in a softer sort of way. That doesn't mean God isn't challenging. But challenging without all the male crap that goes with it.

I have the kind of freedom here that I've never had before. Before I felt that I had to compete financially, that I was judged on what I could earn or what I wore, or whether I drove a decent car. Those things are all meaningless. Here, we just have a box and you can take what you need for fares and that. Obviously you think very carefully before spending any money that belongs to everyone.

When we have to shop for clothes, we go to secondhand shops and I love that. I'm earning pounds 5,000 a year but it doesn't matter because the money all goes in a common fund anyway. It doesn't matter if one person's earning and one person isn't. In some way I felt I had to compete before. I never want to work anywhere again where I have to get smart and try to make an impression by the way I look.

People say "You're giving a lot up", and part of me would like to say: "Oh, yes, it's a very sacrificial life". But I don't see it like that. I don't find it harder than any other way of living. It's different. And, if it's what you're meant to be doing, then it's a good thing.

Extract from `New Habits: Today's Women Who Choose to Become Nuns' by Isabel Losada, published by Hodder & Stoughton, price pounds 7.99.

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