Sanctuary of silence

Contemplative nuns have begun to advertise in the hope of swelling their diminishing ranks. One such community lives minutes from Oxford Street in London. Are they happy?
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Mothers pushing buggies mingle with teenagers on Rollerblades. It's a typical Saturday afternoon in Hyde Park. On nearby Oxford Street the traffic is roaring and department stores are throbbing to the sound of frenetic sales shoppers. But the women I'm sitting with never use the park and have never set foot in Selfridges, even though they live but a matter of minutes away. The Benedictine sisters at Tyburn Convent may be in the heart of the city but their priorities have nothing to do with the world outside their enclosure.

In the nuns' garden, a thirty-foot wall keeping it safe from prying eyes, the Prioress, Mother Simeon, is leading the younger nuns in an energetic game of football. Formerly Rita McLaughlin, this 29-year-old Scot saysthat she really can't think of anything she misses in the other world. It's a blazingly hot day but despite her long-sleeved, floor-length habit she has just executed a rather nifty header. It's a game punctuated by much laughter.

Meanwhile the older sisters - one of whom is 94 - prefer to sit. It is their only period of recreation. For this 50 minutes they knit or simply engage in desultory conversation. This is the only time during 24 hours when they are not bound by a rule of silence. Otherwise talking is strictly confined to situations of "charity or necessity".

For a character like Mother Simeon I imagine this particular rule can't have been easy. A vivacious woman, she's what recruitment agencies would term a "people person". She frequently breaks into giggles and exudes such joie de vivre that outside of the Tyburn walls somebody could mistake it for a less natural "high". She grins. "The silence wasn't the easiest thing to learn. I didn't even realise there was one because for three months I didn't stop talking. After a while, though, you feel a need for it."

She joined the convent straight after her O-levels, aged 16. Given her temperament it's surprising that she chose a contemplative order. She explains, "I lived near a monastery of monks and I used to go by first of all out of curiosity. I was so impressed that they'd given up their lives to sing the praises of God for the good of the world that I thought, I'm going to do the same."

She has never returned home, for there is no such thing as a holiday. In addition to their vows of obedience and conversion of life (that includes chastity) the sisters have vowed stability. Those that step outside do so because of a doctor's appointment or to vote. Groceries and toiletries are all delivered.

Even the most consummate of PRs would be hard-pushed to sell this lifestyle to today's young women. It is not a regime for the fainthearted. The day begins at 5.30 am and communal prayers, largely sung, are seven times a day. But if it's your turn for the hour's night-time adoration - praying alone in the chapel - then you will also get up in the middle of the night.

"The way I look at it is if it's what God wants you to do with your life it's where you're going to be," says Mother Simeon. "We're not here to do our own will - we're here to do the will of God. It's a life of faith. I feel if I turned my back on the monastery now and went off to do my own thing I wouldn't find happiness."

But Mother Simeon made her decision at 16. Has she never experienced any regrets about forfeiting her right to a family life? "I think for most people it's the biggest sacrifice to make, but God gives you spiritual children. There's people relying on us all the time, just like a baby on its mother. If those thoughts come into my head I realise that's what I've given up - that's the sacrifice I've made."

Theoretically the Order has an age limit of 35 for entry, for as Mother John Baptist explains, it's much harder to adapt, the older one becomes. An Australian, she herself was happily working as an English teacher before she joined at 34, over 40 years ago. "It was horrifying, I thought I was set for life as a teacher. At first I thought, `Am I trying to run away from something?' but then I proved to myself that I wasn't."

Fourteen years ago she was appointed the convent's first media nun and now deals with all media inquiries. Not that as an order they show much enthusiasm for the media. They have no television and the radio is only dusted down for special occasions. So special, in fact, that Prince Andrew's wedding - yes, that was a long time ago - was the last event to fall into that category. There's strictly no pop music and even opera is banned - it is considered "too emotional". One weekly newspaper is circulated. "We need to know enough about the world to pray for it," says Mother John. "Although I never read all the horrors. I'd go crazy if I had to read all the butchery. Though I do know that Australia has a good chance of winning the Ashes this year."

The numbers of potential contemplatives are falling but nevertheless many more women than one might suspect are tempted into the enclosure. In the garden today there are two postulants and three novices. Mother John is confident that the modern world still contains many with vocational qualities. But not even the most spiritually ardent can necessarily withstand the rigours of an existence regulated by the bell. Not long ago one young woman arrived in the afternoon and had packed her bags by the evening.

Before I leave I visit Mother Simeon's "cell". It contains one rather hard mattress on an iron bedframe covered in blankets, a cupboard and a table. There is no mirror. Surely it's a way of life that requires a total suppression of one's sexuality. "No" replies Mother Simeon. "If you're a woman, you're a woman, you can't suppress that. Sexuality is a God-given gift. You've got your mind switched off but you can't have both lives."

As I go the pure sound of Gregorian chant hangs in the air until the door slams shut. Outside young women in cropped tops and shorts are drinking on the pavements. I'd wager that most would be truly horrified by the Benedictine way of life. As for myself, even with a wardrobe of ever tightening waistbands and a love life best described as rocky, I won't be rushing to sign up. But joining the throng of evening drinkers I know that the contentment I've witnessed this afternoon can only be enviedn

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