the long weekend

WORDS OF THE WEEK: `One of the nuns burst into tears. So I decided she was having a bad veil day' Actress Fiona Shaw (right) decided to join a nunnery in central London for two weeks. She recorded her experiences for Radio 4
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Okay, it is the 24th of January. This begins to feel a bit like a travel diary. I suppose it is. I've hit very bad weather. I retired after compline last night, with rising panic. I don't know why I agreed to come in here for so long - three days is ample - and I feel I need the sense that I'm going to get out soon, a feeling of the arc of the thing, as an end in sight.

So I'm playing mind games with myself that once the third day is over, that's nearly a quarter of it - of course it isn't. This is to do with belief. If I could feel that I was able to pray, really able to pray for something or to someone, I'd be fine.

I've just come back from recreation and vespers. Recreation - I sat next to a lovely nun called Mother Philip Howard who leads the signing. I asked her whether they have any news.

They have no television, but they are allowed a sort of weekly Guardian, and they also get the Catholic Herald, she says, which has a great lot of news in it. They don't have any other news, unless something enormous happens in the world. I said, like a bomb? She said, well no, but if the Pope died.

They were allowed to listen to the radio for the Royal Wedding and that was the last time they sat in the garden and listened to the radio communally, they were given a special dispensation. So I'm going down for another half hour kneeling and adoration - goodness me, I wish I knew how to do the adoration business. Signing off now.

It's Thursday night. Today in choir an odd thing happened. We were singing sext, I think, and one of the nuns had to begin the singing, start a line on her own, and she burst into tears. So I decided she was having a very bad veil day.

Later on at supper, I was looking at the table as we most of us were, and the next thing she got up and knelt because there's been a positive epidemic of this kneeling in the middle of supper or in the middle of lunch. And it's this punishment exercise where, I think, if they feel they've had a bad thought, then they must rise, come to the centre of the refectory, kneel in front of Mother General's table - a sort of high table underneath the crucifix - and they kneel in the middle of the floor and declare, as it were, that they had absolutely committed some frightful sin. Of course, all one does is spend one's time surmising what the thought was.

These nuns wear a wedding ring on their wedding finger but on their right hand, because they are brides of Christ. This hijacking of the language of love and passion is all very well and good in relation to love and God, but the metaphor can't suddenly stop at the sort of happy families picture of the bride and bridegroom sitting in their thrones looking down at a happy company.

To be in love with Christ is to be open to him, physically, is to be sexually involved. It's one of the main experiences of falling in love, is a heightened sexual awareness of the other. And I suppose my experience here has been the totality of the absence of the word sex or sexuality. Why is it the thing that most threatens? You don't see any other flesh, ever. You just see these beautiful, beautiful cowls moving along the ground. I get awkward talking about their sexual behaviour because I don't want to presume on it.

For all I know, when I leave on Wednesday, there's a big orgy and they have all the priests round - I doubt that. I don't know what you'd do if you had a sexual problem here. I was going upstairs last night and I passed a workman leaving and I went out and I said, do you want to go out? And he said, yes. And I found myself saying, I would give anything to come with you. And he got the fright of his life. I suppose he thought I was a permanent postulant and he had suddenly potentially seduced me away.

Good morning, it's Friday. Am I admitting that this place is working its magic on me? What it is doing is the thing that I do most admire about the theatre or music - somewhere there's a point at which it just bypasses the intellect and becomes an emotional experience.

As soon as it's emotional, of course, one can find the energy behind it, because people don't function from the intellect, neither in nor out of a convent, so I don't think it's logic that makes any of us live the crazed lives we lead or the overworked lives we lead. It's emotion. It's usually for the love of somebody or something. And this love of Christ is their gift, because they understand what it is to love something that you can't see, feel, touch or smell.

I had a marvellous time kneeling down in front of the crucifix in my half an hour of adoration. I must say I did find that I was doing it in a different way. I was neither daydreaming nor reacting. I was just asking questions and acknowledging that I was asking questions in relation to that crucifix, I'll give you that. I also found it not unpleasant for the first time. Maybe my knees had got used to it.

It's my last day. I know I'm coming to the end and there's so much I want to say now, because I am suddenly seeing it from the top of a mountain. I am absolutely stunned at how I have come, not full circle, it's not that I'm staying in here or anything, but I am incredibly taken with their way of life.

The miracle of being able to yield and have complete power over yourself at the same time is magical. I think that chastity is or can be a positive act. I have veered, really, from loathing it to admiring it beyond measure. Things that I found absolutely painfully cruel, this kneeling when they sin or when they feel they've sinned, I now see as a remarkable force.

Tonight somebody did it, they dropped a knife again and up they got, knelt down and picked it up. I saw somebody else smiling during vespers and she immediately knelt for a moment. If all of us knelt at the moment of our sin, how many of us would check a much bigger sin that's around the corner? It is a lesson in the kind of possibility that human dignity can have. So if any of my friends notice me having the odd kneel, randomly in the middle of a conversation, they can know from now on that I've had a bad thought.

Comments