Once upon a time, a wealthy young woman in the midst of wedding preparations, sat at her desk and wrote a letter to her fiancé. As if propelled by a supernatural force, Shirley Leach found herself writing the words ‘But there seems no point now as I am to be a nun.’ Not ‘I want to be a nun’ or ‘I am thinking of becoming a nun’. A declaration had been made, one to which she would initially respond with angry tears, aware of the sacrifices she would have to make to answer the unexpected call to religious life.
A Nun’s Story tells the tale of Sr Agatha, now an elderly member of the Companions of Jesus (formerly the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) the girl who had everything and surrendered everything for Christ. This is not a unique story – all calls to the religious life involve that act of surrender – but vocation memoirs, especially those involving such a dramatic change of direction, are enduringly fascinating. I should also say that Sr Agatha comes across as so likable and so joyously down-to-earth that I feel a little uneasy about reviewing this charming but flawed book at all.
What the book desperately needed was a strict editor to pare the writing back to the essentials and focus the narrative on the most important aspects of the heroine’s life. There are some heart-breaking moments, such as Shirley’s fiancé Jeremy insisting upon taking her to the convent himself when she made the decision to enter and the long process she went through of letting him go emotionally; her mother’s confusion at her daughter’s conversion and the anguish of having to let her go without truly understanding why. Other parts are hilarious; I actually burst out laughing at the description of Shirley’s mother’s reaction to the news that her hopeless daughter had been made Head Girl of her school: she immediately withdrew Shirley from the school on the grounds that the standards must have deteriorated if she were the best candidate they had for such an elevated position. On another occasion during Shirley’s wartime childhood, a young German pilot was shot down nearby and imprisoned in her house. She insisted upon giving him a piece of her sister’s wedding cake to prove that they were not hungry whilst a large number of heavily armed guards looked on in bewilderment.
Unfortunately, these beautifully vivid moments are in danger of being choked by the accumulation of less important or interesting details. This is particularly problematic during the chapters about Sr Agatha’s later life. Describing the forgotten world of the 1930s in minute detail is possibly forgivable, but I found it impossible to be interested in the lengthy descriptions of a declining religious order’s financial struggles or its conflicts with the Local Education Authority.
It is here perhaps that I should admit to a potential conflict of interest. I realized within the first few paragraphs that Sr Agatha belongs to the religious order that ran my school and as anyone who has read my books will probably have noted by now, I was not overly enamored of my educational experience, but the last nail in the coffin for me came on the occasion of my grandmother’s death. Other people who read my article about my Nanna sent me Mass cards and messages offering condolences; a member of the IBVM thought it appropriate to send me a lengthy rant about how simply ghastly the pre-Vatican II Church was and to lament that ‘you did not use the occasion of your grandmother’s death to talk about the darker side of the Church she represented.’ I have never forgotten the final sentence: “please be assured that I write as one who seeks the Church’s true mission in the world.” Enough said, I thought. If a member of the IBVM was completely clueless about the Church’s mission in the world, still less the point of her own Order, it was time and gone time to make way for other religious congregations who knew what they were doing.
And therein lies the rub. It is impossible for a book set against a period of such cataclysmic change to avoid dealing with the controversies surrounding the post-Vatican II decline of so many of the old Orders, yet the book avoids doing so. Sr Agatha is refreshingly honest about the pain many members of her generation experienced during the changes of the 1960s, when the religious life these women had embraced was altered almost beyond recognition; she makes it clear that she struggled to stop wearing her habit and waited as long as possible to discard it, but the assumption remains that this ‘medieval practice’ had to be cast off for the greater good. I found myself longing for a better understanding, told ‘from the inside’ of what really happened to an old and respected Order with a noble history (like any IBVM girl I am very familiar with the exploits of the Order’s founder, Mary Ward) that seems to have so completely lost its way. If Mary Ward had dedicated her life to trying to work out what the Church’s mission might be, she would not have found the time or energy to establish a religious congregation that served the Church and educated many thousands of girls over a period of three hundred years.
In fairness to the book, it is in the end a personal story of one woman’s journey from pampered socialite to the consecrated life and it should perhaps simply be seen that way. The writer of A Nun’s Story airily claims, in rather agnostic fashion, towards the end of the book: “It does not require a particular God to put us on the right path again, just a belief that we can sometimes be wrong but with effort and our own special presence to help us, we can be a better person.” I have no idea what ‘our own special presence’ is supposed to mean, but – for all the book’s failings – that was clearly neither Shirley/Agatha’s experience nor is it the message of her story.
A Nun’s Story
by Sister Agatha with Richard Newman
Metro Publishing/John Blake Books, 2017
Paperback, 256 pages