Last year, all six sisters living in St Andrew’s Lewisham caught Covid-19. Their ages range from 46 to 83 years old. Everyone survived, though each of the women experienced different symptoms. I meet two of them on a Friday, double-jabbed and in a home newly-opened to visitors. They welcome me warmly on a hot but rainy day.
“It’s a bit unusual,” Sister Marie-Christine says, as she takes me to a funny little room with yellow walls, Mexican statues, and children’s books on display, “to choose us as interview subjects. You could have found people a bit more normal.”
Sister Sigrun turns towards Sister Marie-Christine abruptly. She has sharp blue eyes and little red glasses. “I don’t know that we’re unusual!” she says.
I’m becoming rather fond of these two sisters.
Sister Marie-Christine has long bobbed hair and thick black glasses. She’s originally from Strasbourg in France and is a fan of detective novels. There’s something philosophical about the way she speaks, turning over phrases and always searching for the right words. Her favourite biblical character is Moses, she says: “He’s so human,” she tells me, “[having to] realise how small and helpless he is.”
Sister Sigrun is small, German, and slightly fierce. Her favourite hymn is, ‘Here I Am Lord’ but she tells me she was once a Bob Dylan fan. “He didn’t react well, though,” she says, “to receiving the Nobel literary prize”. As far as biblical figures go, she tells me she’s drawn to Mary Magdalene. I’m taken aback. “She has a bit of a reputation…” I say to her with some surprise. “Not a good reputation,” Sister Sigrun agrees, “[but] she’s fascinating and Christ accepted her as she was.”
I check and neither of them have been watching Love Island. They don’t really watch the telly in St Andrew’s and I assure them they’re not missing out on much. “It’s not been a very good series,” I say as Sister Marie-Christian explains what the show is to Sister Sigrun, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
It’s time to ask the obvious question. Why did these two women join the sisterhood?
For Sister Sigrun it was a calling, “I joined when I was 26,” she says, “but the call was there much longer. It went back even to childhood.” Sister Marie-Christine’s journey was more complicated. She doubted her faith in her teenage years and once found Sunday Services boring: “I was open to a job, getting married. I wanted to see what was the right thing.” She had a revelation at a silent retreat in Taizé (a monastic community in France). “It was a conviction when it came,” she explains, though she admits fearing telling her parents at the time. “I was afraid of their reaction. They were not so happy.”
Despite her certainty this was the vocation for her, Sister Sigrun’s parents had a similar reaction: “[they] were very upset, especially my mother. It took a long time,” she says. I ask them why she thinks they were unhappy and both the sisters appear to have similar answers. “Because I would not have a family, my own children,” Sister Sigrun explains.
With this revelation, I begin to realise there’s something quietly rebellious in these sisters. Sister Sigrun is even unimpressed by the conventionality of my question: “Why we joined the sisterhood?” she asks. “Oh, quite a typical question”.
The sisters’ favourite biblical figures, Moses and Magdalene respectively, also tell us a lot about where they find inspiration. Magdalene was a total outsider, rejected by society at large, and Moses was a man who, in Sister Marie-Christine’s words, “resisted God’s call.” By Sister Marie-Christine’s own admission, they are perhaps “a bit unusual”, in seeking a traditional life they’ve also rejected many conventions. It is a paradox which allows them, perhaps, to live this quiet but bold life in St Andrew’s.
We talk about sacrifices. This is a time where the majority of people are having to make them. For students, it could be their liberty, time with friends, or even their education. When it comes to making sacrifices, what exactly can we learn from them?
“It’s a question of freedom,” Sister Sigrun explains. “You will never have everything.” Part of the journey is learning to accept this. “Whether it’s going outside whenever you want or whatever – can you accept that you’re going to have to give things up sometimes?” She pauses, thinking about this. “I wouldn’t always call it sacrifice.”
“It’s about realising that we have enough – that we are enough,” Sister Marie-Christine adds. “[Sacrifice] is relative. Sometimes we too easily rely on others to be happy, to be affirmed, to feel valued.” She points out how, for some people, the lockdowns have allowed them to find this strength in themselves.
Do they consider their own lives to have been in some way sacrificial?
“For me, it’s not a sacrifice,” Sister Sigrun says. “There are difficulties,” Sister Marie-Christine agrees, “but I don’t think it’s more than in any other way of life.”
We move onto anger, something people are feeling a lot of at this time. From the handling of the pandemic to the frustrations at public restrictions, people seem to be in a semi-constant state of rage. I ask them how we ought to look at anger – is there a good way to approach it?
“It’s not a sin to be angry,” Sister Sigrun says. “Find a way to express it so it’s not dominating you. If it’s dominating yourself, you begin to lose your freedom. It turns against you and can turn against others also.”
“Anger is useful at the beginning,” Sister Marie-Christine adds. “It helps to set boundaries. To show we are not being respected. If it becomes invasive [however] it’s a poison – a pollution. It’s important to acknowledge it.”
Is it ever ok to be angry at God?
Sister Sigrun advises I look at the story of Jonah, how he repeatedly felt frustrated with God, and how the Bible wrote about his anger. “Yes,” she concludes, “Jonah can be angry at God, and God,” she says, “can deal with that.”
But is anger just a mask for fear? What should we do when we start to feel afraid?
“Fear is a necessary emotion,” Sister Marie-Christine explains, “it can protect you. But when it becomes anxiety – obsessive, invasive – it becomes a pollution. The root [of fear] can be well hidden. It’s often a fear of abandonment, fear of not being loved, fear of not having our place in the world. Recovery [from it] is trust, confidence, and faith.”
The fear young people feel seems to go hand-in-hand with a lot of self-doubts. People tend to think of nuns as ever-certain, as people who have all the answers already. Do the sisters ever doubt and is it ok when the rest of us do?
“It’s part of faith,” Sister Sigrun says. “It’s like any relationship. There are always moments when questions come: are you really not just imagining? It’s not a problem,” she tells me. “It can be a problem for you but it’s not a problem for God.”
But more generally? What should we do when we doubt?
“All the atmosphere around is very negative, pessimistic, and scary [at the moment]. We’re all very touched by that. We must try and look at things that give us joy and peace: the ordinary life, which is all around, which we take for granted, which we can taste, smell, and touch. We want something more obvious, more extraordinary to convince us.” Sister Marie-Christine smiles shyly. She seems to be asking whether this life of ours is not already enough.
Finally, I wonder aloud, what advice would they give to their 18-year-old selves?
“Be trustful,” Sister Sigrun advises, “don’t be afraid to ask others for help. Don’t play the strong one if you’re not feeling like that. People are often very helpful but we don’t dare to ask. Acknowledge that you need help and ask.”
“Be patient,” Sister Marie-Christine says, “when it comes to finding your way. Try not to bottle it up if you’re feeling low. Don’t do the things you don’t want to do. Have the courage to say no, also. Try to keep the relationship with your family alive.”
As I look at these two women, rebelliously living their quiet lives, I am made to think about what they can teach us and who they really are.
“The church is only people”, Sister Marie-Christine says, “We are all… sinners, if you want a big word. We’re not perfect. We do what we can.”