Social distancing and lockdown come naturally to the Poor Clares of Arundel in West Sussex: after all, they’ve been doing it for 800 years. “In our day-to-day life the pandemic has hardly affected us at all,” says Sister Gabriel, who joined the order of enclosed nuns in 1994, aged 23. “The biggest sadness for us is that we’ve not been able to have visitors – we’ve hardly seen any outsiders for months.”
Now, though, the outside world is hearing from the Poor Clares, because on the eve of lockdown, back in March, the nuns were in the final stages of recording their debut album. The sisters hope it will bring some of the simple, balanced principles of cloister life to those struggling with the fallout from Covid. “It’s been a time of great anxiety and stress, and people really need to zone out and find a place of peace,” says Sister Gabriel.
The Poor Clares – who wear long brown habits, beige-coloured veils and sandals – practise a kind of ancient mindfulness: they focus on the present, and other than visits to the doctor or dentist, they stay within the confines of their monastery. At the height of lockdown, says Sister Leo, who’s in her 60s and entered the community in 1976, people would contact her to ask for advice on how to cope with having to stay in the same place, day after day. “I always said the same thing: pay attention to regularity in your life, and do things by a timetable. That’s how it works for us. And I think it’s helped others when I’ve said, ‘We live like this the whole time, and we have done for many years.’”
All the same, the sisters acknowledge there’s a world of difference between choosing to live separately from others and having it forced on you. “We’re very conscious that for many people the last few months have been truly hellish,” says Sister Aelred, who’s in her 70s and entered the community in 1961 aged 18. “I’ve got friends in their 80s who are self-isolating, and I know how lonely and difficult it’s been for them.”
We’re talking around a big table in the nuns’ parlour, which, due to Covid restrictions, is the only part of the convent I’m allowed to enter. And though they’re a largely silent order, with speaking restricted during the day other than at recreation, and strictly adhered to from nightfall to dawn, the sisters certainly know how to chat. Assuming them to be meek and mild and reticent is one of the many mistakes people make, says Sister Gabriel. “People expect us to be sombre, whereas there’s a lot of fun and laughter in our lives. They think we’re not in touch with politics – they think we’re not ordinary women, when in fact we very much are.”
“People would be surprised to hear we fall out,” says Sister Aelred. “And they would also be surprised that we enjoy a glass of beer or wine, from time to time.” What’s different about life in the community isn’t that nuns are a different species, they explain, but that they’ve bought into a simpler life. In a complex, upside-down world, could it be that their daily routine has wisdom to impart to the rest of us?
The sisters rise at 5.30am (5am in summer) to embark on a day that follows more or less the same structure Poor Clares and other monastic orders have followed for hundreds of years. After breakfast and an hour’s meditation (“to centre ourselves”, says Sister Gabriel), the nuns gather in their chapel for prayers and, two days a week, for mass. “Then we have a period for work, which might be anything from cooking to working in the vegetable garden, to doing our paid work, which is spiritual direction – we’ve switched that to Zoom,” she says.
Lunch, the main meal of the day, is eaten in silence while one sister reads aloud from a spiritual text; the same happens at supper, but the text is what Gabriel describes as “a lighter book – it might be a biography, for example”. After lunch comes a rest period and more work, before (on three days of the week) “recreation”, where the sisters are free to chat and catch up with one another’s news.
“The thing about structure is, it helps you to use your time more wisely,” says Sister Gabriel. “We often waste time: if you’ve got an eight-hour window for work, you dissipate and end up on the phone or computer. But if you’ve only got two hours, it forces you to use the time wisely. Structure creates space, to achieve what you want, and to simply be.”
Music is at the heart of the nuns’ worship – but the idea of recording an album, explains Sister Aelred, came about initially as a bit of a joke. Music producer James Morgan got in touch to ask whether he could come to vespers – one of the offices of the day – to hear the sisters sing. “We thought once he’d heard us that would be it, and we’d never hear from him again.” “We were sure we wouldn’t be good enough,” adds Sister Gabriel. “But then he got back in touch and said he wasn’t bothered about the mistakes we’d made – we could be trained not to do that. What he liked was the tone of our singing.”
For many singers, the idea of a contract from a record company is a dream come true, but the Poor Clares had a different take on it – as they would on many elements of becoming recording artists. “We said we don’t want auditions. You have to include everyone who wants to be included,” says Sister Gabriel. “The people who hear it will have to accept the ability of all of us – we’re not going to tell any of our sisters, ‘You can’t sing, so you’re not in.’” Of the 23-strong community, all but two sisters eventually took part. “We have sisters who sing tunefully and beautifully, and we have others who sound tone-deaf,” says Sister Leo. “And we’re all on the album.”
For their part, the sisters hope the album will allow them to share what matters to them with the outside world. “We certainly didn’t do it to become famous,” says Sister Gabriel. “We want people to know the essence of our lives, what we believe in and what brings us joy.” The music on the album – which includes a traditional Ave Maria, Psalm 27 (O Lord, Hear My Voice) and In Paradisum, sung by the nuns at their funeral liturgies – also features the words set to music of St Francis and St Clare, the order’s founders.
“They lived eight centuries ago”, says Sister Gabriel. “But they knew many things we still struggle with today, including how important it is to understand our relationship with the environment. So we live as sustainably as possible. We grow what we can – not everything, but certainly lots of our own vegetables. We’re very careful about waste – anything not eaten at lunch one day will be supper the next.” “And we share with others – we support the local food bank,” says Sister Aelred. “We’ve not felt called to be on Twitter,” says Sister Leo. “We’ve taken a vow of poverty and we don’t own anything. And we believe that’s what needs to happen with the world. We all need to use less, so people with less can have more.”
Each sister wears a Tau cross, based on the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and worn by St Francis. “Of course, we know many people don’t believe in God, but many of them recognise some kind of higher power. I think being connected to something bigger than ourselves stops us being narcissistic.”
Do they, I ask, worry about the future? Like most religious communities in the west, numbers of enclosed nuns are falling, and their own convent is top-heavy, with the youngest nun aged 47 and the oldest in her 90s. Surprisingly, Sister Gabriel says she’s not bothered what happens next. “I think we have something to share and something to speak out about, but things happen in waves and if this has reached full circle, that’s OK. We’ve still got our lives to live, and this isn’t just about numbers. The truth is, it’s a wonderful way to live.”
Light for the World by the Poor Clares of Arundel is out now on the Decca record label (£12.75 for the CD)