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A former nun explains why she ran away from her 'Cloistered' life

Catherine Coldstream spent 12 years in a Carmelite monastery. Her new memoir is <em>Cloistered</em>.
Keiko Ikeuchi
Catherine Coldstream spent 12 years in a Carmelite monastery. Her new memoir is Cloistered.

Catherine Coldstream didn't grow up planning to become a nun. Coldstream was from London, and had lived in Paris where she studied composition and performed experimental music.

But after her father died when she was 24, she remembers feeling "utterly thrown and completely bereft." She began searching for something different.

"I'd had a sense of transcendence very strongly when my father died," she says. "That led me on to want to get closer to the source of transcendence. And I thought religion maybe had the key."

Entering a cloistered Carmelite monastery in a rural area in the north of England meant starting a new life. Days began at 5:15 a.m., and revolved around silent prayer, group prayer, hymns, work and obedience. Coldstream says she took comfort in the routine.

"You knew exactly where you had to go when, and you were silent most of the time and very focused on what you were doing," Coldstream explains. "There were all these kinds of external structures, like ... the timetable and the bell that meant you could sort of focus on your inner life and not be always, needing to talk or make decisions."

But eventually Coldstream began to chafe against the obedience, and the feeling that her artistic background, her intellectualism and her questioning nature were being rejected. She ran away from the monastery, then returned, then, two years later, went through official channels to leave for good. She eventually went on to study theology at Oxford.

"There's part of me that misses the intensity of monastic life and the purity of intention," Coldstream says. "But I feel it's not a complete human life, in a way. ... [Now] it's a more rounded life and it's a more fulfilled life in many ways."

Coldstream writes about her experiences in the Carmelite order in the memoir, Cloistered: My Years as a Nun.

Interview highlights

On daily life as a nun

[You] jumped out of your bed. You weren't allowed to lie there. You just had to get straight up on your knees. You washed in a bucket of cold water. You went straight down to what we called the choir, which was a monastic chapel, and you were praying 25 minutes later. And this went on throughout the day. There were bells. There were times of prayer that alternated with times of work, but it was all very strictly regulated.

On the monastery building and grounds

<em>Cloistered</em>, by Catherine Coldstream
/ MacMillan
Cloistered, by Catherine Coldstream

If you think of something [like] Downton Abbey, but it was a smaller version of that, but completely bare inside, in a very sort of stark, austere way that was actually really kind of spiritually inspiring. There's a lovely echo and lovely light and a sense of space. ... We didn't have central heating. It was really far north of England. Very drafty in winter. The windows rattled and the cold air would come in. But there was something really beautiful about it. It was very, very isolated. And it was in beautiful countryside, farmlands everywhere. Lakes and trees and meadows and hills in the distance. So you had a sense of being protected, actually, from the modern world. You felt like you'd gone back in time to somewhere that was magical in its beauty.

On wearing the habit

Putting on the actual physical stuff of the habit doesn't change you, but it does make you feel part of the community in a more complete way. It also makes you feel very heavy and dragged down, because there are layers and layers of stuff. The main habit was made of this brown serge, which is a rough, thick wool. And we had basically two layers of that. ... And then ... under that we had a tunic, which was a thick, cotton thing. And then we had four layers of linen on our heads.

So you felt encumbered by a lot of the cloth at first. And all these pins, which you could easily stab yourself with, and people did — you're always, by mistake, sort of scratching and sticking the pin in the wrong bit. You felt weighed down, but ... you quite quickly get used to it. [The habit is] a symbol of having been set aside, "consecrated" was the word we use.

On the psychological cruelty she experienced

There was a sort of a withholding of human warmth and affection. There was also lots of deliberate little humiliations that certain people might, in authority, administer to younger sisters in order to "keep them humble" or break the spirit.

There was a sort of a withholding of human warmth and affection. There was also lots of deliberate little humiliations that certain people might, in authority, administer to younger sisters in order to "keep them humble" or break the spirit. This was a very traditional thing in monasticism, that you would be made to feel small, that you'd be made to feel unloved or rejected. And it was all part of character formation. It sounds stark just saying it in the cold light of day, but it was like that, and you felt terribly lonely and generally crushed by some of these sort of things.

On running away from the monastery

I think I ran away to forestall [a] breaking point. I'd seen others breaking and I thought: Why are so many people in my age group [the younger nuns] ... having breakdowns? And a few people had to go to hospital, and had to leave because they were having mental breakdowns and things. And I thought, Gosh, the pressure is so great. Maybe I'm going to have a breakdown. ... And maybe that's why I had to leave. I was worried that I'd be broken if I stayed.

On the difficult and enjoyable things about readjusting to the outside world

The hardest thing was the noise. I was very used to a completely silent world. So I found noise very difficult. And I found talking to people very difficult, actually. I disliked any sort of intrusive human contact. I liked to be left alone, and I was used to it. I found everything very messy and dirty and just too much going on, so that was really difficult. ...

But there were things, of course, I hugely enjoyed. I mean, I loved ... the physical freedom of just being able to just go — go wherever you wanted to. I remember the first time I went to the sea and just sort of running along the beach, hair flapping in the wind, jumping into the waves. The physical freedom was wonderful. I enjoyed going for a drink as well. ... I really enjoyed going for an Indian meal. That was amazing. ... My body was aching for relief and rest and I hadn't had any form of pleasure. ... So those pleasures were great, and I really enjoyed it. But I did feel slightly overwhelmed by a noisy, busy, messy world with so much going on.

On how studying theology changed her faith

I'd got used to accepting some very, very traditional points of view on Catholicism, and that was all turned upside down. There was a time after I'd been studying theology for about a year, that I was really scared that it was going to ruin my soul, and I was going to lose my faith completely. And I did struggle with my faith for a while. I found the more you know about the Christian history and the way the scriptures were put together and things, the more questions you've got, and the harder it is to believe in it all.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

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