Hidden contemplatives

Came across this old BBC documentary on Carmelite religious, made perhaps in the early 1960s and showing a glimpse into that austere walled life of prayer and silence.

As a convert, I wanted to join a contemplative order, prayed for discernment as to whether I had a vocation. I went along to a local enclosed Carmelite convent along with members of the Carmelite Third Order. It was an unedifying and off-putting visit, sitting looking through the grille into the small parlour in a large damp old building. The sisters gossiped and complained about one another, I was given a play written by a sister to read, the political remarks were rightwing and offensive, nasty jokes were made about a local bishop. The silliness and bickering went on until we left.

A mis-step and many of my early encounters with a mostly conservative, racist and missionary Church culture felt this way. Years later, I mentioned to an elderly priest how  taken aback I had been on that first meeting with  the Carmelites and he sighed, rolled his eyes comically. “Oh they were a troubled bunch,” he said. “I steered prospective novices away from them where I could.” By then I understood  much more about the human fallible aspect of the Church and myself as Church, so I nodded and let it go. I thought for a long time about St Teresa of Avila and her 18 years in a lax, gossipy convent of nuns, where the core of religious life was the visitors in the parlour rather than the chapel.


Every now and again, though, that old dream comes back, the beauty and utter surrender of that life, the sealed fountain of the Brides of Christ.


Correction and update: In 1959 Hywel Davies and the producer , David J. Thomas , won an award for their programme ‘ Out of this world ’ in an international competition in Monte Carlo. Hywel Davies died in 1965. This was made in the late 1950s before Vatican II had even been mooted and shows that poverty and irrepressible happiness of  cloistered nuns, so beautifully spoken and peaceful.



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