What does it feel like for an agnostic to find out her daughter is joining a religious order? Heide Hanford explains how it affected her
recently spent two weeks in a convent in Austria. I am not a Catholic. I am not even religious, and I wasn’t looking to escape my hectic life for a while in search of inner peace.
The reason for my visit was a simple one: my daughter was a novice there. I was Lutheran, my husband a Muslim. Both of us were born into our religions rather than having chosen them. It was never an issue in our marriage, and our separation was for other reasons. Our daughter had been brought up to be truthful, loving, caring, tolerant and forgiving, and she was just that.
She was about 15 when she decided to become Catholic. I had no objections; her father also took her decision in his stride. Two years later she told me that she wanted to become a nun. It rendered me speechless for a moment and a thousand thoughts raced through my mind: “She’s too young, it’s escapism, and she’s been too wrapped up in the Church...” I told her that I expected her to go to university or learn a profession. “My concern is that you’ll have something to fall back on should things not work out,” I said.
Well, that didn’t go down too well. But she saw sense and went to university and came home one day with her first boyfriend. I was pleased and secretly hoped that she would now forget about the convent. She didn’t finish her degree, however, and opted for the religious life instead. When I told her father about her decision, he said: “She isn’t my daughter anymore if she becomes a nun.” My mother’s reaction was equally severe: in fact, she gave her such a hard time that I had to fight for my daughter despite my own feelings. I said: “I don’t want her to become a nun either, but that is egotistical and because I love her I have to let her find her way, it’s her happiness that matters. Nothing else.” Then her journey began. She contacted several orders and spent a few days with each. She finally decided which order to join and went to Austria to begin her new life. A few months later I flew to Vienna, where my daughter picked me up in the “convent car” and drove me to a small town about 60 miles from Vienna, where the convent was located.
The large, modern building of the convent also housed an old people’s home run by the nuns. The Mother Superior welcomed me warmly and showed me to my room. It had neither television nor radio, but a crucifix, a Bible and holy water. The novices had their rooms in a large Alpine villa in the extensive grounds. This villa reflected the richness generally found in Catholic churches. There were old oil paintings and antique furniture in abundance. My daughter’s room looked out on an expanse of lawn surrounded by pine trees. She had a comfortable bed, a desk, bookshelves, a wardrobe and a nice rug on the floor. It wasn’t dissimilar to her room in halls of residence at university.
It took her seven years to take the final vows. During those years, continuous training took place and no one stayed in this convent outside Vienna longer than one year. The order had overseas missions as well as hospitals and sisters in many Austrian villages.
Novices didn’t have much say in their postings, but decisions taken by the nuns were generally wise. Over the years special character traits, talents and knowledge will emerge, all of which would be considered when deciding in which part of the organisa tion a novice or young nun will be of most value.
The two weeks I spent there were an experience and something I would recommend to anybody, particularly the young high-flyers in today’s stressful jobs. They could learn from the teamwork in the convent and the “hour of meditation”. This meditation wasn’t a case of sitting in church submerged in prayer; quite the opposite. Late each afternoon the group of novices gathered in a loftroom under the guidance of an older nun. A short prayer was said, then events of the past day were discussed and the self was examined and laid open to praise or criticism by the others. Each novice had her say, a chance to “unload”, to appreciate, correct and work with each other, forming a cohesive group. This exploration of self was taken further by regular workshops where feelings were expressed in dance and playacting.
The novices who came from far corners of the world learned about each other’s cultures and sensitivities. Once a week all foreign novices went to Vienna where they attended German classes. Their life was busy and they probably worked longer hours than any high-flyer in the city, but they didn’t suffer their level of stress. This was probably due to the workshops and meditation sessions, but also due to the security of being part of an institution, a family, where each member had the same aims and goals, life was regulated, and no bills had to be paid by an individual.
There wasn’t much time alone with my daughter. And when we were together it seemed uncomfortable and conversation was always brought back to issues of her new life. She hinted that I ought to become Catholic too. Only then could I be sure of a place in heaven. But in the meantime, she’d pray for me. Once Catholic I could take Communion and go to Confessions. She knew perfectly well that I didn’t agree with this, or indeed many other aspects of Catholicism. So, instead of having a conversation about our different viewpoints, mine suddenly didn’t matter anymore. There was only one religion, one belief, one way to God and heaven. And damnation, it seemed, for everyone else. Who said “God is a Catholic”? My God is the universe, nature; my God is in everyone and everything around me; my God is neither vengeful nor selective. I didn’t want to argue – it would have spoiled our precious time together. I felt she’d changed already: she wasn’t the child I had brought up but seemed bound up in the confines of her religion, the wide margins of her views had narrowed and the world had closed in around her, or rather the dogmatism of the Church had erected walls in her mind.
That is how it seemed to me and I felt an acute loss and a sense of grief which was almost physically painful. I always maintained that my child didn’t belong to me, but that I was her guardian, responsible for nourishing and nurturing her to become a caring, honest, capable and happy adult. That I had done, and I was prepared to let her go, even to a God I didn’t necessarily believe in. But I had not expected that she, or rather her mind, would become inaccessible. I went through the beautiful woodland around the convent, cried, and argued with God – her God. In the wisdom of my years, however, I accepted that she had just chosen a different type of freedom.