"I STILL make bad decisions all the time, even aged 72," Eleanor
Stewart says within five minutes of our meeting. This candour
characterises her memoir, Breaking the Habit, and its
recently published sequel, New Habits. Together, they
chronicle her years as a Roman Catholic nun, starting in a French
convent as a teenage novice, and working to- wards her
all-important final vows before returning to Liverpool, where she
trained as a midwife, something that instilled a "maternal
yearning" that was so strong that it eventually propelled her to
leave her order.
It was a crucial decision that continues to haunt her: "I still
dream about it all the time. I am always in France - I see my
novice mistress saying 'Come back,' and I feel so torn, and
invariably wake up weeping."
Once she had returned to the secular world, her life took a
dramatic turn as she joined the Swinging Sixties, discovering
music, parties, and sex, while continuing to develop her midwifery
career. It was only years later, when life settled down and she was
happily married, that Eleanor discovered that she could not
conceive, and the couple had to embark on an emotional journey
"It was my own irresponsible behaviour that deprived us of
natural children," she says, referring to the fact that her
infertility was partly due to contracting chlamydia, a subject that
she writes openly about in the book.
"I just don't see the point in hiding anything," is her only
explanation for such frankness, as if the events of her
extraordinary seven decades, laid bare in her writing, have taught
her the futility of trying to control life - whether the
impressions that others have of her, or the circumstances of life,
which can so easily be derailed by "the slings and arrows of
THE fact that one of those decades was spent in a convent
partially explains why her "powers of truthful self-analysis are so
fine-tuned, having rubbed up so closely against other people for
such a while". As a result, she is almost brutal in her
self-appraisal: "I came to realise during my time in the community
that I was very full of myself, a natural show-off."
Indeed, she never shrinks from the truth. This includes her
description of an incident as a novice when - wary of the customary
Gallic lavatory which was no more than a hole in the floor - she
describes how she "urinated luxuriously into the sink".
More seriously, reflecting on her departure from the religious
life, she believes that, had she been "more obedient in spirit,
more ready to submit, more humble, more conciliating, more
nun-like, I might have saved myself, and others, a good deal of
Yet her writing never slides into being an exercise in self-help
or catharsis; there remains a steely pragmatism, and an outward
focus to her honesty: the understanding that there are wider
implications when you tell the truth, and a level of responsibility
that comes with it.
"When I wrote the book, I had been reading a lot about chlamydia
being on the rise," she says. "So I felt a little campaign coming
on. I really felt it was important to tell my experience
truthfully, to raise awareness."
There are, in fact, several "little campaigns" throughout both
memoirs, including a critique of what she calls the "grim adoption
system", with which she endured several protracted battles, during
the process of expanding their family to include, first, a
ten-week-old baby daughter, and, later, a 15-month-old son.
Not only does she paint an agonising picture of waiting and
delay caused by unnecessary bureaucracy: she reflects on many other
challenges, including the general naïvety at the time about the
damaging effect of removing children from their natural
SHE describes "the expression of deep and lonely grief" on her
son's face, and yet admits that neither she nor the local authority
realised the full ramifications of this anguish. "People thought
that if you took a child and put it in a stable, loving family,
then it would be OK. None of us had any idea about the lasting
effect all that psychological harm would have."
Other weighty social issues are treated with the light touch of
personal detail, and humour. Mrs Stewart's training as a nurse and
midwife brings her close to "the serious issues of life and death,
pain, sorrow, and loss", and the harsh reality of social inequality
- which she calls "the combination of poverty, poor health, and bad
housing", which often leads to "a passive resignation to life in
She describes one especially poignant incident, a visit to "John
Fitzgerald Kennedy Heights, one of the grim tower-blocks set in a
savage landscape," to find a "frightened 15-year-old mother who
looked about 12 . . . [and] who was completely unprepared for her
The delivery that followed, and the "raptures of delight"
experienced by those present, only served to increase Mrs Stewart's
fascination with maternity, and the "wonder and magic" of
childbirth, which she describes as "messy, and bloody, and
She has no misplaced romanticism, however, when it comes to her
own experience of motherhood, calling it one of the "biggest
disil-lusionments" of her adult life. She elaborates on this
description: "I thought I would enjoy it, and be good at it," she
"It was the reason I came out of the convent. But then, of
course, I couldn't have my own babies. And when I had my two
adopted children, I had unrealistic expectations - there were
moments of great disappointment, and anger, and then shame about
ANOTHER fascinating passage touches on a burgeoning controversy
within the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, when she was asked
to use her gynaecological knowledge to give a talk to the other
Sisters on birth control. "The papal encyclical Humanae
Vitae was not promulgated until 1968, but there was a great
deal of discussion going on about contraception. The Church was in
a ferment of angst about it, and it was widely believed -
erroneously, as it happened - that there would be some concessions
made, because the Pill was viewed by many Catholics as being quite
acceptable . . . So when I said that the rhythm method was the only
one allowed by the Church, [the nuns] simply looked at each other
in silent bewilderment."
Mrs Stewart remains dismissive of the Roman Catholic Church's
official position on contraception (which was upheld by Pope
Francis last month): "It's ridiculous. I don't know any Western
Catholics who don't use birth control."
She learnt this discriminating approach to doctrine from her
first convent, where she gained first-hand experience of "the
pragmatic nature of French Catholicism", which contrasted so
unfortunately with the pernickety, "hierarchical and Victorian"
approach of the convent she ended up at in the UK.
Whereas the English were fastidious to the degree that "there
was no social interaction with the lay staff," and "nothing
discussed outside the narrow confines of the community", her French
Sisters seemed to have a "greater spirituality". It was a
spirituality that "believed there were hoops to be jumped through,
but that God could cope with all the nonsense; that there were far
more important things to be going on with".
These examples of this contrasting spirituality are spoken of
throughout the book as "black-pudding moments", in reference to an
incident during an outing from her French convent.
On the way home, their van driver and a senior nun stopped at a
farm: "Suddenly, there was the most appalling squeal, and a
prolonged sort of bubbling gurgle. We stared, appalled, at each
other, and then tremblingly continued, 'I think they were killing a
pig!' . . . This was a quid pro quo arrangement: the convent got
the blood. . . Our Englishness was so obviously in conflict with
Gallic behaviour that we were silent."
THERE are many other spiritual insights delivered through
anecdote. Convent life, in particular, is described as being full
of small challenges that yield large lessons. The shared deodorant,
the compulsory meal-portions that turn her from "a slim size ten to
a very rotund size 16 in six months"; the importance of the making
sure that the "minutest detail" of her nun's habit was correct,
even the "width of each pleat, the height of the hem" -all teaching
her that "the essence of religious life was to do the ordinary as
if it were extraordinary, and that the road to perfection was paved
with the minutiae of the everyday."
There was an occasional moment of transcendence, too. One
especially vivid experience occurred when she was praying in an
orchard, when she "fell into a sort of reverie. I felt suspended,
weightless, and lost all sense of time and place. Under my toes,
the soil was warm, and I was overwhelmed with a deep and wonderful
tranquillity, a certainty that I was in God's presence, and that he
knew and loved me. The moment was all-encompassing. I felt flooded
The impression of rapid and exciting spiritual growth makes the
first memoir almost a spiritual page-turner, as we witness a young
girl, who starts out knowing God in a "vague sort of way", learn
that the religious life was not just about "being called to serve,
and to love in a general kind of way, but to enter into an
intimate, and unique relationship with God . . . to live as if the
invisible were tangible".
Although the intensity lessened - inevitably so - as her focus
shifted towards life outside the convent, and her midwifery work,
many of the insights and revelations of divine love were carried
into her medical life. For example, she found it "astonishing how
many people felt that illness was a punishment for sin", and she
describes feeling "deeply sorry and sad that [they] should believe
in such a malicious and frightening God". As she says elsewhere:
"The wrath of God? Surely not; not the God I knew, anyway."
INDEED, the pointlessness of religious guilt is a recurring theme
that she treats with the same practicality. She describes being
profoundly affected by "the words of a priest who gave us lectures
on moral philosophy. Guilt, he said, was pathological, and has
nothing to do with regret or contrition. Mental hospitals are full
of people consumed by guilt, and some of the worst human beings
feel no guilt at all for their appalling actions."
The subject of prayer is also addressed with a lack of
sentimentality: "I'm not a great one for asking God to intervene in
our everyday affairs," she writes, "I always feel it makes it all
so arbitrary. Prayer, I think, helps and comforts those who pray,
puts them in touch with the divine, lifts them above the purely
material, and brings solace."
Nevertheless, for all her cool pragmatism, her conclusions never
lack empathy with human suffering, and the anguish that she has
helped so many people cope with through her years of service.
"Sometimes, when I see terrible injustice and pain, I think a
little miracle, a little blast from God, would help," she says.
"But, when I think rationally, I know this isn't how God works. He
lets us make choices in this world, and we have to clear up the
mess ourselves. He just doesn't think like us.
"I often remember the line from Shakespeare, and I imagine God
saying it to himself: 'Lord, what fools these mortals be.'"
Kicking the Habit by Eleanor Stewart is published by Lion at
£8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09 - Use code
CT656 ), as is her book New Habits.