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From sisterhood to motherhood

by
06 March 2015

Eleanor Stewart exchanged her convent vows for a secular life in the Swinging Sixties, followed by marriage and family. She talks candidly to Jemima Thackray

Fast forward: Eleanor Stewart on the day of her "clothing"

Fast forward: Eleanor Stewart on the day of her "clothing"

"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 towards adoption.

"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 outrageous fortune".


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 unhappiness".

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 parents.


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 general".

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 baby".

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 fantastic".

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 says.

"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 those feelings."


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 with light."

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.

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