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Book review: Cloistered: My years as a nun by Catherine Coldstream

08 March 2024

Lavinia Byrne considers a nun whose trust in her community was broken

AN ENCLOSED religious community, like all other ecosystems, generates its own tensions. The demands of silence, the dumbing-down effects of the common life, the unregulated power networks — all must be negotiated for the thing to work. The common glue has to be solid.

What is this common glue? The basic human value of trust.

When Catherine Coldstream joined the Carmelite community of enclosed nuns at the Priory she chooses to call Akenside, in Northumberland in the early 1990s, she was a young woman in her twenties. A recent convert to Catholicism and, as she admits herself, still struggling with the jumble of feelings that resulted from her father’s death, she came looking for the Life. It manifested itself to her in the assortment of customs and externals which made this life so very different from the one that she had previously enjoyed as a child in London and music student in Paris.

She discovered the matraca that woke the nuns in the early morning, her beloved cell, the clothes that she would wear, the grille that separated her from the outside world, the hours that measured out time, and, of course, her fellow Sisters.

Over the following years, she found herself embracing the Way as she learnt the antiquated methods by which this venerable institution in fact functioned. The book is beautifully written, and never more so than when time seems to slow down in these middle chapters. Yet, along with the emergence of the Sisters as people, we now see the unfolding of personality.

Unsurprisingly, the final section, “The Truth”, has the full reveal. Coldstream’s trust is totally eroded as she experiences withdrawal and alienation. Her judgement is questioned; her suitability is undermined; her integrity is compromised. She is even physically attacked.

Through the intervention of a Franciscan, Fr Raphael, and after a serious physical breakdown, she left the community, all trust gone; and now she can look back on all that was benign about her years as a Carmelite and acknowledge how the charism became part of her. She can also stand by her account of the trauma that broke her trust in an ecosystem that she sought out with so much passion and desire.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

Cloistered: My years as a nun
Catherine Coldstream
Chatto & Windus £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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