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The sister stories: What will ex-BBC journalist Martina Purdy's new life in a religious community be like?

Two Belfast women tell Una Brankin why they entered the convent ... and what they found there

Political correspondent Martina Purdy's announcement that she's leaving the BBC for religious life has been met with astonishment from those outside her immediate circle – while some wags have speculated that trying to get a straight answer out of the Stormont gang has driven her to the nunnery.

Why would an attractive, intelligent young woman want to leave a well-paid coveted job to become "a bride of Christ" making altar bread? Well, for a start she's not the only one. Two young women are following suit and joining the Adoration Convent in west Belfast – a "contemplative community" – along with Martina, who has worked in the media for 25 years. And the nearby Sisters of the Cross and Passion order are currently considering a mother of two grown-up children as a novice.

Martina's vocation is a coup for convents after the bad press some have endured following the film Philomena, in which Judi Dench plays the real-life Irishwoman of the title whose infant son was forcibly adopted, and the various historical abuse inquiries which have been taking place across Ireland. And it comes in the wake of the remarkable outpouring of love and grieving for Sister Marie Duddy and Sister Frances Forde of the Sisters of Mercy order on Belfast's Crumlin Road, who were killed in a road accident near Newry last month. The published author and former headmistress were fine examples of the accomplished women of the modern orders, dynamic nuns who make a valuable contribution to their communities. Neither Martina nor her co-novices are ready to talk about their vocations, but we caught up with two longer serving Sisters who are happy to shine a light on their religious lives and to dispel some of the remaining myths about their callings.

'I loved dancing ... then a friend asked me about being a nun'

Belfast-born Dr Geraldine Smyth (65) is an associate professor with the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College Dublin and Belfast. From a mixed religious background, which sparked her interest in ecumenics, Sister Geraldine grew up on the Falls Road and joined the Dominican order in her late teens. She lives in a community of nine in Dublin. She says:

I first became aware of my calling walking home from St Dominic's with two school friends, and being asked if I ever thought of becoming nun.

I'd thought of doing languages or becoming a probation officer, but it planted a seed, and within a few days I was possessed by the idea that this was my vocation. It never left me. My family reacted with disbelief and shock when I initially joined a French order because they thought I wasn't the "type". I was involved in sport, dancing, socialising with female and male friends, travelling on my own and earning a bit of money with a Saturday job.

I entered the Sacred Hearts' Congregation in Weymouth, and from there went to Clones, and then to college. But it became clear that my spiritual home was with the Dominicans, and after seven years I found my way back there. It was a difficult decision, but it felt like a homecoming – "to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time", if I can crib from the poet TS Eliot.

I wept my way through Vespers on the first day, but when it came to standing up with others to sing the Magnificat canticle, words came to me that shook me out of it: "This is where you know you belong, so why the tears?" I dried my eyes. For the rest of the novitiate and in all the years ahead, that sense of joy in being deeply 'at home' has never left me.

I loved my eight years teaching in Dominican College, Portstewart. My ecumenical call grew strong there. Later, I had the privilege of serving in leadership of our congregation as its Prioress, and that opened me up more to being part of a larger mission and solidarity with the global Church and world, among our communities beyond Ireland in South Africa and Swaziland, Argentina and Brazil, Portugal and Louisiana. It stretched my understanding of the Church as "all in each place", that God can be found in many cultures and forms of faith and life, that the Holy Spirit moves and operates beyond as well as within the Church.

God for me is manifest in profoundly mothering as well as fathering ways. I have almost always been in education – "edu-care" is for me similar to what parents do – teaching to walk and talk, to be there with a listening ear, a word of wisdom or at times cautioning, encouraging, and letting the child find her or his own way. Love is in the letting go.

I have seven nieces and nephews in Belfast, and 21 grand-nieces and nephews – a great gift and challenge. But I don't think I'd have been patient enough to be a good parent, so I'm happy with my lot and have no regrets.

The hardest times are linked with what seemed to me our failure as a Church to really bring the vision of Vatican II into the mainstream life of the Church as the Pilgrim People of God, failing to risk pushing the boundaries of convinced institutional reform and of deep renewal of faith and ecumenical commitment. I'd love if we were more truly a thinking church, ready to listen more to how living the faith has changed for people as they think more about what their faith really means to them, about the kind of belonging that matters and about how to be more open in engaging with those beyond our own narrow ground.

Routines deaden us; closed systems corrupt our spirit and cut us off from life and from being a living, participating, searching, loving church. I truly long for that, and my lowest times are when I lose that in myself – routine, laziness, writing-off others, maintaining the system at all costs and turning our backs on the deeper wellsprings of our Christian tradition in favour of a 19th Century fossilised church.

Our community still has novices, but far fewer than when I entered in the mid-Sixties. There are always inquiries, and the process of discerning is quite rigorous. Two who have joined us Dominicans in recent years are in their 30s; one is Irish and one from elsewhere in Europe, who came here for theology studies. Each of them found their way through their particular circumstances, but for each, a key part of that was an encounter or work collaboration or friendship with a Dominican community or sister here in Ireland.

Religious women have worked hard at renewal and have let go of many of the securities of institutional life, have tried to be the Church within the world, opening up to wider forms of education, pastoral and health care. Communities are smaller, the amount of liturgical prayer has lessened (which I find a loss). I believe that we need to keep thinking and reflecting on how to be a quiet, constant flame of prayer and contemplation, and of living/preaching the good news of the Gospel on the street, in the workplace, engaging with and in the midst of the world."

SISTER GERALDINE'S DAY

6.15am: Rising time. After breakfast alone, I've my own quiet prayer time, followed by Morning Prayer/Lauds centred on the Psalms and Scriptural texts.

7.30am: Daily Mass in the university chaplaincy or an inner city.

8.10am: Depart to the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE), Trinity College Dublin (or 6.45am if travelling to ISE Belfast).

Our students come from all over the world to do Masters and doctoral courses in Peace and Reconciliation Studies, and in Ecumenical and Interreligious research, so it is wonderfully international and intercultural.

1pm: Snack with colleagues, or a working lunch in Belfast.

2pm-5.30pm: Meetings, moving all the time across the boundaries of education, churches and faith communities, the civic and secular world. These are all my home.

6pm: Home for Community Vespers, the evening prayer of the Church, then dinner with the community.

7pm: Reading, classical music, sometimes pizza or Chinese meal with friends. I like sacred choral and 18th century music, though Van Morrison, Tommy Sands and Mary Black still lift my spirits.

I also read a good deal of poetry. Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor is my spiritual home away from home – I take off there four times a year simply to be apart awhile and to enter into the liturgical rhythm of life and study.

10pm: Final visit to the third-floor oratory to sit and pray, and go over the day with a sense of God's presence and providence.

I look out over the lights and pray for the city and all who are celebrating or struggling.

I think of my own worries and then like John XXIII, my departing words are "okay, God, I'm going to bed now – so it is over to you now to take care of such-and-such".

Convents are quiet places at night, so once in the solitude of my room, I wind down the day, email/text messages to friends or students, read or listen to the radio. I try to have my light off by midnight.

Weekends: On Saturday nights I cook pasta for the community, and we chat and maybe watch a DVD. Some nights I have meetings or a college function, or a homily or seminar to prepare for a forthcoming parish or ecumenical event.

Spiritual or scriptural reading, writing and study are at the heart of Dominican life; we gather every Thursday evening for Lectio Divina – an ancient Church practice where we reflect together on the Sunday Gospel and its meaning and message for our lives, here, now.

Leisure: I relax for an hour or two a couple of times each week with a few others so inclined, with some un-improving TV – detective or legal drama such as Judge John Deed or Silent Witness.

I also download documentaries onto my iPad and watch in my own time – current affairs, travel shows, like Michael Palin, or the chef Rick Stein and First World War docu-dramas. We are blessed with so much excellent drama in this part of the world!"

'I've been happy since I became a nun'

Sister Rosaleen Murray (70), is celebrating 50 years as a nun with the Sisters of the Cross and Passion order this year. The daughter of a warehouse worker and a carer/dinner lady from St Matthew's parish in east Belfast, Rosaleen studied at Manchester University and Trinity College Dublin before becoming a teacher and working as a nun all over the world. She lives in an ordinary house with one other sister but belongs to a larger 'base community' of nuns that meets regularly to pray together. She says:

When I was about 15, I started thinking about religious life, but tried to ignore it. I didn't really want it. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it wouldn't go away and the only thing to do was to give it a try.

I remember walking past the City Hall one day and a young nun passed by with an older one. I got a glimpse of a future moment – if I continued to ignore this idea of being a nun, and if I did actually get married and even had children, what if the thought would always linger there underneath everything? That this was what I was meant to be? Could I ever be happy knowing that? I decided to exorcise it by doing it! I've been happy ever since.

When I made this decision, my family was not in good circumstances. My mother was widowed and my brothers were still at school. I only realised the significance of my mother's generosity years later and I am forever grateful to her for allowing me to follow my path.

My friends couldn't believe it. My brother thought that I was "too intelligent" to stay. I heard the comment about a "wasted life", and a priest who obviously had a "nun problem" bewailed the fact that I, an innocent, had been "snatched away" by the conniving sisters in the convent.

I entered in Dublin. I travelled there by train with my mother, my aunt and my youngest brother – my older brother couldn't face it. When I was left in the chapel and my mother had gone, I cried bitterly as I knew that I would miss her. My mother and brothers missed me terribly for years. In those days it was as though a woman entering the convent was lost to her family.

Since then, I have supported my mother through the last years of her life, accompanied her and my younger brother in their dying days (my older brother died suddenly), and buried all three of them. Ironically, the reality today is that it's often the family member who is in religious life that can serve the family best in difficult times.

My lowest points were when some of our Sisters died – the recent deaths of the two Sisters in Newry particularly shocked those of us that knew them. Also, abuse by religious people and clergy made me very sad and really challenged me, and made me question as I never had before.

I don't wear a habit; I felt unfree wearing it, as if I were in 'role'. For me, anyway, I am a better nun when I'm dressed like everyone else. I don't regret anything in the past. I don't believe in it. I am at peace with the person that I am today.

Nuns tend to live in smaller houses now – 'mission' is our driving force. If all of us lived in one community, we would only be able to be in one place.

It takes many years before final vows and ongoing daily discernment is necessary – being a nun is a lifestyle that sails against the tide and needs a very strong rudder.

SISTER ROSALEEN'S DAY

I don't really have a typical day. Each day brings with it its own call and it is listening for that call that brings me its meaning. Years ago, when I was a teacher in Dublin and the lifestyle followed that of monastic life, each day was exactly the same but the essential elements around which my day now is structured remain the same.

The foundation of each day is still prayer, work and community interaction, lived in faith. Personal prayer and meditation, a morning and night prayer, working for the part-time job that I have with the Conference of Religious and giving time to mission in other parts of the world (I am still engaged in activity in Bosnia and Herzegovina), all take time from my days.

My own pastimes include painting, reading and writing poetry. I love murder mysteries and am presently reading an old Donna Leon book set in Venice."

10 steps to becoming a nun

1) Be single — if you are married, an annulment recognised by the Catholic church must be obtained. Widows are viewed as single in the eyes of the church

2) Be aged between 18 and your 40s. Depending on the religious order, older women will be accepted

3) Be educated — most religious communities encourage their members to have some type of college education. Having at least a BA is preferable, but not necessary. Life experience, including professional experience, is also a plus

4) Have no dependents — many nuns nowadays have children but they must be fully grown before a nun enters the noviciate.

5) Be debt-free and healthy — most institutions prefer candidates that aren't overwhelmed by other issues and can fully devote themselves to God, though most will help the candidate address any debt issues.

6) Write a letter of interest stating your desire to join the chosen community and commit to the candidacy process — this usually lasts six months to two years, and gives time to bow out.

7) Start the pre-novitiate process, live with the order and work with the other sisters, while still managing your own expenses.

8) Enter the novitiate as a ‘novice’ member. Church law requires this to be a one-year period, though many communities take two. Choose a saint's name before taking your public vows (optional in some orders). You may also keep your Baptismal name.

9) Take your first vows. A nun takes only temporary vows that are renewed each year until final profession. At this point most nuns cut their hair short and receive a veil. A full-length scapular is supplied later.

10) Take your final vows. An elaborate process will be held where you receive a ring and other adornments to show the world your promise. (There are a couple of exceptions to these rules. The Jesuits' first vows are their final vows and the Sisters of Charity only ever take ever-renewable vows.)

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