Tyburn Convent is minutes away from one of the busiest street corners in London. An unobtrusive brown building overlooking Hyde Park, the monastery commemorates the city’s historic gallows. Petty criminals, failed revolutionaries, and Catholic martyrs all lost their lives on the Tyburn tree. In 1585, after Saint Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn and quartered at the Tyburn, Father Gregory Gunne told a British court, “You have slain the greatest man in England. I will add that one day there, where you have put him to death, a religious house will arise.” In 1903 Marie Adele Garnier, founder of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, a Benedictine order of nuns, fulfilled that prophecy. Today the monastery houses relics from Catholics martyred at the Tyburn; there are linens stained with the blood of Jesuits and a venerable collection of finger bones, vertebrae, hair, and fingernails. The shrine, a model of the three-legged gallows, is a grim reminder of England’s internecine religious history. Inside the small chapel, which is open to the public, there are white bars separating the nuns from those that come to pray. The monastery has sister convents around the world, the order stretching from Europe to South America. All are cloistered, the women living in self-imposed isolation behind the convent walls. They take new names, abandon their past, and spend most of their days in silence. Nothing could be further from the nearby bustle of Marble Arch. The other Tyburn namesake in the neighborhood is a pub.
I was brought up in a staunchly secular household. Nuns, when I thought of them at all, seemed like remnants from another age. Later I became aware of the convent’s more radical history. While religious orders have often reinforced gender roles, they have also offered women an independent space to study. From Hildegarde of Bingen to the Catalan social activist Sister Teresa Forcades, nuns have frequently been formidable intellectuals. Contemporary cloistered monasteries, however, are much easier to dismiss as curiosities, anachronistic and isolated. But it’s that removal from the world that may, ultimately, be of value to people, like myself, who are secular. Religion is not a place where most of us look for counter-culture. Cultural critiques are associated with the more familiar bohemianism of art and progressive politics: the Beat poets, hippies, Luddites, and punks. It’s worth asking whether that should still hold true in the 21st century? The role of counter-culture is to elicit discomfort, drawing attention to otherwise invisible assumptions about society. It may seem counterintuitive to look for inspiration in an institution as the hierarchical and traditionalist as the Catholic Church. But the old monastic ideal, with its separation from the world, could provide a vantage point to critique the way we live now. And so, with that in mind, I interviewed the Sisters at Tyburn Convent.
Sister Thomasina is a cheerful woman from India in her mid-50s. A former mental health nurse, she now wears the white robes of a novice. It is her first year in the convent. Thomasina laughs and shakes her head when I ask if her family was Catholic. “I come from a very communist background,” she tells me. Her father was a councillor in the Bangalore Communist Party and she spent her adolescence in its Youth League. The conversion was less painful than might be imagined. “Jesus,” she says “was a perfect communist, you know. In principle, if you take it literally, he did have a bias for the poor.” Her turn towards Catholicism began with a copy of Augustine’s City of God, bought on an outing with her university. After her conversion, she resisted pressure from her family to marry, turning down a proposal from her Buddhist table tennis partner. “In Buddhism you know, you have to work towards nirvana…And I’m so damn lazy,” she says laughing, “I thought, I can’t be doing all these things, even for love.”
This sacrifice of normal human intimacy is part of contemplative life. Women are drawn to this order from across the world, often at a great distance from family and friends. “For me it was a gradual process of losing family,” says Mother Lioba, who left her family in Australia. “There is a definite dividing line…You have to internally make that decision. So that what you’re doing is saying, okay, I’m leaving those things that are good in themselves and I’m taking the ultimate good which is God.” The question a contemplative must ask herself, she tells me, is: “I love my family, can I, do I, am I, called to love God more?”
Outside of the monastery it has become increasingly uncommon to hear any defense of solitude. We’re a culture that is afraid of loneliness, perhaps because it has become so common. More and more of us are living alone, often far away from where we might consider home. Long working hours leave little time to see friends or make new ones. The connections we make on social networks appear more like a simulacra of company. Despite, or maybe because of all this, it’s considered a failure not to be social. Which is one reason why the choice to enter a cloistered convent appears so jarring.
In this context, the convent provides the shock of the old rather than the shock of the new. Monastic life has fossilized a regard for solitude which has fallen out of favor elsewhere. Talking to the nuns, it’s apparent that part of monastic life is the struggle with time. Those of us in the outside world expect to be almost perpetually occupied. The other side of this quest for ceaseless activity is boredom, frustration, and the nagging fears that surface when we’re alone. Separated from their own history, from family and friends, the women of the Tyburn are left to contend with themselves. “If you’re in the world you have days when nothing’s right,” says Mother Lioba. “Either I’m not right or everyone else is not right. And usually it’s everyone else who’s not right….in the world you’ve got probably hundreds of things you can do that can draw you out of yourself…but in a monastery you don’t have most of those things.”
The Benedictine rule encourages self-knowledge by splitting the day between labor, prayer, and study. “To feed your prayer you have to study, and to mull over what you study that day you need manual labor,” says Sister Thomasina. The purpose is not individualism or self-realization, but the desire to become closer to God. “You have to die of your will. Your will is no longer your own. It’s not what you want to do…it’s what God wants you to do,” the Nigerian novice Sister Mary Jane tells me. The sentiment echoes Augustine’s Confessions: “How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self?” “One of the definitions of a spiritual life is that you have to know yourself,” Mother Lioba says. “Part of a monastic journey, which is really a spiritual journey, is facing who you are.”
The sacrifice this entails can be daunting. The Mother Prioress M. Catherine, a soft spoken British woman, entered the convent in 2001 at just 19. She remembers the experience fondly, but notes, “as a young person coming into the monastery it is quite a big transition to make. Just the demands of community life. The demands, probably, of a daily time table that’s very intensive and tight. And daily responsibilities and duties that you just never get away from.” Talking to the women here, however, there is a greater sense of contentment than hardship. They chose life in a convent because they feel called to it by God.
A sense of vocation is a common theme in the interviews. The word comes from the Latin, vocāre, “to call,” which is precisely how it is expressed by Sister Mary Jane. The feeling of needing to be here, she tells me, is “like outside somebody called you and you said, yes.” The form vocation takes varies. “It’s very personal,” the Mother Prioress explains, “Some people describe their call in terms of great peace…Some people talk about a nagging feeling…Some people might be reading something and it comes to them, this is what I need to do. Some people, it’s very specifically as a result of suffering.” As she leaves she tells me “I couldn’t say enough about how wonderful the life here is.”
If the past is a foreign country, so is faith. Which is precisely why faith has value even for those who have turned down Pascal’s wager. Most of us live in a heavily interconnected environment, sharing the same political and cultural vocabulary. While there are sharp divides in opinion, the idea of what constitutes a value is often shared by both sides of the political spectrum; what’s in dispute is the content or route towards that desired outcome. This results in a circulatory effect: social constructs and ideas are recycled. In this digital age, that closed loop can be particularly difficult to escape. It’s been argued that the web has a democratising effect, creating the opportunity for disparate voices to emerge. And while that may be true, it also has the effect of submerging all sides in the same medium, the same avenue of thought and expression.
The nuns of Tyburn Convent provide a more pronounced alternative to the way many of us live now. The women I spoke to have rejected status symbols, human comforts, and exterior validation. They cultivate an interior life that will invariably go unrecognized by most, pursuing knowledge for God’s sake alone. While visiting the convent did nothing to attract me to religion, the purpose of cultural critique is not to provide solutions but to pushback against complacency. By drawing attention to the nature of the choices we make, counter-culture compels us to interrogate who we are. It’s not necessary to follow the provisions of the convent’s critique in order to feel its value. Life in a cloistered convent is a reminder that the way our lives look is not inevitable; that the terms of personal contentment can change. In that sense, there is strain of independent thinking among the women of the Tyburn that’s revolutionary as any form of counter-culture. As I stepped into the underground after the interviews, I thought of the women listening to the rumble of trains beneath the convent floor; separate from the noise and crush of the crowds and praying for the passengers who ride the rail to Lancaster Gate. I’m glad they’re thinking of us.