A monochrome figure prostrate before the altar, contemplating the Almighty is most probably how one imagines a nun, but what of the life of the sister beyond the hallowed walls of the chapel? It transpires that, outwardly, between services the life of the contemporary contemplative is not all that distant from our own – nor any less colourful.
Video: The life of the contemporary contemplative
For the six Anglican Benedictine sisters of the Community of the Holy Cross, Costock after the breakfast toss-up between marmite or marmalade on toast – thickly-sliced at the insistence of Sister Mary Bernadette – it is such reassuringly normal activities as ironing, internet grocery shopping and mowing that consume their days, and, far from being a sombre atmosphere, it is laughter that resounds through the cloisters.
Video: Staff offer their perspective on life at the Convent
For the Benedictine contemplative such apparent mundanity is nonetheless imbued with spiritual significance. Daily tasks are not flights from the Father but additional modes of worship that complement the seven-fold Office of Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, plus Mass, to which the Rule of St Benedict commits the sisters daily. Indeed their Rule instructs its adherents to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar”. However, the elevation of anodyne tasks requires that they be performed reflectively, prayerfully and without distraction: ‘God needs to be heard in the midst of everyday activities’, explains Sister Mary Julian, ‘and such contemplation requires peace’.
Image: Statue of St Benedict at the Holy Cross Convent
It is this need that contributed to the Community’s decision to relocate to Costock from Rempstone in 2011. The 18th century Grade II listed Rempstone Hall, the setting of which had at first proved idyllic when the sisters moved from Sussex in 1979, had become increasingly less so as the nearby road grew ever busier with freight and commuter traffic. Therefore, following the death of the last infirm sister in 2007, the nuns decided that the time was fitting to seek a home more suited to the rhythms of the religious life.
Image: Rempstone Hall
They found it some three miles away in the form of a substantial Georgian farmhouse and collection of farm buildings, situated down a long farm track and shielded in every direction by its 27 acre grounds. It was not, however, in the 1729 Grade II listed dwelling that they sought to live but rather the farm buildings, the relative positioning of which created a central quadrangle which mimicked the architectural layout of a traditional medieval monastery. The farmhouse was to become a guest house for laypersons seeking a residential retreat. It took some four years to negotiate the property’s purchase and for its conversion to be completed, during which time their sprawling mansion in Rempstone, purchased in 1979 for £110,000, was put on the market at £2.5 million.
Image: Architectural model of the quadrangular convent at Costock
Since taking up residence in their new home in Spring 2011, bird song has replaced traffic noise as the sound to which the sisters awake from their cells in the converted cattle shed. ‘Now we really can do as St Benedict beseeches us’, explains Sister Mary Julian, ‘we can “seek peace and pursue it”‘.
To learn more about the Commmuntiy of the Holy Cross click here.