My father was the intelligent sort of atheist who took his unbelief from life and literature. My mother, on the other hand, was the practical sort of atheist who threw salt over her shoulder, read the stars and consulted mediums in a crisis. Once asked if God existed she replied: “Well, I suppose so dear; does it make any difference?”
My father’s work included a lot of travel and I had the bracing experience of going to 11 different schools. But, on the whole, education reinforced my parent’s position. Inside myself I felt that God existed, but I didn’t have arguments with which to confront my father – and I suppose I would have needed miracles to convince my mother.
This is an uncompromisingly grim way to bring up a child and, purely as an aside, my parents were not a very happy pair. By the time I was nine, in a godless and quarrelling universe, I had had enough; there really was so little to live for. So I wrote a kindly suicide note explaining to my parents (wrongly, as it happened) that it could not be their fault that there was no God and, leaving a lock of my hair, I headed for the 70ft drop at the top of the local clay pit and stood there crumbling the edge with my toes. From, as it seemed, nowhere, a completely new idea came into my mind: if I went on trying to be alive perhaps Somebody would love me. I had no idea who Somebody might be. I went home, quietly disposed of my suicide note and went on living – partially.
Into this vacuum, and denied by almost everything and everyone around me, a relationship started to grow. As a small child I had seen a television repeat of the ancient film Love and the Perfect Stranger, in which a journalist (played by Jack Lemmon), waking up after a particularly unmemorable party, discovers that he is in bed with a lady. He does not find this odd until he perceives pinned to the bed head a marriage certificate and his beautiful bedfellow opens her eyes and addresses him in a language he does not speak. This describes, as far as it is possible, my growing relationship with a God of no name whom everyone insisted did not exist, or had recently died.
I had a gap year between school and university and as soon as I could decently do so after my 18th birthday I left home. When I told my father I was going to do some sort of social work in the interim with the Missionaries of Charity in London he cut me off with the original shilling (to be strictly truthful, £10 in the bank).
Without warning, I was dropped into a world of both apparent and genuine faith. It was a shock, but not anything like so big a shock as attending Mass for the first time. I did not understand what the words “This is my body” meant or, indeed, if it meant anything. I firmly told myself to avoid further Catholic rituals, but I was hooked – and whatever it was I wanted it.
Working beside the Missionaries of Charity with the destitute and helping to lay out my first corpse, I could see that life was too urgent to spare time taking up a university place.
One hot day in Notting Hill, west London, an old Irish prostitute who had seen me with the Sisters called me in. She had cancer of the bowel and was dying. I tried to help tidy her up and she said to me: “Pray for me!”
I said: “I don’t know any prayers.”
She ignored me: “Say the rosary.”
I said: “I don’t know the rosary.”
“You know the Our Father,” she insisted, truly.
She taught me the Hail Mary and I repeated it after her. She died the following day.
Later, I was holding the hand of one of many drug addicts who drifted in and out of the Sisters’ care she told me her heart-rending life story and said to me: “What can I do?” I did not have any answers of my own so I said: “I suppose, as the Sisters would say, you will have to trust God.”
There is nothing like giving advice for having to take it oneself! The Sisters’ “chapel” had a life-sized altar crammed into what had been a big bedroom. The only window was covered by a saffron curtain. We sat on the floor. The furthest place from the altar was scarcely 10 feet away. I was in the furthest place. Presently, I took to sneaking of to attend the Eucharist, in the security of the back row of Our Lady off the Angels in London and later, daily, in the back row of Blackfriars, Leicester. No one spoke to me – and I did not want to be spoken to; it was all too new.
After my time with the Missionaries of Charity I was looking for somewhere to think and pray – whatever that might be. The Sisters suggested that, purely as I did not eat meat, I should go to stay for a while with the Poor Clare Colettines. I did not “think” about a religious vocation: the Lord said (to borrow a phrase from Aesop): “Here is Rhodes, jump!”
Someone had given me a much outdated copy of the Penny Catechism and there were about 100 unexplained assertions which struck me as unlikely. But I wanted God and unnervingly, even shockingly, God wanted me. So I was received into the Catholic Church shortly after my 19th birthday.
I became a Colettine and, to come out of my world and land on a Franciscan planet governed by openness, affection, forgiveness and understanding, was an experience I cannot describe with adequate gratitude and humbled amazement, even now. My novice mistress said to me: “You will weep more and you will laugh more and every day will be new in a way that you would never experience in any other form of life…”
Sister Juliana is one of the community of Poor Clare Colettines in Hawarden, North Wales. For more information, visit Poorclarestmd.org
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 14/6/13