I'm sat in a house-share in Willesden, north London, talking to a 29-year-old woman about love, relationships and vows. But while most 29-year-old women might be discussing the pros and cons of marriage over their tea, or where to go for a cheap dinner with their other half this weekend, Theo is talking about a different kind of union altogether. In a few years time, her vows will be given, not to a husband or wife, but to God.
Like 44 other women in 2014, Theodora Hawksley has opted to become a nun and is now taking her first tentative steps into religious life. A growing number of young British women under 30 are doing the same. In fact, statistics from the Catholic Church in England and Wales reveal that the number of women entering convent life has hit a 25-year high, up from just seven entrants in 2004.
All this is happening despite steadily decreasing church attendance (according to Faith Survey, weekly Catholic mass attendance fell over 30 percent between 1993 and 2010) and a gradual disengagement from the public as the Catholic church struggles to combat its, er, PR problems, and a global rise in secularism.
Sr Cathy Jones, Religious Life Vocations Promoter at the National Office for Vocation, gives a little more context: "The numbers of women entering religious life in England and Wales has been steadily increasing over the past decade, having reached an all-time low ten years ago," she explains.
Why? What makes being celibate and entering into a vow with God and only God attractive to young, educated women in 2015?
The way the Catholic church has been concentrating their efforts in recent years to engage with the general public in order to demystify religious life, especially for women, might have something to do with it. "The vast majority of men will go on to become priests and the Catholic priest has a very clear identifiable role, while what religious women do has been and still is a mystery to many," says Jones. "This is why it has been particularly important that apostolic religious women have worked to make what they actually do, and why they do what they do, more easily known and understood."
The internet has obviously helped the church to be more visible and accessible to potential nuns and sisters, too. "Nowadays, anyone wanting to know about becoming a nun or a sister goes to Google first," Jones explains. "Convents are aware of this and most now have websites and a growing number are present on social media. This all helps to 'normalise' religious life as one way of serving God as a Catholic and makes finding out about the many different types of convent as easy as possible."
Not only that, but "come-and-see" weekends and open-days give women an opportunity to try out different convents, which is what Theo did before she chose the Congregation of Jesus.
As I knock on her door, any Sister Act preconceptions are shattered immediately. A young, cool-looking woman with short dark hair greets me, wearing a denim shirt and jeans. I don't know what I expected, to be honest, but she's not wearing a habit. "In the beginning of the 60s, lots of religious stopped wearing habits. But people have no idea," Theo tells me later. "They think they all just disappeared or died out like the dinosaurs. They're wearing normal clothes. You pass them in the street and you don't even know it."
A thought flashes in my head as Theo searches through the cupboards for a clean tea mug – that she could be any one of my friends. She's funny, sweet and charismatic. There is nothing in the way she talks or holds herself that screams "God" or religion. Nothing "other" about her whatsoever. Until, that is, she makes a quick aside about her house's washing-up situation. Theo's housemate likes to wash-up, she tells me, but her eyesight isn't the best. Said housemate is an octogenarian Sister of the Congregation of Jesus. Theo lives with "three [nuns] roughly the age of my parents and three roughly the age of my grandparents" who look back to the Jesuits as their founding influence.
Established in 1609 by Mary Ward, the Congregation of Jesus (or "CJs" as Theo refers to them) was one of the first to be founded for women who, according to Theo, wished to be "out and about in the world", "didn't wear distinctive dress" and favoured active ministry over contemplative life. "There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things," declared Ward in 1617.
In 2015, Ward's hope for women to "do great things" is now inspiring a new generation, and, in January this year, Theo left her postdoctoral research post at University in Edinburgh. Fittingly, she was received as a Postulant – a person who aspires to religious life but has not been admitted into a particular order yet – on the 370th anniversary of Mary Ward's death in 1645.
But isn't 29 a very young age to commit to a religious life, though? How do you know?
"Well, it's the average age for getting married and it's pretty much the same commitment, right?" Theo says, smiling. But I can't help but wonder whether the threefold vows of poverty, chastity and obedience aren't a far greater undertaking for a woman yet to hit 30. I am, evidently, mistaken.
"I can understand how it looks like an ordinary life from which you've removed the ability to decide for yourself (obedience), the ability to have relationships and sex (chastity) and the ability to have your own money (poverty). It looks like a life you've squished."
"My parents got married at 20, so I come from a background where making a life-shaping commitment at an early age isn't a big deal," she says, laughing this time. "I'm ready for it now at 29 in a way I wasn't when I was 21. The emotional maturity wasn't necessarily there. The experience I had in the intervening years was very important."
Which brings us to the next preconception-smasher. The big one: love.
Theo has been in love before. With someone other than God. In her early 20s, when she struggled to find an order that suited her, she "fell head-over-heels in love with someone" and had a relationship for over a year. Describing the relationship as a "hugely important experience", she says it made her "understand love better", what it was that she had to give, but also what she "had to give up."
As the words leave her mouth, I'm at once inspired but also feel pain. She's talking about the knowledge of a kind of love she'll never experience again. Doesn't having those memories make it harder to give it up? The answer, for Theo, is no. "The fundamental question is, 'where will I love best?'"
"For a lot of people you're going to love best in marriage and family life. I come from a large and very happy family and so I've had the best kind of introduction to that but, for all that, it was never something that particularly drew me."
What do her friends think about it?
"I think most of them saw it coming to be honest. They were much happier about it than I thought they'd be. It's not like I'm entering the porn industry or anything," she laughs. Some of Theo's social circle have struggled with her decision, though, expressing concern over what they see as a "narrowing" of her life. Theo – obviously – doesn't see it that way, but can see how people do.
"I can understand how it looks like an ordinary life from which you've removed the ability to decide for yourself (obedience), the ability to have relationships and sex (chastity) and the ability to have your own money (poverty)," she says. "It looks like a life you've squished."
So what is the main attraction?
"I think it's a very free life," she says. "And if you live the vows well you can become someone who is free from the games people play with money, sex and power."
Freedom isn't a word often associated with religious life when you consider the vows. But with more young women committing to convent life, the cloistered stereotype is finally being challenged. As I scroll through the latest facts and figures, I find many accounts of nuns undertaking social outreach work in the community and am drawn to a women's centre in King's Cross, Women at the Well, developed by the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy who describe themselves as "a diverse group of Roman Catholic Women…with a special concern for women and children."
The centre is dedicated to supporting vulnerable women with a range of complex needs, often relating to street-based prostitution, trafficking and rough sleeping, and is run by by Sister Lynda Dearlove, who has been working with women in the east end of London for 10 years. As Jones reiterates, apart from enclosed nuns, all religious sisters will be involved in social outreach in one way or another. Some do this in traditional ways such as teaching or nursing, but others reach out to those very much on the margins of society, such as refugees or those who are victims of trafficking."
The CJs are no different, and involve themselves in a diverse range of social work. "We don't have a 'common' work," Theo says. "We engage in different ministries depending on what suits the person and what's needed in the world." This "engagement" could include working in schools, prisons and hospitals. For instance, Theo lives with a university lecturer, a child psychotherapist, a student and three older sisters including "one who works in the diocese even though she's in her eighties."
Does Jones really believe that such social outreach coupled with an increase in younger entrants might change the general public's assumptions about what it really means to be a nun?
"I would hope so," she replies. "Although I am very aware of how influential the images we have from The Sound of Music, Sister Act and Call the Midwife are…"
For Theo, being a nun sometimes isn't that far removed from being a barman or a hairdresser. "Everyone tells you everything," she says. "I'm already in the position where I'm having extraordinarily privileged access to people's lives because you become publicly available to people. They trust themselves to you. I'm free in one sense to love more widely."
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