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After spending half a century in an enclosed order, the former abbess of Stanbrook has just taken a year out at art school in East  London. “There is a danger that enclosed life can become automatic, a bit precious,” she explains. Maggie Fergusson meets her ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2008

Who knows how it really felt to be Rip Van Winkle? Joanna Jamieson, better than most. After 51 years as a Benedictine nun in an enclosed abbey in Worcestershire, she has just spent a year’s sabbatical at art school in Shoreditch. She arrived having never heard a Beatles song, never seen a James Bond film, never been to central London. The helter-skelter of city life was bewildering. But, as she re-enters her abbey, she admits, “There is an awful lot I’ll miss.”

It was in 1956, at the height of Suez, that Monica Jamieson (her baptismal name) abandoned a bright future as a mural painter to enter Stanbrook Abbey. Her parents were devastated, and even she was somewhat appalled. One of four children of an observant, but not excessively devout, Catholic family, she had chosen not to go to a convent school: “I wanted to be with ordinary people.” She has a soft, decisive, Scottish voice, and her apple cheeks and bright, hazel eyes make it hard to believe she is 73. “I didn’t like nuns. I didn’t like the way they asked, ‘What are you going to do when you’re grown up?’, and you knew they wanted you to be a sister. I was not going to be a sister. I was going to get married.”

Her talents were spotted early and she went to Glasgow School of Art. One evening the students were addressed by Dom Ninian Sloane, a Benedictine monk working on stained glass. At his suggestion, Jamieson travelled to Stanbrook to visit a talented religious painter, Dame Werburg Welch (Dame has always been used as a prefix by the Stanbrook community). Within months, she felt herself called to enter the abbey.

“On the level of feeling,” she explains, “this was not nice.” Aspects of monastic life struck her as life-denying, even sinister. The nuns talked to visitors, even from their families, through a stout double grille—“It reminded me of peering through bars at the preserved body of St Clare in Assisi. The negativity was overwhelming.” Yet she recognised that her most profound desire was to devote herself to prayer, and she believed implicitly in the leavening effects of enclosed communities on the lives of people in the wider world.

In Stanbrook, she had chosen a community that has been, down the centuries, a magnet for talented religious women. The best-known is Dame Laurentia McLachlan, abbess from 1931 to 1953, whose friendship with George Bernard Shaw and Sir Sydney Cockerell became the subject of a book, “The Nun, he Infidel and the Superman”, by another Stanbrook nun, Dame Felicitas Corrigan.

The book formed the basis for Hugh Whitemore’s play “The Best of Friends” (Patricia Routledge was so moved by playing Dame Laurentia in the second run of this that she returned to Stanbrook to make a retreat, and has become a close friend of the community). The play was made, in 1991, into a film starring John Gielgud as Cockerell.

Dame Felicitas herself was friends with Siegfried Sassoon, Alec Guinness and Rumer Godden. Iris Murdoch’s novel “The Bell” was inspired by her friendship with another Stanbrook sister. It’s been said that the abbey parlour is “never knowingly underused”. Yet the community Joanna joined was formidably enclosed. The abbess took a daily newspaper, but only snippets were shared. The nuns grew their own fruit and vegetables and wove the cloth for their habits, which had remained unchanged since 1625: thick, black tunic, leather belt, scapular, headband, wimple, veil. When Joanna sewed herself a lighter, more practical version for her work in the infirmary, the sister laundress was scandalised: “ ‘Dame Joanna’, she said, ‘you look like a film star on a biscuit box.’”

Change came late, but ineluctably. The grilles were removed in 1971; some nuns now travel to international meetings in “mufti”. Joanna was allowed to leave her habit behind when she came to London, so she sits beside me in a checked shirt, black trousers and trainers. But the discipline remains. The community rises at 5am and spends an hour in solitary prayer before gathering in the church for Vigils. The day is punctuated with five further Divine Offices before lights-out at 10pm. Meals are simple (a nun, St Benedict’s rule insists, “must never be overtaken by indigestion”). Apart from half an hour’s “recreation” in the afternoon, silence is observed.

It is a gruelling life, encapsulated early on for Joanna by scribbled words passed under her cell door by a lay sister: “I slept and dreamed that life was beauty./I woke and found that life was duty.”

She was able to develop her artistic talents only occasionally, when she was asked to decorate the refectory for feast days or to embroider vestments; but she was happy. What is good in itself, she decided, can sometimes be the enemy of what is best. To achieve what she wanted most—to learn to pray—she had to let her artistic talents go, like a stream slipping underground: “And I came to believe that no talent is ever lost, or wasted. Even when it is lying fallow, it can be used by God in other ways.”

She speaks with calm, conviction and strength: qualities that led the nuns of Stanbrook to elect her abbess in 1983 and to re-elect her in 1995. No wonder that when Dame Joanna stood down in the summer of 2007, after nearly a quarter of a century, she was instructed to take a year out to allow her successor to find her feet. Her predecessors had always spent sabbaticals in other Benedictine communities, so there were mixed reactions when she suggested art school. “But this God-given talent was so much a part of me, and of my prayer, that I felt it would be fruitful not just for me, but for the community, to revitalise it.”

When her application landed at the Prince’s Drawing School, its patron the Prince of Wales was discomfited: how would a septuagenarian Benedictine nun cope in a life-drawing class? But his staff argued that it was time the school did something to improve the lamentable state of art in the English Catholic Church. If Dame Joanna Jamieson could help with this, let her come.

The school gave her a bursary; her brother helped with her living expenses. Stanbrook lent her the convent mobile—soon to be returned (the vice of personal possession, writes St Benedict, “is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots”). A friend with sat-nav collected her at 5 o’clock one morning, for a day’s convent crawl, looking for digs. Two Ursuline sisters working near the Drawing School offered her a small room, where she did her best to observe the Benedictine rule, rising at 6am to pray, singing Vigils and Lauds against the roar of Hoxton traffic.

From 8am onwards, however, the relentless but reassuring Stanbrook routine was impossible to maintain. The first class, on the first day of term, was life drawing. “That was not a problem,” she laughs. At Glasgow, and as infirmarian at Stanbrook, she had seen plenty of flesh—to make the point, she is leaving the Prince a drawing of a male nude. It was only when the class finished at 1pm, and the students were asked to reassemble in the British Museum at 2pm, that panic took hold. She had never been to the British Museum, had never come closer to central London than Ealing Abbey. As the other students strode confidently out of the studio, she struggled to keep her anxiety in check: “I had to keep saying to myself, ‘Stop it, Joanna! Stop it!’ I knew that I was abandoned to God, and I prayed as I have never prayed before.”

Her tutors and fellow students, most in their early 20s, were kind, hard-working, impressive: “I’ve been profoundly edified by almost everyone I’ve met here.” But facets of their lives astonished her. “I couldn’t believe all this going away for weekends—and abroad! They’d come in on a Monday and talk about exhibitions they’d seen in Paris, Rome, Madrid. Mind-boggling!” The contemporary artists they discussed—Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst—were not even names to her, and monastic life had given her no facility for chit-chat (“In much speaking”, warns St Benedict, “you will not escape sin”). Conversation left her stranded and weary.

Yet more profoundly unsettling than the challenges she faced at the Drawing School were her observations of the lives of Londoners. There was “wonder” in what she saw—after a lifetime surrounded by habits, she delighted in the way people dressed—but there was much sadness too. “So many faces looked tense, depressed. So many seemed lost.” If she were to paint an impressionistic picture of the city, she says, it would consist of “street after street of people in black, take-away coffee in one hand, mobile in the other, rushing, always rushing—as if time was a tyrant, rather than a gift.”

The population of the parish she lived in was 75% Nigerian (“This was extraordinary to me. I hardly heard an English voice”) and one of the nuns she lodged with worked with drug addicts. “I had never encountered people ruining their lives with drugs,” she says, “or with alcohol. I watched people spilling out of the pubs, drunk, as I walked home, and I was amazed. Is it an escape? I don’t know.”

The lack of a sense of belonging, of community, was epitomised for her in the Hoxton litter: “It was just disgusting, people throwing down whatever they had in their hands—beer cans, cigarettes. It seemed to show a complete lack of self-respect.”

On Guy Fawkes Night, a small boy threw a squib that exploded at her feet. At Stanbrook she had been protected from noise, but the constant hum of London’s East End, and the tinny throb of iPods on the bus, was overwhelming: “At first I asked myself, ‘What does it do to people’s ears?’ And then I thought, ‘What does it do to their minds, and hearts?’ How can you integrate life’s experiences if you are always plugged into something superficial?”

The rich, as well as the poor, saddened her—“those for whom life seemed to have no meaning beyond money”. And she was shocked to find herself assaulted with advertising almost wherever she turned: “these great screens, moving and interacting, telling you that sex, money, holidays will make you happy. These things can never satisfy the human heart.”

As she talks, she gives no impression of superiority or judgment. Perhaps, shielded from the attrition of the world, she has been frozen in girlhood, her critical faculties undeveloped. Or perhaps it is something deeper. “We are all made in God’s image,” she says, “and I felt shoulder-to-shoulder with the people I saw.” Paradoxically, the feeling that the world has gone so awry indicates for Joanna that everything is on track: “The scriptures tell us that things will get very bad, don’t they? But God will never abandon us.” She quotes from Deuteronomy: “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”

By the time she returned to Stanbrook for Christmas, she was so exhausted by her new experiences that the abbess urged her to stay. But she could not consider quitting. For all its challenges, her sabbatical year was proving richer than she had dreamed. In the National Gallery, she was drawing from Poussin, Veronese, Rubens—“and I can’t find words to describe how liberating and thrilling it was to spend time with their work.” She turns the pages of her sketchbook with excitement: “This was the afternoon a mother with her baby came in to sit for us. I would never have seen this in the abbey! Weren’t we lucky?”

Her faith gave her work an impetus that the tutors commended: “Joanna is motivated”, one of them told the class, “because she knows what she believes. She has something to say.” In turn, she found her vocation refreshed: “There is a danger that enclosed life can become automatic, a bit precious.” So how will it be to arrive back at the abbey, to relinquish the mobile, to return to her cell? While she says firmly “Stanbrook is my home,” there’s wistfulness, too, as she considers what she leaves behind. “I will miss the challenge of the tutors,” she says; and, although she hopes the community will let her continue to paint, she will miss the interaction with other artists. “Art is communication, and if you can’t communicate, you can’t progress.”

It is lunchtime when we finish speaking, and the warm afternoon ahead offers Dame Joanna her last few hours of freedom in London. She wants to spend them drawing, and she wonders where to go, like a prisoner choosing a last meal. I watch her heading off, decision made, towards the National Portrait Gallery. Here is a woman who has discovered the mysterious kinship between sacrifice and fulfilment; whose life is founded on a rare conviction about what matters most. “In the end”, she says, “prayer is more profoundly creative than art can ever be.”

Picture credit: Jillian Edelstein, mrpattersonsir (via Flickr)

(Maggie Fergusson is a biographer who won four prizes for "George Mackay Brown: The Life", published by John Murray.)