There was a Golden Jubilee celebration yesterday for our friend Polly. Polly is a nun. She was celebrating fifty years of being a nun.
I still cannot imagine this. Polly went into the novitiate at eighteen. She made her mind up not to marry, not to have children, not to have the freedom to choose - and she has stuck with it. I have often wondered whether she, and others like her, have ever regretted the choice. Perhaps it would be easier to understand if I was Catholic? I do not know.
Polly had Mass to celebrate of course. It was not a sombre formal affair however. It was not held in a church. There were little formal bits but very little ritual. Her fellow sisters and her extended family actively participated. Her uncle, a retired Archbishop, spoke with humour -and kept it short. The kids behaved perfectly.
When Polly started out she had to wear a habit, had to keep her hair covered. Her meals were taken in silence while one of the nuns read from a religious tome. Polly never went out alone and was permitted visits by family on only rare occasions. How an eighteen year old could handle all of that I do not know.
Polly was not wearing a habit yesterday. I do not know if she owns one, possibly not. One of her fellow nuns was in jeans and most of them were wearing trousers, none of them had their hair covered. They go out alone. They travel abroad. They visit family and friends. Polly takes it in turn to run the Sunday service held on the grounds of the convent where she and others live in single units and small groups alongside lay people.
When I was a child there was a Catholic orphanage not far from the home of my paternal grandparents. We were conscious of it because my grandfather, a staunch Presbyterian and church elder, would regularly drop boxes of fruit on their doorstep. He would ring the bell and then leave. There was no communication between them but they must have known who it was because three of them turned up at his funeral - in the days before it was at all the 'done' thing.
Looking back on that I suspect there was a desire for change then, a desire for communication with the outside world. To shut yourself away is not natural.
On giving her brief thankyou speech to the gathering Polly told us that, early on, her Mother Superior at the time had said rather crossly, "Being a nun is not all beer and skittles you know."
They have no Mother Superior now. Polly said, "It's not all beer and skittles. It is much, much better."
I am sure it is - now.