Quidenham carmel, Norfolk, windows

A retreat with Catholic Nuns in Norfolk

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By Lottie Gross
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There may be no better way to unwind than staying at the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery: a convent of Catholic nuns who have pledged a vow of silence. In the midst of the stress of a university dissertation, Lottie Gross escaped from the world and learned what it’s like to live the quiet life – literally.

The only sounds as I enter the chapel are that of my boots, clip-clopping along the stone floor and up the stairs to sit opposite the habit-clad women who have welcomed me to their convent for the night. I’m late for mass and a little embarrassed but no one else seems to care. In fact silence descends once I’m seated.

The nuns at the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery, in the depths of the Norfolk countryside, have dedicated themselves to a life of silent prayer. They don’t speak, except during short work periods, recreation time in the evening and during mass, when they sing and pray aloud. Their hymns sound sweet as twenty-odd women – ages ranging from 33 to upwards of 80 – sing in harmony, and their prayer is deep and heartfelt.

Set in an old walled community in the tiny village of Quidenham, next to a children’s hospice and a small farm, the surroundings are as quiet as the nuns that live here. Only birds can be heard singing during the day, and the occasional visitor to the hospice or chapel come and go with quiet respect. The silence is peaceful, serene and tranquil – it’s not as eerie as I expected. Not even at night.

I had arrived in glorious sunshine that morning, my car tyres on the gravel drive probably the first man-made noise to break the day’s stillness, to be greeted by the Guest Sister, who is allowed to talk to visitors for the purposes of hospitality. I was shown around the chapel, a humble but modern place of worship with clean concrete pillars, beautiful stained glass windows depicting the Rule of Carmel, and a gated off section for the nuns to occupy at mass. I was given strict instructions not to cross the wall between public ground and that of the very private cloisters – these are sacred areas where the nuns live and the public is not allowed.

My home for the night was a small bungalow next door to the chapel, and in the tiny kitchen I found everything provided – even a loaf of freshly baked bread from the nuns. Later that evening after mass, Sister Shelagh and Sister Stephanie broke their vows of silence in a rare exchange on what it’s like to live in utter quietude.

Catholic nun's section, chapel Quidenham carmel, Norfolk

Photo: Lottie Gross

“I had done various different jobs before I entered,” explained Sister Shelagh. “Whatever I did never felt as though it was quite enough. I was constantly searching for more.” Her soft and enchanting voice had me in a trance as she talked about her past life as a married woman with a career.

“In the end I found that when I came here, that deep hunger was satisfied and I had a contentment which I had never managed to achieve before. There is a deep bond of unity between us all here, and it’s very supportive living in a community. I know I couldn’t live this life on my own so I am grateful for the support.”

Sister Stephanie’s composure was very different. At 34 years old she had smooth, young skin, bright eyes and an excitement in her voice. I wondered how she managed to stay so quiet.

“I think a hard part about a community like ours, where so much of our time is actually lived in silence apart from necessary work talk, is that if you know you’ve really made a boob, you’ve really mucked something up, even your opportunities to apologise and say ‘I’m so sorry’ are limited.” She explains that there is a unique level of trust between them all.

Photo: Lottie Gross

“Having chosen to live in a religious community, you don’t choose who you live with. They are chosen for you. God has chosen your sisters for you, they are all you’ve got and they are your best way to heaven – love ‘em or hate ‘em.” These sisters love each other because God has chosen them to, and they trust that this love is reciprocated by every single one of them.

After almost two hours of conversation – perhaps a welcome break for my hosts – the sisters retreated to the cloisters for an evening of silent prayer before bed, and I made my way into the village to find dinner.

Sitting in the charming Red Lion pub in neighbouring Kenninghall, I nursed my half cider while perusing the traditionally English menu and warming my hands by the open fire. I had a sudden pang of guilt as I realised how the nuns of Quidenham Carmel would never have this small pleasure in life again without leaving the order, and I realised how admirable their lives are inside the cold but peaceful walls of the convent.

I woke early the following morning with time to explore the surrounding patchwork of fields and forest surrounding the convent. As I strolled in the warmth of the morning sunshine I noticed something: I am not a religious person in any capacity, but I found the purity and tranquility of the nun’s life infectious. I found myself totally and completely relaxed, contented and happy, ready to face the perils of the real world once again.

Quidenham Carmel has three cottages for rent for single or double occupancy and the nuns welcome visitors on retreats for as long as they wish. They do not charge for staying at the convent, but instead ask only for a donation that you feel is appropriate upon departure. Quidenham is just 20 miles from the city of Norwich or 45 miles from Cambridge and is best reached by car (although buses run from Norwich twice daily Mon-Sat, they won’t drop you directly outside the convent). The nuns will happily provide all meals, however there are a few local pubs (try the Red Lion or the White Horse Inn in neighbouring Kenninghall) for lunch and dinner.

Tags: Europe / England / Belief