‘Being a nun was the great love story of my life’: Catherine Coldstream on why she joined – then fled – a convent

<span>Catherine Coldstream: ‘Part of the ethos was that you silenced your mind. Your memory had to be cleansed, put aside.’</span><span>Photograph: Keiko Ikeuchi/The Observer</span>
Catherine Coldstream: ‘Part of the ethos was that you silenced your mind. Your memory had to be cleansed, put aside.’Photograph: Keiko Ikeuchi/The Observer

Catherine Coldstream seems, on the face of it, an unlikely person to have become a nun. She grew up in a bohemian household in north London, daughter of the distinguished painter William Coldstream, who was, for 26 years, head of the Slade School of Fine Art. And when we meet on a February afternoon in Oxford, in the university rooms of a friend of hers, it is easy to picture her in a younger version, because she still, in a sense, resembles an arty north Londoner.

In her early 60s now, she has a keen, bright, boyish face, glasses with fashionable blue frames and neat beige boots with little heels. Her blouse is quirkily patterned with capering bears and antique gramophones. She comes across as a free spirit, which makes it all the more unfathomable that in 1989, aged 27, she should have joined Akenside Priory (not its real name) in Northumberland and remained there for more than a decade. In addition, she is so animated that it seems inexplicably punitive that she should have chosen to join a silent Carmelite order where conversation was permitted only once a day, confidences frowned upon and enthusiasm discouraged. I admire her blouse. “Do you like it?” she exclaims, delighted. What is missing in her is any obstructive piety. I feel she is someone I could have been friends with for years – I am no longer sure who it was I expected to meet.

I was very highly strung and emotional and devastated after Dad died and the family disintegrated

The overarching question, though, still holds: how did Coldstream – who spent her youth reading Russian novels, lived in Paris, worked for a modern music publisher, fell in love with “unsuitable propositions in dark polo necks” and discussed Sartre and Stockhausen in French – turn into someone willing to sacrifice her life to God? It is a question answered in her beautifully written memoir, Cloistered, which one reads with fascination, empathy and mounting alarm. The book surprises because, while it describes stillness, silence and contemplation, it evolves into a spiritual thriller in which the experience of being a nun unravels into a nightmare as the monastery’s internal politics sour. An unseemly power struggle ensues, a schism between two prioresses and their followers. Good behaviour turns bad and Coldstream, violently turned upon and against, eventually takes flight. Unsparingly, she asks herself many of the questions we might pose ourselves. But what needs emphasising – in case I have given any misleading impression of her as fickle – is that when she flees the monastery, she is not in flight from God. This is a devotional memoir about two fathers, the heavenly one and her own.

She describes her childhood as “very dysfunctional”. Her mother, Monica, was “a beauty”, an actor and singer who turned up in her father’s life as his model. Her father was 28 years older and this was his second marriage. He and Monica had three children (he had older children from a first marriage). But her parents were soon to prove incompatible. “We grew up in a beautiful Georgian home in Canonbury – tall and stucco-fronted. It would be seen as terribly posh and gentrified now but it was shabby then. There were no carpets but it was airy and there were lovely wooden floors and rugs.” It was a house “bursting with character and bristling with tension”. As a child, she thought of her mother as a “frightening, volatile person we needed to please and cheer up and comfort all the time. I had to manage her moods. My father felt very bad that his first marriage didn’t last, he wanted another go at family life.” Her parents had “separate bedrooms and led separate lives”. Catherine, the eldest child, became the peace-maker.

She describes her father as “adorable – everyone loved him. He was charming and funny. He was not an argumentative person – he was conciliatory. My mother probably resented that he got recognition as a painter while she was at the kitchen sink – and I understand that.” Monica seems, however, not to have lingered at the kitchen sink. She was often away on tour and permanently on the edge of career breakthroughs. Aunt Winnie, her father’s sister, was imported to look after the children. A wearer of cornflower-blue cardigans, Winnie is affectionately described in the memoir and seems to have been an influence because, although not a Catholic, she was an “incredibly devout” Protestant, modelling the consolations of religion. And one can imagine how religion for Coldstream must have come to equal security.

In the memoir, she alludes to her mother having childhood traumas and refers, without elaboration, to “parental abandonment”. What happened? “It was monstrous – she was given away by her own mother to an orphanage when she was only two, which is worse psychologically than being given away as a baby because you would feel the rejection. I don’t think she ever got over that.” Coldstream spent the last year of her mother’s life “very close” to her but her mother had become “very difficult to read”. She hoped to have conversations that made sense of their past but: “My mother couldn’t wrestle with her inner world, it was too painful.”

I suggest that her mother did not know how to be a mother and Coldstream agrees. She evidently lived her life through beauty – even in extreme old age, she would be reaching for her scarlet “lippy”. The orphanage into which her mother was cast had been a Catholic one – and Coldstream sometimes wonders about the significance of that for her own story. How did her mother react to her converting to Catholicism? She said: “You do know it is strict, don’t you?” That sounds slightly indifferent I suggest, as if she were not interested in what you were doing. “She wasn’t,” Coldstream replies.

Her father moved out of the family home three years before he died. “That was a terrible time. He lived with older relatives and was in the neurological ward at UCL for months and ended up in a home. There had been a decline and he had got into a depression – we had already, in a sense, lost our wonderful, lively, charismatic Dad.” She was 24 when he died and it was at her father’s deathbed that she had a visitation that would change the course of her life: “I’ll never forget it. When I got to the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital in Queen’s Square, I went up to the top floor where there was a chapel where they put people when they’ve died. A nice nurse opened the door. I hardly dared look down. Seeing my father’s vacant body was a huge jolt. I thought: he’s not there any more, it’s not him. And then he was just present in the room. It was a classic religious experience, there was a massive sense of presence which I associated with him but I immediately started praying the Our Father and the experience became transcendent, a godly thing.” Before her father’s death, she had experienced “no glimmers of God” except in music (she sang in a choir, played the viola) but she took this new faith with her when she left the chapel. “It’s never gone away,” she says.

What would her father have made of the decision to become a nun? “I used to ask myself that when I was inside,” she says and tears come to her eyes. “I got this sense he was somehow smiling down on me. He’d have been pleased to see me dedicating myself to something in a demanding way – the discipline of The Life was good for me because I was very highly strung and emotional and devastated after he died and the family disintegrated.” She conveys, in the memoir, the austere rapture of the place. She fell in love with the beauty of the grounds, the patchwork fields, the mere, the birdsong – it was a setting for a romantic poet. And her cell was filled with light: “There was tremendous beauty in this shifting brightness,” she writes. At the start, her expectation seems to have been that the nuns would be saintly types. But this gets challenged right away. “Jen” [not her real name], the novice who joins at the same time as Coldstream, is instantly jarring. In a Jungle Book top, she joshes raucously about how she and Coldstream are going to be the “terrible twins”. It is an early warning of unsisterly sisters ahead – or at least not soulmates under the same roof.

Early on, did she harbour any doubts or fears about her calling? “Only that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to bear it because of the sheer endurance involved. The other fear was that they would not accept me because, at every stage, you have to be voted through.” Her story makes one wonder: what is the ideal temperament for a nun? “You need to be robust because The Life can be bruising. The people who survived best were grounded, practical, with a little worldliness. I was utterly idealistic in the aftermath of my father’s death and yearned for too much reclusion.”

A lot of people were sitting on mental disorders… It was a hothouse and tensions festered… It was not a balanced life

I enquire about the oddity of being cooped up with other women while not being permitted to be on close terms with any of them. How did she subdue her curiosity? “I had to work hard at it. Part of the ethos was that you silenced your mind. Your memory had to be cleansed, put aside. You were not supposed to have judgment about your sisters. You got to know one another in a very surface way.” Coldstream was equipped, she feels, for the “extremity of solitude in the cell” having developed “self-reliance from my dysfunctional background”. She embraced the “not leaning on others” because it “fuelled my drive for prayer. I went back to prayer with that great need for God, which opens you up to a deep experience that is incredible and has changed who I am. I have a strong sense of being loved by God. That’s what contemplative prayer is.”

As she is talking, it occurs to me that the earlier description of her childhood home as “bursting with character and bristling with tensions” could equally be applied to Akenside Priory. And Coldstream is, in the book’s most horrifying chapter, beaten by one of the prioresses. She is abused for being the devoted person she is and for expressing her opinion, when asked, about the community’s need for reform. Would she now say that “Irene”, the prioress aggressor – supposedly a progressive – had become unhinged? “Irene was pushed too far. She assumed everyone would go with her and there was a mutiny. She became a jelly and spineless and started trying to please everyone. I think she lost her moral compass… I’ve never known why she beat me. We didn’t have conversations about it.” And, unexpectedly, Coldstream now returns to the question of what her father would have made of her story, admitting that he would have been “horrified later on when I was having suicidal thoughts. He’d have said: ‘Get out.’”

For anyone with a fragile psyche, the severity of The Life could prove a tipping point: “A lot of people were sitting on mental disorders. There were a lot of breakdowns but you often didn’t know until it had gone too far. It was a hothouse and tensions festered. For everybody, there was a danger of breakdown. It was not a balanced life.” What’s more, emotions were not confined to the monastery’s occupants. A fraught chapter describes the fateful day upon which Coldstream, after five-and-a half years of training, took her vows at a point where she had reason to doubt the wisdom of going ahead. Friends and family turned up to witness the ceremony and she was shocked to see her sister, Frankie, a reserved person who had seemed “nonchalant” about her decision to become a nun, “in torrents of tears along with everybody else I knew – they all seemed to be crying”.

She had no idea her sister would react this way. They were used to speaking four times a year in the formal setting of the parlour “on either side of a grille”. It was only later that Frankie was able to explain how, when she entered the chapel, there had been “piles of what looked like funeral leaflets. The symbolism of taking vows is that you move from a white veil to a black to show you have died to the world.” To her sister, it felt like a funeral.

“I’ve had a huge amount to process over the past 20 years,” Coldstream reflects. She has been writing about her experiences, on and off, ever since. “For the first few years, I was thinking about it all the time.” A first draft, straight out of the cloister, in biro and on A4, was “cathartic”. Then she had an attempt at turning her experiences into a novel. It has been a “relief” to complete the memoir. Although it took her three years to write, it is only now that it is being published that she feels there can be a “letting go”.

* * *

The return to “ordinary” life seems to have been at once a blessing and a challenge: “The thing I found most difficult was the noise. I love the quiet. The Life makes you hypersensitive – it makes you a very good listener to birdsong.” She found “the mess, dirt and feeling of being in a chaotic place” difficult. “I still miss things like knowing exactly which drawer my shoe-cleaning kit is in – in the monastery, everything had its place and you hardly owned anything, it was an ordered life. Part of me likes that.” But she loves no longer having to get up with the lark and the “lie-ins” and the “long baths”. The amount of choice, though, remains problematic – including her decisions about what to wear – and after leaving the monastery she took matters into her own hands: “I found a huge bit of material in the loft at Akenside which I dyed with Dylon and made myself a green habit. I had the idea that I was going to go to a remote bit of France and start a new community there.” That sounds wonderfully eccentric, I say. What stopped her? She says she went to Oxford and took a degree in theology instead.

The worst transition was when I felt God was angry with me and I was going to be punished

She explains that although the “feeling of freedom” has been a “great relief”, it has been mixed with misgivings because her identity is tied up with having being a nun. And there was guilt too: “It was very painful – for a long time, I felt I’d made a huge mistake but couldn’t go back because of those people who had made me feel so rejected.” She maintains that her “faith in the institutional side of religion has taken a massive denting but I make a distinction between my faith in the Catholic religion and my faith in God. The worst transition was when I felt he was angry with me and I was going to be punished. That was during my last few years inside when I was feeling conflicted over the vows. I started losing the joy, started to feel I was failing in my vocation.”

Today, Akenside Priory still exists but as a “much reduced group of women trying to live the Carmelite life together. Many of the sisters I knew have died and quite a few have left since my time. The remnant now lives in a new, purpose-built monastery – they sold the old house years ago.” And has there ever been any apology for their mistreatment of her? “Nothing like that seems to have been offered. No acknowledgment of dysfunction or harm. I used to talk a bit with ‘Fr Gregory’ (a benign but infrequent visitor at Akenside) about the old days but he just used to say things like ‘We’re only human’ and ‘That was a long time ago’… a typical response in the Catholic church.”

Sometimes, she wonders about a parallel universe in which she might have opted to stay on in Paris: “I’d be completely naturalised by now and three times divorced,” she laughs. Nowadays, she is married, lives in east Oxford, sings in a choir and is working on a family memoir – and she marvels at a life in which she has found “happiness in a domesticated relationship”. But does she feel any regret for the way her youth vanished and for those years out of the slipstream? “Absolutely none. It’s the great love story of my life. It was the great event.” And we walk out of the college together and continue to chat on the street corner until she pulls on a peaked cap and, like a blameless version of the artful dodger, vanishes from sight.

Cloistered: My Years As a Nun by Catherine Coldstream is published by Chatto & Windus (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply