After spending half a century in an enclosed order, the former abbess of Stanbrook took a year out at art school in East London. 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.”