Retreat 1: Poor Clares Arundel

Arriving at Poor Clares Convent on Friday was more dramatic than I imagined it would be. It was really wet and dark so I jumped in a taxi from the station, which dropped me off at the imposing wooden doors of the convent. The taxi drove off and I was left in pitch blackness, save a small light coming from an upstairs window. After ringing the bell a few times – and no answer – it was a relief when they finally opened and I was greeted by the warm smile of Sister Gabriel, who I had liaised with by email. Thankfully she seemed really warm and personable.

She showed me around the guesthouse – to my room, which was simple but comfortable, to the kitchen, sitting room and the chapel. The guesthouse, Sr Gabriel later told me, was where up until around 15 years ago the ‘external’ sisters use to live, meaning those who worked in the community and were not enclosed. The sisters living there now are completely enclosed, meaning they don’t go out of the convent unless it is really necessary.

A few minutes after arriving, the evening service was due to begin. The bell was ringing again too so Sr Gabriel hurried off (she seemed like a busy woman) while I got my bearings.

At this point I wasn’t aware that the sisters lived in a separate bit of the convent, or just how separated they were from guests. I had never stayed in an enclosed order so didn’t really know how things worked. At the convent in Richmond, where I’d been before a couple of years ago, the women were always around, often in casual dress, not in long brown habits like here.

I went along to Vespers for half an hour at 5.30 and evening meditation at 7.50pm. The meditation was usually closed to guests but tonight they seemed to be making an exception.

San Damiano crucifix

The chapel was plain, with wooden pews and a seperate area at the front reserved for the sisters. On the wall at the front was a large cross on the wall – the San Damiano Crucifix, a replica of the cross that Saint Francis heard speak to him Assisi in 1206. It was also in Saint Clare’s Convent all her life-time.

At the start of the services the sisters slowly emerged from side doors of the chapel and took their seats. I have to admit a lot of the time I got lost with the readings and hymns that formed the Daily Office, but it was enough to just sit there and listen. A couple of the sisters had really amazing voices.

They prayed for God’s protection while they slept, before the lights were dimmed leaving just the flicker of a candle in the middle of the chapel for a moment’s silence.

At the end of the service Sr Gabriel explained that morning prayer would begin the next day at the slightly later time of 6.45am, rather than 5.45am. It was their lie-in day, meaning they could get up at 6am – an hour later than usual.


5 thoughts on “Retreat 1: Poor Clares Arundel

  1. I was a frequent visitor to the extern chapel of the Monastery of the Poor Clares Colettines in Green Lanes, Liverpool. I understand that the community became much diminished in numbers and the few elderly sisters that remained moved to join another Poor Clare Community I know not where. The Monastery was demolished and now there is a housing complex built on the site. In those days you could hear the bell being tolled at midnight for the Night Officer. They had broken sleep every night and slept on an odd shaped bed that allowed them only to recline and not sleep flat. The double grille in the parlour had a curtain across it so you could only see the shadows of the sisters behind the grille unless you were a close relative and then they would draw back the curtain. As the double grille was offset, you could not see much more when the curtain was drawn back. I had a friend who was a nun there who having entered at 16 was enclosed for 70 years until she died. Sadly, the contemplative orders took a real beating in lack of vocations in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

    • Actually they survived better than the active orders who are in terminal decline. The Sisters of La Retraite, the Sisters of Charity of our Lady of Evron The Sisters of St Louis each of these congregations have shrunk to a few hundred elderly women from a task force of several thousand. The Trappists in Laval and the carthusians are still attracting candidates and some Carmels are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

  2. I think it is a great idea to share your experiences from your retreats as people may discover an idea for themselves it is a unique way of evangelizing.

    I have seen the film No Greater Love and agree it is a beautiful protrayal of the cloistered contemplative life. My lasting memory is; when Sister looked at Michael who was holding the camera and wished him Happy Easter, Michael did not answer, I think deliberately, so that we the viewers could realize that we too had been privilidged visitors to the convent and Sr. was wishing us also a happy Easter. It encapsulates what they do they pray continually for the world.

    I wish you many perals of discovery on your future retreats.


  3. I stayed with the Poor Clares at Arundal at a very difficult time of my life a few times about 10 years ago,Sister Anne was guest mistress. I have never forgotton a single second of my times there,and still when i am low i can close my eyes and be back in the soft silence. The open goodness of the sisters,the silent respect and none judgemental loving eyes brought me back to sanity,and i can never,never thank them enough for that time,and the flame that i carriied away with me. God bless you all.

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