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.
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.