I escaped life as a nun because of bullying and the convent’s toxic culture

Catherine Coldstream then and now
Catherine Coldstream then and now
Catherine Coldstream moved to Northumberland to become a nun, living in a Carmelite monastery
Catherine Coldstream is the author of a new book called Cloistered about her life as a nun

Arriving at Akenside Priory in early autumn had been beautiful, but, as some had warned me, challenging. We postulants would have to survive a full monastic winter before receiving the habit and enjoying our first summer. And this was the Cruel North. ‘Bricks before bedtime and ice on your water jug in the morning,’ Sister Ellen, my newcomer’s guide, had said.

I learned soon enough to wrap my jug in towels before sleeping and to collect a heated brick from the Aga to take to bed with me – an alternative to hot-water bottles, although some went for the latter. ‘And make sure you have a double layer of old blanket cloth wrapped round it. Those bricks can burn you if you’re not careful.’

The monastery was indeed as cold as they’d all warned me, but, physically, very little worried me that first winter. I saw the gold of autumn creeping over the garden from my cell window and watched the spiralling of russet leaves down on to the lawn.

It felt a magical environment after London, and my restless years of studying and travelling abroad. Ever since my father had died – and our house was sold to cover costs, and the family had disintegrated, leaving us three children adrift – I’d been longing for an afterlife, a meaningful new beginning.

And now I’d found it, a Northumberland Eden, a place imbued with specialness and a sense of purpose. I grew used to spending hours outdoors, working on the three dozen acres of half-wild rambling grounds as one of the ‘able-bodied’, capable of double-digging, pruning, planting.

Catherine Coldstream photographed in Oxfordshire in February 2024
Catherine Coldstream photographed in Oxfordshire in February 2024 - Alys Tomlinson

‘Next time you’ll have your own pair of wellies,’ Sister Ellen was saying as we strode deep in moist grasses across the meadow to the lake. She was becoming more encouraging, almost conspiratorial in her humour. My attempts at breeziness had rubbed off. My wellies had skidded and split during a recent outdoor recreation, while we were gathering kindling for a bonfire, and now I was in a pair much too large for me, comically wading alongside her in her neat-fitting rubber ankle boots.

Ellen gestured to a bench, suggested we take a few minutes to rest our legs. After the long daily hours of kneeling and sitting, part of me just wanted to jump and sing and run, and take great gulps of garden-fresh oxygen. Still, we settled ourselves, looking over the view in easy silence.

‘I know you’ve been here a month now. But still, it takes time, doesn’t it? I expect you miss your family and city life? What a change this has all been, so different from anything you can have known before. How do they feel about enclosure? And the contemplative life? So many of our dear ones find it very difficult to accept the choice we make. They find it so, er… so unnatural.’

‘Yes, they do think it a bit strange, I suppose. But they don’t really mind.’ My father and aunt were both by now in heaven, my mother was rarely in touch, my brother Rob was away travelling and my sister Frankie had recently moved to Newcastle where she worked as a potter and porcelain restorer. ‘They’re not the kind of people to stop me doing anything I’ve set my heart on,’ I said.

Ellen looked blankly at me, as though I’d said something completely mad. ‘They aren’t against it then?’ she practically whispered, leaning in. ‘They don’t mind your having converted? They don’t place any pressure on you to…?’

‘No. Why should they?’ I said, but immediately realised this would make no sense to her. It was taken as read that most families hated ‘losing their daughters’ to a convent. Some did everything they could to stop them. Some of the sisters had come here in the face of feuds. Seeing her surprise, I added: ‘They just don’t feel strongly about faith or religion. It’s just not part of the way they see things. It’s not that they think it’s wrong, or oppose it, it’s just that they…’

‘Ah, I see,’ Sister Ellen said, leaning back. She sighed a little, and brought her hands back to a folded position on her lap. ‘I see. I see. A liberal family.’

Catherine Coldstream: 'I’d been longing for an afterlife, a meaningful new beginning'
Catherine at 22: 'I’d been longing for a meaningful new beginning'

It took me a moment to understand, to realise there was a gap opening up, a positioning of me as other, or different from what she expected. A gulf soon appeared between how I actually felt about Carmel, and the reality of the community, and how I was ‘supposed’ to feel about a life of dedicated prayer. Apparently my convert’s enthusiasm was ‘not normal’. Ellen told me as much. My evidently easy acceptance of the Life’s asceticism and material privations was an anomaly. It seemed I needed to be taught lessons to humble my lofty-mindedness and to counter my ‘spiritual’ inclinations. Physical renunciations were not a problem for me. But the othering, mental and emotional distancing was painful, and, to my open and trusting mind, completely incomprehensible.

As I learned more about the interpersonal dynamics in our world, I became more aware of the little eddies frothing around Mother Elizabeth, the undercurrents that were later to come to the fore. Her twin domains, the infirmary and the novitiate, were semi-separate spaces, places apart, where things were done differently. Even by her own admission, Elizabeth had her ‘funny little ways’.

But nowhere did she rule as fully as behind these two sets of closed doors within closed doors. In the monastery proper, people expected unwavering ‘observance’ of the Rule, and for the writings of the order to be studied and silence to be kept. These were the principles that had attracted many of us to Carmel. But within the orbit of Elizabeth, a different set of priorities applied.

She saw serious reading, study and discussion as a waste of time. ‘I don’t expect anyone feels like doing any work today,’ she’d say, arriving in the novitiate for a session on Carmelite spirituality, and then bring out sweets and skipping ropes, poor compensations, and beam the more brightly the more giddy and enthusiastic our response. What she wanted was a cosy coterie of the like-minded. What she wanted was for you to shout and cheer. I suspect she also wanted confirmation of her own anti-intellectual bias.

I was still too new to realise the extent to which her methods of engaging the young, and of ensuring their loyal adhesion to her person, were unusual. The middle-ranking sisters knew better – although, being dutiful, they kept their counsel.

The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton described an abbey as a hospital for wounded souls. I liked the description because of its honesty, and because it let me off the hook somehow, made it acceptable that I often felt so sensitive, so raw. You could not have imposter syndrome when the norm was to be a flawed and failing human being. I cried easily, and all it took, if I was cold and hungry, was the beauty of the liturgy to set me off.

Add the turmoil of a painful monthly period and My Song is Love Unknown into the mix, and I’d be a blubbering wreck. No one knew why I was crying and nor did I. It was not that I was unhappy in the usual sense. I was delighted to be in Carmel. Akenside was heaven. But tearing at me from the inside was a loneliness I did not know how to acknowledge. I did not even know it was there.

Catherine Coldstream: 'A gulf soon appeared between how I actually felt about Carmel, and the reality of the community'
Catherine Coldstream: 'A gulf soon appeared between how I actually felt about Carmel, and the reality of the community' - Alys Tomlinson

In Carmel, no one spoke about such things. ‘We all have troubles of our own,’ Sister Ellen told me chidingly, and like everyone else, I needed to ‘take myself in hand’. That meant developing a cross between a stiff upper lip and a manner of remote dreaminess and poise so that no raw emotion ever slipped through the net. You kept it in.

Above all, you kept your eyes on the cross. It was odd. We were meant to be suffering, uniting our pains with those of our spouse, the great Redeemer of the world, but if ever you let on that you were in pain, you were told to Pull Your Socks Up and Get On With It, and – Sister Elizabeth, the novice mistress, I had now begun to notice, loved the words – not be such a Cry Baby. Her face would take on the expression of a taunt. Shame on you! Goodness me, anyone would think you had something to cry about. Now, go back to your cleaning and your polishing.

The idea that young sisters might need help, or counselling, or any sort of warmth or moral support, went clean contrary to the spirit of the order as Mother and her assistants in the novitiate understood it. We were there to help purify each other, not to look for friends. We knew it was meant to be tough, although no one thought of it as overtly cruel or inhumane. Instead, the kind of words we used were ‘austere’, ‘ascetic,’ or – just occasionally – ‘penitential’, and I was surprised to find how highly the quality of ‘toughness’ was rated, far more than things I thought important like purity of heart and a good intention.

You were not only supposed to ‘overcome’, you were meant to ensure that others did the same, and so were not supposed to show anyone sympathy, to the extent that doing so was considered a fault. Pandering to feelings of any kind was a ‘womanly weakness’ worthy of Confession. Such softness was linked to sensuality and pathetic cravings to give and receive affection. Sadly, this perception of virtue meant that in many closed religious communities there were always bound to be a few really hard-bitten individuals, or boisterous bullies, women whose insensitivity to others was rewarded by approval.

Shortly after taking vows, some six years after I’d first arrived at Akenside Priory, and in one of those monastic seasons habitually dismissed as a ‘dark night of the soul’, I asked Mother Elizabeth for an exceptional permission to go away for a short break, either with my sister and her husband, or at another monastery. Such restorative retreats away were rare, yet not unheard of. The stress of final vows had taken their toll and I was emotionally exhausted. I was also worried about my sister Frankie who, at the ceremony a few weeks earlier, had been flooded with tears, clearly in distress. She’d been so casual about my vocation until now.

‘No, you can’t just go and see your sister,’ Mother said. ‘She can manage perfectly well without you. She’s a grown woman. Why on earth would she want you around? What stuff and nonsense. What use are you anyway to anyone? You big baby, you silly child.’

‘But I feel…’

‘No one cares what you feel. You’re here now. This is what you signed up for. You just need to get on with it. Goodness me, Sister Catherine.’

I knew it was futile to press my point. But all I could think about was the growing anxiety about my sister. So uncharacteristic was it for her to have cried. Everything was suddenly nerve-racking, and nothing felt right any more. On top of this, my feet and ankles were becoming strangely feeble and tingly. If this was due to panic, I’d suppressed it as far as possible until now, but finally it was coming up through my limbs, surging through my body.

Catherine Coldstream, aged 10
Catherine Coldstream, aged 10 - Courtesy of Catherine Coldstream

Sometimes I had to hold on to the wall just to steady myself, stop myself from falling. One day Mother had found me slumped in a pile outside the antechoir, my legs as soft as jelly, a heap of helplessness. My head was aching. How she’d scorned this failure. How I needed to grow up, get back on my feet! It was ‘normal’ to encounter challenges, to start to feel spiritually disorientated, she told me. Just deal with it, pull yourself together, and no, you don’t need to see a doctor.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the avalanche. Some of the early boulders that presaged the tumbling and toppling of our world, though, stick in the mind. One day in choir, Sister Jennifer, a fellow postulant who’d arrived at Akenside at the same time as me, leapt to her feet and began shouting at Mother Irene, who’d been elected prioress not long before, and who was now about 70 years old.

After all the boiling undercurrents and half-restraints, this was a full-on eruption, an outburst like nothing we’d witnessed in the monastery before. Jen was unmoored, losing her temper in a completely unfettered way. Soon after, she fell into the grips of mental illness, and was hidden away in the infirmary.

Another breakdown occurred in the run up to the new millennium. A young postulant, Lucy, had been with us well over a year, and she and I had bonded brilliantly. We’d laughed and joked – she was quick-witted and few recreations passed without the pleasure of her puns. Above all, she could stand apart and make up her own mind about things. None of these qualities had endeared her to Elizabeth.

One day the bishop came to talk to us and Lucy decided to stand up in front of all of us and challenge him. She certainly knew how to choose her moment. She also knew how to raise her voice to make her point. What was the bishop doing about things in the Church and in the world? Had he no sense of responsibility? Where was his spiritual backbone? Did he really think we, as a Church, were embodying the revolutionary spirit of Christ? Shouldn’t all of us be rousing ourselves more, living less comfortably and complacently?

For days after, Lucy was treated with a very cautious kind of ‘concern’. Poor thing, some said, she was clearly finding the Life stressful. She was not herself. She had changed. She was not well. And then came the terrible day that she slid from her stall at Lauds and landed in a great thrashing, beating pile on the echoing floor. Her limbs were in spasms, flailing everywhere, her head lolling, the whites of her eyes showing scarily, rolling, twitching.

For a few minutes I thought she was dying, her face blue-grey. True to custom, nobody stopped what they were doing or tried to help. Our duty was to keep our eyes averted and carry on praying. Finally, Mother Irene stumbled over to where Lucy lay, waited for her to regain consciousness, then raised her to her feet and guided her out of the door.

Like Jennifer, Lucy vanished to the infirmary. She was not yet in vows, even though she was in the habit. She had given Carmel a good go, but clearly was not well enough or what Mother called ‘able for it’. Two weeks later she was gone, another case of mental breakdown. The word that slipped out this time was ‘delusional’. Not that I understood the implications of the word – or psychosis – nor did we have the kind of dictionaries that would have given much information on the subject, nor the internet. But delusional sounded serious, and people bought it. Lucy’s mother came and escorted her off the premises. I realised that, like Jen and others before her, she was just another casualty. I could not fail to ask myself how long it would be before all of us succumbed.

‘I quite often go to church. But not too often.’
‘I quite often go to church. But not too often.’ - Alys Tomlinson

In my mind I am still running. Running towards the road. Running. Running. Running. The night is a dark wash, a slap of wet around my head, my veil twisting and turning in the wind. My feet in their sandals pound onwards, first over gravel, then grass, until, losing the road, I find a field and throw myself down, my heart thumping, amazed at what I see around me. The skirts of my great habit are spread wide, the leather of my heavy belt anchoring my elaborate medieval clothing at the hip. Too big for my frame now, its loose tip hangs low and digs into my legs. Above me is nothing but the vastness of the moonlit sky and an infinity of staring stars. The bone-white moon glows reassuringly through a drifting mauve-grey penumbra, then reappears, stark with splendour. It sees me and I stare back.

It is impossible not to laugh, to spread wide my arms, to enjoy the singing and wild percussion of my heart, the feeling of expansiveness, and then to speak, at first in whispers, as though shy of the million and one stars, then in a great rush of declaration. I know you are there, great God, I breathe out loud. I know you are with me. I trust in you. Rolling over and pressing my palms into the wet grass, my mind and senses are unbound. Earth is newly my mother. I love the vital wet and midnight greenness of her, wanting more. The flattened winter grasses all around me are my friends. Then, thank you, thank you, thank you – the words, like the gratitude they express, come so very easily.

Getting away from Akenside was one thing, and a relief, but negotiating the onslaught of the unfamiliar, the sensory overload, was another. Although I was finally outside Carmel, I was still a Carmelite inside. My inner ear waited for the bell, for hushed footsteps in the corridor, for plainchant floating up the lofty staircase. I instinctively sought silence and was perplexed by the great rush of noise. I looked for privacy, a bare room with a quiet door, and felt out of place among the coloured rugs and cushion covers. Pattern and decoration were alien to my cloistered, austere sensibility. I missed the stony corridors, the plain white of my cell wall, the big black cross that watched in solemn silence over everything. Carmel was all I’d known for over a decade. Carmel was my identity and my home.

Life has now changed beyond all recognition. I never thought I would find happiness in a domesticated relationship. But I was wrong. After years as a tutor and teacher, I made new vows and am now something I never dreamed I would be, or would ever want to be: a married woman, living in a terraced house. I make marmalade and cook dal. I sing in choirs. I quite often go to church. But not too often. What I do still need to do is eke out times of extended solitude and silence, and I still go on retreat to other monasteries. The power of the cloister has never faded.

*Names of some people and places, dates, sequences and details of events have been changed to protect the privacy of others

Abridged extract from Cloistered: My Years as a Nun, which is out on 7 March (Chatto & Windus, £20); order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk