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Your Sisters: Breaking Old Habits

19/05/2014 13:37 BST | Updated 18/07/2014 10:59 BST

Honest to God (ahem) the two most inspirational feminists I have met to date have both been nuns. And their opinions on sex gave me a lot to think about as well.

Since church influence over the daily life of the wider society has seen a gradual recession, the actuality of life within 'the cloth' is something many of us rarely think about, and it's often still associated with an uninspiring reputation of Bible-scouring and rosary-twiddling, with the odd hospice shift thrown in for charitable measure.

At best, a lot of us hold the ecclesiastical life at arm's length and afford it a tentative respect; but how much do we really know about what it means within a 21st century, and arguably secular, western society?

Sister Cathy Jones is one of the eight nuns of the Religious of the Assumption based in Kensington, London and she kindly took a little time out of her busy evening schedule to talk to me about the reality of her religious life, its practical, community-orientated nature and how it has shaped her views on sexuality and the world of the modern woman.

Now aged 39, Sr Cathy was born to a non-observing Catholic mother and an atheist father.

"My interest in religious studies was sparked by A-Levels but when I left school I still had many questions, so a degree seemed like the next logical step. By the time I was 23 I felt God was giving me a clear indication that I should at least give the spiritual life a go."

She spent some years training in Paris before taking her final vows and working as a teacher in a particularly poor part of the Philippines.

She now holds her own job working at The National Office for Vocation - a Roman Catholic body aiming to promote the call to religious life across England and Wales.

But before you think 'sugar-coated indoctrination', she explained: "I liaise with people who have questions about the religious lifestyle and we create projects encouraging a vocational culture in general, because I believe we each have a call from God to live equally and with respect for the dignity of all people.

At weekends the sisters open the convent to the local community and host retreat days and homework clubs for parish children with the help of students from the university next door (Heythrop College). This incorporation of students into the daily workings of the convent, Sr Cathy says, is crucial to the development of its social identity which is also attracting a greater influx of younger sisters.

And in that spirit, Sr Cathy herself always finds time for fun.

"It's important to keep that balance between duties and leisure; I love going out with friends around London or just to the cinema. Besides, keeping up to date with what's going on in the world is vital if you are to have any chance of being a positive and relevant help to real people."

With more talk about the work done by herself and the convent as a whole, Sr Cathy painted a much more progressive picture of religious life, in which her faith and teachings are not, as such, conservative, but applied to developing a culture of empowerment and moving each other forward.

But, then, can we still have respect for those who stand in the way of developing that culture of equality and mutual empowerment? What about feminism, for example? There is undeniable misogyny within the history of the church, so is it still possible to have respect for everyone's ideals, even when they conflict?

"I wouldn't call myself a feminist as such because it has so many possible interpretations," she said, "but my life and sense of who I am has been marked by previous generations of hard-fighting feminists. For me, feminism is another one of those things that has to be about empowerment of people and a genuine belief in the inherent equality of everyone at the same time.

"As humans we can't eradicate our natural differences, but we can respect them and realise that women have a uniqueness that cannot be undermined by pigeon-holing them into certain expectations."

Talking about expectations of women, religious or otherwise, what about that topic of life as a nun that we really want to hear about?

"Celibacy is a more gradual lifestyle choice and it was a vow I didn't make for six years. It was the right way for me as it enables our community of women to put complete focus on God's kingdom, which is what gives us true fulfilment. But that's certainly not something I could have realised straight away.

"But it is a big sacrifice to know there will never be one exclusive other to share your life with and communal life could never give you that deep connection and meaning. But, on the other hand, my brother is married with little children and waking up at all hours of the night is hardly more freeing!"

So while there are millions of women in the world who could only envy that sense of security, I asked Sr Cathy how having such a deep commitment influences her views on females who are more expressive of their sexuality.

"Oddly, as years go by I become more aware of what it is to be a young woman and it's difficult to judge others.

"As a Catholic, of course I view heterosexuality as the natural way, but that's no reason to condemn those who don't practise it and it certainly doesn't necessarily mean healthier relationships. Pope Francis is focussing on kindness rather than judgement and asks us to first look at ourselves and apply God's compassionate eyes."

So the religious life can be one of sacrifice - mainly, Sr Cathy says, the freedom of being able to organise your own timetable, as well as the material lifestyle.

"But," she added, "it gives you a chance to re-evaluate possessions and 'de-clutter' your life, which is also very liberating."

"All in all, some days are full of joy while others are more challenging, but I'm very much at peace with the decision I made because I know I am where I'm meant to be. I don't look back."

"I live in the here and now, evaluating the work I'm doing to see where the needs are. It's part of living as a community rather than as an individual, you just don't know where it's going to take you."

Perhaps that's why it's a lifestyle we can find hard to understand, because it is based on commitment to a greater purpose that comes from the heart, rather than the pursuit of particular and arguably arbitrary ambitions.

In Sr Cathy's case, that purpose is: "For me to get closer to God and be part of the jigsaw helping others to do the same - primarily in the literal sense of my work but also by being patient and kind and reaching out to people who don't want to return the favour."

Careful, as ever, to avoid making expectations or demands, Sr Cathy left some simple advice for anyone considering the religious life. "If you really feel called to it then it is a life which can bring you great joy. But if you are unsure, try visiting some convents and chatting to the sisters - just give it a good go."