Love and the Cloister, Part One: God the Only Bridegroom

Recently, prolific Twitter user John McCafferty @jdmccafferty posted a beautiful image of A Young Nun, a drawing by French artist Claude Mellan (1598-1688).  This drawing attracted interesting reactions as some viewers assumed, perhaps from her fresh, slightly flushed complexion, that such a charming young sitter must be either unwilling to be a nun, forced to enter the convent against her wishes, or a naughty nun, bending the rules by wearing rouge in a small act of rebellion. There are many reasons for our tendency to dismiss the possibility of a true commitment to a contemplative vocation in a young and/or attractive woman, but I believe they are rooted in the assumption that girls either ‘just wanna have fun’ (thank you Cindy Lauper) until they are finally swept off their feet by the perfect lover who will, in turn, make respectable wives and mothers out of them, thereby giving them an honorable and fruitful place in society. In that societal context, the cloister was, and remains, a fertile locus for the imagination of those on the outside.[1]

A Young Nun, a drawing by French artist Claude Mellan (1598-1688), Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Such interpretations are very common; they may even be those of the majority of people today, and they echo some of the questions posed by Frances Dolan in her 2007 article, ‘Why are Nuns Funny?’.[2] What about the dynamics of love and the cloister? What do sources tell us about the women who became nuns and their attitudes to romantic love and marriage?

What about the fulfillment of that most profound of human needs, love? Can a cloistered Religious be fulfilled as a woman, if her contemplative life deprives her of romantic love, of a marriage, of children, and of the satisfaction of carnal desires? On that topic, and thanks to the micro-histories of a few English nuns in exile, I thought I would write a little something, which I will present in three separate posts.

Love and the Cloister, Part One:
God the Only Bridegroom

Nuns were taught that their Divine Bridegroom was a jealous lover, and clerical advice was uncompromising on that point. The Cambrai Benedictines were instructed to defect from any loving relationships they may have had before entering the cloister, and to remain vigilant not to form new ones. God must be their only focus:

[he] who pretends to advance in this cariere of divine love, must first purge his affections from all carnality, & terrene appetite, & weede out even the least rootes & fibres of sensuality & self love, which either from the corrupt origin of our first birth, or by our owne evill customes have got ground in us.  […] as soon as the world is cast forth & the heart is cleansed from all longation of sinn & affection to creatures, presently the entire satiating & ravishing Love of the eternal spouse Jesus Christ Crucified enters and takes full possession thereof.[3]

Each individual nun was encouraged to ‘give [her] whole heart to be possessed by God alone, rejecting all other creatures as unworthy to have a share in that gift with which thou present thy God’.[4] To prepare themselves to become worthy, they embarked upon a long process meant to ensure the expurgation of all carnality and human emotions through prayer and devotion. This message was relayed by Abbess Brent herself, who in one of her abbatial speeches declared: ‘Our life is truly said to be a warfare upon earth, there being a continuall combat to be undertaken against the world and the divill besides our owne evill affections & unruly passions which joyne with our enemies […]’.[5] In this context, it is therefore no surprise that the hagio/biographical narratives of exemplary nuns often emphasized their rejection of male suitors in their earlier, secular lives.

Exemplary vocations in obits: shunned suitors to marry their divine bridegroom.

The biography of the French Visitandine Jeanne de Chantal (1572-164) described her clothing ceremony as a traumatizing event for her son, who lay down on the convent’s threshold to prevent her from entering.  In a gesture which was heavy with symbolism, the mother had to step over her son’s supine body in order to follow her vocation.  The life story of French Ursuline Marie Guyart, in religion Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672), tells of a similar episode: the new nun had to overcome her motherly love by denying her son, who presented himself at the choir grill every day, weeping and crying out for his mother’s return.[6]  Some English nuns made a similar choice. Lady Warner left her husband and two daughters to become an English Poor Clare.[7] Lady Mary Roper Lovel also left her two young children in order to enter religion; she first stayed at the Benedictine house at Brussels in 1608, before leaving in 1609.[8]  Aware that her decision would meet with disapproval, she justified herself to her patron, Robert Cecil, by declaring that her vocation was ‘more powerfull then the love of any mortall creture’.[9] This was an oft-repeated leitmotiv in the nuns’ obits, in their Vitae, and in convents’ chronicles: in exemplary nuns, the love of God took precedence over any other affections, which were depicted as insignificant or, worse, contrary to God’s will.

Thus, Catharine Burton remembered that she had felt great sorrow at leaving her father and siblings to enter religion on the Continent: ‘My greatest difficulty was to leave my father, brothers, and sisters, whom I loved passionately’. In the same sentence, she thanked God that her ‘passionate’ feelings never extended to anyone else (meaning a romantic relationship), thereby somewhat mitigating her perceived human failings: ‘but for any other love I thank God I never knew what it was.’[10] She may have been soft-hearted when it came to her kin, but the love of a man never tainted the purity of her heart.

What applied to the ties of blood must apply, even more so, to the ties of the affective heart, since terrene love was construed as a distraction and even as an obstruction on the path to spiritual perfection. The narratives documenting influential nuns took care to highlight the indifference these virtuous women felt for the suitors who hoped to gain their favour. For instance, Mary Windsor, who professed at Louvain as an Augustinian Canoness in 1616, had reportedly shunned many occasions to be married, despite the fact that ‘oftentimes men were like to kill one another about her’, so jealous were they of one another if she happened to show a preference.[11] This was seen as a sign of her superior wisdom and of her spiritual commitment: she kept her heart pure, for God only.

Suitors as devils and love as an evil spell: running away to the convent to flee temptation

Exemplary Vitae often painted a picture in which romantic love was seen as abhorrent, since it detracted from the love of God. For some nuns, those precepts were so deeply absorbed that any possibility of a romantic relationship seemed directly opposed to God’s will. For some, the idea of a love affair became so odious as to take on the appearance of an evil to be fought, at all costs: it was the devil’s work.

Margaret and Ursula Mostyn, both (in)famous Carmelites who went on to become Prioresses at Lierre, had remained steadfast when their mother had presented them with suitable matches. But unlike the examples given above, both Margaret and Ursula confessed to having been in love with at least one of their respective suitors. That love was later re-interpreted at the time of witnessing in their autobiographical documents, and presented not as their own failings, or a temporary weakness which then soon recovered from, but rather as the result of witchcraft. Margaret recalled that she had felt an ‘inordinate affection’ for a particular person. Unsettled by these feelings which contradicted her religious vocation, she became prey to frightening visions, in which she saw a jealous Christ ‘pictured like a spouse’, demanding to know what this mere mortal man had more than He did.[12] So far, this expresses a common trope. But the Mostyns experienced their rejection of human love in very intense ways, so much so they could not bear to take any responsibility in what they had grown to consider a heinous crime towards God. Thus, they fashioned their witnessing to attribute those feelings of attraction to the devil himself, via witchcraft. Ursula recalled experiencing visions of the man who ‘had caused her for to fall in love with him previously, by reason of his witchcraft’; the unnamed love interest was then referred to as ‘the devil’, and the man who precipitated ‘the beginning of all her temptations’.[13]

Despite their utter dedication to their contemplative vocations, Ursula’s and Margaret’s spiritual path was not to be an easy one; so tormented were they by diverse temptations that, in 1652, their confessor Edmund Bedingfield found them to be possessed and embarked upon a painful process of exorcism. The Mostyns’ case is the only documented example of exorcisms being carried out on English nuns. When Margaret was finally delivered of her demons, she was able to name all 300 entities along with their area of evil expertise: remarkably, 22 of them had tormented her with amorous and carnal desires.[14] Although the Mostyn case was exceptional, it can be construed as the extreme expression of an internalized discourse which equated the love of a man with sin. To desire a person meant that one’s heart was not entirely filled with God; it was therefore reprehensible in a contemplative nun.

The convent as shelter from unwanted marriages imposed by families

When confronting hagiographical sources with less extraordinary obits and chronicles (also fashioned for their exemplarity), it becomes apparent that not everyone took this rather drastic stance regarding the dangers of romantic love. The passage of time and the nature of the documents available to us make it impossible to evaluate the role played by true spiritual vocations in all instances of rejected suitors. Some women may indeed have had an ardent wish to become a nun and not a wife. Others may have entered without a solid initial vocation, keen to avoid an alliance they dreaded. And in between those two extremes, one would likely find all the nuances of spiritual commitment and a variety of dispositions towards human love.

Mary Morgan can illustrate this point: Morgan was a wealthy heiress who turned down the proposal of ‘the greatest Earl of the kingdom’; not taking no for an answer, the Earl then appealed to the royal couple themselves as mediators. When Morgan persevered in her decision, the Earl turned to more violent devices and lay siege to her house. The situation resulted in Morgan leaving the country in disguise and entering the Antwerp Carmel to avoid the unrequited pursuits of that unwanted suitor. Hamilton, in his Chronicles of the Louvain Augustinians, wrote that ‘the noble young lady, whom our Lord had designed for Himself’ had a great zeal for religious life, but the very nature of his inspirational writing demands that we treat this declaration with some caution. The factors leading Morgan to her decision would, no doubt, have been complex.[15] Some women shunned their admirers, perhaps less out of the love of God than out of a dislike for their prospective husbands. Some of those who entered rather than marry their family’s chosen suitor may have done so to escape a life with a man whom, for whatever reason, they did not wish to marry. In such cases, the convent represented a safe haven, a shelter from a life of domestic unhappiness.

Considering all of the above, it seems clear that not all vocations were as clear-cut as hagiographic Lives would have readers believe. The fact that suitors could be demonized as spell-casters indicates that, for some women, the appeal of romance was strong although it went hand in hand with feelings of guilt. For others, the cloister offered an alternative to an arranged marriage they resented. In those instances, conventual texts often insist that the women’s vocations predated their entry in the convent and took precedence over worldly interests: they refused the marriage because their hearts were already set on God. This may well have been the case for some, but maybe not for all. And even for those who entered less out of ardent religious zeal than out of more worldly motives, it was not impossible to develop a truly sincere love of contemplative life once in the convent.

[1] Laurence Lux-Sterritt, ‘The Scandalous Nun: Anti-Catholic Representations of English Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century’, in Claire Gheeraert-Grafeuille and Géraldine Vaughan (eds.), Anti-Catholicism in Britain and Ireland since the Reformation, 1600-2000: Practices, Representations and Ideas, Palgrave, 2020, pp.145-161.

[2] Frances Dolan, ‘Why are Nuns Funny?’, Huntington Library Quarterly 70.4 (2007), pp. 509-535.

[3] Archives départementales du Nord (ADN), Ms 20H-17, ‘A short treatise on the three principall vertues and vows of religious persons’, fos 122-3.

[4] ADN, Ms 20H– 37, ‘Of the love of God’, fo. 144.

[5] ADN, Ms 20H– 37, ‘Reflexions when she was novice’, fo. 815.  Emphasis mine.

[6] F-M. de Chaugy (ed.), Sainte Jeanne-Françoise Frémyot de Chantal, sa vie et ses oeuvres, vol. 1, La Vie (Paris: Plon, 1876), p. 129 and Claude Martin (ed.), La vie de la Vénérable Mère Marie de l’Incarnation (1667) (Solesmes, 1981).

[7] Edward Scarisbricke, The Life of the Lady Warner in Which the Motives of Her Embracing the Roman Catholick Faith, Quitting Her Husband and Children to Become a Poor Clare at Graveling, Her Rigorous Life and Happy Death Are Declared (London, 1691).

[8] Lady Lovel was a passionate and volatile character; she left Brussels when she disagreed with Abbess Joanna Berkeley over matters of spiritual direction.  Her departure marked the beginning of several years of uncertainty in her vocation; she travelled to Louvain, Liege and Mechelen before finally founding the Carmelite convent at Antwerp in 1619.  See Colleen M. Seguin, ‘Lovel, Mary, Lady Lovel (c.1564–1628)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan 2014;, accessed 24 Feb 2016, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/69036.

[9] PRO, SP, Flanders: 77/9, fo. 119, Lady Mary Lovel to Lord Treasurer Salisbury, August 1608, cited in Walker, Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe, p. 36.

[10] Thomas Hunter, Life of Catharine Burton, London : Burns and Oates, 1876, p. 31.

[11] Hamilton (ed.) The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran at St Monica’s in Louvain, vol. 1, London: Sands & Co, 1904, p. 158.

[12] Nicky Hallett, Witchcraft, Exorcism and the Politics of Possession in a Seventeenth-Century Convent: ‘How Sister Ursula was Once Bewitched and Sister Margaret Twice’, p. 54.

[13] Ibid., p. 67

[14] Ibid., pp. 92 – 106

[15] Hamilton (ed.), Augustinian Canonesses … Louvain v2, p. 4

You may also like...

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search