Silent Escape: A Nun’s Journey from Confinement to Freedom

A Leap of Faith: Joining the Convent

After Catherine Coldstream’s father died when she was just 24 years old, she felt unmoored, unsure which direction to go next in her life.

So she did what few do: she became a nun.

She joined the rigidly-tight community of sisters at Akenside Priory. In her memoir—Cloistered: My Years as a Nun—Catherine shares what it was like when she entered the confines of the basically silent monastery to live the Carmelite life. She took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience so that she could be married to God.

Parts of the monastic life went well for Catherine.

“The teachings were all so extreme, and the prevailing atmosphere of faith so powerful, that the material sacrifices came relatively easily, and seemed almost natural once you put your mind to it.”

The Downside of Monasticism

But bit by bit, life in the convent became suffocating.

“Both in and out of choir, eyes were to be kept lowered, and, like all the other senses, suitably restrained. We were to mind God’s business and our own, never other people’s.”

Being cut off from society wasn’t in itself horrible to her, but being cut off from even the people in her own small community was.

“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 – Elizabeth, I had now begun to notice, loved the words – not be such a Cry Baby.”

Sister Catherine longed for human touch, for human communication, for human joys. Instead, she was given distance, silence, and isolation. As the years went by, Catherine grew increasingly suppressed by the autocratic leadership of the Mother in charge and the cliques among the sisters.

“If I’d been able to be honest with myself, I would have admitted that my dream had turned into the beginnings of a nightmare.”

Shaking Loose the Shackles

Eventually what happened made her life torturous. After a decade of trying to make it work, Catherine decided she needed out, if she would remain sane.

“Psychologically, of course, things were far more complicated. No one felt genuinely free to leave at any point, however nominally enshrined the possibility might have been on paper.”

In the book, she details her frantic escape from the monastery, where she went next, and the plans she made afterward.

“After over a decade of straining for the highest monastic ideals (and being shocked when others didn’t) I’d broken one of the most fundamental of our rules, that of enclosure. I’d broken it, not out of laziness, or because I didn’t care, but because I cared too much.”

This is a fascinating true story of good intentions in a community gone bad, set in the backdrop of faith and the human spirit.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

My thanks to Netgalley
for the review copy of this book

11 thoughts on “Silent Escape: A Nun’s Journey from Confinement to Freedom

  1. Lynn

    Wow. I think this will be a read for my book club! My great aunt was a nun in China, however her story is very different (especially as she served during China’s civil war).

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I think it would make a great book club read, Lynn. I wanted to read it from the first time I saw it available on Netgalley. I’ve always been curious about life in a monastery. How interesting that your great aunt was a nun in China!

  2. Lesley

    I just downloaded the Kindle version of this book this morning and I’m looking forward to reading it so it’s interesting to get your take on it.

  3. Trudy

    Oh my! This really struck a chord in me, Lisa. What an intense journey and what courage it took for her to break free! God’s grace, for sure. Thank you for sharing this. Love and blessings to you!

  4. Debbie Wilson

    I visited a silent monastery for nuns when I was in Poland decades ago. The family said their daughter was anxious and unhappy until she joined. Afterwards, she was all smiles when they’d visit. I wondered how that worked if you were living inside the convent. The books sounds fascinating.

  5. Carla

    It sounds like this book might be helpful for someone in other “toxic” or “closed” systems – family, church, work, etc… Thanks for reviewing it; I’ve added it to my reading list!

  6. Jean Wise

    I read this too and was surprised at the dark turn it took. I guess because I have been always fascinated by monasteries and silence and solitude are safe places for me. Her experience certainly wasn’t that and does remind me there is often two sides to all experiences others have.

  7. Linda Stoll

    Lisa, it’s fascinating how something that looks so good and right can turn out to be like dragging a ball and chain. Those final words are true for all of us – ‘God knows. What I offer is a story.’ And sometimes that is more than sufficient, a bit of redemption maybe.

  8. Lory @ Entering the Enchanted Castle

    I also find the monastic life fascinating and even spent a summer living in a convent (not enclosed). But can be problematic, too. I think you put your finger on the nub of the problem with “Being cut off from society wasn’t in itself horrible to her, but being cut off from even the people in her own small community was.” That should not be the outcome of a contemplative life, and when it is, something is deeply wrong. I’ll definitely see if I can find this book!

  9. Corinne Rodrigues

    I’ve always been fascinated with living in a monastery while being quite clear that it was not for me! When a vivacious young girl I knew joined an order of cloistered nuns, I was really shocked, wondering how she would fit in. The last time I heard of her she was still in and apparently happy!
    Thank you for sharing this, Lisa. I’ll add it to my seemingly endless TBR pile. 🙂

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