Vow of Sanctity, page 1
VOW OF SANCTITY
By the Same Author
The local train, spared by the powers-that-be since it was useful for taking summer tourists where they wanted to go, chugged in a gently anachronistic manner along the side of the loch. It was September and, though the train was comparatively empty compared with the summer crowd, those who visited at this time of year were generally considered to be more discerning by the people who used the train for their weekly shopping expeditions to the nearest town. At this end of the year the gorse and heather burst into final flame before the brown tints of autumn muted the landscape.
On this particular afternoon the few passengers were mainly locals. A nun, clad in the ankle-length grey habit of her order, sat in a corner window seat and gazed out at the passing landscape with an interest that proved she was a stranger, but the women laden with shopping bags who had alighted at the last tiny station were clearly natives of the area.
The Scottish accent was really very pretty, Sister Joan was reflecting. This was the first time she had heard it in its authentic setting and the subtle differences in intonation as she had journeyed further north were interesting. As the scenery became wilder and more remote from the larger towns so the voices of her fellow travellers became softer, their pronunciation reminding her of Maggie Smith’s delicate performance in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, a film she had greatly enjoyed in the period before she had entered the religious life.
‘The retreat is certainly a long way off,’ her prioress had remarked, ‘but the whole purpose of having it is to give the sister a chance to get right away from even the smallest distraction. Sometimes even the convent routine can get between ourselves and God. In silence and solitude we are enabled to look deeply into ourselves and so draw closer to Him. You will find your time there most rewarding, I’m sure.’
What Mother Dorothy didn’t say was that Sister Joan’s absence might also be a relief for her companions. Sister Joan knew she thought it because old Sister Andrew, whose age exempted her from the obligation of being tactful, had voiced it bluntly.
‘Mother Dorothy’ll be glad to get rid of you for a few weeks, Sister. Do you realize that in less than a year you’ve twice turned the convent on its head? Now don’t give me that mutinous look. Nobody denies that these matters had to be put right, but two very dramatic events in the same convent isn’t the best way of attracting new vocations, is it?’
‘No, Sister Andrew,’ Sister Joan had agreed meekly.
‘Not that those of us confined to the infirmary didn’t find it all rather – stimulating,’ the old nun added, a decided twinkle in her eyes, ‘but a nice quiet autumn will do us the world of good. And you will like Scotland. Have you ever visited there?’
Sister Joan shook her head.
‘You must take your painting materials,’ Sister Andrew said. ‘The isles may inspire you. I visited them often when I was a girl. Walking tours with my parents. Yes, you must take time out from prayer and contemplation to paint a little.’
‘A retreat is not a holiday,’ Mother Dorothy had said severely when Sister Joan had mentioned the matter. ‘It is not an excuse to indulge ourselves by engaging in hobbies we enjoyed during our secular lives. On the other hand, since you do sketch and paint, and since we are enjoined not to bury our talents in the ground, I feel that you should take advantage of your stay to complete some small studies of any local beauty spot that you judge might brighten up the walls. You will not wish to sign them of course.’
No Daughter of Compassion ever sought to stand out as an individual, to risk the sin of singularity. Sister Joan veiled the too eloquent blue eyes that still persisted in flying upwards from the ground and let silence imply agreement.
Going away for the month of September meant that the little school on the moor where Sister Joan taught a dozen children (the offspring of farmers who couldn’t ferry their children to the nearest school bus and a handful of Romanies who refused to attend the state school regularly anyway) would have to be closed for an extra month. Sister Joan regretted that, since she enjoyed teaching and flattered herself that her pupils were doing fairly well.
‘Of course Sister David could take over your duties,’ Mother Dorothy had said, ‘but she is needed for her enclosure duties and so, all things being considered, the children will have to be given an extra month’s vacation. I’ve no doubt the local authority will have something to say about that, but I feel quite capable of dealing with any complaint they may choose to bring.’
Sister Joan tried not to be too pleased at the idea that nobody could adequately replace her at the school and felt a fleeting sympathy for any member of the local education authority who tried to cross swords with little Mother Dorothy. One glance from behind those rimless spectacles was likely to fell any officious busybody in his tracks at forty paces.
‘And I said,’ Sister Andrew waved her off with, ‘that I’d make certain someone exercised Lilith while you’re away.’
Lilith was the placid pony on whom Sister Joan rode the distance between school and convent five days a week. Sister Joan, who had a special dispensation to wear jeans under her habit for riding, refrained from asking who would substitute for her.
The truth was, she admitted to herself during her private examination of conscience that she was spoilt. Imperceptibly she had begun to accept the small privileges, riding Lilith to school, visiting her pupils in their homes, being excused from recreation with her Sisters because she had exercises to mark, as rights. She didn’t believe she had neglected any of her religious duties but she sensed that the quality of her personal contribution to the life of the convent was somehow dulled by her too frequent excursions into the outer world.
‘It is a pity that you will be travelling alone,’ Mother Dorothy observed. ‘I had hoped that another sister might be travelling at least part of the way but since ours is the only convent of the order in Cornwall I fear not – even the Sisters of Mercy at Bodmin aren’t going anywhere this month.’
The prioress who considered that Sisters of Mercy gallivanted far too often pursed up her mouth. If no Daughter of Compassion were available, her expression proclaimed, then Sister Joan was probably better off travelling alone.
‘I’m sure I shall be all right, Mother Prioress,’ Sister Joan said mildly.
‘You will break your journey overnight at Aberdeen.’
‘Aberdeen?’ Sister Joan looked surprised. ‘Wouldn’t it make better sense to go directly to Inverness? The retreat is on the western coast?’
‘You will wish to stay with sisters of our own order and we have no convent at Inverness,’ Mother Dorothy said with an air of disapproval. ‘Then the next day you will travel westwards.’
‘Yes, of course, Mother Prioress.’
Useless and selfish to hint that she would have preferred to break her journey at London and enjoy a brief reunion with the sisters of the convent where she had spent the testing years of her novitiate and the first years of her profession. Religious were not supposed to form particular friendships. Yet it would have been pleasant to have talked with Mother Agnes, to have spent a night under the roof where she had made the most important decisions of her life.
She was roused from her musing by a series of jerks and wheezes as the train shunted itself in
Sister Joan became aware of a running figure, one arm outstretched to grab at a door handle. In a moment the train would gather speed and the latecomer be flung away. She rose, stepped rapidly to the door and opened it, stumbling back as the would-be passenger took a flying leap into the middle of the compartment. For a moment the open door swung wildly; then he leaned to slam it, sat down in the nearest seat and turned a freckled, ingenuous countenance towards her.
‘God bless you for that, Sister. If I’d missed the train Father Abbot’d have murdered me.’
‘Not literally I hope, Brother –?’ Sister Joan resumed her original seat and raised her eyebrows enquiringly at the young monk.
‘Cuthbert,’ he supplied.
Why Cuthbert, for heaven’s sake? Cuthbert might have been a great hunter whose conversion to Christianity came about when he saw the Christ impaled on the antlers of a deer he was chasing but the name had acquired down through the centuries a definite quality of wimpishness. Perhaps the abbot had wished it on the young man. In any case it was none of her business.
‘Father Abbot,’ Brother Cuthbert was saying feelingly, ‘can be quick tempered, though not, of course, to the point of murder. Are you going to the retreat, Sister –?’
It was his turn to look enquiring.
‘Sister Joan. Yes, I am. You know it?’ She felt a flutter of interest.
‘One of my duties is to keep it swept and clean in between visits from the sisters,’ he informed her. ‘Of course nobody intrudes when a sister is there, though if she’s taken ill or any emergency arises we’re near enough to give help.’
‘I do not intend,’ said the prioress at the Aberdeen convent in an irritatingly coy manner, ‘to tell you anything about our retreat. It ought to come as a surprise.’
That had been said during recreation the previous evening. Sister Joan had been welcomed warmly by the community, and had felt adequately compensated for not having stayed over at her old convent, but the remark had jarred on her.
‘It is on Loch Morag, isn’t it?’ she had said in reply, her own tone severely practical.
‘In a very beautiful situation,’ the prioress had said, ‘but you will see for yourself. My only regret is that more of our order don’t take advantage of its existence regularly. In the early days just after the war there was always one sister or other staying there, but there hasn’t been anyone there for over a year.’
Sister Joan, who had envisaged herself embarking on a thorough spring clean before she got down to any spiritual exercises, gave Brother Cuthbert a kindly look.
‘I have instructions as to how to reach the retreat,’ she said, ‘but it is very reassuring to meet someone who actually takes care of the place. Will there be supplies there? Food and so on?’
‘They can be brought in fast enough,’ Brother Cuthbert told her. ‘I can make sure that you have supper tonight anyway and then tomorrow I’ll bring what you’ll be needing over the next few days. We’re coming into the station now. Give me your bags, Sister. The train only stops for a moment.’
He was already on his feet, shouldering her bags, reaching for the door. A powerfully built young man, she judged, who looked as if rugger had been his game at school. His freckled face was surmounted by a tonsured crown of ginger hair and the general impression he gave was one of wide-eyed enthusiasm.
‘Mind how you go, Sister.’ He turned as he alighted to give her a helping hand down to the narrow wooden walkway that served as platform.
‘Thank you.’ Sister Joan, refraining from the comment that she was thirty-six and not yet in her dotage, stepped down and looked round as the train with an air of having shrugged off its cargo chuntered out again, Brother Cuthbert reaching out a long arm to slam the door.
A wooden barrier behind which a hill dotted with small houses and lined with narrow, twisting lanes, denoted the limits of the tiny station.
‘That’s the village on the slope of the hill,’ Brother Cuthbert said helpfully. ‘We’re largely self-supporting in the community but occasionally we do a spot of shopping there. We go this way.’
He shouldered her bags again as if they were filled with tissue paper and strode through a gap in the wooden barrier. At the other side a road snaked around the base of the hill on which the village was perched.
‘We take the bridge over the railway,’ Brother Cuthbert said over his shoulder. ‘Then you’ll see the loch proper. Our community is on a kind of spur of land that juts out into the loch. The retreat is on the hill above. There are steps cut in case you have weak legs.’
‘I think mine are fairly sturdy,’ Sister Joan assured him.
‘It’s no more than a twenty-minute walk,’ Brother Cuthbert said cheerfully. He had already outstripped her. Sister Joan put on a little spurt in order to keep her luggage within sight.
They had reached the steel girders of the bridge that provided access to the other side of the single gauge line. At the far end the steps descended to a narrow gully below which the beginning of the loch threaded itself between heather clad slopes. Over in the west where she could see the sparkle of wider water, the late afternoon splashed glory across the sky.
‘You’ll admit it’s a good view,’ Brother Cuthbert said, stopping abruptly. Sister Joan nodded without speaking. Beauty sometimes had that effect, she thought, of rendering any comment superfluous, of catching at the heart.
‘Yes, well.’ Brother Cuthbert shot her a vaguely disappointed glance. He had probably expected more verbal enthusiasm. ‘We go through this gully to the shores of the loch and then you’ll see the path and the steps up to the retreat.’
He strode across the narrow track and entered a gully that provided an access to the other side of the slope. Following him, Sister Joan looked up at massive walls of rock scarred by deep fissures. It was impossible to tell if the gully was man-made or the result of some cataclysm of nature. Either way it struck her as deeply impressive. At the foot of the cliffs boulders were scattered around, some sunken into the ground, half covered with lichen.
‘Loch Morag,’ said Brother Cuthbert, turning as they reached the other end of the gully.
‘And it’s magnificent,’ Sister Joan breathed. The shores of the loch lay below her, reed and iris fringed with a scattering of willows leaning over the shallow banks. At the opposite shore the cliffs rose sheer to the rose and orange and gold of the afternoon sky.
‘Actually it rains quite a bit,’ Brother Cuthbert admitted. ‘The weather here can change drastically in about twenty minutes. That’s partly why the community was founded in the beginning – to help travellers who got lost when the mist and the rain came down. In the ninth century, that was when the Vikings were sailing along these coasts, they say the retreat was originally a look-out post where one of the monks could keep watch for any sight of a dragon ship. Some of the Vikings settled further inland. Oh, you’ll be wanting to get to your destination. You see the path? If you follow that you reach the retreat. You can’t see it from this angle.’
He indicated the steep slopes behind them, where conifers clung to the earth below the higher peaks of rock and a path snaked between the trunks.
‘Right then.’ Sister Joan tore her gaze away from the scenery and reached out for her bags.
‘You’ll never manage both of them, Sister,’ Brother Cuthbert said firmly. ‘Look, you take the lighter one and I’ll bring up the heavier with something for your supper just as soon as I’ve seen Father Abbot. Give me half an hour.’
‘You said your community was on a spur of land,’ Sister Joan said, looking across the glinting surface of the loch.
‘Around the bend just past that outcropping of rock,’ he pointed. ‘It is possible to walk across the stepping stones when the water’s calm but there is a boat we ca
‘I’ll manage just fine,’ Sister Joan assured him.
‘Right then – see you later, Sister. Take care now.’
He had relinquished the lighter of her bags and now strode off along the fringed shoreline, still carrying the heavier one. Under the hem of his brown habit his sandalled feet trod rapidly. It was obvious that punctuality was considered important. She turned back towards the cliff path and began to mount it, pleased to find that it was easily negotiable.
It twisted back and forth between the trees, doubling back on itself at times, the gradient becoming almost imperceptibly steeper so that with a little shock she paused to catch her breath, suddenly aware that her feet were slipping on the sharp pine needles that littered the ground and that the shores of the loch were a long way below her. She set down her carpetbag on a bit of level ground and looked down through the trees to where the cliffs seemed to converge, the loch itself narrowing to a ribbon of glinting silver. From this height it was possible to see the spur of land that jutted out from the opposite shore to form what amounted to a virtual island where the loch widened again, as it emerged from the outcroppings of rock and pine-clad slope below the scree and jagged peaks above the tree-line. She could see trees on the spur and the straight lines of stone walls and what could have been low stone buildings, but it was all too distant to make out in any detail. And it had nothing to do with her anyway save that it was pleasant to know that in an emergency she wouldn’t be completely alone.
‘And there is not,’ said Sister Joan aloud, ‘going to be any emergency, so let’s get on.’
She bent, picked up her bag, and toiled on up the steepening path. If any elderly Daughter of Compassion wished to make a spiritual retreat, she reflected wryly, she’d do well to have a medical checkup first.
The path had ended abruptly in what looked like a solid face of rock. She stared upward in dismay for a moment. Then she saw the steps – broad, shallow steps cut in the stone and rising upwards with an iron handrail on the side furthest from the rock.
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