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A Norfolk nun's journey from swearing parrots to silent prayer.

PUBLISHED: 06:00 20 June 2011

Sister Teresa Keswick from the Carmelite Monastry in Quidenham with one of her embroideries she is currently working on.

Sister Teresa Keswick from the Carmelite Monastry in Quidenham with one of her embroideries she is currently working on.

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

As a lawyer she worked with abused children and abusive parrots. Then came the call to a new job. ROWAN MANTELL met Norfolk nun, Teresa Keswick.

As a lawyer she worked with abused children and abusive parrots. Then came the call to a new job. ROWAN MANTELL met Norfolk nun, Teresa Keswick.

A foul-beaked parrot decided one of her more memorable court cases, but it was a silent voice which changed her life forever.

Teresa Keswick was once a London lawyer. Today she owns nothing, watches no television, attends eight church services a day and might go months without leaving her monastery.

She did not even choose the new direction.

“It was perfectly dreadful. There was nothing nice about it!” she said. “I was in a court room and everything had gone wrong that day. I thought I couldn’t go on like that and I looked back and realised I had actually been quite nice when I was 17 or 18 and I wasn’t now, so what should I do about it. I decided to try living a Christian life.”

Within a year she had entered the monastery at Quidenham, south of Norwich.

Suddenly she owned nothing, earned nothing and went nowhere.

For the past 28 years she has been woken every morning at 5.30am and goes to bed in her single cell after the 9.30pm final service of the day.

Unless she needs full-time nursing care it is entirely likely she will die here.

It is a deliberately simple life.

“I don’t miss the outside now,” she said. “To start with I did. For example I used to enjoy going to the Chelsea Flower Show but I learnt to lower my sights. I learnt to love wild flowers and when you look at them really carefully you realise how beautiful they are.”

There are worse places to spend a lifetime.

And Sister Teresa still has links with the outside world. Friends and relatives visit, write and email, and then there are the customers for her exquisite embroidery.

She creates altar frontals and vestments for churches, bedspreads and cushion covers for private clients.

She is currently completing a bedcover commemorating expeditions to the North and South poles, for a woman whose father trekked alongside Shackleton. Boats, ice-mountains, sledges and penguins shimmer from the cloth in almost impossibly delicate stitches in every shade of blue and silver.

Teresa, now 64, said she was not particularly religious as a young child. She studied French at university and worked for a publishing company before deciding she wanted a professional job.

“I arrived at law by a process of elimination!” she said.

But it was not an ideal choice. “I was frightened of appearing in public, I was frightened of making a terrible mistake which would affect peoples’ lives, I was frightened of being barked at,” she admitted.

There were some memorable cases.

“In one a parrot was sold by a pet shop to a customer with a guarantee that it could talk,” said Sister Teresa. “It remained silent. The parrot owner brought a case against the pet shop owner under the Trade Descriptions Act and eventually everyone turned up in court. Once in court the parrot started to swear, and the case was dismissed.”

In another a woman was prosecuted for child cruelty. “He was a child of immense qualities: very tough, understanding, patient, loving his rather hopeless mother,” she said. “I have often wondered what happened to her son, and hope and pray that he is well and happy.”

She was a court clerk running a busy London court when she realised she was being called to become a nun.

The youngest, and only girl, of four siblings, her parents were horrified by the news. “I think it’s shattering for parents,” she said. “But I wasn’t a child. I knew what life was about. I suspect I would not have got married. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher or a missionary or a nurse but I considered that I might be able to be an enclosed nun.”

Because she can drive, she gets out more than most, perhaps to take a nun to a medical appointment. Even so she might not leave Quidenham for months at a time.

Her daily work includes hours of prayer, regular chores and looking after guests to the monastery. There is some leisure time too, when the nuns chat or play board games or make the greetings cards they sell as a cottage industry.

With almost every minute of every day time-tabled Sister Teresa said that at first she considered leaving. “But I had nowhere to go.” And she added: “I don’t think the world is any poorer for not having me as a court clerk.”

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Have you ever wondered how you would cope with a monastic life? The nuns of Quidenham are running a weekend for women keen to find out more from July 8-10.

Single women aged between 20 and 40 will have their own monastic cell in which to pray, read and sleep and will be able to ask questions, join services and find out more about the life of a nun. For more information e-mail prioress@quidenhamcarmel.org.uk, or write to

Carmelite Monastery, Quidenham, Norwich, Norfolk, NR16 2PH.

For more information on the Quidenham Carmelite community visitwww.quidenhamcarmel.org.uk

FACT FILE

The Carmelites bought Quidenham Hall in the 1940s.

The nuns are landlords to the neighbouring Quidenham Children’s Hospice.

Eighteen nuns, aged between 29 and 88, live at Quidenham.

Sister Wendy Beckett – the hermit nun and art historian, lives in a mobile home in the grounds of the monastery.

Q&A

What is your job as a nun?

“My role in the world is to pray for it.”

What do you pray for? “I don’t think I ever ask for anything specifically. If someone is very ill I can’t bring myself to specifically ask for a cure because I think that reduces God to a magician. So I put it in God’s hands and leave it there.”

Do you ever doubt the existence of God? “I don’t doubt the existence of God but I have no conscious awareness of the presence of God, which is quite different from not believing.

On a physical and intellectual level there is a void, but on a subconscious level there is not a void.

If God is, he must be ineffable, and beyond anything that a human can understand then that’s how it has to be. Some people, mystics, live constantly in the knowledge of God. Some people have to go the way of darkness and that’s the way I have to go. But every now and then one gets a flood of intuition.”

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