Sr Rachel (better known to her reading public by her pen name Ruth Burrows), entered the Carmelite Monastery at Mansfield in Derbyshire at the age of 18; for 82 years of her life she was an enclosed Carmelite contemplative nun. As a young prioress of 36, she realised that the small Carmel over which she presided had no realistic future, so she organized an amalgamation with the monastery at Quidenham in Norfolk: a much bigger community in a much bigger house in the countryside, full of potential for expansion. She arrived here in 1960 and stayed.
Although always very proud of being a Yorkshire woman (her Yorkshire accent would become pronounced if she got excited) she grew to love her East Anglian surroundings, and would say that the beauty of the Peak District in Derbyshire was often too great: its loveliness was overwhelming and could distract her both from prayer and from work. Rachel never belonged to the deluded theory that “If it’s nasty it must be good for you.” Her joy in little things such as the occasional small glass of port at Sunday lunch or a chocolate to celebrate a sister’s birthday was catching. She was never too busy or stressed to look out of the window and admire the plants according to season, and at the end of her life, would insist that the driver of her wheelchair pause by the refectory window so that she could see what was going on in the garden.
Rachel was my novice mistress and then my prioress, which means that this appreciation of her many qualities is personal. Her profound understanding of people, whether young or old, meant that she was an extraordinary listener, who combined sympathy with a highly practical way of thinking and also of expressing herself. She knew from within, and without ever dodging them in herself, the frailties of human nature.
Rachel was the author of more than a dozen books on prayer and the mystical life, under her pen name of Ruth Burrows.
On the back cover of one of her later books, a blurb described her as “one of Britain’s greatest spiritual guides.” She snorted on reading this. A little while later I asked her what spiritual direction consisted of. Her reply was instantaneous: “Most of the time it is telling people to behave themselves.” No wonder she was a controversial figure, but I for one would not have had her any other way. Her yardstick for anything said that might be dubious was “Is it kind?”
Rachel was a scripture and theology scholar in her own right, entirely self-taught, and a born teacher. My ignorance of both subjects didn’t discourage her at all, and she didn’t discourage me. She would say that it was far easier to teach someone who had little knowledge, and better still, few opinions, about the spiritual life, than an expert. The conferences she gave to her novices were the basis of the books she was subsequently to write.
One felt that not only did she know the Gospels, but that she lived them. Following Jesus in her every-day and humdrum life was essential to her and encouraging others to do the same was the mainstay of her existence.
I came from a rather spoilt and privileged background and had never done any housework. On my first Saturday in the novitiate, Rachel gave me a morning’s worth of intensive training in domestic science. It was a lovely day; at the end of the session she took me outside to shake out the dusters. As she did so she smiled into the sunshine and said “You do it for Him, you see. Otherwise it just becomes a chore.”
She was forthright, which suited me, though it didn’t suit everyone. I found that this directness was (nearly) always tempered by sensitivity. She never lacked courage when it came to speaking the truth, whether or not this was going to be agreeable to the hearer. And she realised that there was a time for telling truths: she would wait until her hearer could take them in.
Her own way of saying “different strokes for different folks” was to explain that some novices were delicate, like exquisite clothes made of silk and lace, which only required a minimum of very gentle hand-washing in warm water; others were much tougher and much grubbier, like old jeans, and needed to be pounded and bashed before being put through a boil wash. Her aim was to ensure that those under her guidance were to come to full human development. She was apt to say “God is not glorified by half-persons.”
Once her first books were published, her scholarship and grasp of the human situation began to attract people. One of her greatest fans was a young Passionist priest, who was later to become a bishop in both Sweden and Britain and who is the best preacher I have ever heard. He remained a close and faithful friend to Rachel until she died.
Another young priest, a Jesuit from the United States, wrote a long (his own father said it was too long!) thesis on one of Rachel’s shorter books. He came to Quidenham to interview Rachel, somewhat alarmed by the very rural surroundings of the monastery and its general air of austerity. He was to become the president of a large and prestigious Roman Catholic university in America and he too remained a friend until Rachel died. These two, among many others, were a huge asset to the community: they would share their informed and intelligent knowledge with the sisters, to the advantage and pleasure of the latter.
One of Rachel’s many skills – some would say her greatest – was in the area of reform. She revelled in the documents that came from the Second Vatican Council, and was conscious, from the outset, of the necessity of the conclusions that they were drawing. She particularly welcomed the insights regarding the reforms to the religious life. Thanks to her, many out-of-date and sometimes oppressive customs were swept away.
At the time (in the early 1960s) this wasn’t necessarily to everyone’s liking, and she had to struggle to get her convictions across. She had no sense of nostalgia for “the good old days”, having seen at first hand the harm that outmoded traditions could do.
When studying the main Carmelite saints: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux (the latter was her favourite), she had a keen eye for assessing what they wrote: she set aside the values which were strictly of their time and retained the eternal truths about which they were so eloquent and which were of such a help to her. Rachel wrote about all of them, simplifying the 16th century Spanish mystics so that they were accessible to modern minds, and encouraging others, such as myself, to have the sense to get beyond Therese of Lisieux’s sugary and sentimental prose and enter into the hard but truthful lessons that this young woman has to give us all, but most of all, to Carmelites. Rachel’s books remain in print, thanks to her publisher who considers their importance to be of enduring value.
One of the strangest and most rewarding aspects of her life was her close friendship with Sister Wendy Beckett. They made an impressive team, and Wendy’s constant encouragement and understanding gave Rachel the confidence to put her insights into practice. Sister Wendy became a household name thanks to her television programmes, where her extraordinary ability to convey to others her appreciation of art in all its forms and throughout the ages made her a huge success. Rachel was proud of this, but warned her of the dangers of becoming a celebrity.
Rachel herself never became a celebrity. There was a time when she was much in demand: to appear on television, talk on the radio, and give lectures as far away as America. To my knowledge she turned them all down, on the basis of her valuing a perfectly ordinary Carmelite day above most things, and certain above fame and adulation. The only time she left enclosure in order to give a talk was to help the women religious in East Anglia: they were local and she felt they deserved any support she could give them.
Rachel’s last two years were particularly hard; it was with relief and a feeling of liberation that I heard of her death. Now those who knew and loved her are entrusted with carrying on the good work she achieved in us. Her path to God was one of no consolation. She once told me that this was a royal road.