Former nun launches online prayer initiative

PROFESSIONAL dancer Michelle Eyre gave up her stage career to become a nun. Then she left the convent to become an occupational therapist. Now a married mother-of-one Michelle is starting an exciting new online prayer initiative. She tells Jo Duckles her story.

Michelle, who lives with husband Rob and their six-year-old daughter in Botley, Oxford, told me her story in the Fishes pub in nearby North Hinksey. Born in Reading, she grew up in the Woodley area of Berkshire, moving to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dance before joining the Springs Dance Company. Springs are a company with a varied repertoire underpinned by Christian spirituality.

While she grew up going to church, Michelle says she became a Christian while she was a student, after deliberately turning her back on faith. “I rebelled a bit. You almost need to get rid of your parents’ views and upbringing and find things for yourself.”
Michelle met a Christian pianist and found his life and music inspiring. She joined a charismatic evangelical church, an experience which helped bring alive the liturgy she came to love when she joined a convent. She was living the student life in Clapham, having a great time, watching dance performances at least once a week and felt a tension as a Christian between dancing and serving God.

A retreat at Stanton House in Stanton St John and spiritual direction from nuns in Clapham helped her journey. “It was watching the badgers in the evening that got me stopping and being where I was rather than trying to pray or hear God. That was at Stanton House and gave me a taste for retreats,” says Michelle, whose next retreat was in Wantage with the Community of St Mary the Virgin.

“I was still dancing professionally and was interested in combining dance and the written word,” says Michelle, who met the writer Adrian Plass, who kindly invited her round for dinner, and took everything she told him and turned it into a 20 minute monologue to accompany a Springs dance piece.  “I didn’t know how lucky I was,” says Michelle, as she reflects on her time in London, including knocking on the door of the house where the nuns were living and asking to see a spiritual director. The nun who answered the door asked if I had anyone in mind or if she would do,“ says Michelle, who felt drawn to the religious life. “I felt that if I didn’t explore this I would never know and I couldn’t settle to anything else until I had tried it.”

A discernment process followed that included thinking carefully about religious life in a convent, getting references and visiting several communities to find out which one might be the right one. However, wherever she went, Michelle felt that Wantage was where she wanted to be and it took 10 months from first exploring her vocation to eventually becoming a novice with the sisters there.
“I think the time lapse is another way of checking if people really mean it when they say they want to join,” she says. “It was the depth of prayer that struck me. There was something really different and special there.”
When she became a Christian, Michelle realised the importance of prayer and moving to the convent, from a charismatic background, she realised how much life the liturgy has in it.
Giving up dancing was hard as she moved into the life of a novice nun, although she did occasionally run dance classes for elderly sisters in the convent infirmary, along with duties in the laundry and at St Mary’s School in Wantage. “They vary the jobs as the vocation has to be to the life of the community, not to a specific role you are allocated,” says Michelle. The convent has outreaches that are schools and orphanages in Botswana, India and South Africa and Michelle worked alongside sisters who had worked in those countries. “The CSMV has a huge influence worldwide,” she says.

“In Wantage action and prayer are held together and there was sometimes a tension between the bell ringing for offices if I was in the middle of something because prayer is good and work is good,” says Michelle who was keen to stress that living in community with people who have come from all walks of life and Christian traditions could be challenging. However she said that everyone is there because they want to be, following the ‘rule of life’ which, despite the word ‘rule’, is not legalistic.  “The rule of life isn’t about what you are not allowed to do. It’s more that you agree positively to go to the church services because you want to do them. There are no locks on the doors of the convent to keep you there, and the silences are times in the day when people keep quiet, not because they are not allowed to talk but because they agree to hold the silence and allow people to be themselves. The sisters are extremely non-judgemental. You might expect to be told to deny yourself but you are actually told to look after yourself.”

They were so non-judgemental that when the desire for marriage led Michelle to take the decision to leave the convent, the nuns lined the road to wave her off. The Revd Mother tied the cross Michelle had worn around her waist around her bag as she left. An oblate of the community, Michelle still visits regularly as the sisters there are good friends. An oblate is someone who follows a rule of life in their everyday life without living in a religious community.
“You go along living the religious life seeing if it fits you and you can be most fulfilled by being in community. If you start to feel that you don’t fit or want to do other things, you may pull away from the community. I was there two-and-a-half years so I gave it a good go,” says Michelle.
“Our lives are greatly supported by the sisters’ prayers. I am very grateful for what they have given me,” she says.
Michelle went on to become an Occupational Therapist, eventually taking the role of Regional Manager (UK) for the College of Occupational Therapists. Now she splits her time between looking after her daughter and working to set up discoveringprayer.com. She describes herself as a prayer agent and hopes the website resources will help people discover new ways of engaging with God.
“Richard Branson bought an island when he was 28. It’s about finding aloneness when we are working longer and longer hours and I can’t see that changing,” says Michelle, who is offering free introductions to various forms of monastic prayer. After the introductory sessions, some designed to be done while you are doing the dishes, the ironing or out walking, there will be a charge for some of the resources.

In an age when mindfulness is practised by those of all faiths and none, and even prescribed by the NHS, she hopes to reclaim meditation as a Christian activity. “It’s about leaning towards God, setting our compass towards God,” she says. “By praying we change our hearts and God points us in a different direction.”

With help from a professional actor Anita Wright, to master voice–overs, Michelle is in the process of creating up to 40 new guided meditations this Lent. Discoveringprayer.com offers prayers based on Ignatian and Benedictine techniques. Rob is a professional web designer who has supported the website and is working on a prayer app for mobile phones and tablets. The initiative has been supported by Bishop John and Bishop Colin, and the advisory team includes a monk, a spiritual director and a senior advisor at Vodaphone.

Michelle and Rob worship at St Andrew’s Church, Oxford.

Michelle listens to some of her podcasts. Photo: Jo Duckles.

Michelle listens to some of her podcasts. Photo: Jo Duckles.

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