At 26 Joanna Hollins is the youngest novice nun in an Anglican community in the UK. Joanna, who grew up in the Diocese of Oxford, now lives in the idyllic Tymawr Convent in Wales.

Growing up in Slough and moving with her family to Milton Keynes when her mum was ordained, Joanna moved on to the University of East Anglia. There she studied for a BA in Literature and Creative Writing followed by an MA in Creative Writing.

After Norwich, she moved to her parents’ house for a year. She had vague ideas about what to do next, but no definite career plan that spoke to her heart.

Joanna, who has worshipped in a variety of churches, had expected to move into academia, but the possibility of a calling to a religious community was at the back of her mind.

Trying a convent

Eventually, she had a conversation in which she admitted she’d like to try out staying in a convent. “This gave me the impetus to find temporary work. I worked in a calls centre for a disastrous week, but I then got a job in the reception at Northampton University, often in the reception of the university hotel. I could go and visit a monastic community for a few weeks, then return to work,” she says.

Her next step was spending a year in a new monastic community in Abergavenny. The community is one of a number in the UK that are for people who are exploring their vocation. She expected choosing a convent would be like choosing a university, with prospectuses, photographs and descriptions. She also thought she’d want to live in an inner-city convent with lots of young nuns.

Joanna Hollins on the day she was 'clothed' as a novice.

A different direction

But a meeting with the Rt Revd Dominic Walker, a former Bishop of Reading and a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (a dispersed religious community), set her in a different direction.

“I told him what I was thinking, and he suggested with a smile I visit this enclosed, contemplative community of nuns in the Welsh countryside. I gave it a try thinking that even if I didn’t like it, I’d get a nice retreat.

“All of my preconceptions fell away at the door,” she says.

Asking to do some work, she was sent into the garden to lay wood chippings. “I stood on my own in the middle of the garden and knew I was coming back,” she says. Her first stay was unexpectedly extended when she was snowed in. It was February 2018 and the second Beast from the East storm had hit. Joanna, who hadn’t expected to need warmer clothes, spent a few days shovelling snow and borrowing woolly socks from the nuns to keep warm.

She moved in August 2018, becoming a postulant in February 2019. She was ‘clothed’ as a novice in September 2019. Nuns become postulants first, then novices for around three years, before deciding whether to become full members of their community.

The clothing ceremony involves the novice arriving in their ordinary clothes and leaving in their new habit. “They used to get changed in front of everyone, but thankfully now we go into another room to change and come back in our habit,” says Joanna, who is currently getting used to staying in one place for more than 12 months.

“For the first time, I’m not moving on. I could live in this community for another 50 years if I’m lucky. My generation moves around so much. It’s a blessing to dig deep roots into something that goes back over 100 years,” she says.

Outside everyday

Joanna loves working in the vegetable garden. “Being outside every day has done wonders for my physical and mental health. We have orchards too. We aren’t self-sufficient, but we are as close to it as we can be. We are all worried stiff about the environment. We keep our food organic and fresh and it does feel good when you are reading about climate change.

“I used to think gardening was boring,” she says. “I hate sprouts, but I love growing them. They grow well in our climate. It means I get to give back to the community and I have a sense of rootedness.

“It demonstrates how this life involves being willing to be changed by God,which for me meant learning to love gardening, and to be willing to be seen in wellies, or even socks and sandals.”

The other nuns in the community are aged between 57 and 82, but Joanna doesn’t feel the age gap. “They really do feel like they are my sisters,” she says.

Being an ‘enclosed’ community means that the nuns’ main life and work is contained within the convent. They all take holidays and Joanna takes long walks in the Welsh countryside. They are also sometimes sent out to buy something for the convent. Joanna meets with other Anglican novice monks and nuns three or four times each year.

“I’ve only been into town once in the last month, but I love the countryside,” she says. The ‘rule of life’ involves daily morning prayer, evening prayer and compline, with a daily Eucharist and other, specific prayers every week. The structured life of the convent is a balance of work, prayer, study and rest.

Life as a novice

Officially Novice Joanna SSC, (Society of the Sacred Cross), her structure of life is set by the Revd Mother Katharine.

“As a novice, I have quite a structured life. The professed nuns have more flexibility. I make all the bread for the community, which is a huge blessing. The Revd Mother asked me to do it to join the eucharistic life of the community,” says Joanna.

Years earlier, aged 15, Joanna had been on a trip to Taizè run by the Diocese of Oxford. “Sitting in silence for ten minutes during each service, that week, was a revelation – maybe a part of the slow-burning journey which has taken me to a life rich in silent prayer,” she says.

When we spoke the sisters were preparing to close their kitchen for renovation work and move into a self-catering guest house in the grounds of the convent.

The temporary move will involve them having to be flexible in working out how to keep their rhythm of prayer going, including ensuring they stick to the periods of silent prayer that are an essential part of their contemplative life.

And what advice would Joanna have for anyone considering exploring a vocation to a religious community?

“Come and find out what it’s like. We want to listen and help people find out what God is asking of them.

“Part of our life is to sit and listen and to suggest that maybe someone would make a great Franciscan friar or an oblate. I’d honestly suggest not being afraid of looking like a fool. It took me far too long to do because I was scared that the thought was too fragile to share. Everyone I spoke to nurtured it and helped it grow and it eventually led me into being able to live this life.”

A convent in lockdown

This article was written before the Covid-19 lockdown began in March. Before publishing, we asked Joanna what lockdown had meant for life in the convent.

While the nuns missed friends and guests, they have had the chance to re-focus on their life of prayer.

“We have taken to each holding the names of a few of our associates, oblates or companions in particular prayer each day, as a way of holding them when we can’t be together. And in turn, they have held us,” says Joanna.

“In some ways, I’ve had a chance to experience the kind of novitiate sisters of the past would have had – complete enclosure, without visits from friends or family.”

This has meant rest-time spent entirely in the convent. “I have very human frustrations at times, but mostly I’m trying to be grateful. Living in a big household in the country, with daily worship are privileges that have been denied to so ­many during the pandemic.

(As we are becoming aware, these privileges are denied to others through structural discrimination in our society). The greatest blessing is my sisters, who have stayed with me on the difficult days, and who have kept on making me laugh,” adds Joanna.