Habit Forming

bad habits holy orders

Bad Habits, Holy Orders is a series by the UK’s Channel 5 in which five young women, Gabbi, Paige, Tyla, Sarah and Rebecca, whose life is largely based on clothes, cosmetics, clubbing, casual sex, selfies and alcohol spend four weeks under the care of nuns from the Daughters of Divine Charity. To further twist the knife in they find themselves in a convent in the small Norfolk town of Swaffham, the kind of place which aspires to the sophistication and glamour of The Back of Beyond but never quite achieves it.

One gets the impression that had the girls been sent to Evangelical boot camp with the kind of Christians who wave their hands about a lot and shout ‘Hallelujah, Praise the Lord’ all the time then there would have been a great deal of talk about sin and the fires of hell. The Sisters, however, opted for a much more subtle approach. Perhaps they felt that to unfold the full glories of Catholic doctrine to these particular young women would have been like casting pearls before, ahem, the kind of creatures who have no idea what a pearl is nor why anyone would think such a thing valuable. Their aim, then, was to get the girls to first base so that if they didn’t become pearl connoisseurs they might be at least pearl-aware and possibly pearl-curious.

Even this relatively modest aim presented a formidable challenge to the nuns. In a radio interview one of them, Sister Michaela, remarks how surprised she was to see the extent to which the girls had made themselves into objects. This is a profoundly important insight. The world around those five women had concentrated almost exclusively on the things about them which they could see. The girls responded by focussing on these elements of themselves too and ignoring those parts of themselves which only they knew about. They, in effect, turned themselves into a product when nature had designed them to be a person. It is surely those inner parts of ourselves, our hearts and minds, which make us fully human and if we neglect those then we do a grievous injury to ourselves.

Back in their everyday lives the young women spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, in the first phase of their time at the Convent of the Sacred Heart the Sisters encourage them to look into a different kind of mirror, one which shows them their inner-selves. The convent routine, early to bed, early to rise, prayer, shared meals, shared recreation, performing daily chores and discreet one-to-one chats all have the effect of drastically slowing up the normally hectic pace the girls live at and opening up time for self-reflection and self-examination. Before embarking on her stay with the nuns one of the women is filmed talking to her dad and then saying “I act like it’s all fine, but it isn’t fine” and then bursting into tears. Now she and the others have a chance to work out just why that is. Over the course of two weeks we begin to see the kind of difference that this makes.

One of the first signs that this is making a big change is in the way that gradually and hesitantly the girls begin to reduce the amount of makeup they put on and then cut it out altogether. For them this is a totally revolutionary act, and a previously unthinkable one. They have the confidence to do it because they are beginning to think that the beauty which they most desire to possess for themselves is one that comes from a different place to the beauty they had previously aspired to. It is noticeable, indeed, that by the third episode all of the women are actually looking much younger than they did in the first episode. Partly, no doubt, this is because of the lack of cosmetics but mostly, I think, it is because a lot of the inner tensions which had previously been winding them up without being addressed have begun to relax. Now they have addressed them they start to feel the benefit.

The second phase which the nuns offer is yet another kind of mirror, the mirror of suffering. The girls are exposed to, and, indeed, immersed in, the lives of those who are in pain or who are vulnerable and frail. A recently bereaved widow, homeless people and the lonely elderly. This has the double effect of causing the girls to look both outward and inward at the same time. They see suffering around them and it moves them to offer what they have, their strengths and weaknesses, to help. It also prompts them to look at their own brokenness, their own suffering and even perhaps their own selfishness and question themselves about these things. While helping in a care home one of the women, Gabbi, says she feels like she is rediscovering the person she used to be. This is another key insight. All the potential for good that we have as children is never completely lost. We might mislay it or hide it under a mask, as Gabbi herself puts it, but it’s always there and when we call it out of hiding it won’t rebuke us or blame us for ignoring it, it will simply get on with the job of doing and being the best you that it can be.

Some reviewers have expressed disappointment because the young women were so compliant with the regime which the Sisters had established for them. The critics wanted more fireworks in the way of rebellion, conflict and confrontation which tells us a good deal more about the critics than it does about the girls. It is, nonetheless, an interesting question; why did the girls adapt to quickly to a way of life so radically different from their usual way of doing things? I have a theory about that. All of us, especially perhaps the young, have a deep need for boundaries. If at the beginning of your life you find no boundaries in any direction but, rather, you have a licence to do whatever you want whenever you want the result is not happiness but anxiety. If a boundary is restrictive it also provides a sense of safety and security. So, although consciously the five might have moaned and complained about the rules and regulations a less conscious part of them rejoiced to find the boundaries that it wanted and needed.

There was some rebelliousness of course. After the failure of an early attempt to smuggle vodka in the girls negotiated a visit to the local pub. The basis was that they would have “just one drink.” On the principle of sticking to the letter but not the spirit of the law that one drink consisted of a full sized bottle of rosé each. Had they been Bible scholars they might have justified themselves in the words of the prophet ZechariahGrain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.” To which the nuns might have responded in the words of Psalm 4You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” And for all that the girls were back in the convent by 9:30pm sharp on a Friday night which is pretty heroic for a young person even in Swaffham.

Of course the challenge will be to hold on to what they have learned about themselves when they return to a world which remains the same however much they have changed. The pressure to drop, bit by bit, all that is new and return to all that is old will be immense. I’ve written elsewhere (on my Catholic blog) about the importance of small frequently repeated daily habits as a way of refocusing ourselves throughout the day on the things that really matter when we are being distracted by the things that are unimportant. In this case, for example, if the girls are going to spend hours on their phones anyway they can set aside a few moments at fixed times to look at pictures of people and things that mean a lot to them. Their parents perhaps, or the Sisters, or maybe that special place they saw once in childhood but that stays in their memory forever as a glimpse of heaven on earth. Also, when they have an idle moment they can repeat a short aspiration or prayer to themselves such as “The king’s daughter is all glorious withinfrom Psalm 45, which reminds us that even a princess with access to all the accessories that money can buy is beautiful chiefly because of the glorious things which adorn her soul.

Of course they might do something completely different. So long as they do something, and I really hope that whatever they do works out for them. Although this is not my religious blog in wishing the five young women and the Sisters all the best for the future I can think of nothing better than to entrust them to the care of Our Lady of Lourdes. As she appeared to another young woman, Bernadette, with healing in her hands and a gentle, unconquerable, imperishable smile of love and kindness on her lips so may she enfold Gabbi, Paige, Tyla, Sarah and Rebecca in her loving embrace and guide them through the darknesses and storms of life to a haven of peace and tranquility where the light of hope is never extinguished.

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The picture of the young women plus the Sisters plus Our Lady of Lourdes is from the Radio Times

3 thoughts on “Habit Forming

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  1. I saw something about this elsewhere, and thought, “How wonderful.” Well, I still do, and while they’ll likely go back to a good deal of their old ways, I suspect there will remain a place deep within that will keep them from completely succumbing, and perhaps keep them on a reasonably straight course. I hope so, anyway. Amazing that a TV channel actually came up with this, should be done more, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, rather revealingly in the first episode when they didn’t know where they were going the young women thought of spiritual renewal in terms of yoga and meditation. It’s as if the whole Christian tradition of spirituality has been wiped out of the consciousness of an entire generation and programmes like this remind us that it’s still alive and kicking.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed so, and working as well as ever, when given a chance. For me, at least, meditation, directed properly, is about halfway there, but that may be because I grew up a hard-core Protestant, and to me, even the Rosary sometimes is closer to meditation than anything else, it closes off other thoughts, and that is often what we need.

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