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Review of "Cloistered" by Catherine Coldstream: Disorganized

Review of “Cloistered” by Catherine Coldstream: Disorganized


After losing her father in 1987, Catherine Coldstream was thrown into a state of spiritual turmoil. She believed she could sense his presence, causing her to become fixated on the afterlife and the destiny of the soul after death. She spent three years seeking a deeper understanding and a higher love, ultimately finding her way to the Carmelites, a Catholic group founded by hermits who resided in caves on Mount Carmel. To Coldstream, they symbolized a fresh way of life and an opportunity to carry out God’s will in seclusion.

That was the original idea. In her book, Cloistered, Coldstream writes about her experiences at the fictional Akenside Priory in Northumberland, which housed twenty Carmelite nuns. The book begins with her daring escape from the priory at night. She held onto her beloved viola, one of the few things she brought with her ten years earlier, as she ran down the gravel driveway in her habit and sandals, eventually reaching the fields where she could breathe in the refreshing, untamed night air. After spending a decade confined to cloistered life, she had forgotten the feeling of the cool and unrestrained night, and the exhilaration of running free in the wetness of it all.

There is no shortage in the publishing world of personal accounts from individuals who have sought to break away from a life controlled by religious beliefs. In Educated, Tara Westover writes about her journey to freedom after a strict upbringing in the Mormon faith. Similarly, in The Last Days, Ali Millar shares her poignant story of growing up and getting married as a Jehovah’s Witness before being excommunicated by the church. What sets Coldstream’s story apart is that she intentionally chose the religious path, giving up a life filled with travel, romantic relationships, artistic pursuits, and personal freedoms in exchange for a quiet life of reflection and strict self-discipline.


The book Cloistered paints a vivid picture of the author’s initial months as a new nun, also known as a “postulant.” She adapts well to her isolated lifestyle, despite living on meager rations, and embraces the simple bareness of her “cell,” which includes a small bed, kneeling mat, and a large cross on the wall. Her daily life revolves around seclusion, obedience, austerity, chastity, and a close connection with an “invisible spouse.” She also learns a new set of terms, such as “of your charity” for please, “Deo gratis” for thank you, and “humble office,” which is a discreet way of referring to the bathroom.

After a happy beginning, Coldstream, now known as Sister Catherine, starts to feel dissatisfied. This isn’t only because the recently chosen mother superior, who loves animals, has let the priory be taken over by wild cats who leave pee everywhere. Sister Catherine begins to doubt Mother Elizabeth’s techniques and also has conflicts with a fellow novice, Sister Jennifer, whom she believes receives more privileges than she does. The atmosphere in this tense environment is reminiscent of a playground, where minor mistakes are exaggerated and dramatic stories are created from stern or mocking looks.

While kindness and empathy – traits that are supposed to be synonymous with holiness – appear to be lacking, Coldstream’s constant recitation of grievances and self-pity can be overwhelming. Even small jokes about her being from the south or converting to Catholicism instead of being born into it bring her to tears. She even apologizes to Mother Elizabeth and Sister Jennifer, hoping for some understanding in return, but is taken aback when it doesn’t come. When she expresses her disappointment with the emotional disconnect within the community, one wishes someone would gently remind her that she chose to join one of the strictest and most traditional religious orders. The book ultimately serves as a lesson on the consequences of throwing strangers devoted to a higher power together and expecting them to govern themselves. Cliques and power struggles arise, creating a hierarchy where some are more important than others – not unlike Animal Farm, except with nuns instead of animals.

It’s no surprise to learn that Akenside Priory has since closed and been sold off. It seems young women ready to give up their families and freedom to live in a micro-dictatorship are now few and far between. On leaving the order, Coldstream settled into a new life as a teacher and became acclimatised to the “great rush of noise” that was the outside world. And though she lost her faith in the sisters, she kept her faith in God. Her book is not about retribution but, she notes, “a story. A personal testament. A glimpse over the wall. It is an act of thanks for my survival.”

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Source: theguardian.com