Spiritual athletics

Sister Catherine Holum, nun and former Olympic speed-skater, on the connections between sport and the religious life

This article was first published in The Spectator on 23 June 2012.


Sister Catherine Holum remembers her first Olympic speed-skating race very clearly. The crowd, she says, was very loud. Three men with television cameras knelt in front of her as she tied her skates up. She felt the whole world was watching. And when she had finished the race, she burst into tears.

At the time — it was the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan — she was only 17. She had come from an Olympic family: her mother was a gold medallist and a US star coach. Sister Catherine — or Kirstin, as she was then — was hyped up as a prodigy, destined for greatness. Then she retired.

I meet her at a care home in north London, where she is staying briefly. She is a diminutive figure in a thick Franciscan habit. Her oval spectacles protrude under a smart black veil.

She is, like many young nuns, smiley and joyful and warm. She makes me feel like I am great company even if I am not saying anything. She laughs often, as sociable people do.

As we sit down Sister Catherine sips a glass of water while I help myself to tea and biscuits. I ask her when she started speed-skating and she explains about her mother, Dianne Holum, a champion skater who coached three US Olympic teams. ‘I was always at the rink with her,’ she says. ‘She took me everywhere.’ So she started skating when she was seven, and competed internationally at the age of 13.

The ‘turning point’, she says, came at 16, when she went on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal. She was walking arm in arm with her cousin at the spot where, in 1917, three children apparently saw the Virgin Mary, and all of a sudden she heard the words, ‘You are going to be a sister.’ ‘And this peace and this joy came rushing through me,’ she recalls.

When she got home, she says, she asked the Virgin Mary to pray for her speed-­skating career. And it immediately took off. She became US national champion, junior world champion, and broke world records — ‘It surprised me, it surprised my mum, it surprised everybody,’ she says, laughing.

She was training four or five hours a day, six days a week. As well as skating she was weightlifting, running, cycling, doing drills.

That year, though, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, and had to take a ‘ton of medication’. Preparing for the Olympics was tough, she says, and, in the middle of the trials, she announced that after the Nagano Games she was going to retire.

‘I really couldn’t see myself speed-skating my whole life,’ she says. ‘In the sport people focus everything on being a speed-skater — not getting an education, not moving on… I really felt there was more to life for me than sports.’

What she found instead was art. For four years she studied photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The art crowd, she says, were very different from the sports crowd. None of her friends was Catholic, or Christian. She prayed outside abortion clinics, which was not a popular activity. ‘I didn’t get any hostility because, honestly, in art school people are very accepting of other people’s views. It was more that I knew a lot of people didn’t agree with me.’

When she finished, she didn’t know what to do. She moved back in with her mum in Denver, Colorado. She had not thought much about her faith, or the call she felt to be a sister. But she continued to pray outside abortion clinics, and met a group of people who were about to walk across America to promote the pro-life cause. The next day she decided to join them. ‘It was crazy — I met them on a Friday and started walking with them on the Sunday.’ She says she had never before met people living their faith so joyfully. ‘I knew it was because of their love for Jesus and I knew, reflecting on my own life, that I wasn’t experiencing that same joy.’

That was only the start of the walking. The following year Sister Catherine walked for a month and a half to Toronto for a global gathering of young Catholics called World Youth Day. There, she met the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.

After that, she felt ‘on fire’ with her faith. ‘All I wanted to do was be with nuns,’ she says. She helped out at different religious communities in Denver before she finally phoned the Franciscans and flew out to join them in New York.

The hardest moment in her life, she says, was leaving her family. ‘Even though I knew I wanted to do God’s will, it’s still a big step to dive into your vocation and really focus everything on the Lord, with no turning back.’

She served the homeless in the Bronx and then, in 2009, moved to Leeds, where she and a handful of other sisters give talks at schools, help at a care home and run a mothers’ group.

The Franciscans of the Renewal are, in many ways, the Olympians of religious life. They pray five hours a day — the amount of time that Sister Catherine used to train for. They are relatively new (they were founded in 1988) and, with their habits, sandals and rosary beads, seen as radical in a traditional kind of way.

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Read more, speak less

Marilynne Robinson, Obama’s favourite contemporary novelist, says we all have a duty to raise our intellectual game

This article was first published in The Spectator on May 26 2012


As a child Marilynne Robinson was enthralled by writing poetry. As an adult, she says, it has never been quite the same. ‘During a thunderstorm or something like that I would write some crazy poem and then hide it. It was wonderful.’ She hid the poetry under her mattress. ‘My mother would come in to change the sheets and all this poetry would fly out,’ she recalls. ‘She would say: “Why are you hiding your poetry?” I’ve never known why. But I’m still like that. I’m pretty secretive about anything I write.’

She says she’s two-thirds of the way through her fourth novel. When I ask more about it, she laughs and almost puts her head in her hands. ‘I can’t talk about it. I can’t… For some reason or another that just destroys fiction when you talk about it prematurely, at least for me.’

Robinson has never published any of her poems. ‘I grew up and my poetry really did not,’ she says. But her novels are the kind that a poet might write, representing fairly everyday moments as moving and sad and beautiful.

Her first, Housekeeping, came out in 1980; it took 24 years before she wrote a second, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer. In between the two she raised a family and taught creative writing in Iowa. More recently, she has been prolific, producing two collections of essays and another prize-winning novel, Home, over four years. She is divorced and her two children are grown up and married, so she is free to work; plus, she doesn’t do leisure time. ‘If I’m working on something I want to be working on, nothing could interest me less than leisure. My down time is basically when I don’t know what to write next.’

She has, in the past, spoken of herself as ‘a solitary’. She says longish periods of solitude are necessary for the concentration that’s required in her work. She also says that if she can’t ‘be by myself to think things through at length I get really unhappy’.

Her work, she says, is driven solely by interest. ‘It’s like something consuming… You get something on your mind and you just have to think about it and it amplifies itself. That’s motivation in itself, without any reference to the outside world.’

Robinson says, apologetically, that she doesn’t read anything light: her preference is for ‘hard, heavy old things’. ‘[Books] that don’t make that kind of demand on me bore me,’ she says. At the same time, she is gripped by contemporary debates, and keen to have her say in them. Her latest ­collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, includes an elegant attack on austerity, which she casts as an obsessive ideology nibbling away at America’s great institutions.

She is visiting England for a series of talks on her Pulitzer-winning Gilead. Later this month, she is setting off again, this time for Greece, to give a lecture about theology and the economic crisis. ‘My solitary life is not exclusively a solitary life,’ she says. ‘I like to come out and look at the world and talk with people and all that sort of thing… It’s just a matter of trying to find a liveable balance.’

She is worried about Greece, she says, and about the power of ‘jittery markets’ to topple elected governments. ‘The implications for all of us are pretty dark if this becomes how the world works,’ she says.

She does not believe the markets are wise — in fact, she says, they seem to require ‘no thought at all’. Their dominance is bad news in civilisation terms, too, she argues. ‘You can’t imagine [the market] as inspiring literature, no music is going to be composed around it and no one is going to pick it up in 200 years and say, “my goodness”. There will be no Sophocles of contemporary understanding insofar as it’s dominated by this kind of economic non-thinking.’

Robinson also has enormous interest in science and theology (an odd pairing, some might say). She subscribes to Scientific American and describes herself as a Calvinist, though she attends a Congregationalist church, like Obama (indeed, he once listed Gilead as his favourite book on Facebook). She is dismissive of the New Atheists, saying their arguments are ‘bad science’. When I ask about them, she compares them to ‘the mockers and scorners’ that theologians wrote about in the Middle Ages. ‘It seems to have been a continuous voice, [but] it has this funny way of bursting on the world as if, “Oh, we’re the first people to ever dare say this”.’

She says intelligent criticism of religion would do religious culture ‘a huge favour and ought to be listened to’. I ask if she has read any such critics and she sighs. ‘Let me think,’ she says. Pause. ‘No.’ She lets out a laugh. ‘But then perhaps I haven’t exhausted the literature.’

If Robinson is critical of New Atheists, she is critical, too, of much religion. I bring up same-sex marriage, and she says she finds the campaigns against it ‘absolutely bizarre’. In the Bible, she says, there are just two or three injunctions against gay relationships (which ‘can be interpreted as perhaps prohibitions of pagan religious behaviour’) while there are hundreds against the abuse of the poor. ‘Now, how does it happen that huge religious establishments are hung up on two or three verses, while the status of the poor declines and declines? It seems to me a perfect illustration of the tendency of religion to discredit itself by finding small opportunities to be mean when there are large opportunities to be generous.’

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Let there be light

The bare brickwork of Westminster Cathedral’s ceiling was always meant to be covered in mosaic. Mark Greaves meets Tessa Hunkin, who will bring the project to life

This article was first published in The Spectator on August 20 2011.


Three years ago, Tessa Hunkin was asked if she would like to undertake the biggest mosaic project since the Hagia Sophia. The project, which would probably take decades and cost tens of millions of pounds, was to decorate the ceiling of Westminster Cathedral. Monsignor Mark Langham, then cathedral administrator, told her, ‘We will have work for you for the rest of your life.’

The cathedral, built in 1903, was always meant to be covered in mosaic. The bare brickwork of its vast domes and vaults is not part of the design — it was just never finished. But momentum is building to change that. A businessman, John Hughes, wants to pay to get the project off the ground.

The first step is deciding who should draw up a design. The cathedral art committee has spent endless meetings discussing which artists might be suitable, and is not yet close to a decision. The person in charge of bringing that design to life, though, will most likely be Tessa Hunkin.

I meet her in her tiny central London studio. It is almost like a sweetshop: jars of brightly coloured glass and ceramic fill every shelf. She has spent much of the last decade creating mosaics for chapels, panels and apses at Westminster Cathedral; at one point she had ten employees. Now, though, she is on her own.

Hunkin is very fond of the cathedral. Its scale and simplicity, she says, are powerful. In fact, the challenge of the mosaic design, she suggests, is not to wreck it — not to ‘screw up the space’. A plain design might be better, she says.

We walk to a café round the corner. Hunkin has a gracious, easy manner. She speaks cautiously, but with a gentle sense of mischief. At one point she says, worriedly, ‘I have a slight tendency to be indiscreet.’

She started out as an architect but, by her late thirties, she had got bored. ‘I was at quite a low level, and spent a lot of time designing suspended ceilings, access panels and toilets.’ Anything decorative or ‘more interesting’, she says, was palmed off to specialists. A friend, Emma Biggs, was already making mosaics and suggested Hunkin join her. Together, they formed the Mosaic Workshop.

Partly, Hunkin says, it’s down to ‘control freakery’. She could design and make a mosaic herself: she has always enjoyed making things. ‘I’ve always thought better with my hands.’ She grew up fascinated by the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its idea that ‘material and technique and design [should] all work seamlessly together’. Mosaic offered her a way to try to do that.

At first they ‘absolutely scraped along’, using Biggs’s living room as a studio. The business grew and they moved to a bigger space, but things were always, says Hunkin, quite ‘hand to mouth’. It was varied, though: their customers ranged from Aston Villa football club to a London oyster bar, a magic circle law firm, a Welsh theatre, local councils and churches.

Just over a decade ago, Hunkin was approached by Westminster Cathedral art committee. It commissioned her, and her colleagues at Mosaic Workshop, to do a panel of St Alban (Britain’s first Christian martyr, beheaded in the third century). Like all the projects that followed, a painter, Christopher Hobbs, had come up with a design, and collaborated with Hunkin in producing it. In some ways, it seems a strange approach — a painter, after all, knows little about mosaic. Hunkin suggests that, for the ceiling design, the cathedral might be better off with a sculptor, or ‘someone who thinks three-dimensionally’. Painters are used to flat surfaces. ‘The challenge of the
architectural space is difficult for them — they are not trained to think like that.’

The collaborations, Hunkin says, have been a bit like relationships — ‘fraught but rewarding’. She praises one of the painters, Leonard McComb, for his ‘fabulous’ sense of colour. She enthuses, too, about working inside the cathedral. Some of the mosaic had to be fixed on directly, piece by piece. She describes ‘sticking little pieces of gold to the ceiling’ during a sung Mass, and feeling that she was doing ‘exactly the same thing that people were doing thousands of years ago’. It was, she says, very moving.

The last cathedral project — a panel of St David — was completed last year, just in time for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.

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Wild life

Bear Grylls on family, filming and how to pick up a snake

This article was first published in The Spectator on June 2 2011.

Bear Grylls’s TV series Man vs Wild may be watched by about a billion people across the globe, but its appeal is lost on his wife, Shara. ‘She prefers Sex and the City,’ says Bear, gleefully. ‘She says, “I love you, but all of your programmes are the same. You could film it in the garden”.’ His three sons, once avid fans, now watch MythBusters instead.

When I meet him at Heathrow, he has just said goodbye to his family. He is off to Iceland to film an episode with Jake Gyllenhaal. They will skydive into inhospitable terrain, build snow caves, and generally do their best to survive for two and a half days.

Bear seems pretty pumped. His trips, he says, are squeezed into the shortest time possible. ‘I’d prefer to stack it, do it, and then get home,’ he says. He takes the same approach with this interview: he hurtles through it in 20 minutes and then wants to talk about me. ‘Is that helpful? Good, let’s chat normally now,’ he says.

As he sits down with a big Costa coffee I ask him about the new series. For a moment he struggles to remember exactly where he’s been. ‘God, it’s ridiculous,’ he says, rubbing his face. ‘They all blur.’ Then he remembers a trip to Scotland. ‘I love it there,’ he says. ‘People don’t know how wild it can be.’ He explains how he was dropped off the northwest tip of the mainland and, as he swam towards the coast, spotted a dead seal. It was rotting, so he couldn’t eat it, but he had another idea: he skinned it, chopped off its head and fins, and used its blubber as a wet suit. ‘I put my head through and my arms through the flipper holes, and it was like a very dodgy looking gilet,’ he says.

His crew, he explains, were sceptical. ‘They said, “Bear, this is such a ridiculous idea, it’ll never work”.’ Then it became a point of principle. ‘And it totally worked! It was amazing. I mean, it stank, you know, it was bad, but as a survival thing it worked.’

Bear is in full flow. Every episode, he says, has its hairy moments. In Borneo, he was bitten by a snake. He was up a tree in the jungle, having made an orangutan nest to sleep in, when he saw the snake above him. He reached out and grabbed it. ‘One lesson is, never grab a snake by the anus. They don’t like it.’ He pulled and pulled — Bear acts it out — but its head was wrapped round a branch. ‘Eventually it pinged back and — whoosh! — it grabbed hold of me.’ The snake met a swift end – Bear doesn’t spell out how.

‘I barbecued it up for my supper,’ he says.

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The MP who shrugs off the ‘hyenas’

Mark Greaves meets Paul Maynard, a Catholic MP with mild cerebral palsy who refuses to be defined by disability

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on February 25 2011.

Paul Maynard has a low opinion of what counts for debate in the House of Commons. In October, when he was speaking about the child trust fund, Labour MPs kept on trying to interrupt him, to put him off his stride. He has mild cerebral palsy, which affects his coordination and the way he talks. He noticed that they started pulling faces at him – “really exaggerated gesticulations, really exaggerated faces”. One Labour MP said it was like “hyenas going in for the kill”.

Maynard, when I meet him for tea at Westminster, strikes me as the opposite of a typical MP: his manner is not very smooth, but he is a sharp thinker, bursting with big ideas.

He agrees that the atmosphere in Parliament can be quite juvenile. He says the standard of debate is low “most of the time”. (It is better, he says, “more courteous and policy-focused”, in Westminster Hall, where a smaller group of MPs sit in a horseshoe arrangement rather than on opposing sides.)

But he is keen to “draw a line” under the incident with Labour MPs. “I’m very gratified by the support I’ve received, but now is the time to move on,” he says.

Maynard is a high-flyer: before he won his seat of Blackpool North and Cleveleys last year, he worked as an adviser for Liam Fox, and as a speechwriter for William Hague. He also has a First from Oxford.

Part of his job as an MP, he says, is to speak up for groups that are so small “they don’t have a proper voice”. He says he has just met people from a tiny charity called Epilepsy Bereaved, which works to prevent SUDEP – Sudden Unexplained Deaths in Epilepsy (about 1,000 people die from SUDEP each year). Maynard himself has epilepsy, and, since he lives alone and has seizures at night, is “high risk”. He says: “I know it’s entirely possible that I could go to bed one night and not wake up again.”

Maynard describes himself as a “typical cradle Catholic”, and went to St Ambrose College in Altrincham, Cheshire. Before that he attended a special school for two years, where he had speech therapy and intensive physio, some of which involved standing in metal callipers (he paid tribute to the school in his maiden speech in Parliament, saying that without it “I might not have been able to stand here today and make a speech”).

His Catholicism, he says, is an “instinctive part of everything” he does. He explains: “You may not consciously process it in your mind – ‘I am a Catholic, what should I do with this particular issue’ – but it informs the whole way you approach your job, how you relate to your constituents, and how you live your life.” He talks briskly, without any waffle.

He suggests that he is often seen as an “orthodox Rightwinger”, but, on an issue like penal reform, his faith pushes him more to the Left. “I believe in the concept of redemption,” he says.

On abortion, he is in favour of changing the law only slightly. His answer on the subject is thoughtful.

“I think there’s a case for reducing the limit by a couple of weeks [from 24 to 22] to reflect advances in medical science,” he says. “But I think all too often in the abortion debate we get hung up on debating it in terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, rather than trying to promote a culture of life. We need to explain better why it is good to be alive, why life is a good thing, and that goes for abortion, euthanasia, and many other moral issues.”

Maynard didn’t see Pope Benedict XVI at Westminster Hall last year – he applied for a seat, but his name was not picked out of the hat – but he shares the Pope’s worry that religion is being squeezed out of the public sphere.

“The secularisation of society is one of my very great concerns,” he says. All faiths, he suggests, are “coming under very great pressure”. But the Catholic Church in particular, he says, “has such a stake in public policy in this country that it has earned its right to have a voice”.

He points to the Church’s role in welfare provision and social care, and cites charities such as DePaul UK, the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Bourne Trust (now PACT).

Maynard goes on: “Merely because we have a faith doesn’t diminish the value of what we have to say; indeed, by locating it within a wider framework of beliefs it makes what we have to say that bit more powerful, perhaps, because it isn’t governed by the hurly-burly of politics.”

Of all the issues we talk about, Maynard seems most worried about the NHS and its treatment of the elderly. Just before we meet, a damning ombudsman report says the NHS is failing to recognise the “humanity and individuality” of its elderly patients. Maynard argues that our ageing population – by 2034 about a quarter of us will be over 65 – is one of the “biggest moral challenges” we face.

“You increasingly hear views that I would define as taking a utilitarian approach to life: that your value as a human being depends upon the extent to which you can function or play a role in society,” he says. “If we start apportioning care on the basis of perceived social value, I get very, very nervous.”

Wanting a change from politics, I try to ask Maynard about God – how has his relationship with God changed over the years? He pauses, and then says: “It’s become more conversational… Thomas Aquinas stressed the importance of doubt in faith: if you don’t have doubt, you can’t have true faith. You need to continually question your faith, to seek to justify why you believe what you believe.

“It’s very much the same in politics: you do need to have a degree of doubt, if only to say each time you go through the lobby ‘why am I doing this, am I doing the right thing’.”

Maynard has bags of integrity, I think. He seems like the kind of MP who could help restore trust in politics. But I worry that he seems a bit sensitive for political life. When I suggest that he sometimes sounds a bit disillusioned, he is horrified: “I’ve only been here less than a year, how can I get disillusioned in less than a year?

“It’s a tremendous honour to be here. You can make many, many, many small differences, or that might seem small in the eyes of those outside, but mean a great deal to a small group of people, perhaps. And that’s the joy of being an MP: you have the chance to actually change things.”

His enthusiasm is heartening: I hope he keeps it. As he finishes, he apologises for his aide “flashing fingers” at him: he has run out of time.

“Is that enough?” he asks. He heads off briskly and his aide picks up the bill.