When the Northern Ireland Assembly was resumed in January 2020 after a three-year suspension following disagreements over power-sharing, my mind went back to the Belfast I knew as a BBC radio reporter, especially the time I was hit by a flying ball-bearing while trying to record a battle on the Lower Ormeau Road.
A conflict had broken out between a residents’ action group and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then a police force in Northern Ireland. Widespread rioting led the police to seal off the area for two days. I ended up in hospital, as per BBC protocol, but was not seriously injured.
I still remember a fearless nun who was a presence of peace in Belfast during the Troubles. Sister Anna Hoare was a familiar sight in the capital as she scooted around the divided city on her moped. The street on which she lived was actually one of the dividing lines between Protestants and Catholics. “Seeing I’m in the middle, people from both sides aren’t afraid to see me,” the Anglican contemplative pointed out. Living between the Protestants on one side and the Catholics on the other, Sister Anna had a close-up view of life in Northern Ireland during some of its bleakest times, but she always believed that “we all share a common humanity that enables us to live and work together.”
Once during a full-scale riot, Sister Anna spotted three groups of soldiers: one on the front line, another in the middle, and a third on the outside. “I went to the group on the outside and asked if I could go through with my bike,” she recalled. “A soldier laughed and said I couldn’t possibly take my bike because there was glass everywhere. So, suggesting I leave my transport with him, I asked if I could get through by myself. The soldier chuckled. He said I could ask the officer in charge. I asked if I could get them to stop for a moment so I could get through. I had to. He agreed, so I turned to the rioters and said, ‘Hi, would you stop a moment? I have to come through. It’s important.’ They said: ‘Come on!’ The rioters suspended throwing their bricks and the army stopped shooting at them with their rubber bullets. Everybody stopped—and I walked right through the middle. As I did, I said I would be coming back and hoped they would stop again when I returned. I went right through. That showed me that it wasn’t 100 percent serious.
“Another time it happened was when I was coming down a main road and there was a cordon of women right across, not letting anybody through. Just by providence I was going to see a republican prisoner and they were republican women. I was on my moped this time and I said to them that I had to get through as I was going to this prisoner who was waiting for me. They knew him and all about him, so they melted like butter. I rode right through the middle. I might have been going to visit a loyalist prisoner. It was just lucky it was the right side.”
Sister Anna’s major achievement was her pioneering work in helping to create the first Protestant and Catholic integrated school, Lagan College, which was described as “a living, sustainable legacy for communal harmony in the area.” In a region that had been torn apart by sectarian hatred and violence, her work brought Protestants and Catholics closer together in their living and understanding. She even initiated joint vacations for children from both confessions. There are now over 50 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, with a total student body of over 12,000.
Anna Hoare clearly remembered how her vocation had begun “very definitely, at a distinct moment in time,” when she was five. Until then there had been no divine awareness on her part, but then it became obvious. “I remember sitting on my father’s knee. He was talking to me about God. I immediately knew that God was God and that he claimed me totally,” she said. “I would be totally poor. I wouldn’t marry. I would exist just for him. A small child is rather like someone with a mental disability—they go straight for the bull’s eye. They don’t rationalise. It wasn’t an emotional moment. It was a matter-of-fact thing. There I was. There was God. He was my God and I belonged to him. I didn’t know what that meant—the clothing of it. When I was in my teens I was thinking of going to China or India, of being poor and of not marrying for the sake of Gospel in a rather muscular way.”
In later years, when Anna moved to the University of Oxford to complete a master’s in theology, she had an experience “which fell upon me completely out of the blue when I suddenly realized the existence of the religious life, just like I had realized the existence of God, which again I had never really ever looked at or taken in at all. That bowled me over because I think it’s absolutely fantastic that some people can simply be created for God, not to be useful or serve any purpose unless he wants to use them in some way or another. Out of his own sovereign will, he chooses them to be there for him and to write a blank check, which is what we do when we are professed, simply giving ourselves to God. He then takes it seriously and anything can happen.”
She went on: “God comes straight to the core of you. It doesn’t matter what your clothes are. We’ve got to be woken up to have a certain thirst for him and to have a desire for simplicity, what in the Gospels Jesus calls poverty of spirit. It isn’t very attractive because of culture. You see people living in sophisticated cultures among the rich with bars in their drawing rooms, wonderful clothes and terrific parties. They have every kind of wonder and beautiful thing. They have a lot of protective clothing around them and that is partly the me of them. It’s not just the naked person but the person with all these things they’ve built up to make them feel they are something.
“It’s partly insecurity and fear, and not being liberated, that makes people want lots of money, status or power or be part of a gang if they’re an adolescent. I would love not to have any of that. I don’t want money, power or to be part of a gang. I want the opposite. But I think it’s the Lord who plants that in your heart and invites you to pursue that particular path which is to be free, to be united with him and to get rid of props which only get in the way. Socrates said that a human being was the greatest if he needed the least possessions to make him feel secure and be himself: if he was able, to be himself with nothing. All of that is a gift of God.
“The thirst comes from him: to be uncluttered. Anything that makes people look up to you as somebody terrific gets in the way—between you and other people, and between you and God. I would rather have absolutely nothing, so that nothing gets between a prisoner I go to see or a small child who is only just learning to speak. I would like to be on the same wavelength with everybody, finding unity with every human being and, above all, unity with God.”
In 2003, at the age of 86, Sister Anna returned to live with her community, the Sisters of the Love of God, in Oxford, England, and was registered completely blind. Her sight was failing when we met all those years ago but she seemed to accept it willingly. “The more unselfconscious you are, the better,” she told me over tea in her home on the peace line, in a conversation that has always stayed with me. “I don’t really know who I am or what I am in a way. I know where I am going and what I want. When St Paul says ‘I judge not my own self,’ I quite agree with him. I certainly don’t. I just know I need the mercy of God. But when I stand before the judgement seat of God, all I will know is that I need his mercy. I won’t know anything else and He will know what I am.”
Laughingly, Sister Anna added: “I haven’t got any self-knowledge actually. I do go to confession at times. It is an enormous source of liberation and joy. I see my shortcomings very clearly and can make a nice list of them. I can see the substance of myself and it’s pretty poor stuff. I am always aware of my need for the grace of God and the need for forgiveness. I’m aware that I’m putrid at the center, if you like, but I am not upset by this because I know there is the power of redemption. Jesus was a specialist for sinners, not a specialist for the righteous. He couldn’t do much for them.
“I had a very good start, a very united home and very loving parents who were very different from each other. I have a very strong base psychologically and, from that, I can go out. I’m not hitched up psychologically—I don’t think I am—but I wouldn’t say I had an awful lot of self-knowledge. Maybe I would have more if I had suffered more myself. I suffer really a lot through other people and through things that happen to them. But I don’t really suffer through what happens to me.
“God showed us that there’s no suffering to be compared with what he went through, because he went through not only the physical horror of crucifixion, but also—as he believed himself to be the Messiah and to be the Son of God—faced physical extinction. This was not only a terrific act of faith but a terrible dereliction. Then everybody turned away from him. Even his own chosen. Except a tiny handful, including his mother, everybody fled, denounced, and betrayed him. All his life’s work had absolutely crumbled and, after the faith he had put in, his heavenly Father didn’t seem to be very helpful to him. That was the absolute extreme of spiritual, psychological, and physical suffering.
“Because Christ was sinless, I believe, he faced the whole impact of sin, of corporate sin, the sin of humanity, of creatures, of the whole creation. He faced it head-on and I don’t think anybody has ever had any experience in any way comparable to that. It was utter desolation. Therefore, in our most appalling situations, he is there and is never absent because he has been through that. It was an all-inclusive suffering. He therefore suffered all our sufferings, all our little tiny sufferings. All of sufferings are absolutely nothing compared with his.”
Looking back on her life, Sister Anna said that in Belfast she had learnt about the power of God at work in the world—and how nothing is outside God or his reach. “His hand is over everything and everyone, changing all to good and transforming everything.” Sister Anna died in 2015 and remains an inspiration to many for her tireless advocacy for peace, unity, and devotion to God.
Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.