Bernardine Cistercian of Esquermes
Sister Josephine Mary Miller
Josephine Miller was born on the 16th April, 1948, in Exeter in Devon. When she was very young her parents moved back to the East coast and set up at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. It was this town, at the mouth of the Thames, which she considered her native country. All her life she remained strongly attached to it.
There were three daughters in the family, of whom Josephine was the second. She was preceded by Elizabeth and followed by Anne. All three were educated at St Bernard’s Convent High School at Westcliff-on-Sea. The school is run by Bernardine Cistercians d’Esquermes.
Her first contact with the Bernardines was when she was four years old, when she began at Lindisfarne Preparatory School, a little primary school also directed by the Bernardines. By her own word she was very young when she first desired to become a religious. At the age of 18, in September 1966, she entered the Bernardine noviciate in the monastery of Notre-Dame de la Plaine in France, a foundational experience which she describes thus:
I entered the noviciate in France just after the Council, when people were hardly beginning to talk about aggiornamento and even less about inculturation. Being English and very young, I was unable to judge what was monastic and Cistercian and what was French style of life, which could and should change. I was lost, with a novice-mistress both very wise and very holy, but at least three times my age. Our conversations were pretty brief! Nevertheless the Lord took me in hand; he enabled me to discover the Advent antiphons and then the ‘O’ antiphons, then the responses of Vigils of Christmas, in Latin, and I was on my way. My love of the liturgy, then of the Bible, then of monastic life dates from that experience.1
In my opinion what I have described was a very Cistercian experience, even if I was completely unaware of this at the time. The Lord took the initiative; he revived a faith which was beginning to falter, and gave me a first experience of spiritual joy; he taught me to taste and savour the Word of God without neglecting the intelligence, even if that was not the starting-point. It was a Cistercian experience, human, spiritual and very simple.
An experience on which she was to build throughout her life, patiently ploughing the furrow, with perseverance, in all simplicity.
Effectively, Sister Josephine Mary loved monastic life with her whole heart, simply and authentically. She loved the liturgy which nourished her daily, the readings, the antiphons and the prayers were firmly anchored in her memory and shaped her daily life. She took part in this community liturgy as chantress (she was endowed with a fine voice) and as leader. That is why she took a determinant role in the liturgical renewal of the English Bernardines in the years after Vatican II. Her faith was deep and her spiritual life was nourished by her passion for the writings of St Bernard.
If she maintained a certain reserve in community Sister Josephine Mary held a natural moral authority, at the same time appreciated and respected by the sisters. She paid great attention to people and was a good listener. Sisters, oblates, other monastic superiors, clergy of other confessions sought her counsel, appreciated her accompaniment and valued her support.
With a natural gift for languages, she taught first at St Bernard’s Convent, Westcliff-on-Sea, then at Slough, until her election as Prioress General in 1990. A great pedagogue, a good teacher, a fine guide, she knew how to draw the best out of others, giving them confidence at the same time as being exigent with them. From 1978 she served the Order at novice-mistress at Slough from 1978 to 1990, Prioress General from 1990 to 1998 and Prioress at Hyning from 2008 to 2020.
As Prioress General she carried the delicate burden of restructuration in France, consequent on the diminution of vocations, the closing of a professional Lyceum, withdrawal of the community at Cambrai and transfer of the school to the diocese. In England also it was necessary to accompany the discernment which led to withdrawal from St Bernard’s Convent Grammar School at Slough, transferred to the diocese, and to the implantation of a community at Brownshill
in Gloucestershire. The same story in Japan; as the community was ageing, the time came for the transfer of the schools to another Congregation and to establish the community elsewhere.
Still more difficult: the care of the communities of Goma and Buhimba at the time of the events of 1994 in Rwanda, then in the course of events in 1996 the flight of the sisters from Buhimba, with some of them remaining impossible to locate for several weeks, so far from the Generalate. She also accompanied and supported the search for a new place in Africa and the foundation of Notre-Dame de Bafor in Burkina Faso. At the end of her mandate she accepted the wishes of the sisters in Japan that the Order should found a new monastery in Asia so that the charism of the Bernardine Cistercians should remain in that continent and that the monastery of Japan, disappearing, should still give life by planting a seed elsewhere. The next Prioress General completed the task.
Looking back over these years Sister Josephine Mary wrote:
It was a very lively time. Our faith and our hope were put to the test, often very roughly, and we can be pretty sure that it will go on like this. We needed to search, to discover progressively and together the paths which we need to take. We could easily drop our hands and become discouraged. It seems to me that the Lord is rather inviting us to hang on, to pray more, to purify our faith, to be confident, to build together something very modest but authentic.2
The different services which were asked of her, first in the community and the Order, then further afield beyond their frontiers, enabled her to share generously and fraternally the fruits of her experience in the monastic world: contributions to conferences and sessions, animation of communities, accompaniment of communities
in the course of many regular visits both for Cistercians and for Benedictines, member of many commissions for help, conferences at the session of Benedictine and Cistercian formators in Rome, ten years on the Council of AIM, including five years on the Executive Committee.
For her the communities were to live open to the diocese, the universal Church, attentive to changes in the world. As a woman of faith, well rooted in Christ, she looked lucidly at the changes of our era without defeatism. This is what she said to the monastic superiors of the Island Region in 2003:
This evolving situation, which seems to us menacing, is in fact a great grace,3 if only we have sufficient faith to see it this way. We are obliged to redefine our priorities and ask ourselves how, concretely, we can put our search for God into the first place in our daily lives.
In other words this means to recognise that across what we are experiencing as losses, God is inviting us to accept more explicitly the values of the Kingdom, values which our world needs to see.4
After eighteen years as Prioress General she was appointed Prioress of Hyning in England. There she continued the same sort of service: responsible for the Commission charged with the revision of the Constitutions of the Order, President of the Union of Monastic Superiors of the United Kingdom (UMS), accompanying several communities in the course of discernment of a new future, apostolic Visitor of a Belgian Community, etc.
In 2018, while she was still Prioress and active in the service of the Order and of the Church, she was diagnosed with a cancer. From the beginning she was told that it was incurable. She accepted this with lucidity for the last four years of her life. Courageous and relying firmly on the Lord when she was carrying heavy responsibilities, she remained the same during her illness. Her strong faith in the Resurrection and her peaceful acceptance of the will of God throughout her life helped her in the final weeks. Her rich and strong personality had become simpler and gentler during her final term of office, a culminating point in her service in the school of the Lord’s service. She died peacefully on 16th February, 2022, at the Hospice of St John in Lancaster, ready to meet the Lord whom she had loved, desired and served so faithfully.
1. Conference given in May 2000 in Lérins (France) on the theme: ‘Formation’.
2. Introduction to the Report to the Chapter in 2002.
3. Underlining is ours.
4. ‘Chaos and Peace’ Lecture given at the Islands Region Monastic Superiors Meeting Hawkstone Hall - England, October 2003.