Martina Purdy interview: ‘Our ties to Christ must be stronger than our political allegiances’

Former BBC political correspondent and nun Martina Purdy talks about falling in love with the Lord, spiritual transformation and how we might have avoided the Troubles by putting God first

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 8:00 am
Updated Sunday, 30th May 2021, 9:36 am
Martina Purdy is now leading pilgrims along St Patrick's Way

Martina Purdy had decades of expertise as a political journalist and broadcaster when she felt the call to a more meaningful, spiritual, prayerful life.

”I was tired of meeting deadlines and running to press conferences when I felt I wanted to be alone to pray,” she says simply, of the internal revolution that caused her to abandon the trappings of a media career that entailed grilling our most important politicians from the late firebrand Ian Paisley, who surprised her by making sure she had a cup of tea and a biscuit at press events, and Martin McGuinness who she found congenial and personable and could hardly countenance his IRA past with the kindly minister who poured the tea at Stormont, or John Hume who she said never suffered fools gladly, but was also charming and immensely helpful.

”I loved having this ringside seat of history as the Good Friday Agreement unfolded. I loved holding government to account. But what I realised was that the image of politicians you see on the news is only one aspect, it is never the full picture, because people are complex and nobody is just one thing. David Ervine made me think when I asked him about the real Martin McGuinness, is he ruthless or this kindly man. And I always remember he said ‘Well, he’s both.’”

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Sr Martina and best friend Sr Elaine Kelly during their time at the Adoration Convent

As the strength of her faith began to intensify, she describes “falling in love with God” and wanting to be closer to him.

”And I thought too of a joke Woody Allen used to say that the fourth floor of hell was reserved for the media and it’s full. And I thought, Lord, I do not want to reach those pearly gates as a journalist!

Much as she felt journalism was a noble profession, and Martina, who was born in Belfast but moved to Canada with her family at the age of five before returning to Ulster to pursue her career, was one of the best BBC NI political correspondents in the business, the quiet revolution within her made her see the world in a profoundly different way.

”I read somewhere that you have to take a risk to get the life you want. It was a mysterious thing. But I fell in love with the Lord and I wanted more. For a while I thought the path to becoming a nun was impossible because even though I felt this way in my heart, I had this career, I had financial commitments, I had friends. I remember one day was this sign that said: ‘First do what’s necessary, then do what’s possible and the impossible will follow.” It was a quote from St Francis of Assisi. So I went to a priest and told him about this call. I went on a retreat. Then I had the space and the time to read scripture and meditate.

A cherubic Martina aged four

“I was thinking about John 4:14, where Jesus meets the woman at the well. He makes this distinction between the water she draws and the kind that he can provide: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

She thought of the transformation a religious life would bring, a metamorphosis that would bring her profound joy when she joined the Adoration Sisters on the Falls Road in 2014.

“I thought of a tree, how it can be transformed in spring with leaves and fruit, and I realised what was being offered to me was transformation. I thought of Jesus saying ‘I am the vine and you are the branches, whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.’ I knew then that I too wanted to be transformed. Once I discerned the call, I felt this burning joy and peace, and after that everything went very quickly. The Lord just went ‘right, let’s go’.

“Within weeks I was at the convent. I found the courage to speak to the superior, I loved it and I knew that was where I wanted to be.”

Martina thrived while living in community at the convent, and although people might assume that a life of being sequestered and engaged in quiet prayer and reflection might be dull, she says it was anything but, intense in fact, living with the other sisters and praying for others in the community who were seeking spiritual succour.

She was obliged to leave the convent before taking her final vows last October last year when the church ruled that the congregation did not have the resources, structures and capacity to continue. It was a challenging time: ”But if you want to serve God there is always a cross, and you have to be prepared for an ordeal. There are roses and thorns.

“When I left the convent it was difficult but I went off with my friend and sister in the Lord Elaine Kelly (a former barrister who entered the convent at the same time as Martina). We went off like Peter and Paul and found a new way of serving God by taking people on what is a pilgrimage based on the life of St Patrick, walking miles each day and being immersed in the countryside which Patrick always said was of the Most High God.”

When she is not guiding people along St Patrick’s Way in Downpatrick, she prays for our politicians and that peace will prevail: “I feel, having thought deeply about it, that the Troubles here happened because our ties to our cultural and political allegiances were greater than our ties to Christ. Christ is God who is love and in Him is perfect peace. There is so much pain here and more than ever we need God, we need peace and we need love.”

‘God is with us in our darkest moments’

As a devout, now laicised Christian, Martina has thought much about the struggle of life and the harsh reality that while God is clearly manifest in the world, this does not remove the manifold forms of suffering that we as human beings endure, no matter how strong our faith or how robust our moral fibre.

One of her favourite books on the subject is Making Sense Out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.

“It tells you that suffering is not without meaning, that life is a fairytale and God is the ultimate writer of fairytales. But the happy ending may not happen in this life. God suffers with us and there is a gift in it.

“It cannot be avoided but you will gain something from it, even if you cannot see that at the time.

“There is purpose and ultimately a gift in what we endure and again we must always remember that God suffers alongside us and is perhaps closest to us in our darkest moments.”

‘We must not make false gods out of flags or patriotism in the pursuit of peace’

Martina admits she was a goody two-shoes at convent school in Toronto, Canada where she emigrated with her family from west Belfast at the height of the Troubles. The family had wanted to escape the worst of the conflict, but the young Martina missed her native city, her granny and her cousins deeply.

She remembers the strangeness of Canada at first, walking through heavy snow, the different vocabulary, the strange accents and towering buildings.

“The only time I was ever in trouble was when I was late with returning library books,” she laughs, “and my punishment was dusting shelves in the library for two weeks.”

She excelled at English, but describes herself as an average student and when she arrived in Canada was a source of fascination for other children in her class because she ‘talked funny’.

She returned to Northern Ireland to pursue a career in journalism in 1987, first working at the Irish News, then on the business desk and then as political correspondent at the Belfast Telegraph before following her colleague Mark Simpson to the BBC in 1999.

Always perfectly coiffured and poised on camera she quickly gained a reputation as an astute reporter and able inquisitor of politicians with a straight-talking approach, always much kinder and softer, though arguably no less effective, than Jeremy Paxman.

When she left the BBC in October 2014 she recalls that some of her colleagues there initially thought it was a joke. But of course it was anything but.

“I had felt the call to religious life for quite some time, I had tried charity work but I realised I wanted to be closer to God and devote myself to him entirely. When I joined the Adoration Sisters people assumed it must have been boring compared to the high-octane pace of daily political journalism, but it was just as intense in a different way. It’s not just sitting about quietly engaged in prayerful reflection, it’s about trying to serve God in your heart and soul and praying for others, including politicians and ordinary people who would call into the convent that they might find His strength and courage in whatever they were pursuing or engaged in or in grappling with their problems.”

Martina has thought a lot about the horror of the Troubles, our political representatives and how we might have been able to avoid conflict if we had stayed closer to His message of peace and love.

“I think a lot of people have made false gods out of flags and patriotism instead of serving Christ. And serving Him is the only way.”

Q&A: ‘I’d bring Jesus and Bruce Springsteen to a dinner party’

Tell us your earliest childhood memories?

In Belfast playing in the garden in Ladybrook Park. Then our first Christmas in Canada where my family and I moved to avoid the conflict. I was six and I remember getting a doll’s house and a sewing machine and being especially delighted about that.
School days - the happiest of your life?

My father used to say, ‘these are the happiest days of your life’. And I would think, ‘God, I hope not.’ I liked English, hated maths, but I was happy. I went to a convent school but I was glad to get out. I was late quite a lot in the mornings.

The happiest time in my life so far was probably the five years I spent with the Adoration Sisters on the Falls Road and even though I had to leave the convent last year without taking my vows, I am still very happy because I now get to tell people all about St Patrick, and lead them on this beautiful trail, walking miles each day in my hiking boots.
Tell us your ideal way to spend a day outside of lockdown restrictions?

A day of retreat. I would go to the Holy Cross Abbey in Rostrevor. There are beautiful walks there.
Who is your best friend?

After Jesus, my friend Elaine Kelly, a former barrister who entered the Adoration Sisters around the same time as me. She is my sister in the Lord and now we live together in Downpatrick. We thought, Jesus sent them out in pairs, and so we found a way to continue our mission together like Peter and Paul. We work on the St Patrick’s Trail in Downpatrick together.
Who in your life makes you laugh the most?

I think I make myself laugh. Or Elaine. But she’s more of the straight person. I tell the jokes.
If you could have a dream dinner party at which you could invite anyone at all, alive or dead, who would you bring?

I would bring the Lord, obviously. He is the greatest artist, the greatest politician, the greatest everything, He speaks every language and He has all knowledge, who wouldn’t want Him at dinner? I know He’s risen so I want to hear all about that. Then Mary and Joseph, St Patrick, who is immensely interesting and brought Christianity to Ireland building on the existent Celtic spirituality, and Bruce Springsteen, whose music I love and who I think is very spiritual, and Winston Churchill.
And what would you serve them to eat and drink?

Roast lamb with parsnips and roast potatoes and plenty of good wine.
Can you describe yourself in three words?

Elaine has four - kind, pure-hearted, but vicious and demanding!
Love is....Mercy.
The meaning of life is...To know, love and serve God.