How a nun and a monk fell in love and left the church to be together
He didn’t know her name or the color of her hair, but when a monk accidentally touched her sleeve, a nun who had dedicated decades of her life to God decided the spark was enough to leave her strict religious order.
Sister Mary Elizabeth, 50, née Lisa Tinkler, led a quiet life from the age of 19 in a monastery in Preston, Lancashire, belonging to the Roman Catholic order of the Carmelites.
In 2015, she met Friar Robert, a visiting Carmelite friar from Oxford, and they accidentally brushed their sleeves — a small, chemistry-packed gesture that prompted them to abandon their lives and pursue love.
Seven years later, the couple, who are now married and based in North Yorkshire, shared their story with BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief, revealing that although they have struggled with their decision to leave the Carmelites, they have no regrets .
Sister Mary Elizabeth, 50, nee Lisa Tinkler, left the Roman Catholic order of Carmelites, which she joined at the age of 19 to become a nun at their convent in Preston, Lancashire, to marry Brother Robert, who since 2013 was a monk of the order (pictured last year)
Lisa revealed that the two met by chance during Robert’s visit to her monastery in the fall of 2015, when the prioress took her to meet the visiting monk to see if he wanted anything to eat.
They were left alone when the prioress went to telephone another room, but she did not speak.
Until then, Robert and Lisa had never spoken to each other, and she had only heard him preach at Mass on his occasional visits to the priory.
As Robert was about to leave the room, Lisa’s sleeve brushed against his, which she thought triggered a surge of energy.
Lisa entered the Order at 19 and spent 24 years in the ministry, only allowed to speak for two and a half hours a day
The couple are now married and live in North Yorkshire, where Lisa is a hospital chaplain and Robert is a minister
Although no longer a Carmelite, Lisa is still involved in her town’s religious community and works as a pastor
“I just felt a chemistry there, something, and I felt a little embarrassed. And I thought, my goodness, did he feel that too. And when I let him out the door, it was pretty awkward,” she said.
After Robert also felt a spark, the couple began to think more about each other and developed romantic feelings.
A week later, Robert sent Lisa a message asking her if she would leave the order to marry him.
Looking back, Lisa recalled the turmoil she felt trying to understand her feelings for Robert — not to mention the shock of receiving Robert’s message despite not knowing her birth name or the color of her hair when he asked for her hand stopped.
Up to this point she had lived a solitary life as a convent nun for 24 years, having joined the order in her late teens.
The strict order, which dates back to the 12th century, provides for a secluded life for its nuns.
Robert and Lisa have been together for seven years, having met during an occasional visit to their priory
The vicar asked Lisa to give her marriage warrant within a week or accidentally touch her sleeves
Lisa, whose interest in religion was sparked at the age of six after a relative’s trip to Lourdes, said she only spoke for two and a half hours a day when she lived in the convent.
She spent the rest of the time alone in her cell in contemplative silence, causing her vocabulary to dwindle over the years.
While content with her life in the convent, Lisa struggled with her feelings after meeting Robert.
“I didn’t know what it felt like to be in love and I thought the sisters could take a look. So I got pretty nervous. I could feel the change inside me and it scared me,” she said.
Eventually, she confessed her feelings for Robert to her prioress, who couldn’t understand how she could fall in love with the monk in just a week and with no interactions.
Lisa wondered how her bishop, the rest of her order, and her own family would react to her decision to leave the Church. She was also concerned about how this would affect her relationship with God.
While the couple made their decision to leave their order to be together, they admitted that they initially struggled with life outside the monastery
Polish-born Robert, who was a monk for 13 years, was accepted into the Church of England after the Carmelites expelled him for marrying Lisa
However, the prioress’s brusque response to her message convinced her to pack what few belongings she had and leave the convent to meet Robert at a pub called the Black Bull.
She said she struggled with her faith as soon as she left the convent, admitting she even contemplated taking her own life but had the courage to go through with her decision when she caught a glimpse of Robert through the pub window.
Robert, who was born and raised in Poland but came to London and joined the Carmelite Order in 2002, admitted he shared her fears about starting marriage in his fifties, but the couple stood by their decision.
Robert in his robes. The couple emphasized that their faith is at the heart of everything they do and that they are both devoted to God
Out of habit, Lisa admitted that after adjusting to the quiet of monastic life, she draws on her faith to feel grounded in the modern world
But despite the bond they felt, they still struggled with life outside the priory.
Lisa admitted the couple felt particularly down during the first Christmas they spent outside of monastic life in 2015.
She added the couple felt like star-crossed Shakespeare lovers and considered ending it because the out-of-order beginning of their relationship was so hard to take.
She recounted a moment when the two cried at the job center when asked if they had transferrable skills.
They had another emotional moment when Robert bought and translated a Polish book about nuns who had left their order.
The couple stopped at the side of the M62 to weep together as they read the stories that applied so well to their own situation.
However, they managed to find a balance in their new lives by reconnecting with their faith outside of the priory.
“Throughout your religious life you will be told that your heart should be whole and devoted to God. I suddenly felt my heart expand to hold Robert, but I realized it held everything else I had as well. And I didn’t feel any different about God, and that reassured me,” Lisa said.
Robert was told he could no longer be a member of the Carmelite order, but soon joined the Church of England and is now vicar in the North Yorkshire village of Hutton Rudby, where the couple live.
Lisa worked at a funeral home before becoming a hospital chaplain and admitted that after 24 years in the religious habit, she is now getting used to trying on different dresses and different hairstyles.
She admitted that without Robert she would immediately return to her monastic life because she has adjusted to the quietness of monastic life and struggles to keep her feet on the ground in the modern world.
The former nun said she sees her life with Robert as two Carmelites living together and dedicating their lives to God.
She added that Christ is at the center of her and Robert’s marriage and at the heart of everything the couple does.
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