Heaven on Earth…Part II
My postulancy began on November 1, 2000, and so Thanksgiving was my first big “family” holiday that I celebrated here in the Monastery. It was certainly not the first time I was separated from my family on Thanksgiving, as I lived in Maine, and they lived in Florida and it had been that way for a long time.
So Thanksgiving here with my new potential family was interesting and enjoyable as I recall. We may phone our families on these big celebrating holidays, if we wish.
Our main meals of dinner and supper are taken in the community room on little folding tables, served buffet style, with talking all the while. In fact, Thanksgiving is a “Recreation Day” for the Community, so there is talking all over the place!
Initially, I found it odd how we would stop our recreation and go to the choir at the prescribed times to pray the Divine Office. Over the years, however, I have come to relish these steadfast times of prayer to which we are always faithful. I find it touching and beautiful and fitting, that we should stop our “secular” celebration and repair to the chapel for a liturgical celebration.
As most of us know, soon after Thanksgiving, Advent begins. It was quite a tradition in my family of women (and still is I believe) to go shopping on “Black Friday”. Not doing that for the first time didn’t bother me at all. How amazing (for me, any way).
This most recent Advent of 2005 a special time of silence, one with a stillness and character all its own, descended upon the Monastery almost at once.
When it snows I find the silence enhanced, for some reason. Maybe it’s the muffling effect of the snow. That first Advent here, though, rattled me just a little because I kept misinterpreting others’ silence and getting the false idea everybody was angry with me, which was, of course, foolish. After a little while, I grew more comfortable with it. I had been used to silence by myself, but not among others and I needed to adjust a little. Now, it is such a treasure and a joy, I wonder how I ever lived without it!
The Sisters who work in the Sacristy and the Refectory need to keep in mind the Advent wreathes they must make just before the season starts. By the time we have Evening Prayer the Saturday before the 1st Sunday of Advent (or more simply, Evening Prayer I of Advent), the beautiful, freshly made wreathes are positioned in the choir and in the Refectory.
To start Advent, as we process into the choir, Sister is at the organ, quietly playing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the incense is already pervading the air and those first few minutes are almost mystical, so heavenly are they. Mother blesses the wreath with holy water, lights the first candle and we begin the Advent Season.
A little more than an hour later, we gather in silence in the Refectory for supper, and again, Mother blesses the wreath, and lights the 1st candle. She reads from Scripture. All season long, we take turns reading from Scripture (generally Isaiah and Jeremiah) and lighting the candles in the Refectory. The reading through each dinner and supper is a weekly assignment and the Assistant to the Community (Sister Mary Ruth) chooses what is read. This year, our Advent “food” was a book about Pope Benedict.
Advent glides along quietly, softly, joyfully, with excitement bubbling just under the surface. Reminders of the penitential waiting ambiance are scattered throughout our days, usually in very solid and sensible ways. For a new comer the unusualness of preparing for Christmas in this way can be surprising, pleasing, difficult, disappointing, interesting, educational and revelatory.
These reminders or signs of the season are most prevalent in every aspect of the Liturgy, both Mass and the Divine Office. The readings for Mass and the Office go hand in hand, both taken quite a lot from Isaiah, focusing on the final coming of our Lord.
Of course, the priest is vested in purple. There are no altar flowers except on Gaudete Sunday. The music of the Mass parts (Holy, Holy, Alleluia, Amen, etc) are a special setting we use each Advent with the underlying tune being “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, and the hymns too, are indicative of the season. There is no Gloria at Mass. Two exceptions to all these things are December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and December 12 the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then the Gloria reappears, the priest wears white and flowers are all over the place! (Thanks Calvin!).
Meanwhile “backstage” as it were, we are getting decorations ready to be put up during the last part of the last week of Advent. We have some seriously organized Sisters here who have everything boxed, filed, labeled and ready to go at a moments notice. (It’s very efficient, if a little scary for those less orderly personalities!).
By the time December 17th arrives, we are well prepared by 3 weeks of scripture telling of the final coming. Now there comes a shift in theme to the Incarnation, or, the Coming of our Lord in Time. The Liturgy, if not dominated by, is certainly marked by the “O Antiphons” which are incorporated in the Mass, Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) and our prayers and songs in the Refectory.
During the season of Lent and Advent, the Sisters do penances once a week in the Refectory, in addition to their weekly telling of faults (that will have to be another newsletter).
On the evening of December 21, we enter into “Little Retreat”. This is generally a time marked by decreased activity and increased prayer time. Well, the increased prayer time stays, but you can imagine that now we are putting up decorations, practicing our singing a little extra, and other occupations pursuant of the season so the activity does truthfully shift into a higher gear, but still with silence in attendance.
The Christmas tree is put up in the Community Room (which is like your living room would be to you) and after a day or two during which Tom (our very handy maintenance man) gets the lights on, we decorate the tree. Some times we do it at recreation time, sometimes not. There are no Christmas carols playing during this time of decorating or at any other time in Advent. There is no hot cocoa and popcorn or anything of that sort while we decorate and some people find that to be a very difficult thing to bear and get use to. It was a little bit of a let down for me, I have to admit. But there it is. The Community’s traditions are not my traditions, until I become a Community member in truth and in spirit.
Another example of getting use to different traditions: In my Polish upbringing, we did several things very special to me. One was we ate no meat on Christmas Eve. So each year I have asked for and received permission not to eat meat on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t really necessary in Christmas of 2005 and 2004 as Christmas Eve fell on Saturday and Friday respectively, and those are ordinarily our meatless days in this monastery. But I have been thinking about it a lot this year and am wondering if it isn’t time I gave up this personal tradition and donned the tradition of this Community. Additionally, in my family, the Christmas Eve meal and general celebration is almost bigger than Christmas Day itself. Here, we are in retreat, and at noonday meal (our big meal of the day) we do a communal penance in the Refectory. Our evening supper, although nice, is simple and most don’t take much because many will go to bed for an hour or two nap before Vigils at 11 P.M., followed by Midnight Mass.
Christmas Eve afternoon we gather in the community room for the blessing of the Christmas tree, which is a simple but lovely ceremony. There is a prayer, a reading from Scripture, followed by a Responsorial Psalm sung by two Sisters. Then Mother blesses the tree and while singing an Advent hymn we each hang an ornament.
After supper, we gather in the community room for recreation and we are given a little bag of Christmas card supplies. You see, we do not correspond during Advent, so we send our Christmas cards out during the Christmas season( the fact that some of us are still working on them as we approach Lent is not exactly a testament to our fidelity in correspondence).
In these little bags we receive about 25 cards, stamps, return address labels and holy cards to tuck into the envelopes, if we choose. We may ask for more if needed (Heaven forbid!) or we may give it all back and not send any cards at all. I am seriously considering this second option for next year.
Then for the first time, since the novitiate Sisters have been busily decorating the novitiate, the whole community goes down to the Novitiate for the blessing of the Community crèche located in the Novitiate study room. We call it the novitiate “crib” but it is actually a whole stable scene about one-fourth life size. This manger scene is no easy stable to assemble, let me tell you! Each night during the Christmas Octave we gather at the crèche for a hymn and prayer.
On Christmas Eve there is an interim of time before we assemble as a community in the choir at 11pm for the Vigil Office of Readings, which lasts almost an hour. Then comes a break of 5 or 10 minutes and it is time for Midnight Mass.
Attendance by the public varies from year to year, and I suppose the weather plays a part in that variation. So now, all the practicing of the Mass parts and hymns and carols will give way to proficient abandonment in celebration of the birth of Jesus. Mass is celebrated with great solemnity, but also with great joy.
After the last “Gloria” has faded away, it is nearly 2 am and we silently file down to the refectory for Christmas cookies (Sister Anne Marguerite had been feverishly baking all week for this night). On the Superior’s table is an old music box that plays “ Silent Night “ and as Refectorian, I wind that up, light all the candles, turn on the lights and help the dispenser make sure all we need for our cookie snack is available.
We eat in silence. Some go to the sacristy to help if needed, but otherwise, we go to bed, to rise again at 7am. Morning prayer is at 7:30am followed by breakfast, then ½ hour of mental prayer, then the Mass for Christmas Day; celebrated at 9:30 am. Christmas day is a “talk day” but not a recreation day.
My first Christmas and maybe also my second one, I was surprised and disappointed that Christmas day was not a recreation day. Now I understand. One is very practical, if not prosaic. There simply is not time for recreation, nor is there the energy as most of us are feeling somewhat tired and a little less than perky.
The second reason, and most important is that Christmas is a Solemnity in the Church and is celebrated as such, with a Holy Hour at 4 pm and Exposition interspersed with the Liturgy of the Hours and extra prayer times. So a “talk day” is quite sufficient to share our happiness with each other.
Throughout the day, Sisters try to obtain access to the phone to call family. It has happened more than once, that I did not get to talk to my family until the next day, but they understand about sharing telephone time, since, don’t forget, I grew up with six sisters—some of them mighty popular too!
After our very lovely and extra nice dinner at noon during which we enjoy many of the benefactions we have received, we meet in the community room to open presents that have been given to us. Then the Procuratrix (“the proc”—Sister Mary Emmanuel) brings out baskets of goodies from which we are invited to take what we need.
One basket, for instance holds new wash cloths, bars of soap and toothpaste. Another has pens, pencils and pins. Pins? Yes, pins. Straight pins with either black or white heads on them. We use them to keep our habits and veils all together while we are wearing them.
Just this year, I was observing us as we gleefully opened packages and placed them in the center of the room for everyone to see. Not a single thing belonged to any one of us, but all to each of us, as Community, and we were glad and satisfied. As for the baskets of soap and pins etc.well we know every year that is what is coming and again we all are so glad and satisfied, just to take what we need and leave the rest. For instance this year I had no need of a new washcloth, so I didn’t take any. Another Sister might need two and could take two. This ritual activity, which to me accentuates our vow of evangelical poverty, always gives me great pleasure. On a more practical level, it would seem to me, that this decreases the Sisters need in the immediate future, to go to Mother to ask for soap and toothpaste.
All this cheerful Community time gives way at last to a brief time, perhaps 45 minutes, to ourselves, followed by a Holy Hour with Eucharistic Adoration and Evening Prayer.
At supper, we listen to Christmas carols and continue to do so all through the Christmas octave. Our meals during this time are given special attention by our dear Dispenser, Sister Judith Clare. As we have been given many gifts of food, it can get pretty sumptuous sometimes.
Once we have celebrated Epiphany, we once again find ourselves in Ordinary Time. The Christmas decorations come down, music in the Refectory is no longer played, no more Christmas carols are sung during Mass. Vestments change from white to green. There are many reminders of the past season though. Poinsettias, yes, even on January 22 they linger on, pert and bright, in the sanctuary and scattered throughout the house.
That first Christmas for me was a good introduction to the life and provided a positive entry into the second half of my Postulancy which was comprised of Lent and Easter.
In general, the main occupation of a postulant is to learn the in’s and out’s of daily living. The nuts and bolts of what makes living a Christian life “here” particularly different from living a Christian life “out there”. It seems to me that it boils down to intensity, or perhaps I should use the word “depth”. Both are apt, I think. As a postulant I only had an inkling, a glimpse of this depth and intensity.
The Novitiate is truly heaven on earth where the aspiring religious is helped and encouraged and taught what she needs to know to become a fully professed member of the Community and an authentic spouse of Jesus Christ.
I hope that the next Novitiate Notes from me will not be so long in coming as this one has been. I look forward to sharing more with any one interested enough to read this little letter and hope that it may serve as a source of not only information, but even of inspiration, inspiration to seek God more closely as a consecrated person living for Christ alone.
(There’s more finally! Living the Life )