Heaven on Earth…Part I
“… the Novitiate is heaven on earth.” (St. Bernadette of Lourdes)
This November 1st will mark five years in the Monastery for me. In this third year of Temporary Vows, I have been looking back and reviewing some of he things I have learned since arriving here on November 1, 2000, and reflecting on the (inevitable?) growth pursuant to this anniversary.
Our Novitiate is really quite elastic and is a sort of microcosm of the whole Community, which is also elastic.
When I first entered, there was only Sr. Miriam Rose and I who made up our little group. Sr. Mary Emmanuel was also in a white veil, but she very soon (Jan. of 2001) transferred her vows in her Solemn Profession. Then, in recent years, the Novitiate began to increase in numbers, indeed, even to swell, so that we had no more cells available for new members.
Since the first newsletter was “published”, some of the postulants and novices have returned to the world. If you remember from the first letter, I explained how this is quite common, even expected, and that the Community is happy to help each candidate work out for herself if she has a vocation to religious life in general and to this monastery in particular. Some of these women whom I have mentioned, as well as those who have gone before them, left while still postulants, some in the first year of novitiate, and still others, in the second year of novitiate, looking ahead to Temporary Vows.
Our most recent attrition has really made me stop to wonder, “How is it that I came to persevere?” After a retreat for one week, followed by a retreat for three weeks a short time later, I determined that this was very likely the place to which God was calling me (and don’t think I wasn’t nervous!).
I planned to “live-in” for three months (June, July, and August of 2000). A three month live-in period is not required. It is not required by Canon law, by our Constitution, or by our Monastery. As a matter of fact our Constitution specifically states that any pre-postulancy or live-in period may not be used as part of the official postulancy. All that official stuff aside, I must say that I found it to be extremely helpful.
A retreat of a few days, or even of a few weeks simply cannot give a true sense or feel for the life lived day in and day out, seven days a week, month after month…. I realize that not everyone is blessed with the “safety nets” that I had. I was not able to convince my employers to hold my situation for me while I went away for three months. I had to decide to just abandon myself to Divine Providence and step out on the water, so to speak. So, I gave my two weeks notice, sold my belongings, gave some to the poor and some to my family.
But what if it didn’t work? I had no worries or fears about this. Why? In truth, because of my safety nets. For one thing, I knew I would be able to procure a new job without difficulty. My apartment, furniture and car were all gone. Oddly, this filled me an outrageous feeling of freedom. I no longer had my own address. Amazing!
My loving and supportive parents and six sisters, all living in Florida, would give me help and refuge when and if I needed it. What blessings! What grace! The scariness of leaving all for Jesus was not so much in the material world, but in the uncertainty of it all. It was just plain scary!
It is an odd phenomenon that when I do something new and somewhat nerve-wracking, it is also thrilling and exhilarating. Is it like that for everyone? There was once an advertisement (for what, I can’t remember, which just goes to show how fleeting are the things of this world) which promised, “This is the ride of your life!” or something to that effect. I beg to differ. Even though it has been many years since I’ve watched television, I still remember that phrase. This radical change in life and way of living, this is the ride of your life!
When I first came for retreat, I used to wonder about the times in between prayer in choir. Where did everybody go? What were they doing? During that first summer, I learned the answers to those and so many other questions. After the first few days of gently settling into the routine and rhythm of the life, I was given some little charges (work to do). They asked me to clean the refectory and reset the tables after breakfast, dry dishes after dinner (lunch) and supper (dinner!). Then I was asked to sweep the some of the long corridors (sometimes called a cloister, depending on its location), clean bathrooms and staircases. It was not a terribly hot summer, but still, I was very edified by the fact that the “poor sisters” (as I called them in my mind) never mentioned the weather or how hot they were. In fact, they gave no indication that they were uncomfortable, so of course, I did not feel that I could say anything about my discomfort (which was considerable having grown up in Florida, the land of air-conditioning, which was to me the hallmark of civilization).
Every day that summer, almost every hour, brought new lessons for me. One day, after I had cleaned my assigned stairs, it was pointed out to me that the corners did not get enough attention, so away I went to clean them again. Was I at peace? Was my heart tranquil? Was I happy to do this backbreaking chore again? Certainly not! Interiorly, I fumed the whole time. What misery I made for myself!
Early in my stay, at suppertime, the tables were set with dishes of yogurt for dessert. “Yogurt for dessert?” I thought. “Yuck!” I saw that someone had received an orange for dessert. I asked if I could have an orange too. “Are you unable to take yogurt?” “No, I can eat it okay.” “Well then,” I was told,”why don’t you take the yogurt?” I cannot tell you how upset this made me. I could hardly eat I was trying so hard not to cry. But that is the petty, paltry truth of the matter.
Another time, I was being taught about the laundering and folding of refectory towels. “Do it this way,” a Sister instructed, showing me what seemed to be a long, drawn out, somewhat complicated method of treating linen towels. I was thinking to myself, “Good grief! How dumb is this? What possible difference could this make?” Why do I share these stories with you? I tell you to illustrate how one person (me) began a life of prayer and mortification, sacrifice and surrender, all for Love. Now, five years later, I am still cleaning stairs and for love I give the corners particular attention. I still have favorite things to eat, but it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other if I ever taste them again.
At this time, I am once again assigned the charge of the Refectory and I take delight in the care and folding of the same linen dishtowels and will pass these instructions on to some one else who is new to the Refectory. Now I see with the unmistakable clarity of time and hindsight, that all these things that were so difficult and irksome to me at the start were (and continue to be) the very situations that God Himself provides to begin the long and arduous process of separating myself from the attachments I have busily been collecting all my life.
Once, during that summer “live-in”, Sr. Miriam Rose had given me some advice when I was finding the going rough and confusing. I was having some trouble understanding a thing referred to as “religious decorum”, or something like that. A nun’s behavior must reflect her mindfulness of her Spouse, Jesus Christ and she must remember that she is also a representative of the Church. As such, there is need for modesty in speech and action. This can mean many things and for me, modesty has taken on deeper significance as I meditate on and live out the vow of chastity.
When a woman first arrives here she will find a difference in language and communication (well, I did anyway). There are certain expectations that perhaps you can guess. For instance, obviously, one does not swear here or use slang terms, especially ones that the rest of the community would not know. One does not holler or call out loudly to catch someone’s attention down the hall. One does not verbalize political persuasions (particularly during election time). In short, one must learn to “mortify” one’s tongue.
This does not happen overnight and no one expects a newcomer to know all these fine points. I certainly didn’t. And so when I was becoming frustrated and discouraged at finding my foot in my mouth so often, as well as making all sorts of other blunders and mistakes, Sr. Miriam Rose recommended to me to think of the monastery and its inhabitants as a whole new country (or planet, even) where the culture is totally different. The people dress differently, they talk a different language. Their customs and traditions are all new and must be studied and learned. It is no use to try to change every one else to your way of thinking and doing things. This will not do for two reasons: One: It simply will not work. Two: There was something about this place that attracted me in the first place, and if I came in here and started trying to change everything, and if I were successful, it wouldn’t be the same place that first attracted me – it would be more like the world I had just left. (I credit this paragraph to Sr. Alice Marie who has told us this time after time in Great Novitiate.).
I have shared just a smattering of some of the challenges I faced when I first did my “come and see” live-in. This was actually not meant to put anyone off from coming to see what God might be calling her to do. Obviously these little trials (and I do mean little) did not scare me off. I do feel it’s important to know that it is a difficult life and there is no denying it, but the beauty, the love, the joy that is experienced in the living of a contemplative vocation is unmatched any where else on earth.
I think I must have said this before, but it bears repeating, especially if someone out there (you?) is resisting the call. The truth of a religious vocation can only be tested in the reality of living it, and the living of a religious vocation can only be lived if one is truly called.
I was surprised to learn from one more knowledgeable than I, that just because someone really wants to be nun (or priest, brother) does not necessarily mean that one has a vocation.
And the converse can be true, as well. So perhaps you are saying to yourself, “This doesn’t sound so great to me after all” or “What’s so good about it?”
Well for me, what’s so good and great about it is the very counter-cultural way we live. For instance? For instance, Saturday evening. What are people out there “in the world” doing on Saturday nights? They are getting ready to go out on dates, out to dinner with their spouses, heading out to a special place for a weekend getaway, partying after a football game. All these things are fun and pleasant enough. But others are drinking to excess, looking for a drug fix, cruising the bar scene, plotting crimes, raping, robbing, murdering and starting wars. So who is even thinking about God, much less loving Him and praising Him? We are!
This often comes to my mind as we process into the choir at five o’clock for Evening Prayer (Vespers is the Latin term). We incense the Scriptures (from which we will read select passages five time a day). Two sisters stand and bow before the Superior for a blessing in their offices of the week as Lector (reads the Scriptures out loud) and Officiant (opens and closes each prayer time). The organ begins to play the beginning of the Divine Office, “Oh God, come to my assistance,” the Officiant sings. “Oh Lord, make haste to help me,” we all respond.
For thirty minutes we sing and pray (they are one) to God, as incense floats upward (as the incense ascends, our prayers rise with it) and permeates the whole chapel. Often, it is only we, the Community in the church. Occasionally, there are people in the “outside” chapel. Evening prayer is followed by a half hour of mental prayer, after which we process out together, and each goes where she needs to be to get ready for supper at six fifteen. And another week in the Church calendar has begun.
The next time I write, we will be in the season of Advent. I love Advent and can hardly wait! I will share with you how we “prepare the way of the Lord.” This season actually coincides with my postulancy so maybe I’ll combine the two subjects, because believe me, Advent here is radically different from “out there.” Wait’ll you read how we “make straight the path” for Christmas. I just love Advent!