The postulants, I among them, stayed home, living in the novitiate. It housed eighteen postulants, sixteen novices, the novice mistress, and her assistant. On Mondays and Tuesdays, all of us did the laundry for the convent and the adjacent college. On the following weekdays, we attended classes in the novitiate and did our other obediences.
During the eighteen months I spent in the novitiate, I learned to live with silence so as to be open to the Spirit. Each evening, however, the schedule allowed for forty-five minutes of recreation. All the postulants and novices talked, laughed, sang, played games, relaxed.
Everyone practiced silence during our communal meals in Lent and for breakfast throughout the rest of the year. On big feast days, we celebrated, chattering at every meal. Those celebrations were joyous occasions. Much laughter. Delicious food. Glorious singing.
No postulant was allowed to speak unnecessarily with those nuns—both scholastics and professed—who’d made vows. This was because they might unduly and unwittingly influence our decision about whether to stay or leave.
Those eighteen months separated us from the world. We saw no television. Read no newspapers or magazines. Listened to no radio. My family could visit only once a year. I could go home to visit only if there were a death in the family or a severe illness. Once a month I could receive and read letters from the “outside world.” The Novice Mistress handed us these letters on the first Sunday of the month and gave us salutation. That is, she gave us permission to talk.
The task of the Novice Mistress was to teach us how to embrace and live a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability—the five vows that I was preparing to profess. The history of these vows and the meaning of them appealed to me. I wanted to live a life of poverty, to live unencumbered by “stuff.” A life of chastity meant I could devote all my time to serving others. The nuns became my family. The students I would teach would be the children I would never have.
Conversion of morals meant I was going to open myself to wholeness. Stability meant I was making my vows in this particular Benedictine convent and would stay there for the remainder of my life.
Eagerly, I embraced the theory of those four vows.
Obedience, however, was problematic. I willingly obeyed the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the sixth century. But newer rules troubled me. They often seemed foolish. This reluctance to put aside my will watered the seeds of doubt that grew within me for nearly nine years.
As postulant and novice, I studied the history of the Order, learnt what the vows meant in practical and spiritual terms, discovered the beauty of the liturgy and the Divine Office, and gradually grew in gracefulness. I practiced prayer and work. Ora et labora—the Benedictine motto.
Prayer was both praise and labor. Work was both labor and prayer. Through the example of the professed nuns, I learned to welcome each moment and baptize it as holy. To live, as the Buddhists say, in mindfulness.
Through daily silence, work, and prayer, I endeavored to sacramentalize—make holy—the day. It became a praise offering to God. A thanksgiving for Graciousness. Each night when we met in the choir chapel for the last prayer of the day, I felt gathered into the embrace of a God who was giddy with love for me.
(To be continued on Thursday . . . )