I plan to write two more new postings on the novitiate. On the last Tuesday of November, I hope to conclude this section of my convent life with the making of first vows. Then only the muse of writing knows what part of my life I’ll visit with you.
Today, however, I want to share the joy I experienced in wearing a Benedictine habit. In a recent comment, DJan said this about her youthful impressions of the habit: “I did like the pretty habits of some of them, and I saw myself walking in a cloud of virtue.”
DJan hit the nail on the head there. For I, too, liked the thought of “walking in a cloud of virtue.” Much of the time I was too aware of flaws and faults to feel virtuous, but when I donned the habit early each morning I felt as if I put on the beauty, the simplicity, the graciousness of Yeshua—which is the Hebrew name I now use for Jesus, who was, above all, a devout Jew.
We eighteen novices slept in a dorm. Each bed was within a cubicle made of four vertical pipes supporting four horizontal ones so that we could draw our four white curtains to obtain privacy from one another as we dressed and washed. The bell would ring each morning to summon us to prayer. Each of us would immediately rise from our narrow beds and draw those curtains.
On my bedside bureau was a large ceramic bowl, which I’d filled with water the night before. After sponging my body, I put on my undergarment, or chemise. It covered me from shoulders to knees and had upper-thigh legs into which I stepped. Next I stepped into my cotton underskirt. Then I began to “put on my habit.”
First came the habit itself—a floor-length dress of several yards of black serge. I kissed it and quietly murmured a prayer in which I beseeched God to help me live that day mindful of Graciousness. I kissed my cincture—the belt that girded my waist. I kissed my scapular—the long piece of clothing that covered both front and back of the habit. I kept my folded hands under that scapular during the day so as to avoid distracting others. The only time my hands “flashed” were when I was using them to hold my diurnal at prayer, to do my obediences, to converse, or to eat.
Regular viewers of this blog have seen this photo.
It’s the only one I have of me as a novice.
The wreathe was worn only on the day I received the habit.
I handled each article of clothing reverently, like a vessel of the altar. As I clothed myself, I pictured myself putting on the virtues that Micah, the Hebrew prophet, had asked all of us to wear: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Finally I stood, fully clothed, ready for the day. Throughout grade and high school and college, I’d memorized many poems. Most mornings, as I walked to chapel, my hands under my scapular, my eyes cast down so as not to distract others from their thoughts and prayers, I silently recited a poem by e. e. cummings that summed up my feelings for the day:
I thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ear of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
You see, I felt then as if, somehow, I had cloaked myself in possibility. I hoped that when others looked at me they might see, not me, but Yeshua. At that distant time and still today I believe it is he who has taught me the height and depth and breadth of being wholly human. Alleluia.
Biblical quotation from The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Poem “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e. e. cummings, copyright 1950