Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joyfully Professing First Vows

We rose early on that first day of 1960. Compline had ended our retreat the night before. Afterward, we’d returned to the novitiate for our final night of sleep there. While dressing that Friday morning, my thoughts skittered from my first days as a postulant to the battle I’d fought during retreat to the wonderment of where I’d be sent that weekend to begin teaching. 
           From the frosted second-story dorm window, I looked at the outlying stars that wintry morning. Who inhabited those far-flung galaxies? Did they know that here on Earth eighteen novices were dressing for a day of celebration? Did the music of the spheres reach them as it did me? For indeed, I felt the lilt of song within. Everything—anything—seemed possible. All the world seemed poised to welcome my vows. Joy coursed my veins. Gratitude thrummed my heart.
          Teeth chattering from chill and excitement, we silently left the novitiate and walked across the driveway to the monastery side door, ready to embrace our new life as scholastics. Later that morning, we huddled together in the foyer of the college chapel, awaiting our vow ceremony. Was there doubt about what we were each doing? There must have been. This was a professed commitment.
          But that doubt became as nothing amidst the great joy that found us smiling at one another. Beaming. Unable to keep from grinning. I looked out the small window facing the lawn. Sunlight jeweled the snow. Dark pine branches sagged from its weight. A few dark-eyed juncos fluttered about beneath those trees, fluffing their wings against the cold and imprinting spidery tracks on the snow’s crest.

            Suddenly, glorious music filled the chapel. The eighteen of us processed down the center aisle. On each side stood parents, relatives, and friends who’d gathered to celebrate with us. An unbounded smile stretched my heart. I’d made my decision. I’d chosen this life. Now, before Mom and Dad and all the nuns of the monastery, I’d profess, for three years, the five Benedictine vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability. I was ready. Eager in fact. I wanted to relinquish doubt and move ahead with my life.
            The ceremony began. Large pots of welcoming poinsettias graced the high altar. Golden yellow beeswax tapers, flames flickering, stood tall in gleaming candlesticks. The bishop wore the ornate vestments of a great feast. We prayed. Sang. Knelt. A surging tide of anticipation flowed toward us from those sitting in the pews. They’d come from many states to what was for me that day the center of the Universe.
            Now came the climax of the ceremony. The bishop blessed our new habits and veils. A professed nun deftly removed the white ones that proclaimed us novices and then reverently covered our heads with the black veil of a scholastic. We gathered before the bishop and lifted our palms high as we joyously professed our first vows.
The black veil indicates I have taken first vows and am a scholastic.

            The ceremony ended. The pipe organ sounded its clarion message: “Te Deum Laudamus!”—“Thee, O God, we praise.” That praise arched above all those gathered there that day. My heart lifted up. I came new into the world.  
            When the rite ended, the eighteen of us turned and processed out into the foyer. It was there our parents greeted us. My mom and dad hugged me close. I knew they remained as unsure of my decision as I’d been. But I knew also that they’d always said to me, “Dolores, you can do anything you set your mind to.” During the remainder of the afternoon, we ate together, then visited in the college lounge.

Dad and Mom and I enjoy one another's presence on first-vow day.

            That evening, after our families had departed, we eighteen new scholastics prayed Compline with the rest of the community. Afterward, we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of the monastery and entered a new dorm. It was, I may say, a beginning within an ending.
            That night, lying in bed, I murmured to myself the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my favorite poets. His “Pied Beauty” perfectly described what the day had been for me.

Glory be to God for dappled things—

            For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
                        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
            Landscape plotted and pierced—fold, fallow, and plough;
                        And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
            Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
                        With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                             Praise him.

I slide into sleep with words of praise on my lips. Alleluia. Amen.

PS: This posting concludes the stories about my life in the novitiate. I’m going to turn now to stories about my growing-up years and my life with cats. In a few weeks, I hope to return to the convent postings and take up life in a Catholic grade school in Omaha, Nebraska.

“Pied Beauty” from Gerard Manley Hopkins, published by Penguin Books in 1956.
Snow photo by Evgeni Dinev at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net


  1. You communicate the ecstasy of the day so very well, Dee. I felt myself there along with you and the other novices. I am so glad to know you, the person you have become. This experience and the time in the convent changed you from who you might have otherwise been. From today's vantage point, I can only think it helped make you a gentle and serene soul. I so enjoy your writing.

  2. Dee, what a pleasure and inspiration your posts have been to me, and what an education as well. Your memory of your days as a novitiate are amazing as are you descriptions of the snow, the birds, the feeling of joy as you and the other novitiates made your vows and enter your new life. Thank you so much for sharing these here.

    Such a lovely poem. All the little things.

  3. You express your soul soaring joy and the anticipation of the next huge change in your life so well. I love the pictures of that day. We can see the delight on your face and in your eyes. Now I look forward to hearing about you and cats years later! ;)

  4. And such a beautiful conclusion! I LOVE this line: "But that doubt became as nothing amidst the great joy that found us smiling at one another. Beaming."

  5. I agree with your other commenters that your writing is wonderful, Dee. Something more than a good command of language and description is going on here; you're dealing with essential stuff regarding your soul's development. I look forward to reading more from you.

  6. I can do little more than echo DJan's comment. I did, indeed, feel like I was there with you on that glorious day. I loved who you were then & even more, I love who you are now!

  7. Very touching and beautiful account. And I loved seeing the photos of you (and your parents). You looked so happy.

  8. I do see you as the "help avert suffering" type, but not nunly ;o..well, not now...

  9. Funny the same line that struck Elisa was the one that hit me in between the eyes.
    Although I agree that you seemed happy in the pictures and that you are meant to help and inspire others, I can see why you eventually left the convent. I don't know your reason yet but I feel you are doing just as much good on the outside as when you were a nun.

  10. Dee, everytime I read your story I am humbled by your strength of comittment. Thank you for sharing.

  11. This is a beautifully written account of a momentous day for you and your Mum and Dad. Your writing drew me in completely, Dee! I felt bathed in the warm glow of your beaming smiles and felt all the joyful anticipation of the next phase of your life. And now, I'm looking forward enormously to leaping with you into your post convent life and participating in the unwrapping of the many events and memories you'll be sharing with us next.

  12. DJan,
    You always seem to comment first! You must be such an early riser, DJan. I'm glad my writing was able to convey the "ecstasy" of the day. It stands out as one of the most memorable of my life.

    Hopkins' poem truly is a treasure trove of gifts life daily offers us. I'm glad you have enjoyed and "learned" from these novitiate postings.

    Thank you for your kind words about my writing. I'm been practicing for many a long year!

    The cat stories are coming. I so look forward to your photographs of Karma and I have a few pictures of the cats with whom I lived. So soon you shall see them all!

    I do so remember smiling so much that day that the muscles of my face got sore!

    I like to think that you are right, that I"m "dealing with essential stuff regarding your soul's development." Remembering the months in the novitiate does help me see the arc of the spiritual journey I've made. Thank you for recognizing that.

    Both you and DJan responded to my joy that day. That makes me glad!

    I was so happy that day. We are blessed when we have days like that. They imprint themselves on our heart.

    True, I'm not so "nunly" now. But I remain naive about so much of life. Mostly I'm bemused by it.

    Thank you for believing that I still do good. I think all of us true, to the best of our ability, to build community where we are and with whom we all. In that, truly is our salvation.

    We all need to dedicate ourselves to something or someone. What I've learned, late in life, is that I need to be as gracious to myself as I have been to others.

    Indeed, the day was momentous. I love your word "unwrapping." It's like I'm going to be giving gifts--presents--to readers!!! What a lovely thought.
    Thank you.

  13. Coming late to this, Dee, I find it's all been said already. What struck me particularly is that, despite your previous doubts and the knowledge of what came later, you so incompletely meant what you did that day, heart, body and soul. No wonder it remains one of your special days. Beautifully written as always and I'm pleased to find another lover of Hopkins' poetry.

  14. Sorry, sorry, sorry! That should read COMPLETELY. Don't know how the unfortunate typo crept in. :-(

  15. "Gratitude thrummed my heart..." What an excellent sentence! You are a true word-smith. This blog filled my mind with the holiness of a commitment to God.

  16. I still have to catch up on two previous posts, but I wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten you.

  17. Perpetua,
    Yes, I was completely committed. Since I first discovered Hopkins in my senior year of high school, his poetry has spoken to me. I'm glad you,too, enjoy him.

    You know I think that any commitment that brings forth growth of the human spirit is holy. Holiness is all around us and sometimes I can hardly bear the joy of it.

    Thank you for coming to the blog. I've been concerned about you, but your posting today explained about your hospital stay. I hope you are being gracious to yourself.

  18. Thank you Dee for taking us on this fascinating journey. You describe it so vividly it is like watching a movie in my mind.

  19. Oh Dee, I can't imagine what I could possibly add to what has already been expressed by one and all. I loved how that last line says so much about how right that day felt for you, "I slide into sleep with words of praise on my lips. Alleluia. Amen." Your joy was evident, your commitment pure and true. You believed with all your heart that these vows were what you were called to do.

    Within or without the convent, you are a beautiful soul.

  20. What a totally, delightful blog! The radience in your face is echoed in your words and discription of that beautiful day. What a great talent you have to communicate all these precious emotions and memories. Thank you for the sharing of them. Mary E
    p.s. I don't know how to log on here without the anonymous as several of the other selections won't let me on! lots to learn here!

  21. Michelle,
    It seems vivid to me still. I'd battled my doubts and felt that I was making the best of all decisions.

    Yes, my commitment was "pure and true." Only later did I realize that I was suppressing the voice of basic traits and longings within myself that I finally, seven years later, had to listen to.

    Mary E.
    So glad you've left a comment. You married that same year. I bet your face echoed all your joy too!

  22. I love your comment to Susan, "Holiness is all around us and sometimes I can hardly bear the joy of it." I'm going to remember that and carry it with me throughout the day. Thank you.

    My WV: copia. Copious amounts of the ability to cope? ;)

  23. Your joy of that day is electrifying and wonderful. In your writing you manage to give us an wonderful sense of being there and of feeling that joy with you.