Catholic Herald, 10 May 1991
My mother used to tell us not to speak to nuns. This, I hasten to add, was during the war, when German spies were popularly supposed to roam the countryside disguised in habits.
After the war my mother became a Catholic and we used to tease her about these warnings – particularly when she was introduced to, and began visiting nearby Carmelites.
I remembered this with a smile in mid-April, at St. Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight. There, a young friend made her solemn monastic profession and consecration to God as a contemplative Benedictine.
My friend, Sr. Mary David, is an American in her early thirties. She has an Oxford doctorate, and her last post in “gainful employment” was that of assistant professor of English at William and Mary College, Virginia.
Tiny and ebullient, she has a loving (and lovable) family and many devoted friends. About 70 of us, a great number of whom had travelled from the States, gathered in the abbey to witness the solemn vows.
Have you ever been to a solemn profession and consecration? The liturgy for the ceremony is absolutely splendid, all in Latin (except for the readings and· bidding prayers), and at St. Cecilia’s enhanced by the sisters’ ethereal singing.
The ceremony took nearly two hours – which was just as well because it gave the average layman (myself) time to recollect and concentrate. It takes more than a few moments to adjust to the other-world atmosphere of a contemplative abbey.
The contrast between fuss and bustle and calm and silence is something of a culture shock (some retreat houses go so far as to offer background music to lessen the impact). As I stood, knelt or sat as appropriate, I felt suddenly encumbered, hung about with worldly trivia, dusty and cobwebbed by cares.
I seemed to be carting about a lot of unnecessary clutter: credit cards, camera, spare candy, umbrella, gloves. When Sr. Mary David received the only worldly goods she will ever own, her veil, her ring, her breviary, the contrast became quite startling, even embarrassing.
She also received a kind of freedom most of us will never know. Behind the grille she is as free as a bird on a twig. It seemed that her community, like Mary, had “chosen the better part”, and that I, like Martha, must drudge along as best as maybe. (One of these days this column will be entirely devoted to Marthas).
Vocation of all
Bishop Crispian Hollis, who presided at the ceremony, restored my sense of balance with the opening words of his homily. He said that every Christian vocation, be it to the religious life or, as in my case, to marriage, is a call to respond to the Christian message.
One responds in the most perfect way that one is capable of. The vocation to the contemplative life is difficult to understand, it is a call at the heart of the life of the church. (Everyone asks what makes a bright, attractive young woman turn aside from all the things we are assumed to hold dear).
By building up his or her own spiritual resources, the contemplatives sustain the rest of us by their lives of prayer and sacrifice.
The bishop structured his sermon around Sr. Mary David’s vows; of stability (not only to stay in one place, the abbey, but to remain steadfast, and persevere in commitment); conversion of life (something promised at baptism, but a conversion that must be continuous); and obedience – to the community, to the abbess, but above all to Christ. The professed religious, Bishop Crispian said, chooses abandonment to the Lord until nothing else is preferred; not only for his or her own sanctification, but for the whole world. The contemplative, however hidden, is involved in a church of mission.
The bishop wished Sr. Mary David joy and fulfilment, and that these would spill out upon those around her. We have all remarked on the happiness and serenity so obvious in monasteries and convents. That, I suspect, is the spillage.
The concentration of love and goodwill for the young professed drew celebrants, community and congregation closer and closer with invisible threads of common prayer. By the time Psalm 83 broke against the high roof of the abbey it was as if with a single voice: “How lovely is your dwelling place; O Lord of hosts! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord.”
My young friend is at home in the few acres within sound of the sea. I am outside, making free of the rest of the world. Yet despite appearances, we have a lot in common. She is exposed to the same temptations as I am, and she has the same opportunities to practice the virtues. It is all strangely mysterious; but the knowledge that she and other rare souls with this truly extraordinary vocation pray for us all constantly is wonderfully comforting.
More than a thousand miles away other nuns toil with the practical problems of running an orphanage. It is high time I brought Herald readers up to date with developments at Kostowiec, the home for abandoned and orphaned girls in Poland.
You may remember that at Christmas, thanks to the generosity of Herald readers, we sent the home more than £12,000. Cold weather in Poland interrupted building work, but the conversion from solid fuel to gas is now under way, and the days of humping coal are numbered.
Construction of new boiler and wash houses has started, and the new floor to house more girls should open in the summer. The munificent gift from Dixons, the cassette player, was received with great joy, and now the girls will be able to dress up for disco dancing.
A girl’s school in Oxford generously organised a collection of good used clothing: 130 kilos of sweaters, shirts, jeans, coats and dresses was dispatched in early April, enough for each girl to have a new outfit.
“Twinning” is a useful and obvious way of matching excess with need: Sr. Marianna, the superior at Kostowiec, writes that the support of friends outside Poland gives them real strength to carry on work which must often seem overwhelmingly heavy. Everyone who contributed to Kostowiec helps to carry that load and the sisters pray each week for them and for their intentions at the benefactors’ Mass.
Clearly there are no real boundaries between you, me, the community at St. Cecilia’s, or the Franciscans at Kostowiec. You and I are enclosed by the cares of the world, the Benedictines by the Rule, the nuns in Poland by rules and by a caring role they will never abandon.
But we have a common meeting point in what Fr. McTernan described in his Scripture Notebook a few weeks ago as a fellowship rooted in an intimate relationship with Christ. For her motto Sr. Mary David chose some words from Psalm 69: “Zeal for thy house consumes me Lord.”
Those words describe that fellowship to a tee.