The Essential Nun

I have spent some time this week attempting to answer various enquiries which have come to us through the Vocation section of our main website. I have dutifully explained the canonical requirements for admission to a religious community, the significance of religious names, visits to parents, the meaning and form of various parts of the habit, the kinds of service undertaken by different Orders, the major differences between nuns and sisters and so on and so forth. It is tiring, but I try to answer as quickly and completely as I can. I also try to be kind, although I have noticed that some people are less than pleased when confronted with some of the canonical realities!

The problem is, all this talk about ecclesiastical requirements, the habit and the other details of religious life, though necessary, rather misses the point. A monastic vocation boils down to something few of my correspondents ever seem to mention: being utterly captivated, spellbound, by God — his beauty, truth, holiness, love and goodness — and wanting to spend one’s life as close to him as possible. Once one has been granted even a very little glimpse (and most of us must make do with a very little glimpse indeed), everything else becomes secondary, including the marvellous graces God has bestowed. (Abbess Elizabeth Sumner, of happy memory, once remarked with a conspiratorial smile that one shouldn’t admit candidates who were already in St Teresa’s Seventh Mansion as they wouldn’t have anywhere left to go. Monastic life could teach them nothing.)

I am certainly not questioning the sincerity of those who write, still less am I suggesting that one should lard a vocational enquiry with rhapsodic praise of God. I am merely reminding myself, and thereby others too, that a monastic vocation is really a very simple business — simple in the sense that it relies upon the fact that God calls, and he enables. Every nun places her vocation before the Church for discernment and ratification, but the starting-point, that which provides the energy needed to sustain the search, to accept all the contradictions and difficulties along the way, cannot be other than God. That is one of the reasons why I am uncomfortable when people focus too narrowly on the habit or any other sign of monastic commitment. Unless both heart and mind be given, whole and  entire, unless we take upon ourselves the shape and form of our vocation at every moment, something essential is missing. We have the outward show but not the reality. I can think of nothing sadder or more terrible for a nun, can you?


23 thoughts on “The Essential Nun”

  1. I enjoy your posts very much,Most people want to be approach by god,touched by god,feel god
    yet those who believe approach god,touch god & feel god
    whilst in the wider world evil prevails
    Glad you are walking through the cyber world,really hope it make a difference

  2. Thanks for an insightful post into the calling to the Religious or Monastic life. There are so many factors to be discerned in every call, that it’s as clear as mud sometimes.

    The thing that shines through is that the call must be valid and discerned as such by the individual who feels called and the Church, but perhaps, more importantly by he who is doing the calling.

    There’s nothing half-hearted once you respond to a call, it’s all or nothing. As I found out when I responded to a call that was discerned among family, friends, My Parish Priest and others, but not by the wider church. It’s a heart stopping moment when you find out that something you’ve believed in, lived and worked on with so many people over a period of years is shot down by two words “Not Recommended”.

    The trouble with the Not Recommended issue is the lack of insight into what area of ministry you might be called too.
    Those assessing you have had everything, every quality, every strength, every weakness shared with them. They’ve tested them extensively both practically and theoretically via Academic writings, through extensive interviews, directed study, and participation in formative events your character has been tested, evaluated, investigated, your past is an open book to them. You have given all, but somehow it’s insufficient.

    When you are not recommend you for training for Ordained Ministry, is it enough to say “thanks for trying” and than to cast you out in the cold?

    Somewhere I see a disconnect in ongoing pastoral care in this situation – surely if a call to ministry of some sort is discerned, than the church should support further exploration alongside you. I’m afraid that currently, the Church doesn’t do this – they leave it to family, friends and Vicar to pick up the pieces.

      • I would definitely agree that religious bodies generally are not very good at supporting anyone who doesn’t tick all the necessary boxes. I believe it is something we need to pray about and think about more than we do. Thank you, Ernie, for sharing your experience with us so honestly. The prayers continue.

  3. Dear UK,
    Thankyou for pointing out something I have thought for a very long time. We spend a lot of time for vocational discernment (I can only speak for the Church of England an my own experience here), but I have had to pick up the pieces of several people who have not been recommended and the institutional Church does very little for them.

    We also spend so much time chanelling people to Ordained ministry, and forget, for instance Religious Life or lay ministries etc.

    I’m so glad that someone feels the same as me!

      • I’m describing my experience with the CofE. I suppose that I’m still hurting a bit, but sometimes ‘better out than in’ as the Sisters who looked after me while in care would have said when I was feeling a bit unwell.

        I wonder if I were not married, would I be drawn to the religious life. I know a community of Anglican Fransican’s in Canterbury, whose communal life and service is a wonder. They now have a first year Novice who is enthusiastic and on fire for his faith. I know that they have close links to the Catholic Fransiscan communities. But I think that you make real sacrifices to the life. But I can see for myself from my experience of visiting the Communities at West Malling and Edenbridge, near to where I live, demonstrate that the Nuns there share a great joy in living out their vocation in community.

        I know that my Vicar has plans for further exploration, but he is wise about delaying those until I’ve had time for reflection and prayer to put the disappointment aside and am open and receptive to new possibilities. I pray that this will be soon.

  4. I went to a convent prep school, and found the nuns infuriating. “Nothing is impossible for God” seemed to be their answer to everything. Sometimes I used to bring in a little bunch of flowers for the Sister who taught us sewing, and she would always put them in front of the statue of Mary “But I brought them for You, sister!”

    I think I have a better understanding now.

  5. Most definitely it should be about in inward desire for God rather than any outward trappings …
    Perhaps some are diffident about admitting their religious feelings/fervour toward God (perhaps a British thing?) :/

      • There is something about British Reserve when people feel a little vulnerable if they speak of their faith. Most of my adult life I followed two main rules that religion and politics were not for open discussion because they caused so much disharmony.

        However, once Jesus wonderfully came into my life, I suddenly had new courage to speak openly and joyfully of the conversion experience I had undergone. It’s that infusion of faith that gives confidence to speak openly, not pushing it on people, but being open to opportunities that arise to speak frankly and well of God and Jesus Christ. Sharing the joy that you have been given.

        If it lights a spark, all well and good. If it invites brick bats, than turn the other cheek.

      • Gosh ~ didn’t know that … it must make it harder to assess if someone has a true vocation if you are perhaps unable to meet them, and family visits would not be straightforward either.

        • Discernment of a vocation is a long process. Even the pre-admission phase is quite searching and usually involves not only regular contact and meeting but a pre-postulancy residence of some weeks. Most of our enquirers are not for our community, but I still think it’s helpful for people to be able to fire questions at us and explore some of what is involved.

          • Yes, very worthwhile to be able to offer some answers & hopefully direction to those who enquire.

            Do hope that among those who get in contact there will be some who eventually come to grow the community at HTM 🙂

  6. I’ve really only started to think about ‘vocation’ through these blogs. Here I am struck by the distinction made between a call from God and the placing of that calling before the Church. It gives me a new way to think about the lay vocation as perhaps a call from God to honour, love and serve, but not necessarily through the Church or churches.
    Is that something others can resonate with?

  7. No I agree. Cucullus non facit monachum is a two-edged saying, warning that outward signs are only ever that important but not the essential; there is a huge pull towards outward observance in Catholic practice I guess. It can be felt as keenly “on the outside” as those (in the traditional phrase) ‘in religion.’ But although I must say I agree with you, I’d just like to add that your insight about the biggest motivation for choosing the monastic life has also got to be at the heart of vocation to the married state: closeness to God. Thank you for reminding me!

    • I agree, I think; I was confining myself to the question of religious vocation because that is what I’ve been dealing with. There is a concentration about monastic life for women that is difficult to convey to anyone who has not experienced it, eg. no holidays, no time away usually, very little free/’me’ time, which those entering a monastic community often find a shock because they have not begun to think through the deeper implications of the commitment they are taking on. The novitiate usually sees more people going than staying, but if the community has been helpful and kind, the monastic experience stays with the person for ever after as something positive, even joyous.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful and succinct reflection. As one of my prioress used to say, “there has to be fire in the belly!” Our constitutions say, “Diligent inquiry should be more FIRST OF ALL as to whether the aspirant is TRULY SEEKING GOD!” The RB says something similar.

    This is why it is hard to talk about monastic life for an extended period of time. In the end there is very little to say as it is meant to be lived.


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