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?