Of Newcomers to Monastic Life

For the past few years I have answered an average of three or four vocation enquiries every week. Each one has been different and required thought and prayer before responding. In some cases, I have corresponded with the enquirer for several months as it is important to try to help someone find her vocation in the Church, wherever that may be; and I am pleased that the community has had some small share in helping a Carmelite and a Poor Clare find their true home. We also have a postulant-to-be of our own who has been tested in all patience, as has the community, by the delays and difficulties we have encountered with UKBA! But what of the others? Quite often, after writing a fairly detailed reply, I’ll hear nothing more. Occasionally, one will write to say ‘thank you’ (always a good sign: no vocation can grow except in a spirit of gratitude), and as a community we go on praying for the individuals concerned, but in general there is a kind of vacuum. We simply don’t know what has happened. We must trust that they have found the right path.

Today we begin re-reading chapter 58 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Procedure for Admitting Brethren. The very first sentence is a warning to community and candidate alike:

A newcomer should not be granted an easy entrance but, as it is written, ‘Test the spirits, to see whether they come from God.’ (RB 58.1)

It can be quite hard for people to accept the idea of testing their vocation, especially in a world where they have been taught to sell themselves to prospective employers by concentrating on the skills and advantages they would bring to a particular job. Unfortunately, a monastic vocation doesn’t work like that. Put simply, it’s about God, not you — not your privileged experience of God, nor your deep feelings of love and devotion, only your sense that, in a way you probably can’t put into words, you may have a call to seek him in monastic life, and your willingness to take on every demand such a life will make on you. As St Thérèse famously remarked on entering Carmel, her only concern was whether she’d be able to do everything the others did. That is why, whether you have a monastic vocation or not, those of us who live in monasteries and those discerning a monastic vocation need your prayers. We have undertaken something that is possible only by faith, and the whole Church is involved.

Obviously, those of us who are already nuns want to encourage people, but we also need to be realistic. St Benedict explicitly warns the novice master/mistress to tell the newcomer ‘frankly’ about all the difficulties and hardships through which we make our way to God. (RB 58.8) These are not only spiritual but practical. For example, the community here is small and people sometimes assume that we will take anyone, even those whose health is fragile or whose age makes it impossible for them to follow the monastic routine. In fact, I would always advise older/less healthy candidates to think first about a larger community. A small one may not be able to cope. What happens when someone is ill? Her jobs have to be covered by someone else, and another person has to take her to medical appointments, etc. Often, there isn’t anyone else; and while the sick person is being looked after, the common prayer of the community in choir has to be abandoned and whatever the community does by way of earning an income/charitable outreach has to be placed on hold.* Then there is the challenge of the lifestyle, which in general is fairly austere. The heating may be turned up for the guest, but it will be lowered significantly when they leave!

To one who truly seeks God, these are hurdles to be leaped over, not barriers to block the way, but it takes time and experience to know the difference. Since we came to Hereford we have instituted a new programme for  candidates and now require them to get to know the community a little by video conference before we invite them to stay. Travel is expensive so it seems only fair to give people an opportunity of some face-to-face exchanges before they make the journey to Howton Grove, but it also enables us to get some idea of the person behind the often laconic first email or letter.

Please pray that all who come to us seeking to find their path in life may be encouraged and strengthened on their way. Whether they join the community or not, God is never outdone in generosity and by asking themselves whether they should serve him in monastic life, they have surely done a good and pleasing thing.

*I am referring here to people whose health is not good wanting to join the community. It is a different matter for those who are already members. One of my joys as prioress was the fact that we were able to look after D. Teresa at home throughout her final years. It was demanding, but we managed. I don’t think we could have had we been responsible for anyone else.