Why Be A Nun? A Question for Vocations Sunday

La Signora de Monza — the Nun of Monza — by Giuseppe Molteni , 1847

Vocations Sunday and our Responsibility to Others

Over the years I have spent a great deal of time thinking and praying about vocation, more particularly, the vocation to be a nun. I must have written thousands of words in response to enquirers and in posts for this blog and its predecessor. Yet every Vocations Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, I ask myself whether the effort has been worthwhile. Has anyone been helped to find their path in life or have I merely added to the confusion and uncertainty they feel? Worse still, have I discouraged anyone, not only by what I have written but also by what I have done or failed to do?

That is a question not just for me but for everyone. We all play a part in the vocation of others and can help or hinder them (family and friends take note). Sometimes we forget that God loves every person he has created, even the villains of history or those we are inclined to dismiss as somehow unworthy of our love and attention, if not God’s. He has called every one of us by name. He has chosen us and wants our eternal happiness. That is what a vocation really is: an invitation to be with the Lord for all eternity in a bond of mutual love and joy. We begin now, as members of the Church, baptized into the death of Christ and sharers also in his resurrection.

Membership of the Church is our Primary Vocation

To be a member of the Church is thus our primary vocation, and there is none higher or greater. The way our primary vocation is worked out differs with each individual. For some it will be through the holiness of marriage, for others singleness, for others again priesthood or consecrated life, perhaps changing as we grow older or according to circumstance. What we do with our time, our work, is bound up with this but does not define or limit our vocation. God’s love is unchanging, no matter how little we ‘achieve’ or the failures of which we are conscious. As Julian of Norwich says, we are ‘oned with him’, and being oned with him means we are oned with everyone else, too. Together we make up the Body of Christ and Communion of Saints. Our connectedness goes beyond denominational labels or the accidents of time or physical proximity. St Benedict reminds us again and again that we go to God together. We are incomplete without each other, and so is the Kingdom. With that in mind, let us look for a moment at the vocation of a nun following the Rule of St Benedict.

Monastic Life for Women

The illustration used for this post evokes contradictory reactions in most of those who look at it. Those who do not know the sad story of the nun of Monza, Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva y Marino, will probably smile at Molteni’s painting. That is what a nun should be — young, beautiful and romantically pensive. Those who do know the story may make a moue of disgust at the scandal surrounding her name and utter dark comments about sexual perversion and murder. Such reactions reveal how many view monastic life for women and their expectations of it. Fortunately, not everyone goes in for such extremes, although a quick search on Google is not reassuring. If we look for light relief, the nun as figure of fun fares scarcely better than the nun as angel or demon. The exhortations of popes and bishops often seem wide of the mark, too, with their flowery language and ignorance of what a nun’s life is really like. Maybe I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that nuns are often portrayed as different from other women. We’re either impossibly holy or impossibly evil. Even by our admirers we can be seen as milksops at best, dangerously dictatorial and unfeeling at worst, in constant need of supervision and control. Allow me to present an alternative view.

Shepherds and Nuns

Let’s begin by thinking about the popular name for this Sunday: Good Shepherd Sunday. I haven’t met many women who are shepherds, but the three I have, although very different in age and size of flock they look after, impressed me with their toughness, their resilience and their obvious care for their sheep. In fact, they were rather like many of the nuns I know, for all that their ‘habits’ consisted mainly of wellies and old anoraks. There was a shrewdness and realism about them I found appealing, a determination just to get on with things and persevere whatever difficulties or setbacks they encountered. That may not sound very ‘spiritual’ but such qualities are very necessary in monastic life, perseverance above all.

Perseverance, Joy and Fruitfulness

I think the unshowy nature of perseverance distinguishes the reality of being a nun from unreal conceptions of what a nun is or should be. To put it bluntly, seeking God is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who give up easily. Prayer cannot be taken up one day and dropped the next. We cannot fritter away our time on inanities or waste our energies on anything with a tendency to destroy rather than build up. Selective obedience is not obedience at all and, though we might like to, we cannot dodge the dura et aspera of community life. Of course we most of us try, at one time or another, and we can be quite devious in the means we employ. Flopping to our knees or using personal ‘religious fervour’ as an excuse for skiving off the less congenial duties in monastic life is a recognized tactic easily spotted by the novice mistress. We must embrace the whole life, including its occasional tediums and companions we find just a teeny weeny bit tiresome, or we will never really begin. We soon discover that there is nothing romantic about the life we lead, it is all too grounded for that. Even those lovely habits and beautiful buildings have their drawbacks, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

The novice mistress is obliged by the Rule to tell every candidate for admission of the difficulties ahead of her, but most novices experience them for themselves soon enough. We grow into monastic life and I think its most positive side is often experienced later, sometimes much later. It is only then that we see the meaning of certain practices or understand why some things are as they are. It takes a lifetime of prayer, reading and obedience to appreciate the riches lavished upon us in community or see how grace has fashioned others (never ourselves, alas!) into saints. That is one reason every community needs older members who have taken on the shape and form of the Rule through a lifetime of trying to live by it, whose experience can teach us so much. Their example is an encouragement, especially when we ourselves may be feeling tired or inadequate or simply unsure about going on. They show us how monastic life can be lived joyfully and fruitfully.

To speak of joy and fruitfulness in connection with a life that is highly disciplined and frequently austere may seem strange. There may be grudging acknowledgement of the joy, but fruitfulness, where does that come in? I think that is where we have to insist that monastic life is lived by faith. We do not see; we have to trust. For those who are prepared to give themselves completely not just to a way of life but to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, the rewards are very great. ‘We shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may be made worthy to share also in his Kingdom.’ (RB Prol. 50). That is the hundredfold of the Gospel, the answer to the question of the title. It is our privilege as nuns to seek and find the Lord, not for ourselves alone but for all. May I humbly, but with conviction, encourage any who may be thinking about monastic life to listen to the whispering of the Holy Spirit and follow the Risen Christ wherever he may lead you.

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Something for Vocations Sunday 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016
The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

I wonder how many people today will hear a homily that speaks of the wonder and joy of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated (old-time, religious) life? How many will hear one that speaks of the importance of marriage or family life, of the beautiful but often difficult vocation of those called to be single, or indeed anything beyond a dutiful bidding prayer that somehow mixes up sheep, shepherds and labourers in vineyards? I ask because I am convinced of the supreme value of knowing, loving and serving God and would like everyone to find joy in the things of the Spirit and in the fulfilment of their unique call from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a good day for reflecting on our own own vocation and, in addition to praying for others, thinking and praying about how we ourselves have responded to God’s call in the past, and how we should respond in the future. Have we helped or hindered others in following Christ? Is there something more that the Lord asks of us? Are we ready to listen, or do we want to turn a deaf ear?

I myself am a Benedictine, and a very happy Benedictine at that, yet part of me wishes I had been graced with the vocation  of a Carthusian or hermit so I could live ‘alone with the Alone’. I say that without any rose-tinted misconceptions about the demands of the eremitical life. I only just scrape by as a coenobite and would never manage as a hermit. But God is, and I pray always will be, the most important person in my life — which is why I am a nun, why I am enthusiastic about monastic life in general and the life of this community in particular, and why I want to share its blessings with as many people as possible.

Sometimes a visual image can help, so the photo at the beginning of this post shows the altar-end of our oratory while the one below shows the choir-end. Our oratory is a plain and workman-like space, as monastic life itself is plain and workman-like. There is careful attention to detail, but nothing fussy or superfluous. It is the most important part of the monastery, and I think it is eloquent of how we understand Benedictine life and try to live it. If it is a terible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, it is also, as the saints assure us, the most delightful. May God draw many to experience his love and mercy, to savour the sweetness of the Lord and be his true disciples.

The choir-end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory
The choir end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

I give below links to a few previous posts on vocation which, together with the information on our main website, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk (www.benedictinenuns.net for small-screen devices) and our Facebook page, may prove helpful. I hope so.

Some Posts about Vocation

Praying for Vocations

Vocation and Reality

Further Thoughts on Vocation

A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Vocations Sunday

A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

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A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

In previous years I’ve written what I hope were thoughtful pieces on the nature of vocation and the role of family, friends and religious communities in helping those trying to make sense of a call from God. This morning I’d like to address something different. The arresting phrase forming the title of this post, uttered recently by the Director of the National Office for Vocation (NOV) in response to an increase in the number of entrants to religious communities for women (see report here), strikes me as symptomatic of the way in which the Church all too often approaches the subject of vocation. We play the numbers game, talking up increases and minimizing decreases, speaking our own special gobbledegook incomprehensible to outsiders (sometimes even to insiders) and criticizing or ostracizing anyone who dares to question what is going on. In short, we take a very secular attitude towards something that is, by definition, the reverse of secular.

I am an optimistic person, but I can’t help thinking the reported increase in the numbers of women joining Religious Orders in England and Wales may prove to be more Arab Spring than Second Spring. Even if all stay, and the report indicates we are talking about entrants to religious life, not those who have made profession (i.e. committed themselves by vow after several years’ membership of a religious  institute), many Orders and Congregations are going to shrink beyond recognition. The impact on the Church, already considerable, will be profound. We have had decades of down-sizing, abandonment of traditional works and undertakings, and withdrawal from the public sphere. Many people have never met a nun or sister. Even those who regard themselves as active Catholics are sometimes very vague about religious life. It is beyond their ken.

At the same time, the Church herself seems to have lost confidence in religious themselves. I am not thinking so much of high-profile events like the investigation into the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as the more mundane neglect of nuns and sisters who are, to all intents and purposes, the invisible Church except when statistics are collated or bland statements about the importance of prayer and witness are made. Some dioceses give the impression that fostering consecrated life is a low priority. A dutiful Day for Religious, with Mass said by the bishop, is about the limit of engagement. The sisters have their uses, perhaps, but nuns are a waste of space (for the difference between nuns and sisters, see here). I exaggerate, of course, but not as much as you might think.

In fairness to the NOV, a great deal has been done in recent years to try to raise the profile of consecrated life at a supra-diocesan level and we should applaud its efforts. One unintended consequence, however, has been that smaller, poorer, possibly older, communities have effectively been excluded from participation in some of its initiatives. My own particular bugbear is the various forms of Vocation Awareness Days at which only nuns and sisters under 35 are welcome. Youth attracts youth, we are told, and of course that’s true, but are some secular ageist assumptions also at work? Let’s not forget how inspiring older religious can be and how much sympathy they can have with the young and not-so-young. I know my own vocation was greatly influenced by the older people I met at Stanbrook. They proved monastic life was worth pursuing, and I am eternally in their debt. Apart from anything else, they knew what they were talking about. Having lived monastic life for forty, fifty or sixty years, they were transformed by it. To use a popular phrase, they were authentic — and it showed.

The way in which the British media responded to the statistics released by the NOV also has a bearing on how we interpret them. Many treated the whole thing as a good story, a bit of a joke really, with predictable puns and an irritating display of religious illiteracy (the BBC World Service drove me demented with its references to women taking Holy Orders). There was a sudden flurry of activity as reporters and editors scampered through the ether looking for young nuns to ‘tell their story,’ the less expected the better, or re-ran old stories on people like us, who are using contemporary technology in different ways. Some, mainly the religious press, trumpeted the figures with an air of triumph as though they ushered in an era of religious plenty. It would be churlish not to rejoice that the people the statistics represent have found their way, but I suspect ‘the gap in the market for meaning’ they are alleged to have bridged is as wide as ever.

Unless there is a massive increase in numbers, we face a future in which both active and contemplative religious will be far fewer. The vocation in which I have been privileged to share will become less and less intelligible. I don’t think that’s a problem in itself, indeed I have a hunch that the religious communities of the future will be smaller, closer in spirit to the Desert ideal from which they originally sprang, but it does invite urgent examination of some of the strengths and weaknesses of religious life today, especially insofar as they concern women. We cannot and should not expect those entering our communities to be anything other than people of their time. If the Church accords religious women less respect than secular society accords women in general, we have gone very wrong (for some of my own reflections on this topic, see here).

People are drawn to religious life for all kinds of reasons, but the reasons they stay are usually the same — they have, however imperfectly or provisionally, found traces of God and been utterly captivated by him. That is what we need to convey, as a Church, as Orders/Congregations and as individuals: the supreme value of seeking God through a life of prayer and service lived under vows in community, the joy and beauty of it. That is what we need to celebrate, rather than numbers which can prove misleading.* That is also, crucially, what we need to make it easier for people to discover.

We often receive vocation enquiries via our web site and I have been shocked by what some of the enquirers tell me has been their experience of other houses or Congregations. They have been told they must write a letter rather than email in the first instance; must visit before they can have their questions answered; must do this, that or the other before the process of discernment can even begin. True, some of the questions we are asked make me suspect a wind-up at times, but we are aware that travel is costly and finding out about religious life isn’t always easy. People come before systems. Our job, surely, is to try to help people see beyond the externals to the core of our life, to enable them to answer God’s call freely, maturely, joyfully.  Above all, we need to give encouragement.

How what I say above fits in with the ‘culture of vocation’ to which the NOV report refers, I’ve no idea. I can only speak of what I know. I believe God still calls people to various forms of religious life and we must all make a response of some kind, whatever our role in the Church. A lack of conviction, a desire that vocation should concern some other person, some other family, is not just a form of half-heartedness, it is a fundamental lack of willingness to let God be God in our lives — and that letting God be God is at the heart of every vocation, whether it be to marriage or singleness, priesthood or consecrated life. This Sunday we shall be on our knees asking that His will, not ours, be done, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, that God may be glorified in all things — even that strange marketplace for meaning with its even stranger gaps.

*If you look at the  latest Annuarium Statisticum, you will see that between 2005 and 2013, the number of female religious in Europe declined by 18.3%. The increase in vocations noted in the developing world was cited by some as evidence of vitality. I am slightly sceptical because my limited experience of communities in Africa and South America suggests a much more complex picture. Where joining a religious community represents a step up, both socially and economically, other factors may be at work; and historically, newer converts tend to join religious communities in disproportionately higher numbers.

Note: I have written about ‘religious life’ because that expression comes more easily to my pen. The officially preferred phrase is ‘consecrated life’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Praying for Vocations

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is devoted by the Church to praying for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That doesn’t mean that the Church regards only priesthood and religious life as vocations. On the contrary, each one of us is called into being by the Lord and our lives are a living out (or should be) of all that that implies. In that sense, each and every one of us is, quite literally, a vocation. But on this Sunday of the year the Church asks us to think and pray about two special ways of responding to the Lord’s call. Why is that?

Most people have little difficulty with the idea of priests being necessary to the Church. Without priests, we can have neither sacraments nor authoritative teaching. But priests don’t come out of thin air, as it were. They come from families, from the ordinary world in which most of us live and work; and it is our duty, as members of the Church, to encourage and support those who are, however tentatively, exploring the possibility of becoming priests themselves. This year we have all benefited from the homily Pope Francis gave on Maundy Thursday and the joy of being a priest. Too often the emphasis, especially of the media, is on the sacrifices that have to be made and the shortcomings of the individuals concerned. Today is a day when we need to be much more positive, much more hopeful. We need, too, to pray for those who have already responded, who are living out their priesthood as generously and faithfully as they can but who do not always feel as supported as they might.

But what of religious life, isn’t that a more difficult concept for many people? The Active Orders — those that teach or do social work, for example — are sometimes disregarded because there are so many lay people who do a fantastic job of teaching or whatever. ‘One doesn’t need to be a religious to do those things.’ Quite. One doesn’t. But the form of service these Orders and Congregations perform is their way of expressing something much more fundamental to their being: a love of God that can brook no rival, no distraction. The renunciations of religious life, above all, the forgoing of marriage and family, are not a purely ‘functional’ response to a particular mission. They are a response to a love so compelling that no other love can take its place.

The Contemplative Orders — typically, monks and nuns — are also often disregarded because, perversely, they are not seen to do anything ‘useful’. Yet the Church has always prized her contemplatives because their work of prayer is at the heart of the Church’s mission. It may not seem to achieve anything; it may even seem a waste of time; but love is never wasted. There are no barriers prayer cannot overcome, no frontiers it cannot pass. But it takes courage to go on, day after day, living by faith, not seeing results but trusting in God to do what he wills through us.

The whole Church is called to be holy, to live in the closest possible union with her lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; but some are called to live out this universal vocation to holiness in a particular way, in priesthood or religious life. Therefore I have a challenge for those reading this post today. Is there anyone you know — perhaps yourself, perhaps a member of your family — who could, indeed should, spend a few moments in prayer asking the Lord whether he is calling them to priesthood or religious life? Is there anyone to whom a word of gentle encouragement could or should be spoken? For those of us who are priests and religious, there is the weightier challenge of leading lives that inspire others to follow in the same path; and that is one for every day of our lives, not just Vocations Sunday.

Note: there is a simple, light-hearted guide to the difference between religious sisters (active) and nuns (contemplatives) here.

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Vocations Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also the forty-ninth anniversary of the Church’s Day of Prayer for Vocations. Do you ever ask yourself what exactly are we praying for on Vocations Sunday? Even more importantly, do you ever ask yourself whom we are praying for?

I suspect most of us are praying for someone else. Our prayer is, may he or she have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. May their son or daughter respond to the Lord’s invitation. (In many cases, most definitely may it be their son/daughter, not mine!) Very few of us consciously advert to the fact that when we pray for vocations we must also pray for ourselves. Vocation isn’t a once-for-all call in the sense that once we answer we need do nothing more. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum reminds us that we wake every day to hear what the Lord asks of us, and it is always something new. Vocation is on-going for each and every one of us.

When it comes to what we are praying for, many of us are probably more muddled than we like to admit (I know I am). We believe, in some vague way, for example, that priests and religious are a useful part of the Church; at any rate, they have ‘always’ been there, so we don’t want to lose them now. We need priests to celebrate the Sacraments, and religious can always be relied upon to pray for us when times are hard. Having a few around is therefore a good idea, a kind of celestial insurance policy if you like (I exaggerate, of course). Have we forgotten that when the Lord Jesus likened himself to a shepherd, he was using some very tough imagery about himself? It  should remind us that following him can never be comfortable or easy, that holiness is not, so to say, for wimps. Those who follow the Lord as priests or religious need to have similar qualities — toughness, courage and resilience, above all a willingness to sacrifice self, as well as the gentler and more immediately attractive qualities of love and compassion.

I like to pray on this Sunday for the graces I myself need to follow my vocation as a Benedictine nun as well as the graces others need to follow theirs. Whatever our vocation, all of us are called to be part of the Church. Together we make up the Body of Christ, flawless in beauty and holiness, perfect in faith, hope and love.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail