13 September 2011

A Taste of Monastic Life

Just to refresh your memory: before a woman officially enters a monastery, she usually makes a visit called an "aspirancy," which lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or even months. This visit, during which she stays inside the monastery's enclosure walls as a temporary member of the community, enables her to experience firsthand the monastic life, the customs and horarium (schedule) of that particular community; more importantly, it gives both her and the community a chance to determine whether or not she has a true monastic vocation, and whether she is a right fit for that community and vice-versa.

The following passages are taken from my journal.

25 February 2004

     Tomorrow I leave for Lufkin. I can't seem to sleep. Guess I'm too excited. Such a completely different life, a completely different world from the one I live in now! Most of my life has been spent working in a business in which everything depends on talent, praise, and criticism. You are either being judged, or you're judging someone else. Your job hangs on questions like, "How well does she play? Is she a 'conductor's pianist'; does she play 'orchestrally'? Does she know how to coach? Do the singers like her?" I suppose success in any profession depends on ability, talent -- in fact, that's one of the world's biggest truisms -- but that can get all confused with the person, and sometimes in dangerous ways. It seems to me that the focus on one's talents vs. shortcomings can become so intense as to cause that person to believe that those are the only criteria by which he/she is deemed valuable. Especially in today's society, where too often a person's job is his life.
     No, life can be better than that. Now that I know I am valuable in God's eyes, regardless of the gifts he's given me, I never want to settle for, or rely on, the opinions and judgment of men. If tomorrow I lose the use of my hands, I am still precious in his eyes. I no longer want to care about praise and admiration and applause. But I know, because I've cared about those things all my life, learning not to care will be the most difficult thing I'll ever try to do.
     I'm beginning to understand that this is part of what St. Catherine of Siena calls "true discernment" -- a knowledge of self, and how God works in you and through you; the honest appraisal of one's faults, the things that hinder one's quest for perfection and union with God.

1 March 2004, Lufkin

     I arrived at the monastery last Thursday around 12.30 -- a beautiful day, crisp and sunny. I was immediately taken by St. Mary Veronica to be fed in the guest dining room, but only after a few minutes I was summoned to the Peace Parlor to be greeted by Sr. Mary Annunciata (Prioress), Sr. Mary William, and Sr. Mary Jeremiah.
     The meeting in the parlor was brief. I was then escorted by Sr. Mary Veronica to the enclosure door. This was the moment I’d read about in so many nuns’ autobiographies! There, in a narrow hallway just beyond a small vestibule, was the majority of the community, lined up in 2 rows, faces smiling in welcome. I made my way through them, alternating from one side to the other, embracing each sister. Some, of course, I’d already met on my previous visits. I came to the only blue-clad figure among them, their postulant Adrienne. She just entered at the start of the year. She kept saying, “Oh, I’m so happy you’re here!” It must be very lonely, the first months as a postulant.
     After greeting everyone, I was shown into the oratory where I knelt before a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and Sr. Mary Annunciata said a blessing. Then the novices, Adrienne, Sr. Mary Jeremiah, Sr. Mary William, and Sr. Maria Cabrini took me through the main building, out along the cloister walk, and to the novitiate building for a “get-to-know-you” recreation, just the 8 of us. I was happy to see a grand piano in the novitiate’s community room. It’s a brown Aeolian in fair shape, but needs tuning and voicing badly. There was class in the afternoon (they have class every weekday except Wednesday, at 4). Right now we're studying the Gospel of John -- my favorite Gospel; I’m so glad!
     After supper, I went with the novices to work in the kitchen. My job was to help dry pots and pans and large utensils at the “pot sink.” Dishes, cafeteria trays, glasses, and silverware are washed in the “dish room,” which has one of those super-fast, restaurant-style dishwashers -- you fill up a big rack with dirty dishes, push them through a sort of mini-garage door; just a short couple of minutes later, ed ecco! Clean dishes, piping hot!
     Then evening recreation, this time with the whole community in the main building’s community room. That first evening, they had a “circle” recreation in my honor: all the sisters sat in a big circle with me and the Prioress, Sub-Prioress, and Novice Directress sitting at the top of it; I told them what I could about myself, and they asked lots of questions. Of course, they were extremely interested in my work and the world of opera.
     Friday I helped peel and core mounds of Granny Smith apples. Saturday mornings are devoted to housecleaning. My assignment was the novitiate's community room and computer room -- dust, vacuum, and mop. They of course use old-fashioned hand-wrung mops, Swiffers with their disposable mopcloths not being ecnomical and therefore not in accordance with the vow of poverty. Never mind the fact that hand-wrung mops can be very unsanitary!

     Monday morning, kitchen duty. I prepared toast points for dinner (their big midday meal), buttering the bread, topping each triangle with two kinds of cheese and a tomato slice, then Sr. Mary Thomas grilled them. I'm very good with assembly line work.
     After kitchen duty, I was taken to the laundry where I was shown by Sr. Mary Rose how to clean and vacuum the giant lint trap from their enormous dryer. The amount of lint that came out of that thing was enough to weave a whole set of sheets! Then I had to vacuum the very large laundry room. Someone needs to donate new vacuum cleaners to these sisters. The one in the novitiate looks to be circa the Viet Nam war. The one in the laundry ain’t much younger. Adrienne mopped the concrete floor after I vacuumed, then I helped fold and bring clean stuff back to the kitchen and novitiate. We finished with about 3 minutes to spare before Midday Prayer. I was famished! When we went in to dinner, I looked proudly at my beautiful toast points. . . .
     Meals are eaten in silence (except on special feast days and “picnic days”); as you eat, you listen to the reader who reads a biography of a saint, or a book or article on Church History, or something on the spiritual life, etc. In this way, you are feeding both mind and body. The refectory in a monastery is regarded as a holy place, because every meal taken there commemorates the Last Supper. Therefore, it is also one of the places where silence is generally kept, aside from the reading at meals.

4 March 2004

     I had a long talk with Sr. Mary Jeremiah about this and that -- what one does with one’s bank account, property, etc. before entering, and about visits and correspondence.
     You usually keep your bank account(s) open until you take vows, just in case things don’t work out and you leave the monastery. Upon entering, you bring a dowry (money) which is also kept aside until you take your final vows, again for security in the event you should leave. One doesn’t want to go back to the outside world without money! If you do take final vows, making you a cloistered nun for the rest of your earthly life, then you can close your accounts.
     The correspondence part I’m sort of disappointed about, being an avid letter writer. But postulants and novices can only write to friends a few times a year; to family, twice a month. Visitors (family and friends) can be received, except during Advent and Lent. If one’s family lives far away and can only come once or twice a year, they may stay (at a local hotel at the monastery’s expense) for two days, and a sister may spend the whole time (except for Mass and the Divine Office) visiting with them in one of the parlors; she may even take her meals there.
     We also talked about how much more difficult it is for someone my age to give up the world and enter into a hidden life. She was very reassuring and comforting: “God knows how much you’re giving up. And he wouldn’t ask you to make such a sacrifice if he didn’t think you’d be happy. We sometimes forget that he wants our happiness.”
     But this morning I couldn’t help thinking of all the things I’m giving up. As I took my morning stroll, pacing up and down the path to the cemetery, I thought of my life -- all I’ve accomplished, how much I have to give as an opera coach, how I’d never see the English countryside that I’ve wanted to see ever since I can remember; or Venice and Verona, which are more recent dreams. And so, after Mass, I prayed very hard to Jesus and Mary to help me fight these temptations and to remember always that the Spirit put this desire to be a nun in my heart for a reason -- his reason, not mine.

Part Two of my aspirancy coming soon. . . .


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