Saturday, July 18, 2009
Life in the Convent
They go about the business of holiness matter-of-factly, their Catholicism and prayer never forced, but rather, a simple way of life that infuses every movement, every thought, every routine. The Sisters are not apart from God in any moment of the day so do not find it necessary to make loud ejaculations of praise or scripture quotation common to the secular world inhabited by people who almost wear desperation to appear to be Christian in every movement. In the convent, devotion to Our Lord is a given and does not need to be loudly announced; it is far more proper that devotion be quietly and sincerely lived.
The Sisters dwell in the House of the Lord, where here on earth they find that His mansion has many rooms, even as they strive to learn to love Him more deeply in every moment of every day. They work in relative silence, speaking in hushed tones when necessary so as not to disturb the interior conversations other Sisters may be carrying on with their beloved spouse, and each night they rest comfortably knowing The Lord awaits at the end of the corridor. The entire house sleeps, resting while awaiting the bell to toll the dawn that they may know to arise for another day in the vineyard of the King.
Many people believe the life of a religious Sister is mysterious and romantic and somewhere in their minds they conceive an idyllic lifestyle of mission bells and prayerful processions. They imagine a myriad of saintliness and ethereal holiness, incense and chant, stone cloister walks and perfect stillness. They imagine the serene contemplation of a Nun or a Monk at prayer, a person who spends hours upon hours doing nothing other than praying in a perfectly focused manner....and nothing could be further from the truth.
If religious life in either an active or contemplative community matched such a romanticized ideal, not the reality of the matter-of-fact life of a Religious, not a single human being would live up to it and it would simply not exist. In fact, if each and every person called to such a life had such a total deprivation of personality, who would ever pay attention to it?
I did not approach my own convent visit with any preconceived notions. My goal was to go, to experience, and to hopefully have the time to listen to God speak to me in the silence.
In reality, He spoke to me not just through prayer but through the personalities and generosity of the Sisters who welcomed me into their home. He did not speak to me through idyllic romance, but through labor and a regimented schedule that made me die to my own desires in order to live for the good of the community.
Every community has its own horarium, most are very similar in schedule, whether active or contemplative.
The first that I visited was an active community, very faithful, very traditional, (although not in the Latin-only sense. No doubt this will antagonize the more-Catholic-than-the-Pope crowd.)
For most of the year the Sisters arise at 5:20 am, but in the summer they are given a half-hour respite and the bell is delayed until 5:50 am. Mass is at 6:30 am.
Most days, I woke up early and catnapped until around 5:30 am or so, so rose and began to putz around my cell until the bell at 5:50. It was a loud clanging sound that would have woken the dead had the dead been buried within the convent itself. As a light sleeper, on the days I did not wake early, the bell made it necessary for me to peel myself off the ceiling and stop shaking before I could think coherently about what I was supposed to do in that 40 minutes before Mass.
The Novitiate dorm is on the 4th floor, and the showers were in the basement, but thankfully that wasn't an issue as each night I showered before bed. Given how hard we worked, that made perfect sense.
Instead I rushed to brush my teeth and dress for the day, and was usually in the chapel within 15 minutes of rising, giving me 20 to 25 minutes of private prayer before Mass.
Mass was offered by a priest from the Franciscans of the Immaculate, no homily (except for the Feast of St. Benedict and of course, on Sunday), and we received Communion while kneeling at the Communion rail. What a blessing!
After Mass was Morning Prayer followed by a half hour of meditation.
As soon as prayer ended, Sr. H. and I and the rest of the novitiate rose to leave the chapel in order to prepare for breakfast. We started dishes and helped to organize everything for both the professed and novitiate, then removed our aprons and went to the novitiate to await Mother K.
It is the custom of the community to wait, standing, in silence, for the Novice Director to arrive. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, prayer (in the novitiate) and breakfast are in silence. When she arrives, all make the sign of the Cross, and when all have completed the silent prayer, or, after completing the vocal prayers on the proper days, when Mother is seated, all are seated. If she stands, all stand and wait for her to be seated again.
The Sisters also had a way of passing food that goes back to the beginning of the Community. At that time they wore veils that included a "stovepipe" that inhibited peripheral vision. To overcome this, at meals they would pass food to the person in front of them, that person would pass the food off to the the next person across the table from them, very unlike our own custom of passing food to the person to our left or right. Even though they no longer dress in this manner they continue to remember their roots by passing food in the same tradition even though it is no longer necessary. It is a beautiful custom.
After breakfast the Sisters do dishes then head up to tidy their cells as they often don't have time to make the bed or put things away before Mass. From there they return to the chapel for Daytime prayer and spiritual reading, a total of around 30 minutes, maybe more, maybe less. The on to assigned work, which, for Sr. H. and I happened to be the bakery.
We made bread, cookies, prepared deserts and trays of food, etc. Break was at 10 am if we took a break, and at times the novices and postulants had meetings with the Novice Director or other duties. During those times I was given extra time in the chapel. On a normal day, though, rosary was at 11:35 am, and back to the bakery and kitchen to help dish up and serve lunch to the professed and wheel a cart to the novitiate out of anything that was left.
After lunch, it was again dishes and then recreation at 1 pm, for which we were often late due to cleanup duties. Often "recreation" was really time to do things like iron habits, do laundry or other things that would arise. It was back to work at 2 pm, or on to instruction if assigned. The afternoon also held time for prayer in the chapel, a break at 4 pm, and more work.
Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament took place at 4:30 pm, followed by rosary and evening prayer at 5 pm.
Each of the convents of this community has a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed. Also in each, a sister has been given the privilege of exposing and reposing the Blessed Sacrament, and this privilege is given by the local bishop in whatever diocese in which the convent resides. Therefore, even if Sr. A. in the Norwich CT diocese has that permission, if she goes to the Bridgeport CT diocese, she needs to have permission from that bishop.
Unfortunately, none of the convents, even the motherhouse, has an assigned chaplain, therefore this duty and privilege must fall to the Sisters themselves.
The priests who come for Mass at the Motherhouse are not chaplains, but assist the Sisters out of need and kindness in return for a kindness done to them when they needed assistance in the past.
After evening prayer is dinner, and again I was down in the bakery and kitchen to help serve. Dinner was always "pickup", served in the provision room on a large stainless steel table, the Novitiate serve last, but there was never a shortage of food. After dinner we cleaned up and went to the chapel for night prayer (compline), followed by evening recreation.
And again, although it was time for recreation, this was often more an opportunity for more work. One evening we moved things in the basement, my last evening we loaded bread into a car for the homeless shelter and moved the empty racks around the house and into the basement for storage.
Recreation was followed by lockup and a visit to the chapel, up to the 4th floor to change, down 4 floors to the showers, and back up 4 floors for a few minutes to cool off in stagnant warm air before the bell rang for lights out, not to be rung again until 5:50 am....
And speaking of the bell...I'll have to tell you about that a little more.....