From Sister Benedict: This is Part 3 of my Vocation Story
So I set out to stay at two Benedictine houses, in heavy snow, travelling by public transport and without cigarettes. I foolishly thought I could change my whole future on the basis of a weekend’s acquaintance.
Monastery of A
When I arrived at the Monastery of A, I rang the bell for ages and walked round the outside, thinking this was because the Rule of St Benedict said not to give newcomers an easy entrance. In fact, it was accidental, and happened to me at more than one place: the buildings are large, the communities small!
When I did come face to face with the nuns, I was quite overwhelmed by the warmth of their welcome. I was immediately inside the enclosure, and so experienced life as the nuns were living it, at least in the middle of heavy snow. It was wonderfully quiet, nothing was happening except Mass, Divine Office etc. No one was there except the community. I got up at an unearthly hour, and experienced psalms sung on one note, and did not get a modest breakfast until after Mass, by which time I was almost faint from cold and hunger. But smiling!
I read, I cut out labels for the Gift Shop (which was closed), I did a bit of cleaning in the Guest House (which was also closed). The charming old Superior talked to me and I went to Recreation, but apart from that I kept a Trappist silence and was like a hermit in my austere cell. I thought it was wonderful.
As I departed, the Superior gave me a bar of chocolate and a holy picture and her blessing. I was won over.
Monastery of B
On my weekend visit to B I found that I had walked into the pages of In This House of Brede, the novel by Rumer Godden! So I knew I had to keep my wits about me. I was lodged in a guest house, and the only time I saw any nuns was when I went up through the snow to the parlours for one to one interviews. I had to answer their searching questions, and one young nun told me they all had to take a turn at being Hebdom, leading the singing. Well I thought that was no good for me. I could sing, but never on my own! I assisted at their Office and Mass and it was beautiful if distant: the nuns were not seen.
I told no one what I was up to. I read the autobiography of Thomas Merton, in the version called Elected Silence. I started to live as much as possible according to the timetable of Monastery A, rising early to read psalms, going to daily Mass, switching off the radio which until then was my great resource.
A sentence from one of Merton’s books stuck in my mind: “Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle, which we must solve in one guess or perish” (From No Man is an Island, chapter 8, on Vocation).
I very quickly decided and wrote to the superior of A to ask to enter as a postulant.
I then informed my parents, and was shocked to find them very hostile. It was like living in some appalling novel.
I made a second visit to A at Easter, by which time the place was full of guests and the nuns were singing flat. I gave up smoking.
First Steps as a Nun
When I entered A, the postulants were not very enclosed. I wore black clothes but I was sent out for shopping. For the year as a novice I was strictly enclosed, wrote no letters, went nowhere. The elderly superior was also the novice and junior mistress. What I enjoyed most was hearing her anecdotes. But often she came late, because of other business, and I gradually read myself into a do-it-yourself noviciate. Most striking was The Life of Anthony by St Athanasius, that classic of eremitical life which launched a thousand monastic vocations. At A the noviciate, whether by accident or design, was scarcely separated from the professed. At that time silence was observed at night and in church, but not a lot more in practice.
When the time for first vows came, I privately entertained doubts, but thought to myself: “Three years is not a long time”. I was wrong!
As soon as I had donned the black veil, I was put to work in the very busy guest house. The shock after the enclosed novice year was considerable.
End of part 3! (You may wonder what this has to do with Colwich – hopefully, all will be revealed in part 4)