Part 5 (the last) of my vocation story
Posted today, the Feast of the Transfiguration 2009
I arrive at Colwich
The day I arrived Mother Abbess said: “In a year you can make your Solemn Profession”! I thought: “That’s a bit quick, first let me transfer my stability and get used to being here!” I was afraid because I had made one mistake, I might make another. They always seemed to be in a rush to get you in for life!
By this time I was in my 40th year and, as our forebears delicately put it, entering my critical time of life. I also began to notice premature deafness in one ear.
I would not recommend anyone to start their monastic life at forty, but if the Lord calls, he will make it possible. Yet as St Benedict says, don’t pretend to them that it’s easy!
After a few months came four elderly nuns from a community that had closed down. There were 19 nuns plus me: a junior with her stability in another house, wanting to transfer. I felt insecure because they could have pulled me back there.
In the community there were some characters. For instance, Sister Agnes, a former lay Sister, who came to Mass and worked, but seemed otherwise almost a recluse. She met me soon after I arrived, in the sewing room. She caressed the back of her hand across my face and said in her strong Lancashire accent: “I hope you will be very happy here”. I hardly had another word from her, but I knew she was praying for me.
Transfer of Stability
After what seemed a long delay, I was allowed to transfer my stability. Dame Michael (Bursar) and I spent a happy morning messing about with sealing wax. Then after dinner the Abbess, Dame Michael and I signed the document in private, while on our knees (a tricky procedure now no longer used!) Then we sealed it, the only time I’ve ever known a document to be sealed here! At Chapter that afternoon the Abbess announced that I was now a member of the community, and would be known as Sister Benedict. They were all pleased, and it was one of the happiest days of my life.
As soon as I was safely a junior of Colwich, there was more talk of my Solemn Profession. I had to say I wasn’t ready, and I renewed my temporary vows for a year. (As I was only a novice for one year, I really had the same time to Solemn Profession).
My health had previously been strong but was affected by all this coming and going. Also I was still hoping the gaps in my instruction in Benedictine monastic life would be plugged. But it never happened. I was not in the Noviceship. Mother Abbess was instructing me herself, but of course she kept getting called away to the parlour and all the things Abbesses have to do. I again resorted to reading, and so am largely self-taught. No wonder if others find me “singular”! I read the inspiring history of the community and the writings of Father Augustine Baker.
The anniversary of my arrival at Colwich came round, and as I came out of choir one morning after making my prayer, the thought came spontaneously: Well, at least one thing is clear, I could make Solemn Profession. That same day, the Abbess called me in to ask if I had thought any more about making my Solemn Profession!
The day I got the votes in Chapter was another of the happiest days of my life. As I went round the nuns to give the sign of peace I saw some of them had tears in their eyes!
The actual Solemn Profession was an ordeal. I just had to learn the whole text and music off by heart. I made sure I did what was necessary for the validity of my vows, but I was glad when it was over.
I felt I never wanted to sing again! They tried making me a Chantress, but it didn’t work. It was years and years before I could take Hebdom and be a Chantress.
They also tried making me an Infirmarian, and that didn’t work either! I was a person who fainted at the smallest amount of b-l-o-o-d, and it seemed to gush forth frequently. I did look after the aforementioned Sister Agnes, who was not a recluse at all, in fact very sociable by nature, but deaf and almost totally blind and near 80 when I came to look after her. It was a challenge trying to find a way to communicate, and a meaningful occupation for her. She was highly intelligent, very spiritual, felt her dependence very much but knew how to offer it up. It was a very hard time, with the Abbess and my fellow Infirmarian ill, nuns dying every now and then, and three postulants who at length all proved not to have a vocation.
The End of the Beginning
It is 30 years since I entered monastic life and I am now 65. For half my monastic life I have been Cellerere (Bursar), which is according to my training and experience but can be quite distracting.
The day when I celebrated 25 years since my Clothing was another one of the happiest days of my life. It was great to be able to say:
I confirm with my whole heart, before God and his saints,
my vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience
according to the Rule of our holy father Benedict,
and I humbly ask God to renew me in spirit
according to the commitment I made on the day of my profession.