Okay, I was Single for a really long time, and none of my crush objects fell for me in high school, so even when I was nineteen I hated people asking me if I had ever considered being a nun. I felt extremely cheesed off, as if what these people, arms entwined around the waists of spouses or partners in at least minor sexual sins, were saying was, "Listen, we all know you'll never get a man, so why not just give up now?"
HOWEVER I am just back from a weekend spent visiting an enclosed order of nuns, and I would be really furious with everyone, including my teenage self, who spoke, thought or acted like nun life is second-rate, were I not so blissed out from being around such beauty from Friday Vespers until after Saturday Vespers.
B.A. and I were at the abbey to see a blogger-pal, once known online as Boeciana, take her final vows as a Benedictine and to sneak a peak at our other blogger-pal Berenike, who disappeared behind the big wooden doors a year ago without so much as a party or a "toodle-oo!" Lots of other people wanted to see them, too, so forty or so ordinary non-professed types crowded into the people's tiny transept in the abbey church.
The abbey church is set up so that ordinary non-nun layfolk can access the church by an outside door. We sit in this aforementioned transept, and so look at the altar sideways. The altar is on a platform in the sanctuary, which priests can get to by going through the gate in the low black altar rail in the people's transept. The sanctuary is divided from the nave, which is enclosed and thus just for the nuns, by a tall screen of ornate black metal bars. This tall screen has gates, too. The nuns process into the nave through big wooden doors to the convent. The priests can't go into the nave. They give communion from the sanctuary.
Essentially, we were all in an inverted L shape, with a place in the church assigned to everyone according to our state in life. The priest or priests and any altar server can see the nuns, but the public can see them only if we cleverly snaffle the pews on the far left of the mini-transept, and then we can see them only as they come through the convent doors. They then disappear somewhere out of view of the transept, and the most beautiful Gregorian chant you have ever heard in your puff rings out from the nave.
Women who have a hankering to be priests could be cured, I think, if they attended the Office or Mass in this Benedictine convent because, my goodness gracious me, talk about "women's active participation." Whew! Obviously, one has to pay attention when the priest or bishop is speaking and to the Canon, but when the nuns sing, it is like a visitation of angels.
Naturally the Benedictines at this abbey all wear proper Benedictine habit of black robes and white wimples, with black veils on the professed nuns, and white veils on the novices. They have brown leather belts and black slippers. Most of them wear glasses and look about nineteen, unless they are over 60, in which case they look perhaps 45. And also at this Abbey, even thought it is not an Old Rite sort of place, all the Offices and Mass and the Professions are in Latin. (We the people are provided with programs with both Latin and English.) The nuns are all taught how to sing, and sing they do with the sweetness and clarity of silver bells. It is their principal job, after all.
The Profession, i.e. the Sister who used to be Boeciana taking her final vows, was more beautiful, holy, dignified and joyful than any wedding I have ever seen in my life. Really, I am on the brink of floods of tears thinking about it now. The gates of the sanctuary were opened, and the Bishop sang (not too well, but you know how it is): "Veni, filia, audi me, timorem Domini docebo te." (Come, daughter, listen to me, and I will teach you fear of the Lord.)
And then the most beautiful female voice I had ever heard, sang the Latin for "Now with all my heart I follow You; it is You I fear, and Your face I long to see. Oh Lord, do not disappoint me; deal with me gently and according to the greatness of your Mercy."
And then there there came into the sanctuary a tall, slim nun with glasses, a white veil and a lit candle, with two nuns with black veils as attendants, looking expectantly at the bishop. Her song was so plaintive that I was surprised that, when the Bishop asked her (in Latin) if she wanted to be "more intimately consecrated to God by the bond of the monastic profession," her "Volo" was so strong and confident. Indeed, it was almost droll. I remembered then that this particular nun had gone to Oxford and later got a doctorate in history.
Her spoken responses and vows were clear and confident; her sung prayers were super-feminine--really, it was a devastating combination. And then there was the Rite of Consecration of Virgins, which most definitely emphasized that virginity is beautiful and not a burden or a joke, and the sister-who-was-Boeciana lay down flat on her face like a priest being ordained while everyone except the Protestant guests sang the Litany of the Saints.
Now at that moment, my happiness for the Sister-who-once-was-Boeciana, who was radiant and had been smiling with pure joy, was shot through a bit with regret for Seraphic-who-used-to-be-a-virgin-herself. Fortunately, I didn't cease to be one until the first time I was married, although I made out like a bandit, alas, alas, nobody told me it was wrong, etc. However, it still seems all a bit of a shame and a waste, especially as I never had any children, and it would have been a lot better to have been where the sister-who-was-once-Boeciana was lying now. Obviously the older and more worldly I got, the less of a good fit I was for a Benedictine convent, but that is entirely my own fault. Fortunately, Benedict Ambrose was right beside me, so I wasn't too sad. If you end up a divorced-and-annulled sardonic storyteller like me, a nice husband like Benedict Ambrose is an amazing gift displaying the great mercy and generosity of God. I really have no right to complain for myself ever again.
So I was not overwhelmed with regret, just a tiny bit ticked off that nobody told me or, at least, that nobody outside of a book every told me that a traditional Benedictine profession is more beautiful than a wedding, and that every Catholic teenage girl should at least visit a cloistered community of Catholic nuns to see if she is attracted to their life. Heaven knows how many women long for men's love only because we are told over and over again that there is nothing better than that in this whole world, except maybe the love of children. Meanwhile, there was a child in the transept being noisy and naughty throughout the Mass and Profession, a wonderful reminder that marriage and children are not without headaches. Indeed, some young mother or father didn't get to see as much as she or he wished, for the howls disappeared outdoors--in the rain.
How it rained! And how cold was the visitors' hallway! There the priests, monks, marrieds and singles stood around eating a buffet lunch and waiting for it to be time for the "Festive Recreation." The Benedictine nuns, being cloistered, were having their own lunch in the mysterious depths of the convent, and didn't make an appearance until after 2 PM. At some point the doors to the visitors' half of the "Large Parlour" were opened, and I caught sight of some jolly nuns waving and smiling at me from behind the grille--not mesh like a confession grille, but tall, gilt-painted bars set into a waist-height wooden wall, sort of like at an old fashioned bank. So I zipped in and tried to catch the eye of white-veiled Berenike and, failing, chatted with Sister Mary D--, who had read my "The Flyer's Ring" and possibly even "The Bodis Riper," gracious.
Eventually the other people of the world crowded in, and we sat and watched the Festive Recreation through the bars. The sisters read us poetry and comic monologues, sang songs and played instruments. And when the little show was over, there was a rush to the grille, as if two lots of iron filings flying to the sides of a magnet, and a long line of nuns chatted eagerly with an eager crowd of world. The nuns all looked very well and happy. I can't decide, though, if this is because they always look like that, or because seeing such a big crowd of old friends and new people was a hilarious treat. Still, the nun-who-was-once-Boeciana has been there for about six years, and she was obviously eager to promise to spend the rest of her life there, so I suspect they usually look like that.
Such hand-shakings, and face-kissings, and news-exchangings! After all our travels, I was feeling very tired, so eventually I just sat and gazed at my two nun friends, especially Berenike, whom I love so much, and at other visiting friends, whom I see so rarely. The two sisters were allowed to stay as long as they liked, so we got to see and talk to them until shortly before Vespers, when off they flew.
And then some of us visitors left, but many of us stayed for Vespers and, for Benedict Ambrose and I, last glances (for now) at our friends and to hear the nuns sing so beautifully. This time, I recognized the other sisters, too, and recollected little bits of information I had got from them. One of the younger sisters had not gone to university, but had entered at age 19. An older one had entered 12 years ago, after working as a secretary. Another young one had, I think, gone to the University of Saint Andrews and entered after graduation. I wished I had asked more of them what they had done before they entered, so that I could tell all of you.
For here comes the pitch. I love B.A. and I like being married, and I have a pretty easy life because B.A. is so generous and easy-going. But I recognize that it is a very worldly life, especially because we haven't been given any children to sacrifice for. We don't make a lot of money, so we don't have worldly hobbies: our wild vacation paradises are Kraków and Rome where we spend a goodly amount of time in churches, as you can imagine. We both feel lucky that we managed to meet each other, and this was literally because Boeciana and Berenike read my blog and became my friends, which is to say, the intercession of the sort of women who become nuns. We know perfectly well that we are not as good as the most God-centred of our friends, and we are very lucky that they like us so much.
I think it would be awesome if more young women had the encouragement to at least VISIT a community of cloistered nuns. Everybody in the universe encourages you to do this or that to attract a husband, but the best husband any woman could ever have is the Man who is wedded to us, the Church. And all you have to do to attract this Man, is to pray to Him and strive to do His will. And if you think you would enjoy a life of praising Him and living with women who think the same way you do--not to mention living in a beautiful place where the ugliness of modern life can't get you--then I encourage you to follow up on this feeling in a concrete, active way.