INQUIRIES ABOUT SISTERHOODS
The Work of Sisterhoods now recognized by the Church--Many Questions asked concerning their Interior Government and Life--Classes specially interested, Clergy, Parents, and Aspirants--The Information and Help the Book is intended to give.
SISTERHOODS have now for a long time been established in our Church. The first efforts were made more than forty years ago. The beginnings were marked by mistakes incident to all enterprises. Naturally, the mistakes called forth criticism, and the criticism did good. Growing slowly in consequence of opposition, the growth was the more healthful. As errors became rectified, prejudices passed away--commendation took the place of censure. First, the work done won its deserved applause; then, the life of consecrated service, which was the soul of the work, obtained commendatory recognition. The Church gradually approved of these Christian organizations, and a number of her bishops became formally connected with them. By all liberal-minded churchmen these facts will be welcomed as a great token of the present work of the Holy Ghost in our communion, for which they can but thank God and take courage.
Now that by God's fostering care Sisterhoods have come to be at home among us, so many questions are asked concerning them that it is believed a simple explanation of some of the fundamental matters respecting their organization and life will not be unacceptable to various classes of workers. Clergy are often desirous of knowing more about the various societies in order to reply intelligently to the inquiries of parishioners. Parents and others having children or friends contemplating entering Sisterhoods naturally desire all the information they can obtain about the life. There is also another interested class. "Am I called to this life? Is it my vocation? Is it my duty to seek to enter it now? Am I fitted for the work of this or that Sisterhood? What ought I to do in the matter? What steps must I take to enter a Sisterhood, if that is my duty?" These are questions which agitate not a few earnest souls, and sometimes needlessly distress them. Sometimes the idea is but a temporary fancy, the result of some disappointment or momentary enthusiasm. Sometimes the idea which flits before the imagination is very different from the reality, and what the person desires is not the Religious Life at all. Sometimes the vision of that life in all its stern reality but persuasive loveliness is clearly seen, but the soul is greatly perplexed by a seeming conflict of duties, and knows not how to decide between them. Sometimes the desire to devote itself unreservedly to the Master's service has sprung up in the soul, like the good seed, one scarcely knows how, and aid is desired to know if the call be indeed from God, and if so, how it is to be obeyed.
The soul's maturing judgment becomes gradually conscious of its own needs, or it hears a voice breaking in suddenly on its life which seems to say: "The Master hath come, and calleth for thee"--but its own unworthiness makes it shrink back, or its lack of courage makes it afraid. How often are heart and conscience, will and judgment, the theatre of a struggle as real and intense as ever Roman amphitheatre saw. For whenever there is a true call from God, there is conflict without and within. Only those who have felt it can fully declare it. The opposition of friends is not needed to make the conflict painful. The voice of God rouses into activity all the powers of evil. When the child would come to Christ, "the devil threw him down and tare him." We cannot here enter into the matter of duty to one's vocation, yet we would ask, in passing, the indulgence and sympathy of parents and friends for any son or daughter thus tried.
To help all interested in the subject, and especially these three classes, is the purpose of this little book. It is important that aspirants should know, as far as they possibly can without living it, what the life really is, that they be not afterward disappointed. It is for the best interests of the life, that those who are not fitted for it should be kept out of it. It is doing God's work to help those truly called by Him to know His will and how to do it.
It is important for parents, if their children wish to enter Sisterhoods, to understand what the life is, that they may discuss the matter intelligently. An unwise opposition based on theological prejudices, or misrepresentations, or premises which the daughter's mind rejects, only makes her desire more intense. She knows the Sisterhood life is recognized in our Church, believes it to be scriptural, and may feel called to this service. A Christian parent will recognize the right of a Heavenly and Supreme Father to call his child into such fuller service as He sees fit. He may be able to recognize such a call as an honour done himself, but wishes to secure his child's true welfare, and so naturally seeks some reasonable assurance that his child is fitted for the life and will be happy in it. He wants to know under what stipulations his daughter enters a Sisterhood; whether she may at any time leave it if she finds it unsuited to her; what are the rules respecting her intercourse with her family; what rights she may have over her property, present or prospective; what work she will be obliged to do, and whether it is such as her health will permit; what her surroundings will be, and whether she will find that sympathy and affection in her society, as well as abiding interest in her work, which are the guarantees of a happy as well as a useful life.
And it is hoped there may be something in these suggestions to help the clergy to a better understanding of the subject. The utility of Deaconesses and Sisterhoods in our Church has been generally recognized. But beyond the work done by the Sisters the clergy in general know but little. When consulted by a parishioner as to the duty of such self-consecration, they have no very settled convictions as to what constitutes a vocation or by what tests it may be known. Sometimes with the utmost conscientiousness they advise persons to enter Communities whom they should have known were unsuited to a Community life. Sometimes they wisely hesitate to advise from superficial knowledge of the work and life of the different Sisterhoods. Of course, there are some clergy who feel it their duty on principle to discourage any who should apply for advice, believing that sisterhoods, monks, and monasteries belong to medievalism, or had a pagan origin, or are founded on a false notion of asceticism, or that they are anti-scriptural, or that they lead to Rome, or that, however they may have been of benefit to the Church of the past, they are now useless.
It is a trite enough saying that there is no prejudice like theological prejudice; but, after all, theological prejudice often has a good motive, and it has a very respectable pedigree, and ought, at least by the clergy, to be treated in a kindly spirit. If the principles of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood life have not Christ for their founder, but were adopted into Christianity from paganism; if they are the embodiment of a false asceticism, or are a practical denial of our justification by faith through the merits of Christ's one Atoning Sacrifice; if they are necessarily part of the evils which the Reformers protested against and the Reformation abolished, they ought to have no encouragement whatever in the Church, and surely would not have it. We should not find an Archbishop of Canterbury the visitor of one of the largest Sisterhoods in England, and the Bishop of Oxford of another, and Bishops in Scotland and in the United States founding and fostering them. Most of the clergy feel this, and yet they want to know something more about the details of Sisterhood life in order intelligently to reply to those who consult them, and to send them to those Sisterhoods for which they are best fitted, and where the Church will receive the most benefit from their services.
Perhaps the best and fairest way to help clergy, parents, and aspirants will be, before giving any arguments in favour of the Religious Life or trying to show its scriptural character or present usefulness, to recount some of the main facts to be known about Sisterhoods, their mode of government and internal life, and let persons judge for themselves.
It may, perhaps, seem like plunging in medias res if we first describe how one enters a Sisterhood and becomes a Sister, but it will answer some questions which are always the first to arise either in the minds of the parents, or of the aspirants for admission.