HOW TO ENTER A SISTERHOOD
Not an easy thing to become a Sister--How Admission should be Sought-- Some Signs of Unfitness--Need of a Community Spirit--The Preliminary visit to the Sisterhood--Postulancy, its Duration and Work--Election of the Novice, when and how--The Training in the Novitiate--The various kinds of Work done by the different Sisterhoods--In those given to Spiritual Work much Study of the Bible Recommended--Wisdom of a long Novitiate--Some Considerations moving a Parent to allow his Daughter to make Trial of her Vocation--Questions arising concerning the Use and Disposal of the Property of the Novice.
IT is not such an easy thing to become a Sister as the world imagines. The doors of a well-regulated Sisterhood swing open with comparative ease to those within seeking egress, but are opened slowly, and only after long and patient waiting, to those without. The reason is obvious. The Sisters form a family. They would like to have it increase by admissions, but it is of greater importance whom they admit. They know that nothing more disturbs its harmony than to have one in the family whose heart is not in the Life. Such a one is not only a misery to herself, but a source of misery to all the others. The Sisters also feel their life to be a united tribute of holy consecrated service, and a bad Religious mars the offering to God. Therefore, most Sisterhoods are strict respecting admissions. The door opens slowly from without. A good Sisterhood, it has been said, will reject about one-third of its applicants. For one seeking admission the usual course would be to write to the Mother Superior or Chaplain, making known her wishes and giving some reference, if she be unknown to the Sisterhood. She should write frankly about herself, and her circumstances, stating how long she has had the desire for the Sister's life, and how it had come into her mind. She will be counselled to examine herself still further about the matter and instructed how to do this. She will be informed very frankly of the difficulties of the Life, in order that any fanciful illusions about it may be dissipated. If she has not laid the matter before her parents she will be told to do so. Ordinarily, on first writing she can but say she desires to give herself wholly to God's service, and has prayerfully considered the matter. She may have no real fitness for the Life. She may be unsuited by reason of her feeble health or inherited tendency to an unsound mind, or by an hysterical or melancholy temperament, or by some unconquered evil habits, or be unfit by reason of her want of education. She may be a person of refinement and devotion, or possessed of great practical abilities, and nevertheless be unsuited for a Community life. For it is not to be taken for granted that every, even exceptionally, devout person, however free from duties, is fitted to be a sister. She may, from age or fixed devotional habits and opinions, or because she is of excitable or over-sensitive temperament, be better suited to serve God or grow in holiness alone or at home than in a Religious House. Great strength of character and great intellectual gifts when accompanied with much self-esteem make a dangerous combination which every Sisterhood would do well to avoid.
The Community spirit is part of the gift of a true vocation. In its primary Christian elements it is the same spirit that gives brightness and happiness to home life. It is seen in the power of adapting one's self to others; the bearing with the infirmities of age and the exactions of youth; the art of not giving or taking offence; the cheerful bearing with little discomforts; the happy faculty of making things go smoothly in the household. It is because the cheerfulness which comes from unselfishness, and is often gay and social and society-loving, has in it the grand elements of a Community spirit that, to the surprise of the world, more of this class become good Religious than those whose temperament is naturally more devotional but whose devotion is full of self and self-love. Superiors are keenly alive to this and similar deficiencies which mark unfitness for the Life. The applicant is not usually aware of them herself. They do not appear in her letter of application. They are perhaps unknown to her parents and friends, so that often the wisest thing a parent can do is to give, to a daughter who desires to join one, the permission to visit a Sisterhood. This will often settle the matter by dissipating the previously-formed erroneous ideas concerning the Life and its work. If, however, after her experience as a visitor she is desirous of remaining as a postulant and obtains permission, the Superior of the Sisterhood may allow her to do so.
There is much difference in the various Sisterhoods as to the length of time one may remain in this latter position. In the Roman Church it is often but a month or two, and in some Anglican Sisterhoods it is a brief period. The opinion of the writer is that great care should be taken in this matter, and that, as it is better to err on the side of caution, the time should be six months or more. During this time, parents will be glad to know, the probationer assumes no religious habit. She is, of course, free to write to them, and free at any time to return home. Her duties are simple. Her time is occupied partly in charitable work, partly in devotion and study. She is now also fully instructed in all matters relating to the rule of life and the duties of a Sister of the Community. If at the end of her postulancy she still desires the Life, she is, with the consent of the Superior and Chaplain, put up for election as a Novice. By this election the sisters have an opportunity of passing their judgment on the fitness of the person. In some Communities the Sisters have no vote or voice in the matter, the power of reception being with the Superior, who acts from personal knowledge and the report she receives from the Mistress of the Novices. Sometimes, by its constitution, on account of the great size of the Community, the number of electors is limited to a council, or to a class called the Senior Professed. But in most Sisterhoods in our Church all the Sisters, who have had an opportunity of knowing the postulant, express their opinion in the solemn way of an election made after prayer; the votes being placed in sealed envelopes and laid on the altar. Such an election is a great protection against any error of judgment by any of the parties. It protects the Sisterhood, and, if she be duly elected, it is a guarantee to the parent of his child's fitness, and to the aspirant of her calling to the Life.
The novitiate lasts about two years. The training in each Sisterhood must, of course, correspond with its own object, spirit, and work. All are good and all of God; but there are various flowers in His garden, and many ways in which souls may glorify Him. Religious Communities are divided into two classes, those distinctly of a contemplative and those of an active character. The Sisterhoods in our Church, with some few exceptions, are but little enclosed, and are engaged in active work; and yet a further division may be noticed since, by common consent, good works done for our Lord have been classified as corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These characteristics must, therefore, somewhat influence, in our Sisterhoods, not only the degree of enclosure enjoined by the rule, but the spirit of the Life, and also the training of the Novice.
When the plan of the Sisterhood embraces such works as secular schools, the care of the sick, and the like, then this external work must have a prominent place in the education of its members. Perhaps the Novice must go into the public hospitals or into those under the care of the Sisters to be trained as a nurse; or, if need be, prepare herself by a course of study to be a teacher. To do her work well, she must be a practical person well educated in her specialty. She will also receive instruction from the Mistress of Novices in the spiritual life and its outward discipline, in the practice of daily self-examination, and in the making of meditation, or the first degree of mental prayer. Ordinarily, one day in the month is given her for a day of retirement and prayer; and yearly, a retreat of several days is given to all the sisters by a special conductor. But in the very active orders the time prescribed for devotion by the Professed Sisters must be controlled by the work to be done, and the devotional habits which might be suited to a Carmelite are out of place in the life of a Sister of Charity. Yet she is to be as truly a religious as those who by their rule are more enclosed. She is to be filled with the spirit of devotion and to carry it out into her work. Her cell is found in the hospital, the school, by the bedside of the dying. She seeks Christ in His poor, she ministers to Him in supplying their needs. Work is therefore, for her, prayer, and sometimes must take its place.
Each variety of the Life is dear to God, and all is done for His glory. The active and the contemplative spirit are alike the creation of His grace. St. Peter and St. John run together to the Holy Sepulchre, and work together the first miracle at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. But these elements combine in various degrees in our Sisterhoods, and the -predominance of either gives the Community its special character. The lines of work and rules of life are, so to speak, set in different keys. This might charitably be remembered by those who are quick to criticise.
When a Sisterhood leans rather to spiritual than to corporal charity, aiming to aid the parochial clergy, not only as dispensers of the Church's alms, but in their labour for souls, a different course of instruction is necessary for the Novice. She must be taught, not only, as above, the things pertaining to her own spiritual life, but also Christian doctrine, and be trained especially to study Holy Scripture. The great lack of an interest in God's word among so many Christians makes this a special duty of our times, and one to which these Sisters should energetically devote themselves. They ought to know, and know well, their Bible. They must therefore give time to its study, not only for their own growth in holiness, but in order the better to teach the Faith to others. The multiplicity of devotional books in our day must not draw us aside from that Word in which God reveals His mind, and wherein the highest examples of saintliness are to be found. As in mediaeval times the illumination of the Gospel manuscripts expressed the value of the Scriptures as the jewels of the Church, we may express our esteem for them by diligent and prayerful study; and therefore, in a Sisterhood devoted to mission work, such study must form a large portion of the training of the Novice.
So much for the novitiate. No Christian parent, having as he does the best interests of his children at heart, but should be glad that a daughter of his may receive such a training, even if she does not eventually become a full Sister--a training that can but make her love her Bible and her Saviour more.
As to the length of the period of probation, while the Novice may at times be impatient at the delay, parents are never found either to question the wisdom of a long novitiate or to be unwilling to recognize its benefit. Sometimes, indeed, the clergy do so. The reason of this is that clergy want assistance in their parishes, or have hospitals or schools, which they desire to place under the care of Sisters, and urgently petition the Communities for help. They do not understand that time is required to make a Sister. Sometimes persons write to ask for the rules of a Sisterhood, thinking that it is not a difficult task to form one, and all that is needed is the receipt. It is certainly easy to write some rules, to draft a constitution, to adopt a dress, but, according to the old saying, "It is not the cowl that makes the monk."
A Sister is not a mere church officer or a church worker giving her life to charitable labour. There is a large number of excellent Christian workers in our parishes who do much good and acceptable service for Christ's sake. But the chief value of a Sister's work comes from her trained Christian character. It is not the good deeds accomplished, but her hidden life with God, which should shine through all she does. And for the formation of such a character not only time is needed, and prayer, and Sacraments, and spiritual books, and a parish priest's aid, but the atmosphere of a Religious House, the intercourse with those striving like herself after holiness, the daily discipline of the Life and Rule, and especially the training under one able to fill rightly the office technically known as the Mistress of Novices. A person fitted for this position by her own life and Christian experience, by her balance of character, her tender firmness and her loving sympathy, by her power of spiritual discernment, and her needed intellectual gifts, is indeed rare. Yet it is only under such influences that the sister's character can be formed. If clergy are desirous for the help of Sisters in their parishes, their best course will be to seek out postulants and send them to some Sisterhood to be trained, and patiently wait until the Sisterhoods are able to meet the needs of the Church. It is the far wiser as it is the more self-sacrificing course; for while a well-trained and well-instructed Sister is a help to the Church, a poorly prepared one is not. The world and the Church sharply criticise Sisters, and it is but right they should do so; but if they expect much, time and great care must be given to the development of their spiritual character.
This is best for the Church, and it is also for the Sister herself. On coming to a Community she but little knows herself. It is one of the surprises of the novitiate that faults which were unperceived in the home life appear. They were hidden either by the loving idolatry of home affection, which so blinds us to ourselves, or were elements of weakness in her character, which the Religious Life brings out to view, as the warmth of the fire brings out the words written on the old parchment in invisible ink. The novice is always thankful in the end that her novitiate is not shortened, and that she has learned to be still and hidden and wait on God. By the long delay she not only obtains a better knowledge of the life and of herself, but, best of all, a new and blessed experience of the love and restoring power of her Lord. If rightly used, her novitiate will enable her to conform to His dear will as to her future, whatever it may be. She will have learned to rest on it, as the birds in mid-ocean, when weary in their flight, learn to repose on the rising and falling wave. She learns to abandon her will to His, and let Him choose for her, content to serve Him as He, by His will, manifested in His external providence as well as by His inward call, may determine. And so, when the two or more years of the novitiate are ended, she may solemnly express her deliberate choice, and the Sisters again give their judgment on the case by an election, requiring for her reception that a two-thirds vote of the Community be in favour of her admission.
The very careful manner in which a vocation is thus tested ought to be considered by a parent whenever a daughter feels that she is called by God's Holy Spirit to enter the Religious Life. He must feel agitated by various emotions, and is liable to be influenced by both good and bad motives. Sisterhoods may have received the Church's approval, may have had his own, yet the matter looks very different when any one so near as a daughter desires thus to devote herself to God. Wrong notions of the life, of its rules, or of the character of those who enter, may influence him. He may find his hopes and plans disarranged by her choice. He may feel his self-love wounded that she should desire something so out of sympathy with his own line of life. But he may look upon the matter from a higher point of view. It requires, indeed, much strength of mind to throw off inherited prejudices, and considerable greatness of character to put aside one's own interests and consider solely another's welfare; but he may do this. Rightly he may feel it a sacrifice on his part, which, however, for the best good of his child he is willing to make; yet he very properly wishes to have some reasonable security that the call of the child is really from God, and that the life will be the best and happiest one for her. This the long novitiate and double election of the sisters will provide.
Now, he cannot assume to measure the desires of her nature by those of his own. What is unseen by him may be a clear vision in the mirror of her unsullied mind. What does not awaken in him any response toward God may be the breath of the Spirit moving upon heartstrings drawn by prayer to a more sensitive tension and vibration to things divine. What seems a life most unattractive to him may be to her filled with the beauty of the promised land. What is especially distasteful and repellant to him may be to her the life and food of the soul. Whatever we do, let us not measure others' needs by our own experience, or by our own limited desires and aspirations. The truth shines out in the face of our common humanity, that each soul is a separate creation of God. Thanking God that He has thus made us different, and for different places in His kingdom, let us not by our narrow selfishness hinder His work. If God has crowned our life with success, enriched it with temporal, or, better, with spiritual gifts, let us not think He can make others happy only in the same way. All trials call for greatness of soul, and so must this of a daughter's choice of life. But with whatever nobleness of soul or generosity of affection a parent may regard the matter, it is right and his duty to ask: Is this notion a passing one? Is she not acting in ignorance of herself and of the Religious Life? Does she as yet really know herself and the needs of her own soul? Has she the health for this kind of life, or the life in this or that especial Sisterhood? Now, the fact of there being a very long probation is a most important one, and one which should have great weight. In what other way of life is such an opportunity offered of previous trial? How many make mistakes in their plans for education, or in their choice of business or profession. How much misery is caused by the injudicious selection of a partner. How many married unions are sources of painful discord and strife. What a number of lives are thus blighted and sorrow-stricken, and for how many the beauty and hope and grace of life is dead!
Very different is the mode of entering on the Religious Life in any wisely established Sisterhood. There must be, as we have seen, a long preliminary trial made of the Life before one is accepted. It must be, by the applicant, fully known and tested before she is allowed to commit herself. It will therefore be entered upon "advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God." And very different, consequently, is the result. No legal restraints lie in the way of any leaving when they please, and yet few ever do so. The most careful and impartial inquiry made in Religious Houses reveals the shining fact that there is no body of women so universally contented and constantly happy in their lot as Sisters.
The question whether a person has a vocation, and how it may be recognized, will be discussed farther on; but if, after patient waiting and prayer, the aspirant feels convinced of it, any parent might be able to say, in view of the long trial allowed: Though I do not sympathize with your wishes, yet a trial can do no harm, and I will not stand in the way of your making the experiment.
Before going farther into the details of the Life, it may be well to speak here of a matter connected with the entrance of the postulant which always presents itself to her and to her parents or friends. What dowry, or pecuniary aid, must the Sister bring to the Community?
The rules about this differ in the various Sisterhoods, and it would be well that parents should obtain full and definite information from the Superior about all questions relating to their child's present and prospective possessions, before her entrance.
Sisterhoods are supported in different ways. Some make appeals to the Church public. Some gain considerable income from secular schools or their own private hospitals. Some send out members to beg for the Community. Some are aided by the private contributions of their Associates, who are living in the world. Of course there must be some provision made for the maintenance of the society, and it is but reasonable that each member should contribute, if able to do so, to its support. In most Sisterhoods, however, no one need be deterred from applying because she is without worldly means. Many Sisterhoods ask no more than that the applicant bring an earnest desire to devote herself to Christ, and a disposition which fits her for Community life. If, however, she can make some offering for the common support, she should do so. The danger of seeking wealth should be strictly shunned. The words of the Apostle should be ours: "We seek not yours, but you." In order to maintain the freedom and equality which belong to the members of a family, and also that hidden-ness which is so beautiful a characteristic of the Christian life, the amount given by each member is made known to the Superior only.
But the further questions may arise in the parent's mind: If his daughter have some property, is she obliged to give this up to the Sisterhood should she eventually join it? What control would she have over it? What disposition might she make of any of which she might become possessed subsequently to her profession? These and all like questions should be asked of the Superior, or of those in charge of the Sisterhood. It is not in the power of the writer · to answer them fully. There has, we know from history, been a danger on the part of Religious Houses in seeking to acquire property beyond what is needed for their daily support and the maintenance of their work. One great cause of the Reformation lay in the worldliness and greed of the Church at that time. Let us hope the lesson has been successfully learned, at least for ourselves, and that religious societies will severely keep themselves from all liability of future censure. It is believed that the rules of all our Sisterhoods are framed with the desire to avoid worldliness, and with careful regard to the interests of all.
There are three things to be considered on the part of the Sisterhoods--its own maintenance and work, the equality of the members of its family, the preservation of an unworldly spirit that does not grasp at wealth. On the part of the aspirant, or her parents, it is necessary that they should see that, at least during the time of probation, the Novice shall not part with her property; and that, when Professed, she shall be free to dispose of her capital by will, or otherwise, according to the claims of duty.
These general remarks, it is believed, fairly represent the spirit of our Sisterhoods. The wisdom of them must be admitted. The rules concerning property in each Community are formed to prevent undue influence and worldly greed; and so guarded, the stability of the Sisterhood is secure. God, who calls, will provide for His own. He will not leave or forsake those who have forsaken all for Him. He has made them a special promise, and He will not fail of His word.