Project Canterbury

From The Works of the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton (Volume 5),
edited by B. Talbot Rogers, New York: Longmans, Green, 1914

Or, the Call of the Divine Master to a Sister's Life


The History of Sisterhoods--The Classes of Christian Women found in the New Testament; Deaconesses, Ecclesiastical Widows, Virgins--The Sister the Spiritual Descendant of the Last--Their Internal Government naturally based on that of Family Life--The office of Abbess or Mother--The Relation of the Sisters to her--The Spiritual Family--The Rule of the Community--Different Kinds--How Formed--Its Three Principal Subjects--The Object and Government of the Society--The Character of the Rules, of the Work, of ( the Spiritual Life--Election of the Mother--How Often--Her Powers--Appointment of other Officers--A Description of the Sister's Day--Considerations addressed to the Aspirant, to the Parent.

A CLEARER idea of a Sisterhood will be obtained if we give some details of the government and life.

It may be observed that in the earliest times there existed an order of religious women. These women, though specially dedicated to Christ's service, were,, however, until protected by the State, unable to combine for community life. They were divided, as we learn from Holy Scripture, into three classes: the Deaconesses, the Ecclesiastical widows, and the dedicated Virgins. By noticing these distinctions we shall see how the present government of Sisterhoods gradually arose.

The deaconess was a Church officer. Such was Phcebe, who is called (Rom. xvi. i) a servant of the Church. Such also was probably the Mary of whose labours St. Paul makes mention in the same chapter. The necessity for the service of Deaconesses in the extension of the Gospel arose from the social position women occupied in the East, and the customs which regulated intercourse with them. It belonged to their office to be present at the interviews which took place between the clergy and the female members of their flocks. Their presence protected the reputation of the clergy and the Church from scandals. It was also a part of their work to instruct the women, who were preparing to receive Baptism, in the elements of the faith and the customs of the Church. They attended the female candidates at the reception of that holy Sacrament, which was then administered by immersion, and brought them properly clad to the font. In the ceremony of anointing with the consecrated oil, the minister anointed the forehead only, and the Deaconess the other members of the body. They had charge of the doors on the women's side of the church, as the Ostiarii had charge of those on the men's side. According to the strictness of Church discipline at that time, they were obliged to know whom to admit and to examine the commendatory letters presented by strangers. They assigned to the different classes of worshippers, namely, the dedicated virgins, the matrons, the catechumens, the penitents, who then sat apart, their respective places. They also had care of the widows and orphans, of the sick and the poor, who were dependent on the Church's bounty, and so needed her care. They accompanied, at times, the Apostles on their travels, and, properly, at the expense of the Church. It is probably to this custom of the Apostles, who themselves had left all (St. Matt, xix.) to follow Christ and were unmarried or widowers, that reference is made by St. Paul in I Cor. ix. 5. He claims that he, as well as others, might lead about a woman (ywauea)} not necessarily a wife, but, as explained by the preceding words, a female church-worker, "a sister," to aid him in his labours. The Deaconess might be sent as bearer of the Apostolic epistle, as we know was the case of Phcebe (Rom. xvi. i), and later, in times of persecution, she was often a medium of communication between the Bishops and clergy and their scattered people. Being Church officers, like the Deacons, they were appointed by the Bishop, and were under his direction. The ordinary Church rule made forty the customary age for admitting a Deaconess. They lasted in the Western Church until the sixth century, and until the eighth in the East.

In addition to these active Deaconesses, and as forming a portion of the one "tagma" or order of the dedicated life, is found in Holy Scripture the class of Ecclesiastical widows. St. Paul gives a full account of them in the fifth chapter of the First Epistle to Timothy. He speaks of the natural widow, of her life and duty in the first eight verses. Then (from ver. 8 to 16) he describes the Ecclesiastical widow and gives rules for her admission, and for the placing of her name on the Church's roll. This enrollment implied a dedication to the widowed estate from which it was a sin to withdraw (ver. 12). St. Paul, therefore, would not have the younger widows enrolled (ver. n, 13), nor any save those who, according to the rule laid down for the Bishops (I Tim. iii. 2) and Deacons (I Tim. iii. 12), were but once married, "having been the wife of one man" (I Tim. v. 9). They were to be also persons well reputed for good works, and be sixty years of age. And, since the Church became responsible to aid them pecuniarily, he would not have any received whose relatives (ver. 16) could support them. From the rule limiting them, alike with the clergy, to but one marriage, it may be, as Canon Carter suggests, that they occupied some official position in carrying on some Church work, probably overlooking the younger widows and the recipients of the Church's alms. While the work of the Deaconess was of a more active character, that of those Ecclesiastical widows, like holy Anna and others, who waited in the Temple, was of a contemplative nature, "serving God," as their Jewish sisters had done before, "by fastings and prayers night and day."

But along with the active Deaconesses and the Professed widows there were women entered on the ecclesiastical registers as belonging to a class of persons who, for the love of Christ, had entirely dedicated themselves to Him in a single life. The Virgins were those who chose virginity that they might with more undistracted mind serve the Lord. They were sometimes included under the name of "widow," which was probably used as a general term in Holy Scripture to designate the entire order of consecrated women. It was certainly so used in sub-apostolic times, as may be seen from the writings of St. Ignatius and St. Clement. Belonging to the rank of dedicated virgins, we read, were the four daughters of the evangelist Philip. That they made profession of virginity is fairly to be inferred, for had they been merely unmarried women, "to have recorded the fact," says Blunt, in his commentaries, "that they were virgins would have been superfluous and unmeaning."

The Virgins so called in Holy Scripture, and also known as Ascetics or Canonical Virgins in primitive times, held no office in the Church, and at first lived in their own homes. They were to be found everywhere. Justin Martyr, writing about A,D. 148, says that " there are many men and women of sixty or seventy years of age who were made Christ's disciples in their youth and remained in a state of virginity; and I declare I can point out such persons in every rank of society."

Exhortations to such complete surrender and the tests of such a vocation are given by St. Paul in the seventh chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. He there refers to married and unmarried estates in Christ as being alike gifts of God. The spiritual advantages of the dedicated virgin estate are so set forth by this Apostle as to show, according to St. Augustine, that he is speaking, not for a present necessity only, but for all time. This also is the view of St. Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome.

St. Paul gives also five tests of a true vocation (I Cor. vii. 37). The carefully-formed judgment, the steadfastness of purpose, the freedom from necessity, the acquired empire over the will, and the decree of the enfranchised heart held by a nobler love. And, exhorting the father, as the priest of the household, to dedicate his daughter to this life (not, of course, without her implied consent), he says: "He that giveth her in marriage doeth well, but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better." "The virgin daughter's wishes," says Bishop Wordsworth, in his commentary on this passage, "are blended in one with her parents', but the parent gives expression to them." Given thus by their parents, it may be at an early age, these virgins made a public profession of their purpose, and were entered on the canonical rolls as Dedicated Virgins. They had recognized their "calling" (I Cor. vii. 24), they had been admitted into their "lot." Their estate was as recognized as that of the marriage state, and regarded as equally permanent. The English prayer-book bears witness to these two estates in the marriage service when it speaks of some having "the gift of continency."

After certain years of perseverance these virgins might be consecrated by the Bishop. This was a solemn confirmation of their espousal to Christ, whose spiritual brides they had become. They then received a purple veil, distinguished from their former one by being marked with a cross. In what regard they were held is eloquently expressed in the well-known passage of Tertullian, written in the latter part of the second century. "Consider," he says, "the examples of our sisters, whose names are with the Lord, who, not compelled by lack of beauty, or by advanced years, prefer holiness to husbands, for they choose to be brides of God. For God they are beautiful; for God they are virgins; with Him they live; with Him they hold converse; with Him they are busied day and night; they offer their prayers to the Lord as their dowries, and so often as they desire, they obtain honour from Him as the bridegroom's gift. Thus they have won for themselves the eternal gift of the Lord, and even upon earth, by abstinence from marriage, they are ranked in the family of angels.'^

The distinction between these different classes in the one order of dedicated Christian women should be remembered because, while the office of Deaconess passed away (to be revived, indeed, and for good purpose, In our times), the Sisters of the present day are the spiritual descendants of these Canonical Virgins, who were lay-women, not Church officers; whose existence sprung from devotion, not from the needs of the Church; who lived at home and under its discipline, and were not, like the Deaconesses, under the immediate direction of the Bishop. It belongs to the Episcopate, as representing the highest order of the Church, to formally approve of the Constitutions and Rule of a society of dedicated Virgins, but not to manage its internal affairs.

These facts will help us to understand why, when the times allowed of their leaving their own homes and forming themselves into communities, the internal government of such associations would naturally be based on family life.

It is in accordance with this idea that, while many modern religious societies, especially since the time of Ignatius Loyola, have taken the organization and discipline of an army for their model, and have adopted its titles for their officers, the ancient custom was to give the name of Abbess or Mother to the Superiors of communities of women. She, as the head, watches with motherly solicitude over the spiritual and physical wants of her family, and directs generally the work of its members. It is her duty, in language common to most Rules, not to value herself upon the authority she holds, but rather esteem it an opportunity of rendering loving service to others. It belongs to her office to make herself a pattern in diligence, to inspire zeal for holiness, to be patient with all, exact with herself, and cautious in what she requires of others. It is for her especially to possess a will trained to wait on God's will, the mind of a judge toward herself, and the heart of a mother toward her children.

Having a Mother for Superior, the relation of the members to its head is a filial one, and many of the same characteristics that give community of interest to the family and strengthen its bonds of union are to be found in the Sisterhood. Its members, like the members of a family, bear a common name which, in virtue of its spiritual foundation, is an eternal one. In the family all have some interest in the family property, but in different degrees; in the Sisterhood the highest and the lowest have equal rights. In the achievements and the honours which enrich and ennoble it all the members of the family rejoice; in the Sisterhood, banded together by the most thrilling of all interests and the most certain of all rewards, in the crowned glories of its saints, all the sisters have a share. In the family the affection springing from common parentage and early association binds in its loving fragrance all the members together; but in the Sisterhood there is the unselfish affection which is born of the grace of vocation for a community life and which is strong with the enduring love of Christ. In the family is often found a further unity, which comes from natural qualities and gifts made beautiful by grace; but in the Sisterhood there is the same source of unity, and as a permanent possession. In the family there is a unity which comes from common descent, and there is nothing, we say, stronger than the tie of blood; but it is this which is so eminently realized in the Sisterhood through the frequent reception of the Body and Blood of Him who is the unseen but real Head of the house and the centre of its unity.

In the government of the family there is a combination of authority and freedom which is the perfection of all government. The same is found in the Sisterhood, but there is this difference. Family life is exposed to the despotism of selfishness or to the caprices of an unsanctified will. Its harmony and peace are often painfully disturbed by miserable dissensions. In the family of the Sisterhood there is this protection. Those only can rule who have been trained to obey, and the abuse of power is controlled in two ways. It is checked by the triennial election of superiors, and its use is limited by the Rule.

Let us now consider each of these--the election, and the Rule.

As to the latter, every Community must have its prescribed and adopted Rule. Until this is done a Society has not been formed. The Rule often passes through various stages of development before it is complete, and Societies have to wait a long time before this Rule receives the final sanction and endorsement of the Church.

Though there exists a large number of Religious Communities, yet the original number of Rules upon which all are based is very small. In the East, the great Rule of St. Basil is still the foundation of the Religious Orders of both men and women. In the West, most of the older Societies are based upon the Rule either of St. Benedict or St. Augustine. What is of passing interest to observe is that these great founders were enabled by God's providence to act in concert with their own sisters in the foundation of their Communities for women. Thus St. Basil placed the religious women and nuns of his day under the charge of his own sister, St. Marina; and St. Benedict had the same aid in his sister, St. Scholastica; and St. Augustine in his .sister, St. Perpetua. The beneficial result of this combination of woman's knowledge of the needs of her sex with the theologian's wisdom has shown itself in the permanence of their work. And it will be found that in all the orders of women which time has approved the Rule has not been the product of any one sex, but of their joint action.

In our own communion, by the action of the Holy Spirit, Communities have arisen based upon these ancient, approved, and well-tested Church Rules, but adapted to our circumstances and the needs of our times.

These Rules differ somewhat, in our communion, in their degree of fulness, and each Society has its own characteristic spirit and line of work, but in each, as the basis of government, there is the Rule with the customs and usages which explain and interpret it.

The Rule deals with three different matters which cover the whole of the Community Life, and so secures its permanence and protects its members. It declares first the object of the Community, its spirit, the kind of work it undertakes; who are its officers, and the manner of their election; how members may be admitted as Postulants, as Novices, as Professed; how and when the general meetings or chapters are summoned; how branch or affiliated houses are formed. It deals with matters of property and gives the fundamental rules upon all subjects which are ordinarily embraced in a constitution. Secondly, it treats of the work of the Sisters, defines the duties of the separate officers, the general distribution of time, for sleep, labour, and recreation, the obligations of the choir, and the attendance on the offices, the common Habit, the clothing, the character and amount of food. The third part relates to the spiritual life and how the life of God and the union with Christ may be developed in the soul, how the spirit of charity may manifest itself in acts of charity toward others. Not always in this order, but practically, these are the three great divisions of a well-formed Rule.

The Rule in every Community is established with great deliberation and yet allows under certain circumstances for its modification.

The Society is protected by its Rule and also by the custom of triennial elections. Sisterhoods being essentially laic in their origin have always preserved the privilege of self-government. Their Superiors and officers were not appointed for them by the Bishops or clergy, but they governed themselves. They elected their own Superiors. They regulated their own internal affairs. Universal suffrage and the privilege of the ballot existed from very early times in conventual houses. The principle of triennial elections was introduced about the thirteenth century. In some Communities the Superior can be re-elected once, but not again until after some other has held the office for a time. These elections for Superiors are conducted in the most solemn manner. The strife of parties which marks popular or clerical elections is prevented by the rules which control the matter. No nominations, caucusing, or solicitation of votes by the candidates is allowed. Each Sister makes the choice of the Superior a subject of prayer, and then on the day of election places her vote on the altar. Being elected and inducted into office, the Mother cannot, however, govern as she pleases. Her powers are circumscribed and fixed by the constitution. She cannot make rules, but must govern according to those established with the consent of the Community. She may appoint the persons who are to fill certain offices, such as the Assistant Superior in some cases, the Mistress of the Novices, and the minor officers, but the duties of each of these is fixed and limited by the Rule. Further to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power, she is assisted in some Communities by the advice of Counsellors, who are chosen by the Sisters, and without whom in matters of importance she cannot act. The Mother, on taking office, promises to observe the Constitution and Rule, and can govern only according to law, and the obedience which is promised in the vows is obedience according to the Rule. It will thus be seen how far removed from the popular idea is the power entrusted temporarily to a Superior, and how she and the Sisters are guarded from the baneful influences of its misuse. The government of the Sisterhood may thus be said to be based on that of family life, wherein authority is regulated by law, and obedience by the principles of grace.

Let us now look more closely at this family life and see just what a Sister's day is. There is first the general time-table, which regulates the hours of the whole household; then there is the particular one which each Sister has, and which regulates, subordinately to the other, her special duties. Though this living and working by rule may seem repugnant to our ideas of the freedom and enjoyment of life, yet there is nothing that will enable us to do more and be happier in the doing of it than wisely-planned hours of prayer, labour, and recreation. The following description, though necessarily imperfect, will give the reader some idea of the divisions of a Sister's day. It must be remembered that the hours differ somewhat with the work of the Sisterhood, especially when persons are engaged in nursing or as school-teachers.

When roused to begin a new day with God the Sister wakes with an act of love to Him, for her first thoughts must be His. Repeating the appointed psalms as she clothes herself in her Habit, she goes to the chapel. How still and quiet it is: not filled, like our churches, with some devout but with many partially interested worshippers, the chapel is still with the intensity of united hearts and quiet with the hushed watchfulness of souls waiting upon God. The offices of Lauds and Prime are said, unless Lauds, the great act of praise intended to usher in the dawning day, has been said by anticipation the night before.

The Holy Sacrifice follows. It is the daily celebration of Holy Communion which is the Sisterhood's great source of strength. Jesus is the real Head of the house, and He comes daily to be in it. Jesus only, Jesus always, all for Jesus, is the centre and circumference of the Sister's inner life.

Some time in these early hours comes the daily Community meditation. It is always of great value, and a sign of devotional spirit, when this is made regularly and in common; and this is the most fitting time, when the mind is free and undisturbed, and can consecrate its best powers to God.

After breakfast comes conference, when the Sisters assemble for a few moments and stand quietly and in order while the Mother makes known any special directions about work she may have to give and receives any request the Sisters may have to make. At nine the office of Tierce is said. It is the first of the Passion Hours, when our Lord was led forth to His crucifixion, and is the hour when the Holy Ghost was given. It is followed either by another hour of reading and devotion in the Chapel or by the Sisters going each to her especial work. There is much to do in every Sisterhood, and there is no talent but finds occupation. It may be she goes to her classes in the school, or to care for some one who is suffering, or to visit among the poor, or to give instruction to those preparing for the Sacraments, or to the embroidery room, where Altar and Church vestments are being made, or to the bakery to make the Altar Breads for use in the Holy Communion, or to some household duties. There is no rank in duties where all is for Jesus. None wishes the place of another, but simply to do what He has marked out as His will for her on that day.

At twelve--the time when our Lord was nailed to the Cross--Sext is said, followed by a brief midday self-examen. After dinner there is a second conference, and then each Sister has an hour of "free time," as it is called, for rest or for any fitting occupation, as she may please. Nones is said at three, and work is resumed. Opportunities are given for reading and study, and for receiving instruction. During the day classes are given by the Mistress of Novices to those under her care, and perhaps by the Mother to the Professed Sisters.

Silence is observed during certain hours, and always in cloisters and passages. The slight restraint this imposes disciplines the mind and helps to keep the heart with God.

At six comes Vespers, bright with the joy of the Magnificat and the hopes of the Incarnate Life, and supper follows. Then comes the Community recreation, when every Sister is expected to be present and make the hour cheerful and helpful to the others. "The religious is seldom idle, and whether gathered in a circle round the room or in groups, fingers are busy with work or knitting, which does not stop the flow of conversation."

The bell strikes; and suddenly every sound is hushed, the happy voices are stilled, a silence falls over the house, like the quiet and peace of a holy benediction; and the sisters disperse to work, to study, or to class. At nine the bell rings for Compline, the last office, which completes the day. Thus the canonical hours of common prayer, rich with their burden of twice ten centuries of devotion, and' united in one living strain of praise, wind through the day from its beginning to its close. After remaining some half-hour in Chapel, there come slumbers where follow

"No cruel guard of carking cares, that keep
Crowned woes awake.
Beloved-given sleep,
And reverend discipline, and religious fear
And glad obedience, find sweet biding here--
Silence and sacred rest; peace and pure joys."

If, then, the form of the Sisterhood's government is based on that of the family, the life which places religion first and finds in duty its highest happiness is based on that revealed in the Bible. It is not a life of religious sentiment, which is so marked a characteristic of the popular religion of the day, but a real taking up of the cross and a practical following of the example of Christ. It is a life which makes the best of both worlds, by sacrificing to Him some of the goods God has given us in order to be more closely united to Him and to enter into possession of Himself, the Eternal Good. It is a life which springs not from the low motive, as Charles Kingsley puts it, of "trying to save your own dirty soul," but comes from obedience to that call of the dear Lord, whom the willing heart can but obey, and from the love which would break the most costly alabaster box of earthly delights it possesses over the feet of Christ. Not, therefore, to those who are seeking to lay down the cross of home duties, or who would escape from the hardships of any life of labour, or who hope to shelter themselves as in some spiritual fortress from all temptation, does the Sisterhood throw open its doors and its heart, but to those who, having heard the call of Jesus, desire with docile and obedient minds to follow Him. And such true seekers this general description of the Life may aid in fortifying their purpose, and in calming the natural shrinking of the heart from a venture on an untried path. It may possibly make articulate the Voice which not only bids them come, but says: "It is I--be not afraid."

It may also enable those who are unselfishly consulting their child's happiness to see that the life she desires to enter is one which has advantages of its own. In it the members are free from many anxieties which attend the struggle of life. They are saved from many misfortunes, and perhaps some tragedy of sorrow. They are possessed of a home where all that they desire for their happiness is permanently secured. The frequent changes of occupation and the regularity of the life are not only conducive to health, but often restore it to the feeble. The extensive range of the service gives a scope for the exercise of all one's powers, and educates and elevates them. A new and invigorating interest is given to life by the consecrated and enduring character of the work for God. By the concurrent testimony of many thousands who have tried it, the life establishes the empire of joyful peace within the soul.

Think, then, to adapt the words of another, of the many women who are at ease, the "careless daughters" of the land, wasting their lives in unprofitable pursuits or rusting out their gifts of mind, body, and estate in social nothingness; their existence aimless and therefore burdensome; then think of the thousands lying in ignorance of the Church, and of its blessed life-giving instrumentalities of grace, of the poor in their manifold miseries and afflictions, and the more miserable rich; then think of the Love which has poured itself out to save, but whose outflow of blessing is stopped by our cruel indifference and half-hearted service and selfishness; and then, it may be, you will pray, as the founder of one of our Anglican Sisterhoods prayed:

"Merciful God! spare us the anguish of seeing how much more might have been done than we do."

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