Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter XI. Entrance into the Order.

IT IS sometimes thought by uninstructed persons that a Religious Community is a private society existing for the sole benefit of those who happen to be its members.

If this were the case it would be a failure indeed. A Community exists for the good of the Church, and is open to all who can contribute to the life and work which it is called to do.

Through the ages the Spirit's call to the monastic life has ever sounded in the hearts of men, and it is sounding in their hearts today. Some young man, priest or layman, into whose hands this book may fall, may realize as he reads, that the strange and baffling sense of dissatisfaction with his life, which has so often troubled and depressed him, has a deep meaning. It may mean that God, too, is dissatisfied with his life. He wants him to see some higher vision, to follow some better thing.

[77] All the years God has been speaking to him as He spoke to the rich young man in the Gospel, and he has not known it. Often when he had done his best, the sense of dissatisfaction was keenest. "What lack I yet?" has been his cry.

Perhaps our Lord is now making the answer very clear: "One thing thou lackest; if thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow Me." It is the call to the life of voluntary Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, and the heart that is generous and loving longs to respond.

"What then shall I do?" he asks, "How shall I go about finding entrance to a Religious Community?"

The process is simple. Write the Reverend Father Superior a plain business letter, telling him your desire, and asking what you shall do. If it happens that you are unacquainted with any member of the Order, it would be well to enclose with this letter an introduction from some priest known to the Order.

The Superior will reply, asking certain questions, perhaps, about you, and inviting you to pay a visit to Holy Cross. In the meantime talk to very few persons about your vocation. Speak to your confessor, of course, but do not discuss it with those who will oppose you, and who will argue with you about it. You do not yet know what you will do, and, in any case, such argument can do no good.

The time comes for your visit to the monastery. You will receive a loving welcome, and in the course of a few days, although not living within the [77/78] Community, you will see enough of the life to enable you, under God's guidance, to reach some calm judgment concerning your vocation.

The stillness of the monastery, the long quiet periods afforded you for prayer and thought before the throne of the Most Holy, will enable you, as you could perhaps never do out in the world, to see through all questions and difficulties, and to find the vision that God is seeking to show you.

If it happens to you as it has to many others, that God in His loving desire for your service, will not let you say Him nay, your decision will be made.

And now one thing is most necessary. If it is to be done, "then 'twere well it were done quickly." Let there be not an hour's unnecessary delay. You have no right to make God tarry your leisure. If He is calling you to Religion He wants as much of your life as you can possibly give Him. His love is jealous of every hour that you keep back.

When you come to begin the life, you are first admitted as a postulant, and come under the training of the Master of Novices, although you are not yet a novice and do not wear the habit of Religion.

Those in Priests' Orders are known by their [78/79] surname just as they are in the world. A deacon uses his family name with the title "Brother." Our lay Brothers use their Christian names, although in some cases other names are selected for them.

It is important that you should understand the difference between the postulancy and the novitiate. The postulant is trying the life to see if his vocation be true, and the Order is trying him to see, in case his call proves to be real, if he is suited for this particular Community. All grave questions must now be threshed out, for he cannot become a novice and put on the habit of the Order so long as there is any serious doubt in his mind.

When he is admitted to the habit as a novice he is supposed to have settled his doubts, and is giving himself to the Community to be trained. He is like a young man who enters West Point. Such a man is not entering upon his course to see how he will like it, his decision to be made later; but he has decided positively to be a soldier and is giving himself to be trained accordingly. It may turn out later that our aspirant has no aptitude for the Religious Life, but so far as human judgment can discern, the question is settled when he is "clothed," as it is called, in the habit of the Order.

But no man binds himself on entering the novitiate. He takes no vows, he makes no promise. Should he conclude later, or should his Superior conclude, that he has no vocation, he departs honourably with the love and blessing of the brethren, and with the [79/80] happy satisfaction of knowing that he drew not back from making a full offering of himself to God when he thought God was calling him.

Ordinarily the postulancy in our Order is six months. The novitiate lasts two years at the expiration of which, temporary vows for two years are taken. At the end of that period, if elected by the Chapter, the aspirant takes his life-vows. Any aspirant under temporary vows may be assigned by the Superior to any of the ordinary works of the community.

The length of time occupied in this period of preparation is the best answer to those who object to one's entering Religion. Often one's friends or family say: "You do not know what you are undertaking."

"Quite true," is the reply, "but I have plenty of time in which to find out. It will be several years before I can bind myself, and until then I am at liberty honourably and freely any day to leave the monastery and return home."

When one remembers the long period of time required for training a man in the novitiate, it will be seen at a glance that the expense is by no means inconsiderable. It requires a good round sum of money to lodge and clothe and feed a man for several years, not to speak of possible doctors' and dentists' bills, etc.

But let it be borne in mind that inability to meet these expenses does not for a moment debar a man [80/81] who is otherwise qualified, from entering the Order. If you have any savings or property, very naturally you would wish to contribute to these expenses before disposing of it. If you have nothing, you can give yourself, and after all, God wants not yours but you.

The training in the novitiate varies with each man's talent and temperament, and depends on what kind of work he gives promise of being able to do best.

It all comes to two things, however: For whatever particular form of Religious ministry an aspirant may receive his training, these are absolutely indispensable. He must learn (1) How to pray, and (2) How to do what he is told, promptly and with never a word of protest.

If the most brilliant scholar in the country came to the novitiate, and was unwilling to learn these two things there would be no place for him. Another man may lack brilliancy of intellect, but if he gave proof of a willingness and capacity for prayer and obedience, the Community would welcome him as a gift and blessing from God.

In the novitiate all receive the same instruction concerning the principles of the Religious Life, and the spirit and meaning of the Rule of the Order; and, as a matter of course, are carefully trained in a knowledge of Holy Scripture and the Faith of the Church.

[82] Our Rule warns the Superior that in directing the study of the members of the Order, he is to take care that there be unity and definiteness in it. Care is observed to estimate the capacity and aptitude of various men for various lines of work, and to give them opportunity to prepare for those activities for which they are best fitted. Some are naturally adapted for mission work; some for preaching or giving retreats; others for teaching in our schools; others again for administrative or literary work.

The special training of all novices, is left wholly to the judgment of the Community. Occasionally some one asks: "If I should come to your Order would you agree to let me prepare for the work of teaching, assisting in missions, etc." The answer is always emphatically "No."

No man would be permitted to bargain with God as to the terms upon which he would dedicate himself in Religion. It would be clean contrary to its own interests for a Community not to search out and develop to the utmost every such vocation, but nothing in the way of a promise beforehand would be tolerated in the Religious Life. A man who could not trust his Superior to do what was right in such a matter, would thereby show that he had no vocation, to that Community at any rate.

The activities of the novitiate do not stop with spiritual and intellectual work, however, for the effort is made to familiarize every one with all the many practical duties of the monastery. The ideal is [82/83] for each one, from the Father Superior down, to be able at a moment's notice, to take intelligent charge of any department, whether it be the complicated detail of the sacristy, the work of the kitchen or the management of a recalcitrant furnace with the mercury below zero.

The probation completed and the aspirant elected by the Community to profession, in a service of singular beauty and solemnity he takes the vows which bind him as a Religious as long as he shall live.

Kneeling before the altar after the Gospel in the High Mass he reads aloud his solemn act of profession:

"In the Name of God. Amen. I, ........................, desiring to consecrate myself fully and entirely in body, soul, and spirit, unto the service of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, do hereby make unto Almighty God, before the whole company of heaven, and in the presence of you, my spiritual Father, and of you, my brethren, the threefold vow of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, according to the Rule of the Order of the Holy Cross, steadfastly purposing to keep and observe the same unto my life's end, the Lord being my helper. And herein I humbly pray for the grace and heavenly [83/84] assistance of the Holy Ghost, and for the intercession of Blessed Mary, ever-Virgin, and all the Saints, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Still kneeling, he signs this instrument of his profession and delivers it to the Superior who lays it upon the altar. The newly professed Religious, at the proper place in the Mass, seals his vow with the reception of the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, and starts out on his consecrated life, crowned with a thousand blessings, a whole burnt-offering laid by his own act on the altar of God.

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