Question Time

These questions which follow are not necessarily what we think are the most important aspects of our life, but they are the questions most often asked by visitors.

1. Do you grow your own fruit and vegetables?

We grow all our own fruit and lots of vegetables. Our chief source of income is making and selling altar breads ("hosts") for Mass. The reason for our monastic life is however the creation of an environment in which we can seek God with all our heart and without interruption. Whether we're picking fruit or baking altar breads, or doing the accounts or praying in church or reading or cleaning the bathroom or just having a good chat together, we're trying to seek God and get to know him better.

2. Why do you still have your liturgy in Latin?

We always have the Mass readings in English. In the Divine Office we have the Patristic readings in English. But we made a deliberate choice to keep the rest in Latin for several reasons. First, the Gregorian Chant which we use for all our liturgy was composed for Latin texts. The melodies weren't written first and then the words fitted to them; the melodies were made for the existing texts (almost all quotations from Scripture). We couldn't use the same melodies for English words, and they're so subtle and beautiful that to adapt them would be to spoil them. These chants evolved from the music of the synagogues which the first Christians adopted, and developed over more than a thousand years. There's often a theology in the melody itself - for example, as it becomes more elaborate at the important words or phrases. Then, all the great monastic figures in the western Church wrote in Latin and it's good to keep in touch with them. Often we're singing chants which they would have known and prayed with just as we do. While Vatican II allowed the use of modern languages and modern music in the liturgy, it also insisted on the value of the Latin language and Gregorian Chant, and subsequent Popes have stressed that Benedictine monasteries have a particular duty and privilege to cherish and draw life from this wonderful spiritual heritage.

If girls don't know Latin when they enter - and they usually don't know any - they learn it in the novitiate. It is astonishing how quickly you pick it up with one-to-one teaching and singing it in the liturgy several times a day. The same is true of Gregorian Chant. Most of us are not "musical", but our choir mistress says she has found that anyone can learn to sing the Chant. People nowadays often use discipline in posture and breathing as aids to prayer, or learn to discern the promptings of the Spirit through their memory or imagination or emotions. Learning Latin and music for the sake of praying through the Chant is just another discipline which centuries of experience have shown to be a way to deeper union with God.

3. How do you know what is going on in the outside world?

One of the nuns has the job of putting out cuttings from a daily paper on the main issues. We also take the British Catholic weeklies and some French and American Catholic monthly magazines as well as more specialised periodicals. Of course, we glean a lot about the state of the world from requests for prayer. We take the prayer requests very seriously; apart from that, each nun has to exercise a certain responsibility in deciding where, for her, is the line between being well-informed and filling her head with gossip which will interfere with her prayer.

4. How do I know  if I have a vocation?

The Holy Spirit works in all kinds of ways, both interiorly and exteriorly-through prayer and books, through meeting other consecrated men and women, through a persistent feeling that won't go away.  Personal contact with a community can be very helpful in discerning; it can take the process  out of the abstract and into real life.  Someone who felt called  to the monastic life would need to be a practising Catholic and possess a desire to give her life to God. An ability to live in community coupled with a desire for silence and solitude, good physical health, and some work expreince would all be part of what we'd be looking for. Our usual upper age limit is 35. For lots more about vocation, see the link at the end of the Novitiate page.

5. What are the stages leading up to final vows?

If a woman is seriously considering our life, after an initial visit outside she may ask to spend a couple of weeks inside the enclosure.  If she then asks to enter, and we are willing, she enters as a postulant. The postulancy lasts about nine months - more if necessary. During this time she is gradually initiated into the life of the monastery. She may then ask to start her novitiate proper, and for this there is a little ceremony at which she is given the habit and a religious name. The novitiate lasts a minimum of two years, and, when the Abbess thinks the novice is ready, the community votes on whether to admit her to simple profession. At simple profession, the novice vows obedience, conversion of life and stability for three years (Consecrated celibacy and religious poverty are included in the vow of conversion of life). The whole meaning of our vocation is summed up in these three vows. Stability, the Benedictine "speciality" is about a lasting commitment to one monastic family; it is about rootedness. We give ourselves to God in a particular way of life, in a particular place, with particular companions, knowing that in this life is our way to God. By the vow of conversion of life, we undertake to live out the monastic life according to the Rule; it is a commitment to a lifelong process of being transformed as we follow Christ. Finally, obedience, which is freely chosen and springs from love for God. From postulancy onwards new recruits follow courses in Scripture, monastic life and spirituality, monastic history, liturgy, Christian doctrine, Latin and Gregorian chant; and they also take part in the work of the monastery. After three years in simple vows the young nun may ask to take solemn vows which bind her for life.

 

6. If you're connected with the Abbey of Solesmes, does that mean that postulants have to be able to speak French?

Not at all. Recreations are always in English and the everyday language of the house is English. Most of us enter with only the French learnt at school, usually very meagre indeed. We're connected with Solesmes in that we belong to the family of monasteries (men and women) which share the customs and spiritual heritage of Solesmes. The chief elements of this are total dedication to the contemplative life and celebration of the liturgy with the greatest care and beauty. Not all Solesmian houses are in French-speaking countries (e.g. Silos for men in Spain; Westfield for women in the US) but most of them are, so we try to be able to get along in French. For this reason, the reading in the refectory at supper is in French. An advantage of this is that we don't miss out on some excellent stuff published only in French.

7. Is your life very austere?

Monastic poverty does not mean living in destitution but it does mean cutting out, as far as possible, all that is superfluous. So we eat sensibly and have sufficient clothing and heating but we try to avoid luxuries. Benedictine poverty includes taking care of material things, even if they're old and worn, and avoiding waste. We do not each plan our own finances but we can exercise responsibility about not wasting water or electricity. We do a certain amount of fasting in Lent and Advent and at certain other times, and newcomers accustom themselves to this gradually. The Abbess has to take into account St. Benedict's principle that the regime should be such that "the strong may still have something to long after and the weak may not draw back in alarm" (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 64). Anyone, however, can try to fast from chatter or from trivia or from shutting doors noisily. Some find it an austerity to respond promptly when the bell goes for prayer or if they are asked to lend a hand unexpectedly: it's good to remember that these are opportunities for showing love, just as a mother responds promptly to her crying baby even if she's not filled with a warm maternal glow at that particular moment.

8. Do you get on with each other or do you ever argue?

The test of an authentic prayer-life is not whether we are rapt in ecstasy or having visions but whether we love our neighbour. Also, there's not much point in praying for the cancellation of third world debt if we're bearing grudges against the nun in the next cell. So we do try to love each other. It's natural that we find some personalities more sympathetic than others; it's also natural that we rub each other up the wrong way at times; but we try to go beyond natural affinity or irritation to find and love Christ in each sister. Individual nuns will have strong opinions on every conceivable subject and by no means do we all see eye to eye on everything, but if we're putting love before everything else then we'll know when to enjoy a lively discussion and when to swallow our views. Learning to love is the work of a life-time. Nowadays most people enter after some years in a career and living independently, and they may find it takes time to learn how to take into account the opinions and decisions of the thirty other members of the monastic household, to say nothing of the distilled wisdom of fifteen centuries of Benedictinism. We take encouragement from the example of our elderly sisters who after fifty or sixty years of monastic life have lost nothing of their individual personalities or enthusiasm but whose capacity to love has grown wider and wider.

9. How can you give up so many things? If you have withdrawn from the world, what value can your life have for others?

Any worthwhile life involves the sacrifice of some good things for the sake of even better things. Moreover, all the members of the Body of Christ do not have the same function, as St Paul explains.  While there will always be some to engage  in more activie works, there have been,and always will be, others whose way of life shows that action is not everything and that God is the real centre of our lives and activities, the one thing necessary.  "Without Me you can do nothing."  Prayer, union with Christ is the soul of the apostolate and the source of its fruitfulness.

"There are institutes which are totally ordered towards contemplation in such wise that that their members give themselves over to God alone in solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance.  These will always have an honoured place in the mystical body of Christ, in which all the members do not have the same function (Rom 12:4), no matter how pressing may be the needs of the active ministry.  For they offer to God an exceptional sacrifice of praise, they brighten God’s people with the abundant fruits of holiness, they sway them by their example, and they enlarge the Church by their hidden apostolic fruitfulness.  Thus they are the glory of the Church and a source of heavenly graces."  (Perfectae Caritatis 7)

 We also believe that every person was made for the love and praise of God and that God is indeed worthy of our love and praise -our lives. In the Divine Office and throughout our monastic day we are doing what we hope we shall be doing for all eternity - gazing at him who is all beauty, truth and goodness - although here we do it "as in a mirror" and there we shall do it "face to face". Any baptized person, when he or she prays or does what is right, raises up the whole world because the prayer or action is done "in Christ". The enclosure of the monastery enables us to do this with special concentration. Our talents and personalities are not on display in the way they would be if we were following a glamorous career; rather, they are focussed entirely on God, and used for him. In our prayer and especially in the psalms of the Divine Office we express to God the joy and hope, fear and sorrow of all mankind. The deeper our prayer-life becomes, the greater is our capacity to share with all mankind God's mercy and love.

10. Where do you all come from? What made you join the community?

There are as many different vocation stories as there are sisters in the community. Some felt close to God from childhood; for others, he became a real person only after they had spent years outside the Church, or in it but not having any special feeling about it. Some people visited the monastery once and that was enough: it was love at first sight and they felt they had to enter. For others there was a period of discovery and carefully weighing up pros and cons, until they made the leap. Some entered straight from school, others after work as a teacher, librarian, tax accountant, hotel manager, gardener with the London Parks. God works through natural things, so some people are initially drawn to us because they're attracted by some aspect of our life, such as the liturgy or the community. There comes a stage, however, when an enquirer realizes that, beyond the details of what attracts or repels her, there is a person calling her, God himself, and she has to decide whether she's going to respond or not. It's not easy, but saying "yes" to God is the only way to joy and peace.

 

11.  I can't sing! Is that an impediment to joining your Community?

 Women come to us with a variety of gifts and talents.  Singing doesn’t have to be one of them.  While it is true that we value the enhancement that beautiful music brings to the liturgy and our communal prayer of the Divine Office, quality of voice and musical ability are not necessary.