Postulant A’s Experience
Generally the house was large. All the floors were bare wooden floorboards or tiles. The only chairs were for infirm and elderly sisters, everyone else sat on low wooden stools. The walls were uniform cream, but they had verses of writing written on the walls in various places, except in cells and the chapel. Some were Bible verses, but there were other quotations from the Rule, St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, etc and other sources. One of the quotations on a cell wall read: “In Carmel and at the judgment, I am alone with God”.
The professed sister, assigned to make sure a postulant didn’t get lost for the first few days, was called an ‘Angel’.
Another custom is kneeling down on the floor (where ever you were) each time you talked to Mother, or if Mother spoke to you more than a ’quick word’. It isn’t because of her as a person, it was the recognition that she spoke in the place of Christ within the community, she was Christ to all the nuns. It also showed humility – a virtue a Carmelite cultivates to be humble like Christ. If a sister erred in some way, as a penance she would kneel down in front of Mother immediately and kiss the floor. It was a beautiful sight to see – there was much love and respect during this.
Though they are austere and follow St. Teresa’s rule stricter, they do have a kneeling option for sisters who can’t kneel long or at all or have bad backs and to prevent bad backs from kneeling upright on the floor. For the two hours of mental prayer, they kneel the first 5 minutes, then for the next 50 minutes they either kneel, use a prayer stool or the choir seat and then kneel the last 5 minutes – IF the sister can kneel that long (the 10 minutes), if not they would use the seat or prayer stool. Mother said that not being able to kneel for 2 hrs or even 10 minutes didn’t dismiss you from being a Carmelite if that is what God called you to be – after all He KNOWS if you can kneel or not and if He CALLS you to Carmel, He is aware of this! When they processed after Sext (Midday Office) to the refectory, I had to follow at a distance, so I couldn’t join in the psalm they were chanting on the way.
The morning and evening Angelus was done with the appropriate Divine Office in choir while the noon Angelus you also knelt down where ever you where – which often happened as we were washing-up in the kitchen (everyone lends a hand with dishes). As the Angelus is rung, everyone stops what they’re doing and kneels down where they are, in front of the sink, the draining board, cupboards, refectory, wherever. They say the Angelus to themselves, do the sign of the cross get up and carry on with whatever they were doing. At three o’clock, the time Our Lord died on the cross, the bell rings to remind the sisters and wherever a sister is or whatever she’s doing (workroom, classroom, corridor etc), she stops and does a double kneel i.e. you kneel down and bend over so your forehead is somewhere near your knees. You stay there and say a prayer or just unite yourself to the Lord for the duration of the chapel bell, then you get up and carry on as before!
If you were going to help with the dishes after a meal, you knelt in front of a statue of Mary and said a Hail Mary quietly, before going into the kitchen. I helped with the dishes after dinner and supper, but after breakfast I had to visit four different places in the convent.
We didn’t all go round in a group, but each sister had to visit certain places at some point during the day for short prayer. First, you went into the ante chapel, bowed, knelt down in front of the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Carmel with the baby Jesus and said a prayer (it wasn’t set as to what you said or how long it was, it was your personal prayer).
(The nuns have adoration for certain feast days)
Then you got up, bowed, went elsewhere and went to a little statue of St. Joseph bowed again, knelt down and said a prayer to him. The last two places I went to were upstairs where my cell was, but I think there were others elsewhere: one was a picture of Our Holy Mother St. Teresa of Avila which you prayed to and the last was an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (Our Lady of Perpetual Help to us in the USA).
You also knelt down and kiss the floor of the choir, when entering and leaving. You also kissed the floor when you said a short prayer before bed. You knelt down, said your prayer, kissed the floor, stood up, crossed yourself with holy water (everyone had a little container of holy water stoup on the wall and then you sprinkled a little holy water over your bed, switched the light off and went to sleep.
A straw mattress
The straw mattress, as I had been warned, was hard. But I also found that it was warm and actually comfortable. It was hard to sit on, but when you were actually lying on it, it was great! The bed was a little shorter and narrower than a normal bed. I had no problem with that, although a larger person might have found it cramped. There wasn’t a pillowcase on the pillow. On the four corners of the pillow there were straight pins (not safety pins) so you had to be careful not to sleep near the corners! Under the pillow you kept a cotton rectangle just a bit smaller than one side of the pillow. You pinned this to the pillow every night, and every morning you unpinned it, folded it up and put it back under the pillow. When you woke up in the morning, you knelt up on the bed and said a set prayer, dedicating your day to God.
I wore a long, white veil. Apparently they were black at one stage, but Rev Mother didn’t like them black, so she told the ‘Habit Sister’ (in charge of clothing), to make me a white one. The veil I had was fixed to a headband which was also covered in the same white material, and it had two strings to tie it back with.
I also had a black cape that had buttons down the front and reached to the hips. You put your hands together underneath it, as sisters had their hands under their scapulars. The idea is the keep your hands still and out of sight in ‘recollected prayer position’, unless they’re being used in holding your books or working.
I was lent a long black underskirt and another long skirt to go over the top of it. I wore a long black skirt and over the waist-band of the over skirt I had a little pouch which acted as a sort of ‘outside pocket’. In this you kept a handkerchief, a little prayer book (for some extra prayers and graces said at certain times).
The refectory was a large rectangular room. It had benches to sit on which were arranged against the walls with large tables in front of them. While sitting on your bench you were not allowed to lean back against the walls (unless you had a problem or were elderly – but even the elderly nuns were so holy and for the love of God they always sat up!), the infirm sisters had chairs. Before beginning any meal, you made the sign of the cross over your bread and kissed it.
After Mass you had breakfast, which you went to informally. You hooked up your skirt and ate your breakfast standing up on the opposite side of the table from which you sat. After you had kissed your bread, you poured a little water into your bowl made the sign of the cross and drank it. Then you got your tea in your mug, there was sugar available for that if you wished. Also on the tea trolley was vitamin tablets and mineral supplements for the sisters to take. Each sister’s bread was already weighed and placed on her refectory place ready for her. It was one slice of brown bread (which was shop brought) and one very thick slice of white bread (which was home made). Also in your place, on a dish under a lid was some butter for the bread, except on Fridays where you ate your bread dry as a mortification. You could have as much water as you liked, but you had to eat all your bread. There wasn’t anything else to choose from, no cereals or jam, just bread, butter, tea and water. After breakfast, you put your unused butter on the side in the little pantry and washed up your mug and knife and returned them to your place. You then got another piece of bread from the basket, for use during dinner, bowed to the crucifix and left.
The Sisters processed to dinner after the little office of Sext, while reciting a psalm. Then there was a grace and responses said, after which the sisters went to their places and folded their long sleeves back. You didn’t tuck your skirt up because you were sitting for dinner and supper. The next part was to undo the safety pins on the corners of the over-sized serviette and I pinned it to the front of my cloak. I didn’t know what it was called, but it was a large rectangular piece of cotton. Each sister had a separate one which marked her place, like a personal tablecloth. On it was her mug, bowl, small plate and cutlery. The front of it was used as a napkin, in the middle of the week, you turned it round and used the other end for a napkin and on a certain day they were all changed. On fast days, you folded this napkin in half and replaced your things on it ready for the next meal, you also did that every day after dinner ready for supper. The food was good and there was also a separate tea-break in the afternoon, which you drank whilst standing up, like breakfast. Dinner (after Sext) was the main meal and supper was a lighter meal.
When you finished your soup or the food on your plate, you cut a piece of your bread and then wiped it round your bowl or plate, then ate it. When you had finished eating, you swept your breadcrumbs together with your hand and picked them up with your spoon or onto your finger and ate them. Then you put water into your little bowl (there was a different one for soup that appeared when needed), and washed with your fingers your spoon, knife and fork, then you drank the water, dried everything on a corner of your napkin after unpinning it from your front, made everything ready for the next meal, put your hands under your cloak and sat quietly, not leaning on the wall, to wait for closing grace. After grace, everyone went out and knelt in front of a statue of Mary to say a Hail Mary to themselves before the work of washing up, for which I was allowed to take my cloak off.
One interesting thing I did experience there, was what they called the ‘Saturday Salve’. If it wasn’t a feast or other solemnity, Saturday Mass was in honour of Mary, but there was this extra part just before Vespers. I was given a lighted candle and stood in the dark at the end of the stalls, nearest to the grille. Then the sisters processed in carrying candles, sung a hymn to Mary (Salve Regina) then blew their candles out. Then the lights were switched on and we said Vespers. A nice little ceremony, I liked it.
The Rosary was said after Mass or after Tierce, depending on how long Mass took.
In chapel, the criss-cross grille was closest to the sanctuary, then there were heavy glass or plastic sliding doors, on the sisters side there were wooden shutters decorated with wooden crosses. With the shutters closed, the sisters chapel made a nice little prayer space all by itself.
They only opened the shutters and glass doors during Mass only so you could see and hear it being celebrated, through the grille. There was a little door to the side of the grille, usually kept locked, which opened to reveal a space to kneel and a small arched glassless window into the sanctuary, without a grille. To receive communion each sister knelt in this little space and received the wafer on her tongue. The chalice had been passed to a sister through this window before and was given to every sister in turn, before being returned through the window to the priest, to offer to the public in the main nave.
I didn’t go to all the Offices, but I was expecting to go to Compline, which in this convent isn’t the last Office of the day – Matins is the last Office. I like Compline, but I wasn’t to go to it. I was woken in time to go to Mass and was sent to bed after second recreation at about 7:45pm. But it took me a while to get to bed with such an odd, and time consuming routine. After the Office of Readings every Friday, the nuns take the discipline.
(Postulant A’s story continued tomorrow)