How to be a Nun!
A Quick Guide for Intrepid Explorers, Scared Survivors and Those Who Don’t Know
By the Colletine Poor Clare community in Nottingham
Let the Spirit be your guide. (Galatians 5:13-25)
– the willingness to learn,
– to hope,
– to trust,
– and to live on God’s promises.
Good will is more essential than ability.
Please do not wait until you are a Saint before you try. Canonisation is a life-project. If you are willing to be open to the Lord, his power will work in you.
The Lord makes his choice in his time. It makes no difference whether you are 17 or 70. When he calls, jump!
Do not let well-meaning people put you off. Very likely, when they fell in love they did not ask your advice. When the Lord looked lovingly at the rich young man, that look lingered on his face. Those who have met God’s invitation will be able to recognize its reflection in you. Religious life is not a career, it is an adventure in love.
Please do not bring:
– six suitcases of anything
– your entire wardrobe
– every letter you have ever received
– a year’s supply of household goods
– your cell phone, iPod, laptop or Bluetooth
– an absolute resentment of any authority but your own
– a 2 metre statue of Buddha or a 4 metre statue of the Sacred Heart
– an intolerable prejudice against any other race, nation or culture
– invincible self-regard
– or your scuba diving suit!
It is easier to fly travelling light.
You cannot help bringing your past.
If we say we have no sin we are lying. (1 John 1:5-10)
The Lord is tenderness and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Exodus 34:6-9)
In order that you should know this, every three years or so, your community, after prayer and fasting, chooses one of their number to help them discern how the Holy Spirit is leading them. This is meant to help you, too. On the cross, Jesus could not see his Father – but he could see his Mother.
It does not matter what you might have had to repent of, your community, who happen to be human, is willing to forgive your past – and your future. If your community cannot forgive, it is a fundamentally unsound investment.
Remember: every Saint has a past and every sinner has a future!
You are my witnesses. (Luke 24: 44-49)
Be prepared to stand up and be counted.
Ask and it shall be given you; information, direction, discernment, survival kit, support, encouragement and challenges.
Be prepared to change and change often.
Be prepared be called by a new name.
Be prepared to wear things that mark you out conspicuously as God’s property.
You might be content with, or at least accustomed to yourself as an egg, but if you hatch there will be an uncomfortable era of uglyducklingness before you make the front line of Swan Lake. Be open to the gift of loving appreciation.
It is not that we love God, but that he loves us. (1 John 4:10)
He wants to give himself to us, pressed down, shaken together and overflowing. But before that takes place, his seed has to fall into our ground and die; then it can bear fruit – a hundredfold.
Pray at all times. (Luke 11:1-13, 22:39-46)
Prayer is learning to listen, to respond and to perceive the actions of the one who loves you.
Come, if you want prayer with your whole heart.
It does not matter if you think you do not know how to start. It can be taught and it can be learned.
Looking and listening is the beginning of prayer, but you won’t see anything if you don’t open your eyes, and you wont hear if you don’t take your fingers out of your ears.
Prayer is the highest relationship with God and others. Sharing a life of prayer is the ultimate gift. It is becoming part of the instrument of peace in the hand of God.
Prayer can make you the best friend of someone you have never met. It can make a life spent doing time-consuming and not immediately successful things, pass like a gracious dream. It can make even struggling with your own and other people’s sinful humanness like living in the antechamber of heaven.
This is the biggest thing that happens to anyone.
I have called you friends. (John 15:15)
You are going to live in a community. You are going to live in a family of people with whom you have nothing in common but God and the nose in the centre of your face. Do not try to love all people as your brothers and sisters; if you had any, your relationship may well have been atrocious: Love one another, the Lord says, as I have loved you. John 15:12. In this way you will heal the sins of a shattered and broken world.
Loving those whom God has selected for you as your religious family is the first prayer.
In this world people make relationships and destroy them. They move on, they get another job, another partner, another divorce. Now, if your relationships break down you will learn how to repair them instead of running away from them.
You may have heard this before, but, every three years we beg the Holy Spirit¹s enlightenment to elect one amongst us who can help us to do this. God makes himself visible in the Church. When the Lord says in the Gospel that Peter – an incompetent, over-excited and unstable Average – was the Rock on which he built his Church, he meant what he said.
Jesus promised to build his Church on the person of Peter, not simply on the faith he professed.
Obedience to the Word of God has a human face.
A community has to be built on truth and justice. To maintain this, God’s will inevitably manifests itself with a human face. We call ours Mother (and, very, very occasionally, Abbess) she is necessary to our fidelity to the Gospel.
Saint Peter was a liar, a fool and a coward; yet after he experienced the death and resurrection of Christ the Son of the Living God they put sick people where even just his shadow might fall on them for healing.
Self-regulating communities do not work on the stock market – or anywhere else on this earth. Where there is no objective authority – obedience, truth, freedom and justice have very little hope to survive in the life of a community.
Do not lay up treasures on earth. (Matthew 6.16)
Sell what you have and give it to the poor. (Mark 10:17-19)
Take nothing for your journey.
Eat what is set before you and proclaim the Good News. (Luke 10:5-9)
You are the salt of the earth:
salt prevents good things from rotting,
it makes bland things taste interesting,
bleaches out stains,
appropriately applied, it filters smoke out of the atmosphere
– and you can be all these things!
You will not make heaven on less than the ten commandments. This life is not for minimalists who just want to do enough to be saved; it is for lovers who want to do as much as they possibly can.
You made need a whole new set of manners and you will at least need what you’ve got tuned to a new frequency. Nicely veiled malice and covert vindictiveness are unacceptable. Ridicule, contempt and all the other little techniques for cutting your neighbour down to size are out. You have to want to weave your life on forgiveness; your friends need it and you absolutely demand it. This is not optional.
No community will let you get away with part-time religious life. Live for others. Go out and meet trouble half way. Go the extra mile.
Calculated revenge is the most destructive of all reactions. Leave it outside the door.
Seek the kingdom first, and every thing you need and hope for will be given to you.
Build your life on the rock of God’s Word; read him, pray him, sing him, stand on him, eat him, adore him, wrap your heart around him and nothing will knock you down.
This is what poverty, obedience and chastity work out as. If this sounds like the Sermon on the Mount – it is. Read Matthew 5:1-7:29 and look up the other references in this handbook, too.
The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28-35)
Religious life, married life and the single secular state are vocations. Shoemaking, bookmaking, matchmaking, teaching and professional boxing are jobs.
The things required to make a good wife, single person and nun are exactly the same. Choosing to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly is just as necessary in religious life as in married and single life.
The same qualities of generosity, courtesy, chastemindedness, self-forgetfulness and creative energy come off equally well in all three, just as selfishness, greed, manipulation and arrogance are equally trying.
There are no special extras that nuns need and mums don’t. What mums and nuns both need is a specific directive from God. A vocation. A call. An invitation to that line of action with which he wishes to privilege them. The choice is his. Many are called but few are chosen.
This does not mean that the Lord hauls in the old fishing net and, after inspecting the catch, arbitrarily throws the majority back into the sea.
He gives his vocation to the many, just as he gives his Body and Blood for the many. All but the incorrigibly bone-hearted get called – of those called a few get chosen for something else. The called are no worse off than the chosen. The many are called to the Good News. The chosen are selected from them for the purpose the Lord has in mind. Potential nuns frequently look and sound like everyone else. But they have been endowed – a fact possibly hidden even from themselves – with a heart big enough to take on God’s plan for them.
The door is open.
By reading this you have conceded that God has something to say to you.
The next step is walking – on water.
When the two disciples asked our Lord where he lived he said:
Come and see. (John 1:35-43)
Practically speaking –
you have to be free to act,
and you must be doing so from good motives.
This is your bit.
The third step does not depend on you: it is finding a community that will discern the Lord’s call and his choice in your life and is willing to accept you and give you a try.
Some footnotes – always read the footnotes!
On getting nipped in the bud
You may find Priests, Religious and even Bishops who will advise you that religious life, or the style of it to which you feel called, is a waste of time. Respect such people and thank them, but do not take their advice.
For scared survivors
You may have tried religious life and it has not worked. Look first at yourself and the human social and personal luggage you took with you. Discern what you have learned from the experience. You can make resounding failure a state-of-the-art learning tool.
And, you may have hit a pitfall. (Matthew 23:27-28)
Pitfall communities generally come in two sorts.
1. Geese painted white
Earnest, sincere, loving, liberal people who work enthusiastically and often with great generosity at something that, when really analysed, is not the fullness of the truth, the Gospel or the teaching of the Church. You should never stop loving such people or praying for them. Those who sincerely seek always find. But you may not be able to stay with them on their journey.
2. Whitewashed groundhogs
Ostensibly all is calm, bright and orthodox. But it is a self-sustaining orthodoxy built on broken bones and not on the rock of freedom that is the Good News. Groundhog communities split into little groups and talk spitefully behind each others backs. Lip service is paid to authority, but it is not respected. There are dozens of rules, but they are for someone else to keep. You may imagine you could re-form them. You are likely to be wrong, reform has to come from within. Get out before you go under.
Experiences like these are devastating – but not as devastating as discovering the truth about yourself; use it to grow closer to God.
So, whom do you seek?
A community worth a try should have For Sinners Only written (albeit invisibly) over the door. Every one in it is a potential goose and a potential groundhog. But they are struggling to work towards truth, freedom and obedience (yes, they have elections every three years or so…) Forgiveness and loving support have a high priority, even when they are honoured only by repentant failure.
A good community is a community that makes mistakes and can admit them.
True religious life is directed to an encounter with the Lord. On this earth we meet him in his Word, in his sacraments and where two or three are gathered together. Whatever its charism, a good community will have a good balance of these channels – because Jesus is there.
Because Jesus is here.
Lesser priorities are understood and interpreted differently by different religious families, in the light of the graces they receive – especially through their founders (and they may have elections at longer intervals…) Look for the presence of the Lord and listen to the guidance of his Holy Spirit.
This was written by us and it naturally reflects the priorities of our life which is, above all, a life of repentance and conversion.
My God and my All – words of Francis to the Lord.
I will always protect you – words of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament to Clare.
Set your mind on living well and dying holily – words of Colette to us.
Is this the future you?
We are grateful to the Colettine Poor Clare community for their permission to use the text and images from ‘How to be a Nun’.
Please click here to view their website.
A light hearted cartoon presentation from the Poor Clare Colettine sisters in Nottingham showing the different aspects of their life