“Well, if I change my mind, you’ll have to force me!” I must have been only about 8 years old at the time but I remember the scene vividly. I had just declared to my Mum my intention of becoming a nun when I grew up. She had been pleased to hear this news, as she had always striven to foster within the souls of her children a deep love of Christ, but my older sisters had, as she pointed out to me, said the same thing when they had been small. I remember stamping my foot in despair, “please, please promise to force me if I change my mind. I don’t want to change my mind!” But no amount of pleading and wailing would persuade her to agree. I remember feeling indignant about her lack of cooperation, but also inwardly distressed by the fact that one day I might stop desiring something which I wanted more than anything I could think of.
I don’t know why I desired the religious life with the ardour I did. I was far too young to know what it meant to be a nun. But the call was there, and somehow I sensed it, without in any way being able to express it. Many years had to pass before I was able to answer the call of love, and in my teens my enthusiasm for the religious life was by no means as forceful as it had been. I think that this was a necessary part of the process of learning to respond fully to His call. If I had stuck to the resolution I had made at 8 years old and held to this ideal against all odds, there would have been the danger that my vocation was something I had chosen to do rather than a listening to and discerning the real call of God. The stubborn determination to do what I thought God wanted me to do had to change to a willing and loving acceptance of God’s Will, simply because it is His Will and for no other reason.
I settled on nursing as a prospective career and as I had a year to spare at the end of my A’ levels, I worked as a nursing assistant in the JR hospital in Oxford while at the same time securing a place at University to study nursing the following year. But the desires of my heart were pulling me in a different direction. During a family holiday to the Isle of Wight a couple of years earlier we had visited St Cecilia’s Abbey in Ryde, and as I had prayed in the church with my Mum I had experienced an overwhelming sense that this was where God wanted me to be. As the start date of my nursing course drew near, I grew more and more uncomfortable and when I received a letter from the University asking for a definite confirmation of acceptance, I knew I had to act and I arranged a visit to the Abbey.
I loved my time at St Cecilia’s. Everything about the life delighted me: the glorious liturgy, the warm and friendly community, the work in the large garden and altar bread department, and above all the powerful atmosphere of peace and recollection which seemed, literally, to breathe holiness. A few days inside the monastery was all the incentive I needed to send off the letter to the University with a tick in the box by the statement rejecting the place. This was a big weight off my mind and I felt very happy with the decision.
It often happens that when someone has made a decision to follow God’s call and embrace the religious life, they experience what could be described as a counter-call, something that will make the response to God’s call all the more radical. This could be anything, from an amazing job offer, the career opportunity of one’s dreams, to a marriage proposal, but there is usually something to pull one’s heart in the opposite direction and so enhance the value of the sacrifice in His eyes. In my case, that something was my Mum’s illness, a rare medical condition. The months leading up to my entry were not easy ones. I was unsure as to how I could leave home and join an enclosed community when my Mum was so unwell. But I knew that to put off following His call would be to put my vocation at risk in a serious way. When we read the accounts of Jesus calling his disciples in the Gospels, there is always something urgent and impelling about His call, which demands an immediate response on the part of the one called. I also had to keep reminding myself that with the grace of a religious vocation comes the grace to respond to that vocation. If I am open to His grace, then His strength, made perfect in weakness, will be mine. Nothing is impossible for God. In the end it was Mum herself who decided the matter. There was no way she was going to stand in the way of my vocation. She might live for a long time yet and she wouldn’t have me sitting around waiting for her. These were brave, completely selfless words, as I know for myself just how much the sacrifice cost her.
On 25th March 2006, 6 months after my 19th birthday, I entered the monastery. The parting with my family was painful, but looking back, I do not think I would have wanted it in any other way. Like married life, the religious life is a life of self-giving love, and thus involves sacrifice, immolation. In Our Lord’s life, love and sacrifice go hand in hand: “He loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). It was love that drew me to the monastery, and if sacrifice is only love put into action, then that love found its expression in a desire to give my life to Him, who gave His life for me.
The Lord is never outdone in generosity. The contemplative life, that hidden life of prayer and praise, of love and sacrifice, lived within the silence and tranquillity of the cloister, bestows upon the soul a peace and joy which the world doesn’t know. If it is a law that love and sacrifice go hand in hand in this life, it follows that joy, the fruit of love, is also a partner with sacrifice. My Clothing Day was the happiest of my life thus far, but less than a month afterwards, my family broke the news to me that Mum’s general condition had worsened. She was rushed into hospital on Palm Sunday and died on Good Friday, April 6th 2007. A religious vocation carries with it the grace to go all the way in love and thus all the way in sacrifice, love-in-action. When one loves, one wants to give oneself wholly to the object of one’s love and to hold nothing back in the giving. On Profession day, this act of self-giving love is solemnly ratified by the Church. As I approach this great day, I find myself drawn more than ever to the contemplation of Christ Crucified. It is in this supreme act of self-giving love, made perpetually present in the Church through the daily sacrifice of the Mass, that our own sacrifices, great and small, find their meaning.
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all”.
(from Isaac Watts’ ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’)
By a young professed sister of St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde, Isle of Wight who took her Solemn Vows In January 2012