In a comment to Becca, I realised that it is 12 months since I packed up my car and drove to Whitby, to join the Order of the Holy Paraclete.
(I’ve just finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince; it was quite difficult to not type “Order of the Phoenix” just then.)
So, what differences are there between me now and me then?
Then, I’d had to get through a difficult few months. I’d been dealing with the issues caused by one of the men in the church choir thinking I should have stayed in Chester to be his mistress. His wife was also in the choir; this was incredibly awkward and resulted in her leaving him, and my not just leaving the choir, but changing to attend the earlier, said, service on a Sunday. I’d tried to sell my flat and that hadn’t worked out (after 3 months, not a single person had been to view) so I had to re-mortgage so that I could rent it out. I loved handing in my notice at work – which I did before the re-mortgage had even completed – and leaving work was quite blissful. I didn’t have a tenant for the flat, but I had some money in the bank to cover a couple of months. I was at times, quite hideously stressed out and bursting into tears all over the place. It was wonderful to clear out stuff, but it’s not always so straight forward. It’s easy to sort out clothes and furniture. It’s the smaller things, things like letters and post and cards and gifts like key rings and bookmarks and so on, that I just didn’t know what to do with. My friend Janet was an absolute rock at this point in time, always being there on the end of a text message or coming over to help me sort things out, or letting me escape to hers for a couple of hours.
Liturgically speaking, this time last year it was Easter Week. 9th April 2012 was a Monday, and in the UK, Easter Monday is a Bank (public) Holiday. So on that day, having spent it pretty much on my own and making sure I had as much clean clothes as I could manage, I put as much stuff in the car as I could safely leave overnight. I wasn’t in my flat any more at this point; I was staying with some friends from church – and they’d ended up going away over the course of the Easter weekend.
Tuesday 10th April 2012 saw me up early. I ran around doing last minute packing and getting everything into the car. I did some last minute cleaning and tidying, and ended up leaving a whole bunch of stuff for my friends because I either couldn’t justify taking it with me, didn’t need it or didn’t have room for it. I then went to pick up Janet, who was coming with me for several reasons. She wanted to see the Priory and meet the Sisters. She’d travelled so much of my journey of the previous few months she wanted to make sure I ended up in Whitby safely. She was also buying my car from me, so I drove us there and she drove herself home the day after my admission.
Wednesday 11th April 2012 I was in the pre-admission retreat. Honestly, it was my first ever retreat day and therefore rather scary, but it was actually okay and didn’t send me running for the hills screaming. I was then admitted as a Postulant after the service of Vespers of the Dead. One of the Sisters had died on 31st March and due to Holy Week, the Sisters had had to organise for her funeral to take place after Easter Day. The coffin of the Sister is brought into Chapel for Vespers of the Dead, so I was admitted in front of the late Sister’s coffin. Which was actually kind of cool, in an odd sort of way.
Thursday 12th April 2012 was the funeral itself. It was a very strange day, especially as I didn’t really know what to do, both in regard to the normal day-to-day things and in regard to the funeral itself. But clearly I survived, and I stayed. Janet had taken herself off very early in the morning, and I received a text from her to let me know she’d got home safely when I put my phone on after the funeral and the buffet dinner.
Friday 13th April 2012 saw the departure of one of the Sisters who had been in First Vows. And then, slowly, things settled down and we had three months of normality (or as normal as you can get in a Religious Order) before one Sister died, another was diagnosed with Cancer and we had all but 3 of the Branch House Sisters at the Priory for Summer Chapter and Retreat.
The things I found difficult to deal with at first were not the things I initially expected. I’d already spent so much time by myself that I didn’t have a problem with being on my own. I struggled more with having to deal with someone else’s bad day and learning how to not let that give me a bad day. I had a couple of run-ins with a couple of different Sisters one weekend which made me feel quite miserable, and one thing I cannot do is to put on a happy face when I feel like the only difference between me and a sack of manure is the sack.
One thing I’ve had to get used to is the food. Stewed fruit features at a number of meals, because we grow our own rhubarb, gooseberries, plums and greengages. So these things turn up at Dinner with custard, crumble, evaporated milk or in some other form. I have had to get used to eating them; it’s all to do with the simplicity part of the vow of poverty, and also to do with obedience.
12 months on and while I wouldn’t say I like rhubarb (yet), I can eat a portion that is only slightly smaller than what is considered “normal” for here. I think one thing which has helped with that has been Lent. During Lent, we have either fresh fruit or stewed fruit for dessert, without custard, crumble, evaporated milk or any other form of topping. There is sugar in the stewed fruit, but not as much as I would like. I’m still struggling with gooseberries. The problem is that they’re green, and the consistency is, well, somewhat suspect. I’m doing my best, however, to not pull faces of the “ugh, gooseberries, I’d rather eat poo” variety because that is an action which would be classed as “murmuring” in the Rule of St Benedict. (The Rule of Life for the Order of the Holy Paraclete is based on the Rule of St Benedict, but it is our own Rule and so murmuring isn’t explicitly mentioned.) What Benedict means by murmuring is a sort of constant complaining or grumbling (or face-pulling) about having been asked (or not asked) to do something and then doing it with bad grace, or complaining about one’s Sisters and their actions. It’s basically about not being a Grumpy Old Man or a Grumpy Old Woman who can’t find anything right with anything.
Something else I’ve had to get used to, and which I’ve struggled with, is singing the Office. We sing plain chant, which is a four-line staff notation, with a C clef or an F clef (C clef tells you where the note C is, F clef tells you where the note F is) and I’ve not found it all that easy. A big part of this is to do with how different it is to read plain chant notation by comparison to treble & bass clef notation. Give me something in a five-line staff notation and, especially if it’s something I know well, I can just sing it. Give me something in plain chant notation, and even if I’ve sung it before, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll get it right. Even as recently as within the last fortnight, I’ve got things drastically wrong – on Easter Monday, we were singing the Solemn Te Deum (thus called because it’s got more twiddly bits in it so it gets used for big feasts) and the Sister who is Chauntress started us off, but when it came to the side where I sit singing our first verse, what came out of my mouth was completely not what was in my head or on the page. I’m getting more used to the regular psalm tones which are used for singing the Venite, Benedictus and Magnificat each day, but that’s still taking a bit of work.
We have a retreat day once a month, as well as a 3 day retreat at Christmas, another 3 day retreat at Easter and then 7 days in the Summer. Each time I have a retreat, I am expected to spend time looking at the Rule, and I have also made it part of my personal routine to check in with God that I’m still in the right place. 12 months on, the answer – for now – is still “yes, you’re in the right place”. I’m not going to ask about the future, I’m not going to dwell on the past (apart from in a “that was then, this is now” brief review/update sort of way), I’m going to do my best to live in the present and to live as big a life as I possibly can, by the grace of God.
There are still days when it feels like I have no clue about what’s going on, but I’m reasonably certain that even the Sisters who have been in vows for more than 50 years (there are 4 Sisters who have been in vows for over 60 years) have days when they have no clue about what’s going on. Although each day is similar, it’s not the same, and as yet I have not got bored of the Religious Life. I think if I were going to get bored of it, that would have happened months ago, and it hasn’t. I’m here, and I’m here to stay for as long as God says that here is where I’m meant to be.