So… Nuns and Monks, Brothers and Sisters, Bishops, Priests and Deacons have got their heads screwed on right, are happy and sorted, and life is always jolly for them. Right?
Actually, no. Underneath the habit (or cassock), we’re just the same as everyone else. We get coughs and colds. We have bad days and good days. We have really truly hellish times, and really truly great times.
The mental health issues of living in a Religious Community are the same for me as a Novice in the Community which I chose to join as for all other novices. If we had a form of depression before joining the Community, it’s not going to magically go away when we’re admitted as a Postulant, or Clothed as a Novice. If anything, it’s likely to be worse.
Why is this? I’m going to have a go at explaining.
In the outside world, a normal “bad hair day” – one of those days where everything goes wrong – is reasonably easy to deal with. A work colleague upsets you? Well, you go home at the end of your shift and you don’t have to deal with them for at least 10 hours, and you can unwind with a glass of something, or the telly, or the internet, or whatever floats your boat, and hopefully the next time you see them, you’ll be feeling less inclined to rip their head off to then use it as a chamber pot.
In the outside – or secular – world, there are distractions. Things to take you away from other people. Things to take you outside of your own head when life gets too much – whether it be books, blogs, porn, alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, writing, your family, and so on.
In a Religious Community, these things are rather less obviously available. What you do get a lot of is silence. In “my” Community, we have Greater Silence (ie don’t talk unless it’s an absolute emergency) from Compline (Night Prayer) until after breakfast. Compline is usually at 9pm. We get up at six. Breakfast is usually at half 8, so by the time we’ve finished breakfast, it’s 9am. That’s 12 hours where you don’t talk to anyone, you don’t go on the internet, you don’t watch the telly. Reading a book is OK. Writing a diary is OK. Writing letters? No. Listening to the radio? Ideally not, unless you’re doing intercessions at the Eucharist and want to catch the 10pm or 6am headlines in case there’s anything important happened overnight which we ought to pray about.
We also have two periods of Lesser Silence, one in the morning, from 9am to 12 noon, and in the afternoon from 2.15 to 3.45. This is called “Lesser” because you can talk providing it’s relating to business. So if I’m having a class, or helping a Sister in a job, or needing to email my estate agent, then that is acceptable. But again, no letter writing, no listening to music, no watching the telly. Reading the paper or doing a sudoku or a crossword on a coffee break is fine. No playing games on the computer.
The majority of our meals are silent too. There are advantages to this – we don’t talk at breakfast, so you don’t have to try to be polite to people when you’ve not had enough tea to kick-start you awake. Not talking at dinner means you can eat your food while it’s still hot. There are standard, probably universal, gestures for “pass the salt”. Dinner is a formal meal, which means that we wait for everyone to finish eating the main course before clearing for pudding (dessert). We don’t read at meals, we sit and wait, in silence. Well, mostly silence. There might be the occasional noise as someone coughs, or blows their nose, or laughs at the squirrels fighting with the birds over who gets the nuts out of the feeders in the gardens. Supper is also silent, but not formal, so we go once we’ve finished.
So, that’s approximately seventeen and a half hours of silence in a day. In my case, I’m asleep for about 8 of those hours, and I have four classes which take place in the Lesser Silence, and two times of working either in the library or on the website, which does require my speaking to someone about the work. We don’t have Lesser Silence on a Sunday, and it generally doesn’t happen on a Saturday afternoon either, and the rules are slightly different on a Tuesday, which is our Space Day.
Tuesdays are weird. We don’t have any Offices in Chapel; we say our own, as convenient to our day. Meals are silent. Some Sisters go out, some don’t. If I’m in retreat (we have one retreat day a month, when we really don’t talk to anyone all day, unless there is someone giving you a talk to think and pray about while in retreat) then I really don’t talk to anyone apart from whichever Sister it is giving me a talk, and then that’s only for about an hour in the morning. If I’m not in retreat, then it has been known that I actually don’t see anyone to talk to for the entire day, if I’ve not had plans to go out. Fortunately, if I’m not in retreat, I can use the internet with no time restrictions, so can catch up on emails, blogs, facebook, etc, and generally distract myself.
So this means that despite living with 18 other women, there are days when I don’t actually see anyone to have a conversation with.
This can be very difficult at times. If my brain gets stuck in a loop, then whatever negative message is on that loop can just keep on going round and round, with no intervention to make it stop. Fortunately I know what my personal warning signs are. If I’m over-tired, if my period is due, if someone else has taken their bad day out on me, then I know I need to take action. But it’s taken me time to learn what my warning signs are.
Another thing is stress. Living with other people, especially people who are not family, is stressful. Think about going to university/college and how the people who were brilliant friends in halls of residence during the first year were going to be the perfect house mates, and how by the end of the second year you were ready to kill them because they either never did their washing up or were at the other extreme nagging you because you didn’t do yours the second you’d finished eating. At least at uni, you can move on from those house mates. In a Religious Community, especially when you’ve taken vows, you can’t get away from these people. You have to love them unconditionally, even when you’d actually rather beat them over the head with a frying pan when their back is turned. Likewise, they have to love you. And the people who wind you up the most are, more often than not, the ones who will be reflecting your own faults straight back at you.
Some Communities have Branch Houses, which are smaller houses run by the Community to do a specific work in a specific area. If you are in a Branch House, you may be away from someone who really, really annoys you – but you may then be stuck with someone who also causes you irritation. If there’s only two in the Branch House, then you have no choice but to work through whatever the problem is, because at the end of the day, not only do you have to live together, but you have to pray together, and God works far more effectively when there are no obstacles to prayer.
Part of my journey through testing my vocation included therapy. This has made me self-aware so that I understand my motivation at times, and I know when I’m the one being silly or childish or awkward, and basically mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Fortunately, I’m not at the point of being so inward-looking that I can’t see other people or how my actions could affect them, and I do my best to not be irritating to the Sisters.
I know there have been people who have come into the Noviciate here, and at other communities, to test a vocation to the Religious Life. Some of them possibly have a vocation, but it’s not the right time, so they’ve left to go and do something else for a time. Some of them left because it became apparent that they didn’t have a vocation – either to them, or to the community. It’s easier for all, obviously, if the Novice realises for his/her self about this, rather than having to be told to leave.
There is a book called Through The Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong, which I read on one of my visits to Whitby. It is autobiographical, and tells of how Karen, at 18, joined the Roman Catholic Order who were running the High School she’d been attending. She joins as a Postulant, is Clothed as a Novice, and takes Vows (which as this was before the Vatican II Council in the early 60′s were permanent, or Life, Vows). The book documents her struggles with the strictness of the Community, with some of the senior Sisters, and also her attitude towards the other Postulants and Novices around her. It documents how she struggles with an eating disorder which resulted from her trying to eat cooked cheese – which she knew before joining the Community that she couldn’t stomach it. I read the book and spent most of the time arguing with it – “but we don’t do it that way!” and “where does she get off, saying that about a fellow Postulant?” and other such exclamations.
One big difference between Karen Armstrong’s story and mine, however, was highlighted when I read another story about vocation. The Choice, by Sister Kirsty of CSMV (written under an assumed name, but it is a true story based on the experiences of someone who joined the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, in the late 1970′s) details “Kirsty’s” journey and experiences as she first feels the call by God to the Religious Life, how she adapted to the Life and her journey through the Noviciate to taking Vows. All through The Choice, Sister Kirsty refers to time spent in prayer, in communion with God, with feeling God talking to her and directing her. She wrote about her conversations with her Novice Mistress and how she could feel the Holy Spirit helping her to change her ways and her attitudes, so that she could progress on with each step of the journey.
In Through the Narrow Gate, God doesn’t get a look-in. He’s not mentioned. There’s nothing written about Karen feeling like she’s in the presence of God, or of her praying, or of her leaning on God when things get tough. She works through her journey completely in her own strength.
It’s impossible to live this life in our own strength. That is the way of mental, physical and emotional breakdowns. God didn’t call us to this life so we could prove to him how tough we are. He’s called us so we can show just how weak we are, and so that in our weaknesses, we can rely on His strength.
In relying on God, the people who have been in the Noviciate and left, have left as stronger people because of their experiences. They’ve learnt about themselves and about God, and about their own needs, mental, physical and emotional. They’ve grown as people, and that is a good thing. It’s not a failure to leave, and in some cases, it would be a failure to stay.
For me, too much introspection can be a bad thing. I know to turn to music, to books, to the internet, to stop me getting into a downward spiral. One thing I do know. The next couple of years while I’m a Novice are not going to be easy, and if apply and am accepted for First Vows, the three years of that are not going to be easy either. And if I get as far as applying for Life Vows (which is theoretically possible in 2018) then life is still not going to be easy. And one day, should all this come to pass, I may end up in a position of authority within the Community.
Finally, if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading, and please accept my apologies for this being such a long post.