A novice reflects on being 'clothed'
A year ago I was clothed as a novice of Malling Abbey, leaving behind my secular clothes and taking on the traditional black Benedictine habit with the white veil of a novice. For some years I had been drawn more deeply into prayer and finally it seemed that the only way forward was to enter an enclosed religious community. In the ceremony of clothing I took on a very visible sign of my commitment to seek God with my whole being.
Wearing the habit has enabled me to identify more closely with my sisters in this community, and with all nuns past and present. I experience it as symbolic of my commitment to this way of life with its particular traditions but also as a very practical way to greater simplicity and lack of distraction. I no longer need to think about what I will wear or what is happening to my hair. As a timeless garment it enables me to look dignified however fashions change - as one sister said "better 600 years out of date than 6!". I find it very containing and comfortable, allowing me to be fully myself without worrying about the expectations of others.
The simplicity of my surroundings, with plain décor and few images also supports this inner spaciousness. There is none of the noise and clutter that strikes me so forcibly on the rare occasions that I go out. I don’t have to deal constantly with gratuitous novelty and so can engage in a more focussed way with life in the present moment. The regular repetition of psalms and readings in our corporate prayer in weekly and seasonal cycles might sound like a recipe for boredom but I find the growing familiarity allows different parts of scripture to bounce off each other in creative ways as they float around in my mind.
It is a great gift here to have time set aside every day for spiritual reading and study, but with no formal syllabus. I do not have to achieve anything but simply allow myself to engage with this tradition and let it speak to me. I am learning that "less is more" - to read a few books deeply and let them enter my heart than to embark on a huge reading programme. I have chosen not to look at the daily newspaper but rather to read a few articles from one of the weeklies we receive. In that way I engage with a few important issues rather than flitting around through the masses of news generated each day. The sister who is tasked with listening to Radio 4 news ensures we know about any major events!
Our practical work here revolves around the running of a large household with many guests coming through. As enclosed nuns we do no work outside the Abbey. The care of our historic buildings and beautiful grounds is an important part of our call as Benedictines, as people rooted to a particular place. I am amazed how content I am to remain within the Abbey grounds, after being so fond of long hikes through the countryside before I entered.
There are many challenges in this life, letting go the control and choice I am used to having. But in this I find a deepening acceptance of life as it is and an opening to God’s call to journey into love. In community here I cannot hide my faults but I also find a loving and forgiving atmosphere that enables me to grow. A small example - earlier this year, having asked if I was doing anything irritating, I was told that I was rather noisy in the refectory, clattering my cutlery and plates. I was initially upset but accepted that I needed to work on this, trivial though it seemed. As I attended to what I was doing at meals and other times I began to find that I needed to bring more awareness and gentleness to everything I did. What started as merely a practical exercise to make less noise has now become a profound practice of love and non-violence.
I’ve already learnt so much of value in my time here but I also realise how far there is still to go. Indeed, a journey that will last the rest of my life!