We have a new novice this week, to celebrate the coming of Spring. Charles has been a postulant since last September, and it was time for him and for the community to discern whether he should take the definitive step of being officially a monk - one in training, certainly - but a real beginning monk.
The whole process of receiving the habit unfolds deliberately. First, unlike the customs of many other communities, there is a time away, which we traditionally have called the "Postulant Leave". It looks pretty much like a 10-day vacation, but it has a couple of other purposes which we think are important to the process of commiting oneself to this Order. One is to let the postulant get away and back in his old surroundings, and see how much he has changed in the past six months, and then have some time to think about that. The transformation that is caused by joining a community, and in this case, a community oriented to seeking Christ, is something that happens slowly over time, and usually isn't a process that we notice on a day to day basis. But six months is enough for significant changes to have taken place and the Leave gives a Postulant some time to return to where he came from and to experience the reality that he is not the same person who left six months ago. Then he has to think about this; whether it feels like a good thing or not.
And then, of course, you have to decide to come back. This is the second reason for the Leave and it isn't a small thing. All the way along in the monastic life it's important for it to be clear, both to the community and to yourself, that you are here because you want to be. We are not a community that tends to be very impressed by people who say: "I really don't know if I want to do this, but God wants me here." When that happens we tend to tell a man to talk to God some more, because if God wants someone here, they will have a real desire to come. Otherwise they are likely to be dealing not with God but with the shadow side of themselves and with motivations that they don't want to be conscious. We want a man to be able to say: "Yes, I really want this. I really do. And I (and we) trust that God wants it as well, and our discernment process will include, as his training goes on, a continued search for the ways in which our will and God's will intertwine. This comes out again at first vows and again at life vows: both ceremonies start with a question that is essentially: "Do you really want to do this?" and the candidate has to answer, out loud and in public: "Yes, I really want to" (though it's couched in somewhat more formal and spiritual terms, of course).
Having decided to come back, there is then a four-day period of retreat in which the Postulant has time to pray and to think over the whole thing and to continue the process of confronting God and his own motivations and his hopes, and maybe his dreams. We give each Postulant a choice of where he wants to make his retreat. It just has to be away from here. Charles decided he would have his retreat with the Sisters of St John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey. They have a nice apartment which is roomy and comfortable and is perfect for the purpose, and it was just the right place for him to be. He says that he had a great retreat.
White he's doing that the guests start arriving. In this case Charles' family was well represented, including his mother from Florida and other family members and a friend from the west coast, and he arrived home to join in the process of collecting them and greeting them and to have some meals with them and to share the excitement (no, we don't keep the postulants in silence right up to the moment of the ceremony. We tried that at one point in our history and it really was counter-productive for the sort of community that we are.)
Then there is the ceremony itself. It happens in the late afternoon, just before Vespers. Charles stands before the Superior and commits himself to this path: the Superior asks: "Are you ready to enter the monastic life?" and he responds "Yes, with God's help." There it is again, the question about whether you really want to do this, and the response which is both an agreement and an acknowledgment that you can't do it entirely by your own desire or strength. Something else has to be part of the mix, and that is Grace, the presence of God's Spirit.
Then he hears the Rule. St Benedict specified that the Rule was to be read straight through to the candidate. Since that would take a couple of hours, we have decided to abbreviate it somewhat, but we did want some participation in this experience of having the Rule read, so we have chosen five rather lengthy readings, which includes passages both from Benedict's Rule and from the Rule written by Fr Huntington, the Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross. Five of the Brothers read the passages and the candidate turns to face each reader in turn. It's enough to give a real experience of hearing our Rules laid out as the foundation of what a man is embracing by entering this community. In this day and age when we tend to communicate in sound bites, this kind of reading is pretty unusual and it provokes a variety of reactions. But Charles told us that he found it very moving, and I always do too.
Then the new habit was blessed and it was handed to Charles and he went out to change into it. We all sang a hymn, to give him time to get into his new clothes, and then, as the hymn is drawing to a close, in he comes, lead by the Novice Master, all clothed in white, with the hood up, so that you scarcely can see his face. At that point he's clearly A Monk, and the fact that our habit is white makes this point for all to see. This is a major change for all of us, for Charles first, and for all of the rest of us as well.
Then he's blessed and his hood is lowered so that we can see that yes, it really is Charles in that white habit, and he exchanges the Peace with the Superior and the Novice Master and then he's led to the choir, where he hugs all of us, and then we all sit down and do what monks do; we sing Vespers.
Afterwards, you may not be surprised to hear that, being Holy Cross, we have a party - in this case, one of our Chef Edward's marvelous meals. We're celebrating how good it is to have a new man to walk this path with us and to be one with us in our life. He looks perfectly natural in his habit. Not everyone does. Some men have to grow into the habit. But Charles looks like he's always had it on and after two days I'm having trouble remembering that he ever looked any other way. He tells me he feels the same.
So that was a very nice thing to crown our week with. And speaking of nice things, today is my 71st birthday! Also something to celebrate. So I will.