Remember the Dionne quintuplets? I’ve heard of them, but I didn’t realize that one of the sisters joined a convent at age 19 — the Servants of the Holy Sacrament, to be specific. The video says it was Marie who entered the convent; the Wikipedia page says it was Émilie. Based on what FindAGrave and IMDB say, I am tempted to believe that it was Émilie, and that the video made a mistake because one of Émilie’s middle names was Marie. She died not long after she entered the convent.
I like how the video begins: “In search of peace …” Take a minute and read a little about the Dionne quintuplets and the media frenzy surrounding them from birth. Indeed, surely Émilie was searching for some peace and quiet. Hopefully she found some.
This is one of the first questions a friend asked me when I told him I was considering monastic life. There’s a long answer and a short answer.
The long answer … is that there are lots of factors you can (and probably should) consider. In addition to questions like “How is health care provided?” and “What would retirement look like?” and other important questions I’ve linked to in this post, you could ask yourself, “Am I looking for a contemplative order, an active order, or one that mixes the best of both worlds?” You could visit the convent repeatedly and try to gauge the health of the dynamics between the Sisters. You could rank the convents you visit based on the number of Daily Offices they observe. You could ask about the convent’s finances. You could stalk convents on social media and sign up for dozens of convent newsletters. You could ask whether Sisters of that order remain politically active (e.g., do they vote).
In short, there’s an awful lot of research you can (and probably should) do. You could base your ultimate decision on the results of that research.
But at the end of the day, what happens when it comes down to a choice between two (or more) convents that seem very similar in externalities? What then?
That’s where the shorter answer comes in.
This is my kitty. His name is Patton.
Before I found him, I worried endlessly about the right way to choose a cat. I kind of wanted a small black female kitty, but restricting my search only to black cats seemed shallow and wrong, even though there’s no ACLU for cats. I was also worried that narrowing my search so much might mean I’d miss out on a wonderful large non-black male kitty.
But as in most things, a time came when I had to make a choice. I had to make a leap of faith and see where the chips fell (if I can mix metaphors). In this case, the choice came when I was browsing Overstock.com (yes, the furniture website) and noticed a tab marked “Pets.” You could enter your zip code, and the website would generate a list of adoptable pets in your area.
So I entered my zip code. I hit “Enter.”
One of the first results was Patton.
And the rest, as they say, was history.
My point is this: If I were a betting woman, I’d wager that the Holy Spirit — through prayer, lectio divina, conversations with Godly folks, and other spiritual practices — will make Herself known and let you know where your home lies.
Maybe it’s Convent A. Maybe it’s Convent K. Maybe it’s even the lay life.
But if the Spirit leads us somewhere, there’s something to be said about making the leap and seeing what happens. As the Great Unattributed Wisdom of Pinterest tells us, “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”
(I’m not sure about that, theologically, but it’s pithy and it sounds good, so let’s roll with it.)
So let the Holy Spirit lead. Take a leap of faith where the Spirit guides you to leap.
Then let the rest be your beautiful future history.
Visiting convents and meeting different communities of Sisters is a wild mix of a job interview, a Meet the Parents date, and an interview with a potential landlord … plus a weird element all of its own. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s a mutual audition to see if you could potentially live, work, play, and worship with these people for the rest of your life.
I don’t think it’s disingenuous to write about how you can impress a religious community. There are advice articles out there for acing job interviews and impressing a partner’s parents, aren’t there? This is in the same vein. You’re not asking how to change yourself for these people. You’re asking how to be your best self during a time when first impressions really, really matter.
So how does one impress a group of nuns?
Well, I’m not a nun (… yet), so take my advice with a grain of salt. But here’s what I’ve found has gone over well during my convent visits.
Offer to help out. Just like you would offer to help clear the table after dinner at a friend’s house, make it clear during your convent tour that you are ready and willing to help wash dishes, sweep the kitchen, or feed the convent cat during your stay. (Hot tip: There’s generally always a convent cat.) Sometimes communities prefer visitors to not help out, because it’s just easier to stick to a predetermined schedule. But I’m willing to bet they’ll love you for asking.
Dress to impress. Just like you would leave your shorts and tank tops in the closet when you dress for work (I assume), convent visits are a good time to dress like you’re going to a job interview. Think about covering your knees and shoulders and keeping necklines modest. Some convents might prefer to see skirts over slacks. And on a practical note, it might be best to leave your high heels at home — there might be cobblestones or a lot of stairs to navigate.
Follow all the guidelines you remember. If you forget — as I once did — that the Greater Silence starts after Compline and you accidentally wish someone “Good night” in the bathroom as you cross paths while brushing your teeth, don’t sweat it. If you show up — as I have done — in the refectory before the Angelus bell rings, just retreat to the hallway. If you accidentally leave your sheets on the bed when you leave, rather than stripping them off and putting them in the laundry hamper … maybe consider emailing the Sister in charge of guests and apologizing. It can’t hurt.
Be ready with your elevator pitches. In my experience, the most common questions asked of seekers are “Why do you want to be a nun?” and “What’s your spiritual autobiography?” It can help boost your confidence if you have your stories all ready to go. I’m not saying you should polish them up with as much effort as you would spend on polishing a presentation for a job interview — and you should definitely leave the PowerPoint slides at home 🙂 — but it can help you clarify your own motives, for your own benefit, if you practice a little at telling a story that makes sense.
Be honest. For example, if you’re not sure you could handle any of the three traditional vows (celibacy, obedience, and poverty), say so. Odds are that the Sisters will have advice for you — and maybe some stories of their own struggles with the vows.
Be willing to laugh at yourself. To my mind, there’s nothing that says “I could fit in well at a religious community” like a healthy sense of humor (which includes a healthy sense of humility).
Try not to gush. It’ll be points in your favor if you can own up to any romantic ideas you have about monastic life. For example, if you were first drawn to monastic life because you wanted to swan around a French Gothic cloister in a floor-length habit, own up to that — then follow it up with the healthier, more sustainable reasons that have developed since those days of habit envy.
Ask about the Sisters’ discernment journeys. They’ll probably have told their stories a million times, but there’s nothing like an attentive listener to make the story fresh.
Ask for book recommendations, especially on the topics of discernment and vocation. Who doesn’t love recommending their favorite reads?
Be yourself. A convent should be a place where you grow into your best self — where you “take off all the masks” the world has made you put on, as one very wise nun I know once said. If you try to present yourself as someone you’re not during your initial visit, it’ll only cause more grief for you (and the community) when your true self emerges during formation. Save yourself some grief. Take a shortcut. Be yourself from the get-go.
Don’t stress about it too much. Unlike a job interview or a landlord interview, there isn’t just one spot that you have to beat out a hundred competitors for. I mean, at some of the more popular convents, like the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, apparently competition for entry can be pretty fierce. But let your future rest in the arms of God! If you’re meant to end up at a particular convent, it’ll happen. Just focus on living your best, most Godly life. Oftentimes, things have a funny way of falling into place after that.
If you’re a frequent convent guest, what would you add to this list? If you’re a woman religious, what have I missed?
Visiting convents is a great way to aid your discernment. There’s nothing like actually stepping through those big front doors, meeting the Mother Superior and Novice Mistress, chatting with Sisters face-to-face, and getting into the rhythm of the Daily Offices alongside a religious community to make you realize, “I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life” — or “Nope, this is not for me!”
So what can you reasonably expect when you visit a religious community as a seeker?
There will be a lot of guidelines. Where to put your sheets on your last day there, where to put used coffee mugs, where and when to go for the Daily Offices, how to navigate the Office Book … there’ll be an awful lot of information to take in during your orientation — whether you get an in-person orientation or are given a binder to read. (If the latter, I don’t recommend skipping reading it.)
Trust the system! The Sisters have probably had decades — if not centuries — of experience in offering hospitality to seekers. This is not the time to make recommendations for changes (unless you’re given a feedback form to fill out).
Some areas will be off-limits. Don’t take this personally! All the convents I’ve been to have had areas that were “cloistered” — that is, off-limits to everyone but the Sisters. These areas will almost certainly include the Sisters’ cells (bedrooms), but the Sisters might also have their own refectory (dining room), recreation room(s), library, and section of the chapel. Your tour guide when you first arrive will probably be very clear about where these areas are — if they’re not already marked with signs, doors, grilles, and curtains. As long as you’re alert, you probably won’t have to worry about accidentally stumbling into the cloister!
The food will probably be plain but nutritious. Depending on the time of the liturgical year and what type of Feast Day the community is celebrating, you might get bacon, eggs, and Danishes for breakfast — or oatmeal and dry toast. Lunch might be the major meal of the day, with (say) a casserole and a salad bar. Dinner might be a bit lighter — perhaps sandwiches and soup. You might get fish on Fridays, or no meat that day whatsoever. Your mileage may vary depending on the convent.
You probably won’t get breakfast first thing in the morning. Sorry! Depending on the convent, you might have a couple of the Daily Offices and maybe the Celebration of the Eucharist first, then you’ll get your coffee fix.
Conversations will get deep fast. Don’t be surprised if you get into your medical history, your spiritual autobiography, and your emotional hangups in your first conversation with any given Mother Superior. They’ll probably give you a lot of latitude to talk about such things — you don’t have to bring these things up, but sometimes it’s best if they know about them up front. That way, if the community is (for example) dead-set against even the idea of antidepressants, they can let you know — and you can spend your time looking for a community that does support such things. (They do exist!)
You might be given chores, or you might be told not to help out. Some places have a fixed schedule that they like to stick to; others try to incorporate seekers into their routines from the get-go. When in doubt, ask the Sister who’s showing you around.
You might not be charged for your stay. Many convents like seekers to come back as often as they can, prior to applying to enter. To facilitate this, they often won’t charge seekers for their stay. That’s another good thing to clarify, though.
You will be judged. But in a nice way! Remember, at the same time you’re checking out this community to see if it’ll be a good fit for you, they’re checking you out to see if you’ll be a good fit for them. This doesn’t mean they’ll be checking the depth of your neckline, making you kneel on the floor to make sure your hem is long enough, or glaring at you if you chant a wrong note. Just pretend you’re at a job interview, and you’ll do just fine!
You will be warmly welcomed! Any community worth its salt will warmly welcome all inquiries from new vocations. They’ll gladly assist you on your discernment journey — whether that means accepting your application or gently saying, “We don’t think you’d be happy here.”
Convent visitors, what have I missed? What advice do you have for those making their first visits to communities?