Something I read as a teenager has always stayed with me. A French Carmelite, when asked about her motivation for entering the cloister, replied simply: “I must respond to His ‘Sitio’ ” (the “I thirst” of Jesus Crucified). Last Friday I witnessed such a desire explicated in the most eloquent and heart-stirring way as Sister Mechtilde made her solemn profession: to persevere until death her commitment to stability at St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde, to continual conversion of life according to the evangelical counsels, and to the desire to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
Dom Prosper Guéranger, the great liturgist and restorer of Benedictine monasticism, composed the rite, which takes place during the celebration of Mass. Drawing on Scripture and patristic sources, it combines a monastic profession with the consecration of virginity. What is made vivid through this combination is the truth that vocation is about a Someone not a something. My vocational identity is grounded in a relationship, not in the carrying out of a particular activity.
When ministries and ordinations are conferred in the secular priesthood, there is always a ritual call to emphasise the free choice of the candidate. Spoken in English, these formulae frankly lack poetry, sounding rather more administrative than demonstrative. In this monastic profession the nun, still in the white veil of the simply professed, stands in the choir with a lighted candle and the antiphon is sung in Latin: “Wise virgins, trim your lamps, behold the Bridegroom comes, go forth to meet him.” Then the bishop sings “Veni, filia, audi me” (“Come daughter listen to me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord”, from Psalm 33). Here the bishop in the person of Christ and his Church confirms the candidate in her subjective conviction that she is called by God. The candidate replies in words from the Book of Daniel: “Now with all my heart I follow you, it is you I fear and your face I long to see …”
Sister Mechtilde sings this antiphon in a steady, beautiful voice. Then with arms at first outstretched wide and then closing over her heart as she bows low, she sings three times on a rising tone: “Suscipe me Domine, secundum eloquium tuum” (“Uphold me, Lord, according to your word and I shall live; let me not be disappointed in my hope.”
To “sing the Suscipe”, is in fact how the nuns characterise solemn profession. Hearing it, I can understand why. Words of St Augustine come to mind: “Only the one who loves sings.” The singing voice reveals the depths of a person, the expression of what is heartfelt. Music “imitates the impulses of the soul”, according to Plato.
St Augustine reflects that we have a concept of the ultimate Good but we can never fully put into words what it really is. “We cannot say, and yet we cannot be silent either.” What are we to do, neither speech nor silence serving to articulate our desire for that Good? A great sigh of longing rises up from the depths of the heart and cries out Rejoice!” just as the breath rising from deep within is what supports the sweet singing of a melody. By singing the Suscipe, the inner dynamism not only of the words but also of the one who sings them emerges so powerfully and seems to create an echo in all hearts there – an echo of the beauty of the One who has inspired her song.
The candidate prostrates herself while the litany of the saints is sung and a beautiful prayer of consecration is said over her. She has already signed a profession chart on the altar, a solemn declaration in her own hand to be faithful to the promises she has made. She is clothed in the monastic cowl. Her white veil is replaced by a black one, she is given a book containing the Divine Office, and the bishop places a ring on her finger. He says: “Receive the ring of faith, the seal of the Holy Spirit, that you may be called the spouse of God and, if you serve Him with fidelity, may receive an eternal crown.” And the newly professed sings: “Behold what I longed for I now see, what I hope for I now possess.”
To “be love at the heart of the Church” was how St Thérèse characterised her cloistered vocation. Sister Mechtilde and her community are living such a reality today. I felt privileged to stand in the warmth and lustre of such holy love which radiates far beyond the walls of their enclosure.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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