How to Become a Poor Clare
How to Become a Poor Clare
What stirs in the heart of a young woman called to the cloister? Or, how does she know she is called? The answers are as numerous and varied as those who are called. Maybe she read about the Poor Clares. Perhaps she visited at the parlor grille of a monastery, or saw a profession ceremony. It may have been that she knelt in the public chapel and heard the chants of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office, flowing on and on in a river of prayer. Or, it may be that she knows next to nothing about the Poor Clares. And yet that small insistence in the soul remains: I? Impossible! Or – is it?
The Holy Spirit speaks in a whisper. It is all too easy to drown out His voice, but in the quiet watches of the soul, His invitation is heard. “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8). God is the master of His works and His plans. Often we cannot know what He is doing or why He is doing it. But He knows. It is enough to be convinced of that, and to listen for His voice. Listening is a great and delicate art, and scarcely to be learned in the midst of clangor.
A vocation is a free gift of God. It is offered, not forced. God invites, but He does not compel; and eternity will reveal how many vocations have been lost or disregarded. The rich young man in the Gospel was assuredly called, but he did not respond. He had a vocation, but he chose not to follow it. The Gospel says that “… he went away sad” (Mt. 19:22). Doubtless he remained sad for the rest of his life.
How does one protect her vocation? Obviously, only with the strength of Christ who is offered daily on the altar at Holy Mass, only with the Bread of the strong which is Holy Communion. God does not choose a young woman because she is good, but because He is so good. The one who thinks herself qualified to be a great success in the cloister is probably the one who will fail, whereas the one who is humbled at the idea that God should look towards such poor material as herself for the fashioning of a contemplative nun is likely to persevere.
What is the aim of Formation?
Verbi Sponsa, the Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns published by the Church in 1999, and the two new documents recently published, Vultum Dei Quaerere (To Seek the Face of God), and Cor Orans (The Praying Heart), beautifully explain the purpose and sets the norms to be followed for the formation of contemplative nuns. Brief selections of these texts follow
“While the acquisition of knowledge remains important, formation in the consecrated life, and particularly in contemplative monastic life, consists above all in identifying with Christ. In fact, it is a question of "a progressive assimilation of Christ's sentiments towards the Father”, to the point of being able to say with St. Paul: "for me, to live is Christ” (cf. Cor Orans, 222).
“The formation of contemplative nuns is primarily formation in faith, in which are found ‘the foundation and first fruits of authentic contemplation’. Through faith the person learns to discern the constant presence of God in order to cleave in charity to his mystery of communion. The formation of cloistered nuns is aimed at preparing them for total consecration of self to God in the following of Christ, according to the form of life ordered solely to contemplation, which is proper to their particular mission in the Church. Formation must influence the individual at the deepest level, aiming at involving the whole person in a progressive journey of conformity to Jesus Christ and to his total self-giving to the Father. The method proper to formation must therefore assume and express the character of wholeness, educating to wisdom of heart. Because it is aimed at the transformation of the whole person, it is clear that this formation never ends....
“Formation in one's own monastery has the advantage of promoting the harmony of the entire community. The monastery, moreover, with its characteristic environment and rhythm of life, is the most suitable place for following the course of formation, since the daily nourishment of the Eucharist, the liturgy, lectio divina, Marian devotion, ascetic practices and work, the exercise of fraternal charity and the experience of solitude and silence, are essential moments and elements of formation in the contemplative life” (cf. Verbi Sponsa, 22-24).
Stages of Formation
“In today’s social, cultural and religious context, monasteries... should ensure that candidates receive personalized guidance and adequate programs of formation, always keeping in mind that for initial formation and that following temporary profession, to the extent possible, “ample time must be reserved”, no less than nine years and not more than twelve” (cf. Vultum Dei Quaerere, 15)
The first period of formation is known as the aspirancy. The Church envisions this time (a year in length) as an opportunity for the community and the aspirant to become acquainted, and for the aspirant to deepen her own human and spiritual formation, to grow in her understanding of the religious life, and to continue her discernment of her vocation. The abbess and the council of the community are to determine the amount of time that the aspirant spends outside the monastery before actually entering.
Aspirants are received between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, with exceptions sometimes made when there is good reason. Experience has long proved that any normal woman of average strength and good health, free from illness or serious physical defect, can observe the Rule of St. Clare without detriment to her health. Indeed, the regularity of the life, including simple foods and outdoor work, is conducive to good health.
A high school education is required. A college education or experience in some specialized work can be an asset. No financial dowry is required, as this was never the mind of St. Francis or St. Clare; but a young woman is expected to bring a few items of clothing and some small accessories she will need, if she is able to do so. A willing heart, a teachable mind, and a pliable character are the desirable dispositions. Progressively to fathom the contemplative vocation requires the full effort of mind, heart and will. The ability to be taught is of itself a talent – meant to be multiplied.
The second period of formation is the postulancy, during which the postulant is further introduced to the fundamental elements of our Poor Clare cloistered contemplative life. She continues the passage from secular life to life in a monastic community, deepening her life of prayer and her understanding of Scripture, Liturgy, Franciscan spirituality, studying subjects such as Gregorian chant, basic Church Latin, community customs, etc.
The postulancy, which must last at least one year and may continue for a second year, is a necessary stage of preparation for the noviceship.
The third period of formation is novitiate, or noviceship. Now the life of prayer and penance is embraced in fuller detail.
A life of prayer and penance is a life which generates a joy and peace which the world can neither bestow nor understand nor take away. Thus the day when a postulant becomes a novice, receiving the holy habit along with the white veil which indicates that she has not yet made her profession of vows, is a day of profound rejoicing in the monastery. The Order of St. Clare has one more young penitent, eager to give herself to God and to spend herself for souls.
The ceremony during which the postulant receives the habit is known as the investiture. The new novice also receives a new name, given by the abbess, which represents her new life in Christ, and a mark in religion.
During the noviceship the novice continues her vocational discernment and deepens her own decision to follow Jesus Christ according to the Poor Clare charism. This period of formation lasts two years. The primary goal of this time, according to the new document, is to “deepen her friendship with Christ.” This is a time of intense study of the vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and enclosure that she will one day profess, as also the Holy Rule of our Mother St. Clare and our Constitutions, and generally growing in her understanding of the spiritual life and religious life, and deepening her understanding of our form of Gospel living. She learns the enduring paradoxes of religious life: how one must lose one’s life to find it, be humbled in order to be exalted, become as a little child to reach spiritual adulthood. Our Constitutions state that this is a time to “grow in maturity of judgment and all aspects of womanliness.” This springtime season looks always to the summering of the fuller commitment which is the making of temporary vows.
“Christ has set a seal upon my face that I should admit no other lover but Him,” sings the young professed Poor Clare. The vows bring her a marvelous enrichment. One is truly bound to Christ now with fourfold and very dear chains. To the ordinary three vows of religion, the cloistered Poor Clare adds a fourth, that of enclosure. She promises to live in obedience, in poverty, in virginal chastity, and in enclosure. And Christ is a Lover who will never fail her, never desert her, never grow tired of her.
Unlike a woman entering into human marriage, the novice making the vows of religion can perfectly forecast the future as far as her Bridegroom is concerned. He will be forever faithful, loving, devoted to her. With His grace, she will be so to Him. And out of this union of God and creature will issue blessings for all the world.
In exchanging the white veil of the novice for the black veil of the professed nun, the young Poor Clare assumes her full responsibilities as a member of our Order: prayer, penance, and the spiritual motherhood of souls. During this period the junior sister still follows some novitiate instructions and classes but shares more deeply in community activities and works more closely with solemnly professed sisters in various departments. She continues her study of religious life, especially documents from the Church on that subject; Franciscan history, Church History, Scripture, Liturgy, etc.
First profession of vows is made for a period of three years, and then renewed so that the juniorate lasts at least five years; but in the heart of Christ’s bride, it is already made forever. No one makes a provisional offering of herself to God. No one promises to be His for a while. Holy Church wisely legislates that temporary vows precede the total commitment of the religious by solemn vows, but she does not legislate for the heart. The young professed is free to whisper to Christ in the inner court of her being, “Forever!” And on the day of her solemn vows, she will make this a public declaration to be accepted and sealed by the Church.
When the time of temporary vows is completed, a nun makes her solemn profession, whereby she is united to God and forever consecrated to him by an outstanding act of love and at the same time fully and definitively incorporated into our Order.
The time immediately following her solemn vows offers the newly professed sister a unique opportunity for actualizing her gift of self in the heart of community. Taking her place among the solemnly professed nuns, she endeavors to integrate the principles learned during the years of initial formation into the fabric of her consecrated life, while at the same time opening herself to the formative potential of community living. This period of religious life is marked by a search for a deeper and more generous giving of self to God and to one’s community. It is the season when the talent should be multiplied and the gifts bestowed by the Beloved should be returned generously, with self-sacrificing perseverance.
All during life, Poor Clares are encouraged to continue their development, as they grow in a sense of mutual responsibility, helpfulness and openness of mind and heart. Our life attains its fullness when there is added to prayer and penance that search for wisdom by means of which all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are more fruitfully cultivated. Verbi Sponsa (cf. #24) expresses this reality when it states that “the Superior is to promote the permanent formation of the nuns, by teaching them to nourish themselves on the mystery of God who continually gives himself in the liturgy and in the various moments of monastic life, by giving them the necessary instruments for their spiritual and doctrinal formation and, finally, by encouraging them to grow continuously as a requirement of fidelity to the gift of the divine call which is ever new.”
Our Holy Habit
In an era when cumbersome religious dress has at times been modified almost out of existence, the eight hundred-year-old garb of the Poor Clare stands forth as a cherished sign of our consecration to God and as one of the most meaningful expressions of our shared life and ideal. The cross-form habit is outstanding in its simplicity. The plain white cord is both functional and symbolic, belting the garment and expressing the vows with its four knots. The head covering is unstarched and simple, the veil is flat and plain. The nuns are barefoot. This is the garb functional for work and for prayer. These are the garments of the pilgrim journeying home to the Father, and serving as a constant practical reminder not only to the world but to the sisters themselves of our particular role in the Church, hidden and apart, universal and eschatological (cf. our Constitutions).