The process of becoming a nun usually involves four stages. The first, when one is a postulant, lasts for about nine months. The second stage, known as the novitiate, generally lasts for two years. If one survives these two hurdles, the community permits you to take vows – sacred promises of obedience, chastity, and poverty. At first these vows are for temporary periods, one or two or three years. At Maryknoll, it was a full nine years after first entering the convent before women were allowed to take permanent vows.
The novitiate is a time when aspiring women are socialized into the intricacies of convent living. During the first year of my novitiate, our group was sent to Topsfield, Massachusettes where we were isolated from any outside contacts, and were introduced to the monastic side of convent life. We marked the hours of the day by reciting the Divine Office – the morning hours of Matins, Lauds, and Prime, during the day Terce, Sect, and None, and at the end of the day Vespers and Compline . It is an ancient rhythm of prayer, a changing ritual of psalms, readings and hymns that marks the feasts and seasons of the year. We were required to ask permission for anything we wanted to read, including the Bible, which under ordinary circumstances we were not permitted to study privately. We were not Protestants, after all, but were told that only the Pope and Bishops could be relied on to interpret the Divine Word without heresy. We convened weekly to confess our faults in a public display of self-accusation called Chapter of Faults and were required to ask permission for any deviation from the daily routine. If we needed new clothes, we took our shoes or underwear or worn stockings to the superior who would either require us to mend the item again, or permit us to requisition a replacement.
At the end of our year of separation, we were returned to the Motherhouse in Ossining for the second year of our novitiate before taking our first vows.
The year was undoubtedly an initiation ceremony. The world was changing, though, and I think there was an unresolved contradiction in the training we received. On the one hand, there was the monastic tradition of almost a thousand years of withdrawing from the world, of silence and prayer and self-abnegation. On the other hand, from the very beginning, the Maryknoll Sisters were an American order dedicated to living among and with the poor in foreign countries where they were expected to learn the language, and understand local customs. One was not going to do this effectively in demure silence and by keeping ones eyes cast down.
In fact, I think many young sisters went into the missions with unbounded good will, immense generosity and fortitude – and in what I now consider rather terrifying states of naivete and innocence.