Bernie Becomes a Nun, tells the story of Bernadette Lynch as she enters Maryknoll and begins the process of becoming a Maryknoll Sister. Written in 1956 by Sister Maria del Rey Danforth, the book is divided into four sections, Entrance, Postulancy, Novitiate, and Professed, matching the different steps in becoming a Sister. It allowed readers a peak into life at Maryknoll and what having a religious vocation was like for young women. It was hoped that what was written and photographed would be a guide and source of inspiration to many young women pondering the question of joining a religious order.
I decided to go through the book and pull sections and photographs to give readers of this blog a feel for the book. I hope you enjoy accompanying Bernie on her way to becoming a nun!
It isn’t so easy to start being a Sister. Let’s get down to the crux of a vocation. You must begin with the basic questions, “Why do I want to be a Sister?”…A religious vocation is not a question of your making a heroic gesture of “throwing your life away,” “trampling on the glittering pleasures of the world,” “tossing away the joys of married life.” No. It is simply a matter of following the path God points out for you.
Our Lord Himself said, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.”
So! Let us say that you have decided to be a Sister. You know which order you would like to join. The next step is to write the all-important letter. Or, if you are near the convent, you approach the big front door and ask (with your heart in your throat) to see the Mother General or the Novice Mistress. Thus you start the ball rolling.
Once you are “accepted,” there are lots of things to do. You must get together your outfit. The order will send you a list of things you should bring. The news spreads around and your friends sometimes give you a “shower.” Then, indeed you are smothered under religious books, crucifixes, black gloves, plain hankies, and holy water fonts!
Say goodbye to all your friends. But not as though you were going off to the Bastille. On the contrary, God is beckoning you to a very full, vibrant life with Him.
You are ready to go. The last bag has been packed; the last farewell party has been given…You turn for a last look, and away you go.
Postulants have a reputation for being giggly creatures. You see them all around the convent, flitting here and there in shortish black dresses, usually ducking around corners with other postulants and just bursting with some new adventure.
For all that, there’s solid piety under the flimsy black veil, and charity keeps the new black shoes running for hours a day…
Gradually, the whole scope of religious life opens out before you. The work to be done, the souls to be saved, the love and obedience you owe to God – these things overwhelm your heart with a longing to work day and night for the glory of God. Eating, sleeping, reading, working – they are all for God. Your hours in the chapel, your hours in the kitchen or laundry, your time in bed merge into a sold block of prayer.
The six months or so pass quickly. Reception Day comes on…It is the day when you receive the habit and the congregation receives you as a new member….And your name, Sister So-and-So! In many orders you are asked to submit your preferences for a name. There is no assurance that you will get it, but most Mothers General take your liking into consideration.
At last everything is ready, the final week of your postulancy is spent on a spiritual retreat of eight full days. This step is bigger than the first one. It is the step into a religious order. Up to now, you are considered only a “postulant,” – one who postulates or asks admission. One knocking at the door.
The door to real religious life is opening, at last.
Only one year of novitiate is required by canon law, but the constitutions of many communities require two. If so, then one of the years is considered the Canonical Year and is subject to certain restrictions. The second year is also primarily for spiritual formation, but the novice is permitted some secular studies and she may enter more into certain works of the congregation.
During the Canonical Year, the novices have some classes. You study the constitutions of the order, so that you will know what is expected of you. You have a thorough grounding on the vows of religions. Each vow is carefully expounded; you must know just what is entailed by the three vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Christian Doctrine, the entire Bible and especially the New Testament are gone over again.
There are many phases to spiritual life. Each soul goes toward God along fairly well-defined paths of obedience, kindness, prayer, and so on. The Rule and Constitutions mark the path for all. But each goes at her own speed…In the novitiate, your chief duty is to work out the best way for you. The Novice Mistress and confessor guide you; books by spiritual masters are very helpful. These set your course for life.
Joy fills the religious life, the novice finds out to her surprise. She had expected mortifications and hardships. She finds them, no doubt, – and maybe some that she did not expect. Or often, what she thought would be hard is not so bad – silence, routine, early rising, hard work and so on.
To balance the scale, recreations are tremendously enjoyable. Just talking things over after a silent day, for example. Sisters have little entertainments among themselves; singing, recitations, dances and so on….Ice skating and sledding in winter, tennis, basketball and other games keep Sisters on their toes.
The novitiate is the crucial time. This time of special training is full of graces. There is plenty of chance to test yourself.
You have now lived as a Sister for several years now…Profession Day is coming close. It is truly the focal point of your religious life. Everything in the postulate and novitiate leads up to it. Everything in the years to come refers to the vows you take on this Profession Day.
On the day, you kneel before the Mother General and clearly pronounce the vows in a loud voice enough to be easily heard in the chapel.
This is called Temporary Profession since you vow Poverty, Chastity and Obedience for a period of time – a year, two years, three years, etc. At the end of that time, you renew your vows for another period of time. At the end of any of these periods, you are free to leave. But finally – after a certain length of time, sometimes three years, sometimes six, you are admitted to Final Vows or Perpetual Profession.
The final section of the book follows Sister Bernie as she begins her mission life as a teacher in New York’s Chinatown.