From the Solemn Profession of Sr Elizabeth (6th January 2012)
Prudentes virgines... 'Wise virgins, trim your lamps: behold the Bridegroom comes; go forth to meet him.' The sacristan had provided a long and fat candle, which was doubtless wise as I was gripping it so tightly that if it had been any slimmer it would have snapped in half. The most terrifying part of the profession ceremony is the beginning, when one is summoned to the sanctuary and walks up the choir, candle in hand, singing
Et nunc sequor: 'Now with all my heart I follow you; it is you I revere, and your face I long to see. O Lord, do not disappoint me; deal with me gently and according to the greatness of your mercy.' This prayer of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Dan 3.41-42) is in itself an act of self-offering and of trust; since the Daniel story contains the theme of passing from death to new life, the prayer also introduces the paschal and baptismal dimension of profession. Accounts of the rite in the seventh century describe the nun carrying a candle in each hand; perhaps too much wax had spilt on too many habits over the centuries so that the number was reduced to just one.
The profession ceremony has two parts, first, monastic profession itself, and then the rite of consecration. For the monastic profession we follow what St Benedict prescribes in chapter 58 of the Rule. The bishop, representing the Church, asks the nun if she promises to fix her stability in this community, if she will undertake the conversion of her life according to the Rule of St Benedict and if she will make profession of obedience. To each of these questions she answers Promitto, 'I promise.' She then reads out the chart on which she has already written her vows. The chart is vellum and adorned with the monastery's crest. Once I had written them, the Wednesday before the ceremony, I prayed fervently for the bishop, for if he had fallen ill and had to cancel, I would have had to write the chart out all over again.
After signing the chart and placing it on the altar one seals the offering of oneself by singing the Suscipe: 'Uphold me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live, and let me not be disappointed in my hope' (Ps 118.116). After this the newly professed nun kneels before the bishop to receive the monastic cowl, the capacious, broad-sleeved overgarment which is worn over the habit for Vigils, Lauds, Mass and Vespers and on other solemn occasions. Meanwhile the community sings the Regnum mundi, 'The kingdom of the world and all earthly allurements I have renounced for the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ whom I have seen, whom I have loved, in whom I have believed, whom I have chosen as my love.' This and the other antiphons used in the rite are from the Acts of St Agnes which, while composed probably in the fifth century, two hundred years after her martyrdom, express the single-minded dedication to Christ of which she was exemplar.
This concludes the vows part of the ceremony. For every Christian, the most important vows of his life are his baptismal vows. To make monastic vows is to say: This is the way I shall live out and hope to bring to perfection the vows of my baptism. That is why the profession ceremony follows the pattern of the baptismal rite, with the questioning by the bishop, 'Do you promise...?'just as at baptism the candidate is asked, 'Do you believe...?'; the reading of the profession chart corresponds to the saying of the Creed; and the clothing in the cowl corresponds both to baptism's white garment and, because of its shape, to the signing with the sign of the cross.
The second part of the ceremony is the Rite of Consecration. If profession expresses what we do for God, consecration is about what God does to us. The language becomes more spousal since the consecrated woman more clearly embodies the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church. The first reference to a special rite of consecration is St Ambrose's account of Pope Liberius' consecration of his sister on Christmas Day in 352 or 353. The nun prostrates while the Litany of Saints is sung. All who have made monastic profession agree that this is the most relaxing part of the ceremony: there is nothing to do but surrender oneself. There is a standard list of saints but others may be added: I made sure that my parents' patrons were included and others which are important to me. At the end of the Litany one kneels before the Bishop for the solemn prayer of consecration. The consecratory prayer which we use is first cited in the Leonine Sacramentary (first quarter of the seventh century) but phrases in it suggest that St Leo may have written it or known it. As the prayer states, God's first blessing is on marriage, but he has nevertheless granted that there should be some who, without being married themselves, desire the mystery of which marriage is a sign.1 The prayer concludes: 'In love may she revere you; in love may she serve you. Be her honour, her joy, and her will; in sorrow be her consolation; in doubt, her counsel; in injury, her defence; in tribulation, her patience; in poverty, her riches; in fasting, her food; in sickness, her healing. In you may she possess all things, whom she has chosen above all things.'
The newly-consecrated nun now comes forward to receive the veil, ring and book. The Bishop gives her the black veil saying, 'Receive the sacred veil which will mark you as one who has left the world and has truly and humbly and with all the love of your heart submitted herself eternally as a spouse to Christ Jesus: may he defend you from all evil and lead you to life eternal'. The nun then rises and sings Posuit signum, 'He has placed a sign upon my face that I may receive no lover but him.' She then kneels while the Bishop gives her a gold ring, saying, '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.' All our rings are engraved with one's monastic name and 'Jesus'. The antiphon sung on receiving the ring is Ipsi sum desponsata, 'I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; before his beauty the sun and moon stand in wonder.' Finally one kneels before the Bishop to be presented with the book of the Divine Office with the words, 'Receive this book, so that, putting nothing before the work of God, you may day and night sing the praises of God our creator in the Church.' To sing God's praises in the Divine Office, to have the whole day arranged so that this takes first place, to be daily fed and nourished by the psalms with all their passion and grandeur, to follow the round of the liturgical year and the unfolding of the mystery of salvation with all its richness and glory, is the principal privilege and joy of the Benedictine nun. We come to the monastery to seek God, but we do this not in a void but in the words of the psalms with which Christ himself prayed and in the framework developed by the Church's two thousand years of reflection on what Christ did and is still doing.
The final antiphon which the newly-consecrated nun sings sums up her joy at the union with Christ represented by the veil and ring, and the task of singing the Divine Office: Ecce quod concupivi, "Behold, what I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; I am united in heaven to him whom on earth I have loved with all my heart." The other privilege of the nun is to have someone to obey, so that she can live in the same dynamic of obedience in which Christ lived, whose food was to do the will of the Father. So the last act of the rite is to go to Mother Abbess and ìmake one's obedience by placing one's joined hands between hers and receiving the kiss of peace. Then one goes to the community, who are one's fellow soldiers, friends and truly one's sisters, and receives the kiss of peace from each one. During this kiss of peace an antiphon and psalm are sung: my choice was the antiphon Simile est, "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, gave all that he had and bought it," and Psalm 33(34), "I will bless the Lord at all times."
Mass then continued; all nervousness had long disappeared and the whole day was one of joy and gratitude. On our profession anniversaries we sing the Suscipe again surrounded by our community. The profession day is only the beginning of the privilege and joy of being a Benedictine nun.
1 "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her...that she might be holy and without blemish... This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5.25, 27, 32).