“Novices shall be allowed to retain their hair until Profession, owing to the great inconvenience to rejected Novices”. So states a Chapter minute from 1903. I can only imagine the relief for those Novices who didn’t stay! I’m not sure when the practice of shaving our heads stopped for Professed Sisters, but I believe it was several decades before I joined; until I came across that minute, I hadn’t realised we had ever done it. Of course, if you are wearing a veil, having little hair does make some sense, otherwise your hair tends to pull the veil back as it grows (she says from experience). We were still wearing veils when I joined the Community, although by the time we dispersed, it had stopped completely. Jackie, who was clothed last Wednesday, the feast of the visit of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39 onwards) was only the second Novice to be clothed without a veil. It makes for a much simpler Clothing service, as well as making us look more human (as someone commented when I stopped wearing mine).
Clothings in CAH tend to take place on a festival; mine happened on Pentecost, which was a lovely day. The Clothing ceremony is when an individual becomes a Novice; she is literally clothed in the Habit. Our Clothing ceremony is fairly short; Jackie made some simple promises, before a short reading and some responses, after which her habit was blessed and she was led out to be clothed, coming back wearing her habit, complete with belt. Professed Sisters wear a girdle, with 3 knots in them to signify the vows we have made, but in CAH Novices wear a belt; in some Communities, I believe, they wear the girdle minus knots. Jackie’s cross was blessed separately, and was put on for her. The ceremony is about more than clothes, although that is the most obvious change. It is about an individual committing to testing her vocation to the Community, and the Community acknowledging that testing. It is also about an individual seeking God’s will for her life, and that seeking being, for a time at least, with the Community. Nowadays that ‘with’ is not a physical place; as we are dispersed, Novices continue in their home setting, with regular visits to the Bungay house, and training on being a CAH Sister also (yes, that can happen in a dispersed Community, although I’m not the one who does it, so I haven’t investigated the details).
A Sister is ‘in religion’ from the moment of her Clothing; that is when her life as a Religious begins. I have been professed for 23 years, but in religion for 26. Each of our departed Sisters has the years that they have been in religion on their gravestone. We have no record of early Clothings, at least not that I have discovered, so it also a helpful guide as to when a Sister joined the Community. Novices are not committed to the Community for a specific time, and may leave if they discern that this is the way forward for them. It is a time of testing, the next stage of a journey, not an arrival. Some will stay, and some will go. That is the nature of a testing. It is also very true to our own religious journey. We are all travelling, we have none of us yet arrived. For each of the present Sisters, I suspect, their time in Community has led them to places unexpected and unforeseen.
A Clothing is a time of commitment; so, we sang ‘Come down, O Love Divine’ invoking the Holy Spirit’s aid for our new Sister; and, at the end, ‘Be thou my Vision’, underlying that total devotion to God that is, at least, the aim of our being. A short sermon was preached, each Clothing sermon being unique. All CAH celebrations end with tea and cake, and this was no exception. The small congregation gathered in the sitting room, where we were offered the choice between a Victoria Sponge or Chocolate cake …. This is as much part of the Clothing as the ceremony itself. Yes, of course, cake is not vital and we could celebrate a Clothing without it. But it is part of the Celebration to come together to celebrate over food; to rejoice together in our new Sister. Back in the past, that celebration would have been ‘Community only’, as other visitors went to the guest house for refreshments. The new Novice was allowed to see friends and family later on, but the core of the celebration was within Community; that has now changed, as we all gathered together to rejoice in Jackie’s clothing.
Rejoicing happened, too, when Mary visited Elizabeth. I can only imagine the necessity for Mary to spend some time with her older relative, who was in a similar – although different – situation to her; the comfort that came from Elizabeth’s affirmation of the Angel’s message; the joy that resulted in the praise of the Magnificat. This, too, was only the beginning of Mary’s journey, a journey that would take her to unexpected places and devastating situations. The rejoicing that happened as Mary sang the Magnificat was part of that journey, and the time spent with Elizabeth probably an essential preparation for what was to follow. The joy and celebrations of these times of commitment are an essential undergirding for the life ahead, wherever that may lead us. Crucially, too, those times of joy and celebration are communal times; as we follow a God of Love, so those times together are of vital importance in drawing us closer to the God who is Love.