One day when leaving my college library I noticed a book on the discard table. The title and author caught my eye! Heartbreak Earth by A Carmelite Nun (Newman Press, 1953). I leafed through the book, a collection of essays offering a practical philosophy and, best of all, insights on the cloistered life. I decided to save the book from its fate, and have been grateful for that decision ever since, for the book's wisdom has fortified me both before and after I entered the monastery. In this vignette, the author (a novice mistress in a Carmel in England) offers advice to Sister Elizabeth, her wavering postulant. I believe the author speaks to all those who are discerning a vocation to the cloistered contemplative life (and those who wonder how anyone could!). So, let's listen up, gals!
The vignette begins with postulant Sister Mary Elizabeth in the garden during recreation, gazing at the "Italian-looking sky" and talking with one of the sisters. The novice mistress approaches and hears her companion remarking,
"We have a very pretty garden. The sea, however much you long for it, is only water after all, and the sky and the sun are the same wherever you go."
"And, of course, if I would like I could always get permission to sit besides a bucket in the laundry."
"A bucket in the laundry?", the sister looked mystified.
"Water," said the postulant briefly, "that's all the sea is."
"You might also get permission for a little salt from the kitchen," I put in pleasantly, but she did not smile.
I looked at Sr. Mary Elizabeth and I felt infinitely sorry for her. I had not in the least forgotten--not in the very least; but I did know that there is not much that anyone else can do about it. it is one of the those completely personal and solitary moments in life. Pious platitudes are of no good at all, and may even act as irritants, nor the Will of God in capitals, nor being reminded of the joys of heaven.
"What's the matter, Libby?" said, I, addressing the pebbles at my feet. She groaned. I waited a minute. "Bad day?"
"Quite," I agreed. We sat in silence. "Is it the Habit?"
"Quite," I said again. I am afraid that I have not a very original mind.
"Well, cheer up, you needn't," I remarked at last.
"That's just it. I don't know which I want."
"Doesn't matter what you which you want; it is which God wants. But you are the only person He is likely to tell. Nobody else can decide it for you."
"Look her, my dear, this is purely a matter between God and yourself, but could I make a few general remarks on vocations if that would assist?" She lifted her head enough to nod.
"To begin with, among a great many different motives for entering the monastery, most of them beside the point, there are two which can be roughly distinguished almost from the beginning. They separate the getters from the givers, if you understand what I mean. We are all of us either one or the other in life anyway, wherever we live. Now, when it is a case of being a religious, the givers have a worse time at first because, when it actually comes to giving, as a fact and not merely on paper or in imagination, it turns out to be so very much more, and so very much worse than anything we had ever intended to give. We had said 'everything' and we had meant everything, but we had not idea that everything could possibly include so much." Sister Elizabeth groaned again.
"It is quite truly a case of the whole sea against a bucket of water in the laundry, and that for ever: for ever on earth at least." She shivered. "No, don't shiver. That's just it. Face it; and if you are going to choose the bucket of water, choose it. If you once allow yourself to shiver at the thought, you will shiver for the rest of your life. And there you are--a mediocre nun."
"The getters have their worst time very much later, and it is altogether a more serious affair. It is so serious, in fact, that the only cases of real disaster which I personally have met, have almost certainly been due to it. You see, there comes the awful moment when they realize, at least some of them do, that they are not going to get it after all--never going to get it.
"Whatever they unconsciously came in for it. We don't get in religious life; we give. It is the spiritual alone which we receive, and half the time we cannot even feel ourselves receiving it."
"What sort of things do you suppose they think they are going to get?"
"I can't tell you. Probably it is all only semi-conscious, of course. Perhaps it is a sensation of sanctity, which they hope to enjoy; perhaps a quiet life without, as they imagine, bustle or hurry; perhaps they have an imaginary devotion to the recitation of the Divine Office--I don't know. But, mostly, I should guess, a kind of unconscious spiritual ambition of some sort or the other.
"Oh dear!" said the postulant, looking forlorn.
"Don't worry. You a re a giver if you are anything at all. The only question for you is just whether you can give it or not.
Her novice mistress advises a "two day rest" for Libby to sort things out, asking that she not come to anything accept Mass and meals, and, in between, tells her, "do just as you please." She gives her some "pleasant books" to read.
"Decide what it is that God wants; that means, for anyone who loves Him, decide what it is that you want with the best part of yourself, for that is the desire which He will have put into you. When you have got that clear; decide whether it is worth the rest. but do not forget, my dear, that what I call the rest is only intermittent. Do not take too gloomy, to impressive a view of your vocation. Give your sense of humor a chance as well. There is plenty of joy in this life and God does not, as if He were a miser, save up the whole of His treasure only for the end."
On the evening of the second day, there was a knock at the door. I replied with the customary Deo Gratias, and Sister Elizabeth stood before me. Upon her face there was what I can only describe as a pleased grin.
"Thank you for the books," she said, and put them down upon the desk, "and I have chosen the bucket." So that was that. It was not perhaps the traditional way of expressing it, but she meant it, and that, after all, is the main thing.