Every so often in conversations with outsiders we might mention "chapter" and there is always a question mark on the listeners face. What IS Chapter anyway? Why is it so important in our monastic life?
First, there are 2 kinds of chapter: Regular chapter and conventual Chapter. Regular chapter is required by our constitutions at least once a month and is when the professed members (the Chapter) comes together under the presidency of the Prioress to examen our fidelity to the Gospel and to our Dominican monastic life.
Conventual Chapter is more like community meetings and are an important part of the government of Dominican life! The prioress calls a chapter whenever there is business that needs to be discussed according to our constitutions or something that she feels needs to be discussed and/or voted on by the Solemnly Professed. Simple Professed and novices might be present at these meetings and might even be allowed to speak if the chapter members agree. "Chapter is an expression of striving to live as one heart and soul in God.
Just about anything might be discussed at chapter meetings and usually the more insignificant the topic the more animated the discussion! If the topic is whether or not we want to vote to have the front stairs replaced there is discussion but the general sense is that they need to be replaced before someone falls and breaks an leg (and possibly sues us) so what can we do?
However, if the discussion is about when we want to have our next silent triduum retreat or what color should be paint the chapel or when should we have Office if the Dominican Laity is having Mass at 3PM than the discussion can get pretty animated!
Regular Chapter, however, is entirely different. There is a beauty and joy and binding together as one that is difficult to explain.
While community meetings always take place in the community room regular chapter takes place in the chapter hall which is like a small oratory that is near the nuns' Choir. There the sisters pray the Stations of the Cross and where we have the Mandatum on Holy Thursday and Clothing ceremonies.
The nuns gather, sitting on the benches in order of profession with the prioress and older sisters at the head and the younger ones toward the back. Regular Chapter begins with a short invocation to the Holy Spirit and then the prioress may make some announcements. Next, she or another sister appointed by her gives a small commentary or talk on the Observances or some aspect of the spiritual life. Then the prioress invites anyone who wishes to accuse herself of some fault that is against the good of the community. (Not sins. That's for Confession.)
Sisters stand up and say simply, "Sisters I accuse myself of...." and then sit down. This act of humility really binds us together as we confess our faults to each other. Sometimes, on hearing the sisters one realizes that someone is struggling with the same things you are. At other times, one realizes that she is being harsh in her judgment of a sister and that that sister knows her faults and trying to improve. At other times, a sister's self-accusation makes one realize that I am doing the same thing!
Finally, we all make the prostration known as the venia and the prioress gives us a penance. Usually it is prayers we recite together for a special intention.
The Prioress closes chapter with: "Our help is in the name of the Lord" and we respond: "Who made heaven and earth." We then process out of the Chapter hall to the community for recreation. What has been spoken of at Chapter is never spoken of outside of the it. Recreation is more merry than usual and there is a new and deeper sense of "God is love and where God' love is, God himself is there."