Several of our readers have asked about the vocation of the extern sister! One reader asked, "Do the sisters get to choose when they enter if they will be externs? And is there anything different about their formation? I know that your Sr. Maureen is an extern sister, but I know she transferred from another monastery, so I assumed she was in that role at her previous location." Welcome to a little Q & A on the extern vocation as lived here at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary! I emphasis how it is lived here at our monastery because it is slightly different from monastery to monastery and charism to charism.
Extern sisters are members of the monastic family. They make perpetual rather than solemn profession. Theirs is a vocation within a vocation. They are contemplatives but they are called to serve the monastic community so that the contemplative life and the observance of enclosure can be better lived by the nuns. Externs serve the community and act as liaisons of the community to those outside.
Our constitutions have this to say about hospitality: "In the various dealings of the monastery with neighbors, guests and others, the nuns should manifest a charity which,despite their hidden life, will form a bond of unity with them. This applies particularly to the prioress and other nuns whose positions require more frequent contact with persons outside the monastery. But the whole community, united as it is in the love of the Lord, should become a radiant center of charity to all."
The extern sisters are the "face" of the monastery in many ways. They take care of the guest area, drive sisters to appointments if need be, pick up guests, friars, family of the sisters from the airport and train, do the shopping, attend vocation events, wakes and funerals of friends of the monastery, and generally do the business of the monastery that needs to be done in person. Externs sisters may fill in at the reception desk when one of our wonderful Rosary Shrine Guild volunteers can't come.
In our monastery extern sisters fully participate in the life of the community as much as their duties allow. They attend Chapter and vote. They participate in the different offices of the Divine Office, etc. but if they can't attend the Office they are not obliged to make it up privately as do the cloistered nuns.
Women may ask to join as externs or like, Sr. Mary Cecila, may find during their formation that they are called to be externs and this is confirmed by the Nuns on the Council.
The theological formation is exactly the same as that of the cloistered nuns. Duties, though, are more geared toward the extern vocation although extern sisters take their turn in the kitchen, etc. During the postulancy and after the canonical 1st year as a novice, extern sisters gradually take on more extern duties. So, for example, usually (in our monastery) sisters in their last year of formation in the novitiate begin to take some "turn duty" (answering phone and door) as part of their training but won't take on a full "turn" schedule until after they move to the professed community. Extern sisters would take some "turn" duty after their canonical year and maybe even as postulants.
Although the current norms of papal enclosure allow cloistered nuns to leave the enclosure for necessary business, still extern sisters are a wonderful gift to a contemplative community. At this point, our town is used to seeing our extern sisters out and about and so they also provide a needed witness to religious life.