April 12, August 12, December 12
Chapter 58: On the Manner of Receiving Sisters
When she is to be received
she promises before all in the oratory
fidelity to monastic life
This promise she shall make before God and His Saints,
so that if she should ever act otherwise,
she may know that she will be condemned by Him whom she mocks.
Of this promise of hers let her draw up a document
in the name of the Saints whose relics are there
and of the Abbess who is present.
Let her write this document with her own hand;
or if she is illiterate, let another write it at her request,
and let the novice put her mark to it.
Then let her place it with her own hand upon the altar;
and when she has placed it there,
let the novice at once intone this verse:
“Receive me, O Lord, according to Your word, and I shall live:
and let me not be confounded in my hope” (Ps. 118:116).
Let the whole community answer this verse three times
and add the “Glory be to the Father.”
Then let the novice prostrate herself at each one’s feet,
that they may pray for her.
And from that day forward
let her be counted as one of the community.
If she has any property,
let her either give it beforehand to the poor
or by solemn donation bestow it on the monastery,
reserving nothing at all for herself,
as indeed she knows that from that day forward
she will no longer have power even over her own body.
At once, therefore, in the oratory,
let her be divested of her own clothes which she is wearing
and dressed in the clothes of the monastery.
But let the clothes of which she was divested
be put aside in the wardrobe and kept there.
Then if she should ever listen to the persuasions of the devil
and decide to leave the monastery (which God forbid),
she may be divested of the monastic clothes and cast out.
Her document, however,
which the Abbess has taken from the altar,
shall not be returned to her, but shall be kept in the monastery.
I’d like to highlight these words from today’s reading: “Then let her place it with her own hand upon the altar;”
These words reminded me unexpectedly of a repentance service I attended in church a few years ago.
It was an evening service and the church was deliberately darkened. All the lights were off and there was a real atmosphere of shadow and alienation.
Then a reader delivered the opening words of St John’s Gospel. As he read “He shines as a light in the darkness”, a candle – standing on a plain tray on the altar – was lit.
On the top step of the chancel, before the altar stood a bowl of salt water, and everyone in the congregation was given a tiny square of cloth. Our snippets of cloth represented the particular sin we repented of. We were invited to come one by one to the chancel step, dip the cloth in the bowl of salt water (to symbolize our tears of penitence) – and then kneel, if we wished, at the altar rail, for as long as we needed, in silent prayer.
When we were ready, we approached the altar, and, with our own hands, laid the wet sackcloth onto the tray, where the light of the candle – symbolizing, of course, the Light of Christ – brought it out of the surrounding darkness. It had been confessed; now each person, when ready, returned to their seats, and when all were settled, we said together the absolution prayer.
Of course, no one **had** to take part in this symbolic rite – but in fact, all present chose to do so.
After the service a number of people said what a difference it had made to them, having that symbol of their repentance, and being able – with their own hands – to lay it on the altar and see it taken up into the light of Christ. Deeds of evil, St John tells us, are done in darkness. Exposed to the light, the sin and temptation lost their power.
‘With their own hands’ seemed to be a key to the sense of relief and the reality of absolution that people received that evening.
I know the Reading today is talking about commitment, and perhaps a service of repentance is something different: and yet, what is repentance if not a turning around to make a fresh commitment?