Becoming a Carmelite
The journey of becoming a Discalced Carmelite nun takes many years, and is a process of mutual discernment for the community and for the aspirant. A Carmelite vocation is a demanding one, and it is not undertaken lightly or easily.
If a woman feels that God may be calling her to be a Carmelite nun, she is invited to make contact with the Prioress. She may then be invited to visit the monastery and, over a period of time, to get to know the Prioress, Novice Mistress and some of the Sisters. Meetings at this stage would be in the parlour rather than inside the enclosure of the monastery. She is welcome to join the sisters in prayer in the Chapel and at Mass, and she may be given some guidance for prayer and further exploration of how God is working in her life.
If it seems right both to the community and to the candidate, a ‘live-in’ may be arranged. The aspirant would be invited to come and spend a period of time inside the monastery, living, working and praying with us. This process is important as it enables both sides to get a better sense of each other. The inside of the monastery is simple and austere, and there is a certain formality to our common life, especially in the refectory and choir. Most of our time is spent in silence, and there is little ‘free time’. It is important for a woman exploring her vocation to experience this first hand, in order to make an informed decision. Likewise, the community need more than short meetings in the parlour to begin to get to know someone, and to discern a possible vocation. At this stage, there is no commitment on either side.
If both the community and the aspirant feel that it is right to continue with the discernment, she may apply to enter Carmel as a postulant. By this point she will usually have known the community for at least a year, often more. The process of discernment is not something to be rushed. The application process includes references, a medical check and the aspirant must have vote of the community.
When a woman enters Carmel, she kisses a crucifix as she crosses the threshold into the enclosure, and is greeted by the community. At this point she will already have left behind much of her past life – work, family, friends, home and possessions. This can be a difficult transition, and it will take time to adjust to a new way of life and many new customs. A postulant wears her own secular clothes, rather than a religious habit. During this time she is supported by regular meetings and study with the Novice Mistress. Postulancy usually lasts for about a year.
At the end of this period, if both sides feel it is right to continue, the community may vote for the postulant to be accepted as a novice. She will then be clothed in the religious habit of our Order, with a white veil. At her clothing ceremony, the new Sister will also take her religious name – this may be her baptismal name or a new name. Carmelites also take a ‘mystery’ after our name, for example, Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross or Thérèse of the Child Jesus. This mystery is an integral part of our vocation, to be pondered in our hearts over a lifetime.
A novice takes a full part in the prayer, life and work of the community, though her time is also protected in a special way for formation. She will continue to have regular meetings with the Novice Mistress. Classes and study time are arranged on an individual basis, according to the needs and previous experience of each Sister. There are also annual meetings with those in formation in other Carmels in Britain, which is an opportunity to get to know our wider Carmelite family and others at a similar stage in their journey.
The novitiate is often a demanding time for a Sister. It requires honesty, humility and the willingness to face the truth about ourselves. It asks for a constant readiness to change, grow and be taught by others. St Teresa famously said that her nuns “must have a great and very determined determination to persevere." Our Constitutions remind us that the Holy Spirit is the true formator. It is by seeing the Spirit active in a person’s life that she and the community together discern a call to Carmel. The novitiate usually lasts for about two years. During this time, the community will vote on the novice three times. The novice is free to leave, or may be asked to leave, at any time during these years.
At the end of her novitiate, with the vote of the Chapter, a Sister may be accepted for Profession. This is the moment where a decisive commitment is made, both to the Carmelite life and to the particular monastery and community she is called to. During the Profession Mass, the Sister makes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for a period of three years. She is given a crucifix by the Prioress, which she wears under her scapular and over her heart for the rest of her life as a symbol of her Profession.
The period of temporary profession is one of greater stability, where a Sister can settle more deeply into the life of the community and begin to take on more responsibility. For the first two years she continues to be supported by the Novice Mistress, and to have time set aside for formation and study. However, it is also a period of deepening solitude. In her final year of temporary profession she is under the guidance of the Prioress, like her Solemnly Professed Sisters.
At the end of her period of temporary vows, a Sister may renew temporary vows for a further period. With the vote of the Chapter, she may be accepted for Solemn Profession. This is the absolute, lifelong gift of herself to God, solemnly and publicly received by the Church. This time her vows are “forever” and she receives a black veil as a symbol of this consecration. The solemnly professed sister takes her place on the Chapter of the monastery.