From the earliest time that my memory goes back, I loved Jesus, though I
knew very little about Him—only what my dear mother taught me, and she
was what is termed a “shy Christian.” But I often wished that people
would talk more about Him, at least to me; and as a little girl I used to
look at people, and wish they would speak to me of Jesus, though I was
too timid to put my thoughts into words.
When I was about fourteen years of age, in the year 1868, there was a
great stir about a new preacher who preached at several city churches,
including St Edmund’s, Lombard Street, and St. Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate.
His name was Father Ignatius; he was a Church of England clergyman, and
called himself a monk. At that period I happened to be on a visit to my
aunt, and my sister wrote and told me that Father Ignatius preached
monasticism, that he had a monastery and would soon open a convent. I
remember how I thought everybody was turning to Roman Catholicism; and I
made up my mind not to go near this strange man. So at first I would not
go to hear him, though somehow I was very anxious to see him. At last
my mother persuaded me to go, and I heard him preach the love of Jesus
as I had never before heard it. I recollect how my mother presented me
to him, and how he took my hand, and said, “God bless you, dear child!”
Though he said neither more nor less I was won, and from that moment I
felt compelled to dwell on all his doings, and to drink in his words.
What extraordinary power, or _mesmerism_, is it that this man possesses,
enabling him to exert such an influence, not only over a simple child,
but also over young and old, man and woman, noble and peasant? How often
have I asked myself this question, yet in the course of twenty years I
have not solved the mystery! But does he retain the friendship of those
he wins? For a short time he does, but as a rule they eventually turn
away from him, and sometimes even become his greatest enemies; for he
possesses a strange power not only of winning love, but also of casting
it away from him when won.
But I have somewhat departed from my story, which I will now resume. I
remember being in church one evening, and we sang the words:
The love of Jesus, what it is
None but His loved ones know.
I thought to myself, “Who are His loved ones?” Day after day I went about
wondering who they were. I would look into every face I met, but the love
of Jesus did not seem to me stamped there; yet I was determined to find
out, for, I said to myself, “I _must_ be His loved one!” At last I saw a
gentle, pale-faced sister; and she looked so good and pure (my favourite
text was, “Blessed are the pure in heart”) that a sudden thought flashed
into my mind that it was these sisters, or nuns, who were the “loved
ones,” and that therefore I must be a sister. But I was not bold enough
to tell any one my thoughts, besides which I thought I was very much too
young to be a nun. I recollect that just at this time I went to some
private meetings, held by certain sisters, and one of them asked me,
on one of these occasions, “Should you like to be a sister?” My heart
jumped on hearing the question, and I replied, “Yes.” No more was said
then; but when I again went, Father Ignatius asked me the same question,
and I made the same reply as before. He then told me to ask my mother to
allow me to be “_given to God_” as a nun. Of course my mother would not
hear of it, and only laughed at me, and called me “a goose to want to
shut myself away from mother and everybody.” The idea, however, had so
taken possession of me, that I begged over and over again to be allowed
to go; but my mother would not give her consent. Every time Father
Ignatius saw me he asked if I had obtained my mother’s consent, and I was
obliged to say “No.” One day, I remember, he said to me, “Well, ask your
mother to let you _go for a month on a visit_!” I dared not ask her for a
month, knowing she would not grant me so long a time, so I asked her to
let me go for a week, and after considering my request for two days, she
told me I might go for a week. I therefore went for that period. I was
fifteen years of age then; and the convent was at Feltham, where I stayed
for ten years. But before the week had expired, I asked for another week,
saying I was so happy in this new life. To my request she made answer,
“Another week, but not a day over.” During this week the Father called
upon my mother, and persuaded her to “give me to God.” Very reluctantly
she gave her consent, as she told me, “for one year, to sicken you of
it, and you will soon be glad to come back home to your mother.” No one
but God ever knew for years after how I longed to get back to my mother,
though I dared not allow it even to myself. When my mother gave me up,
she had Father Ignatius’s promise not to let me take life-vows until I
was twenty-one or twenty-five years of age.
The first year passed away very happily. I was young; and being small in
stature, I was made a pet of, until another young sister came. Then the
Mother changed, and she who had so petted me suddenly took a dislike to
me; not that she was so very unkind. But how I yearned to be loved! No
one seemed to love me, and I loved her, oh, so much! When I went up to
her and said, “Mother, dear,” instead of opening her arms, and folding
me in them as she used to do, she would turn away with a shudder. Why
she did this, I never knew. I could not fail to feel surprise at it,
as she had often taught me that “a spiritual father’s, and mother’s,
and sister’s love is far greater than that of any earthly parents.” I
was sure my mother would never thus turn away from me. Oh, how keenly
I felt this coldness! and when I went to bed, I would cry and sob for
hours, knowing that no one in that house loved me, and my heart seemed
fit to break at such a loveless life. My mother’s smile, her words, and
her every look and action, would rise up before me. I remembered my
sister and dear little brother, both of whom I so fondly loved, and I
would think, “Oh! if it was not wicked of me, I wish I was home”; but
I would then blame myself for thinking thus, for I considered it showed
unfaithfulness to God to allow such thoughts even for a moment, and I was
afraid lest God should take my “holy vocation” from me, and I would also
remember how God would have His spouse forsake all other love that she
may love Him, and be His alone.
Was there ever a more cruel and bitter mistake? Cruel is the teaching
which requires a young girl to separate herself from the dear good
mother, whom God has given her, in order that she may, as is falsely
said, serve God without hindrance. What folly and delusion is it that
takes possession of us, to think that we can get nearer to God, be more
pure, more holy in this life, and be brought to greater glory in the next
life, by shutting oneself up in a particular house and never going out
except to the garden, I cannot fathom!
Listen to the text which brings us up to this unnatural life, or, as we
were told, this “supernatural life.” “A garden inclosed is My sister,
My spouse; a spring shut up,” etc. Year after year this text bears us
up, coupled with the thought that such a life is only a short time in
comparison with eternity, when we shall reap the great reward of our life
of self-sacrifice. Blinder than the very heathen was I!
Sometimes I would stand and look around that small enclosure and think,
“Shall I never in this life go farther than this garden surrounded with
trees?” Often my brain seemed to turn at the very thought. If only I
could have seen a great space, or a great sea, it would be better; but
there were those trees in a flat country, and nothing beyond (a true type
indeed). But then I would come back to my text, as above quoted, and
think that as God is pleased with me, nothing else is of consequence. So
I went on year after year, anything but happy, yet not _daring_ to let
myself think of turning back. Often did I LONG to speak of mother and of
the dear ones at home, but I could not without breaking the rule, “never
to speak of our earthly relations except to God in prayer.” If we broke
this rule, we had to confess it the same day, and perform the prescribed
penance of losing the hour’s recreation, do some menial work, and keep
silence during the only hour we had set apart for conversation.
At the end of my first year my mother wrote to Father Ignatius demanding
me back. She wrote to me at the same time, telling me she was coming
to fetch me; but the Father gave me no advice on the subject, and I
could have gone back as far as consent from my superiors went. At that
time they gave me my mother’s letter, which of course they had read
(all letters are read by the Mother first); but what about the teaching
and instruction that had gone before? What about the awful words I had
heard that, “should I ever even look back, I should then be unmeet for
the kingdom of God”? What about the example of Lot’s wife, so often set
before us? She only _looked_ back, and how terrible the _immediate_
result! What would happen (I thought) to one espoused to Christ, if she
not only looked back, but deliberately turned from the “path that leads
to life,” as we were instructed? Not even for one second did I _dare_ to
allow myself to think it. I would not go back, and did not.
My mother waited another year, and came this time to the convent without
writing, so that I might not be influenced beforehand. Oh! mothers,
little do you know the influence that is always at work: and yet your
children dare not even wish to tell you, for it would be a terrible sin
to tell even you anything about that influence,—it would be a grave
scandal to do so. But it is equally a great sin to hide anything from
our _Superior_; we are distinctly told never to conceal anything, not
even our most secret thoughts, from our Superior. Should we have a great
temptation to leave the life we had entered on, or any great temptation
to rebel against convent rules, we were expressly told to make it known
at once, that we might have the benefit of our Superior’s advice.
Remember, too, that self-examination comes three times a day!
One morning, at the Communion, the Father suddenly turned round, saying:
“If any sister in this chapel has one single unfaithful thought of going
back to the world, _I dare_ her to come to this altar, and touch with her
lips the sacred Body and Blood of her God. ‘Woe be to him through whom
the offence cometh!’”
We were all startled, and I said,“Lord, is it I?” But it was not me,
for I would rather have suffered torture than commit so great a sin. A
certain lay-sister stayed behind at that time, and I asked her, when the
next opportunity offered itself to me, if she had thoughts of looking
back? She replied:
“I told the reverend Father last night, I thought I ought to go home to
my father to keep house for him, as my mother was dead.”
The reader will perceive that though we were not shut in by literal bolts
and bars, we were bound by something very, very much more effectual—even
by the nameless and unexplainable fear of being guilty of the _terrible
sin_ of going back to the world. How fearfully real and effectual is this
My mother and sister then came to fetch me, and I was sent alone into the
parlour, that they might see how little I was _apparently_ influenced by
any outside pressure, and that I might tell them that I had a wish of
my own free will to remain in the convent. At this interview, some one,
unknown to my mother, was, of course, within earshot, according to rule;
but I did not fear that, for I had no intention of going back, and thus
losing the virgin’s crown in heaven, which I so much coveted, and which
could only be obtained, as I then supposed, by remaining true to my holy
calling. My sister was evidently exercising great self-restraint at this
interview, and could scarcely refrain from weeping; my own mother sobbed,
and my heart was wrung, and yet I dared not think of going home. Almost
choking with emotion, and stretching out my arms and folding them around
my mother’s neck, I gasped:
“Mother, darling, I DO love you; but I belong to God, and I _dare_ not go
Tears blind me, even now while I write, as I think of that _awful_
struggle, which I had been taught was right and pleasing to God. At last
my mother was able to speak, and she said:
“This is the second time I have tried to get you away, and you refuse
to come. Now, mind, I shall never come to see you again, or write to
you, but you will live to repent the day you ever shut yourself up in a
convent, and remember that I will have nothing more to do with you while
you are here; but if ever you should want a home, while I have one, it is
She went on to say:
“Father Ignatius will get tired of you some day, then what will you do if
your mother is no more?”
My reply was (remembering what a great pet he made of me, and also how I
had read and been told that “the love of spiritual parents was so much
stronger than that of any earthly parent”):
“You are, dear mother, very kind; but I am sure the reverend Father will
And so I truly thought.
This wrench from all home-ties well nigh broke my heart; yet I dared not
even think of leaving the convent, though in my heart of hearts I deeply
wished I had never taken up that “golden plough.” Ah! had I only not
taken it up, there would have been no sin in wishing for home again; but
now it was far different, for it seemed to me, at the time, that in God’s
great goodness the path had been shown to me down which I must walk, and
that I must with determination choose the good, and cast aside every
thought of returning to the world. And so I chose what I had been taught
was the good, and no one until now knows the bitter struggle I passed
through. How often did I recall this day, or rather I could not drive it
from my memory whilst sleeping or waking! It often drove sleep from my
eyes, and my constant thought was, “If only I could put my arms round my
mother’s neck, and kiss her just once more!”
At last all was arranged for me to take the black veil, and I even had
orders to write for my mother to come and see this imposing ceremony, as
it is really a novice’s entire _death_ to the world, and we are allowed
to see our nearest relative before we die. I was told I might go into the
visitor’s room to see my mother if she came; but though my Superior said
it was _lawful_ to see her, yet she _advised me not to go_, as it might
prove a cause of great distraction. When I was first told I might go into
the room where my mother was to come, my heart leaped for joy. “Now,” I
thought, “I shall be able to kiss her once again.” But then I remembered
all the advice I had been given, and I wanted to be “perfect”; so, for
the love of Jesus, as _I thought_, I gave up the privilege and joy of
kissing my own dear mother!
As a rule, we only saw friends behind the grille, with a third person,
who must be a professed nun, to listen and report us should we make a
slip in our conversation, or scandalize a secular by repeating anything
that should not be told.
However, after all, my taking the black veil and thus becoming a
professed nun was put off, as the superiors could not agree as to what
place I was to take in the community. The reverend Mother wished me to
keep where I was—the reverend Father wished me to be raised above six
or seven who were older, and had been professed some years back. Since
neither would waive their wishes, I had to wait, and consequently, I
never took the black veil, or _life_-vows, and _never_ saw my mother
again, as when I left convent life she was not alive.
In the beginning of November, 1868, I went on a short visit to the
“Benedictine convent of cloistered nuns,” at Feltham. Father Ignatius,
who claims to be the father, founder, and reviver of monasticism in the
Church of England, had turned an old farm-house at Feltham into a convent.
The “rule” given to the nuns by him can be procured at any Roman Catholic
publishers. It is entitled “The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, translated by
a Priest of Mount Melleray.” There are other translations of the rule,
but this one is much more strict than any other which I have read.
After a time Father Ignatius gave us forty-nine observances to keep.
These were really much stricter than the rule itself, and they were to
be read every day, and the least transgression had to be written down
and sent in to our Superior at the close of each week, in addition to
the usual confession to a priest. The Feltham Mother never wished us to
make a confession to her, though the Mother at Llanthony insisted upon
everything being disclosed to her.
To these forty-nine observances, later on, were added about forty-nine
more, so that we were hedged all round by them, sleeping or waking.
Transgressions of these observances were “convent sins.” I have already
related how my visit for a week was soon lengthened out, and I will not
particularize those first and early experiences.
It was in February, 1869, that I was received into Feltham convent as a
postulant. There is a form to go through when a postulant is received.
The Superior asks:
What dost thou desire of us?
_Postulant._—To be admitted into the house of God.
_Superior._—None can enter our gates but such as seek to be the
spouse of the Lamb.
_Postulant._—I postulate for the habit of the heavenly
espousals in the Holy Order of St. Benedict.
_Superior._—Dost thou promise to obey the rules?
After a few more questions and answers, I was properly made a postulant,
and thought myself at heaven’s gate.
On April 13th, two months after my reception as a postulant, I took, as
a novice, the three conventual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
I would remind those of my readers who may be ignorant of these things,
that whilst the vow of obedience is put last in order, yet it is of
the first importance. I remember well the day I took these vows. I was
attired in white, and wore a bridal veil and wreath. I recollect that
another girl (Florence S⸺ by name) stood with me—I should rather say
knelt. Together we waited to sacrifice ourselves upon the altar of
God,—not by the sacrificial knife, that would be but the work of a few
seconds—but by the daily and hourly sacrifice of everything that we loved.
When some of the difficulties and trials of my new life were set before
me, I had no fears. I was in a state of high joy at the thought which
had been burnt into my soul, viz., that I was espoused to the King of
kings, and that I was the Lamb’s bride now and for ever. How could fear
ruffle my spirit whilst under this spell? Besides, how should a girl of
my age (I was but fifteen at this time) have any notion of what sorrow,
and trial, and trouble meant, especially, as was the case with me, when
an affectionate mother had lovingly and carefully concealed from me any
evils that might come in after years?
The anticipation of any evil in the future seemed, however, to fade
into insignificance, since I was uplifted above terrestrial things by—I
really know not how best to describe it—by the thought of Him whom I
regarded as my heavenly Lover. Never did any girl or woman love her
lover or her husband more than I did the Lord Jesus Christ, whose bride
I _thought_ myself to be, _because_ I had taken those three vows of
poverty, chastity, and obedience. I sometimes felt as if I must die; so
overpowered was I with love that I could scarcely breathe.
Often since that time have I asked myself, “What was it that I so
loved?” If it had been the love of the heavenly Bridegroom, that seemed
as it were to saturate me, would that sister who knelt at my side on
this occasion have been permitted in after years to make my life such
a misery to me, that I could no longer live a cloistered life? What or
who it was I know not; all I know is that whoever or whatever it was,
it obtained possession of my first love—the undivided love of my whole
being; but that love is gone, and I do not think I could ever love
with the same full, pure, and intense love again. That love, fixed on
a lover existing only in the imagination, and impressed on my plastic
and youthful mind, carried me through a convent experience lasting for
seventeen years. And then it vanished. The illusion was dissipated, the
_ignis fatuus_ was quenched, and I was left alone in my misery, and it
seemed, for a time, that nowhere could I find the loved one for whom
everything and every one had been sacrificed; but better for me was this
misery than that fool’s paradise.
But I must return to my story, after this digression, which, however, I
hope many youthful readers may peruse and take warning from. My companion
and I knelt, as I have mentioned; and thus, upon our knees, we waited for
the august ceremony attending ever this mock marriage. All heaven seemed
to open, and all of earth seemed to be passing away. I recollect that,
after many questions had been put to, and responses made by us, and when
sweet words, set to sweeter music, had been sung, there reached our ears
some such words as these:
The Bridegroom would have His bride leave father, mother,
houses, lands, and all earthly loves, in order that, as the
apostle saith, she may be one spirit with Him. My daughter,
canst thou do this?
To this we made reply severally:
In His strength I leave all, that I may follow Christ.
Then the reverend Father uttered these words:
_Beware_, my daughter, before putting thy hand to the golden
plough, for _cursed_ shalt thou be if perchance thou lookest
To which the novice then replied:
I should then be unfit for the kingdom of God,
and repeated the words of Scripture:
When any one voweth a vow unto the Lord, he shall do all that
proceedeth out of his mouth (Num. xxx. 2);
and again we quoted Ecclesiastes v. 4.
After which there was sung in sweetest music, three times over:
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat
of rams: promise unto the Lord your God, and keep it.
I truly imagined that I was vowing to the Lord; and I had heard that God
was love, and that therefore it must be sweet to obey His voice, and so I
willingly vowed unto the Lord in these words:
1. I vow _holy poverty_, that I will possess nothing as my own,
or receive aught, save at the hands of my Superiors, or with
their permission. So help me, God. Amen.
2. I vow _holy chastity_ during the time of my noviciate. So
help me, God. Amen.
3. I vow entire, unquestioning, and absolute obedience to the
Father and Mother Superior, during the term of my noviciate. So
help me, God. Amen.
My bridal veil was then removed, and my hair cut off quite short; then I
retired, and put on the serge habit of a nun, and came back, and I had
placed upon me the scapular of obedience, the cord of chastity, and the
sandals of poverty. Besides these, I again put on the nun’s veil and
bridal wreath. My companion and myself were then given new names. I,
Jane Mary Povey, was called “Sister Mary Agnes of the Holy Child Jesus”;
Florence S⸺ was called “Sister Mary Wereburgh of the Blessed Sacrament.”
The following hymn was then sung, which I must give in full, as it
affords such an insight into the _delusion_ of convent life. I believe
Father Ignatius is the writer of this hymn:
Farewell, thou world of sorrow,
Unrest, unpeace, and strife;
I leave thee for the threshold
Of the celestial life.
Farewell, world of sadness;
Farewell, earthly joys;
Lo! my heart is seeking
Bliss that never cloys.
Strains of heavenly music,
Sights surpassing fair,
Steal upon my senses,
Fall upon mine ear.
Joy of ageless gladness,
Peace that none can tell,
Banishes all sadness,
Satisfies me well.
Languishing for Jesus,
Longing for His love;
Thus I’ll journey onwards,
To my home above.
Body, soul, and spirit,
To my Lord I give;
Yearning to behold Him,
Dying whilst I live.
In the lone, still night-watch,
’Mid the noon-tide light,
Yearns my soul for Jesus;
Here it seems all night.
Pant I for the morning,
And the day-star’s gleam,
When in endless sunshine
Dies earth’s weary dream.
Upwards, then, and onwards,
Soars my joyful soul
Jesus’ arms are open,
Jesus’ heart my goal.
Then my Love shall kiss me,
Call me all His own,
Wrap me in His brightness,
Rest me near His throne.
Smiling fondly on me,
Mindful of this day,
When I vowed me to Him,
I shall joy for aye!
’Mid the throng of virgins,
In the lily’s vale,
Where our Spouse is feeding,
Sunbeams never pale.
All is love and beauty—
Jesus, He is there;
All is peace and pleasure,
All surpassing fair.
Alleluia! chant we,
In our convent praise;
Shadowing forth the hymnals,
Which we then shall raise.
Praise we now the Father,
With the glorious Son;
Praise to God the Spirit
Likewise shall be done. Amen.
During the singing of this hymn the newly made novice kneels, and all the
sisters come, with lighted tapers, to kiss and embrace their new sister;
after which a procession is formed, tapers are carried, incense is burnt,
and these words are sung:
The wise virgins took oil in their lamps; they went in with Him
to the marriage, and the door was shut.
These words were scarcely finished, when a door was suddenly and loudly
slammed; and it seemed hard to realize that we were still in the flesh,
and there came to my heated imagination some strange expectation of the
No wonder that brains are turned, and young and inexperienced hearts are
deluded and led astray by such an imposing ceremony, which no words of
mine can adequately describe. You must have been on the spot fully to
I would impress very strongly on all who read these pages a fact that
I think is not generally known, viz., that there is in the convent
no difference whatever between a novice and a black-veiled or fully
professed nun with regard to vows or rule, save that the latter vows for
life, and the novice for a time. Yet the novice believes that she has no
more right in the sight of God to go back from her vows than a life-vowed
I purpose now to write a short chapter on the Vow of Poverty. By this
vow a nun has stripped herself of everything; she no longer possesses
the right to use anything, or any member of her body, without the
permission of her superior. Body and soul, hands, eyes, and feet, are
all given up; therefore the nun may not use her hands or her feet even
to perform a kind and helpful action for her fellow-nuns, without first
going to ask the leave of her Superior. Often, especially at first, I
did not understand my obligation, and consequently I would act without
permission, and bring upon myself the necessity of performing some
penance, that my sin might thus be atoned for. A nun may be almost
parched with thirst, yet she must not drink even a cup of cold water
without first finding the Superior and asking her leave, and even then
she may not obtain it; and if leave is granted, she may be censured for
her alleged want of mortification. The nun who has taken this vow of
poverty must never possess or make use of anything which has not been
either given or lent to her by the Superior, neither can she borrow or
lend anything without leave. This kind of existence really engendered the
most abominable selfishness, and I never saw any selfishness to equal a
nun’s. Her vow of poverty makes her selfish. She has nothing but what
is doled out scantily by her Superior; and when she does get anything,
she takes good care to keep it, not knowing when she will receive the
like again. This does not apply to anything great and valuable, but
such trifles as pins and needles, or cotton, or a piece of paper, or a
flower-pot. To give or lend a flower, a picture, a thimble, a needle, a
book, or anything else, without leave, is to break the Vow of Poverty,
for which confession must be made, and reparation by public penance.
Anything sent by the parents or relations of the nuns may be disposed of
as the Superior likes; and should it be given to another nun, we were
told, “Let the sister for whom that gift was sent beware of murmuring at
her Superior’s wisdom.” Often did I have presents taken from me, without
form or ceremony, and given to another, my face being carefully watched
whilst the transfer was being made, to see how I bore the trial, or if I
betrayed any signs of criticising the actions of my Superior.
I remember that once a dear little child was brought into our community;
and being very fond of children, and thinking of my brothers, I held out
my arms to the child, and was on the point of kissing him, when I heard
the authoritative voice of the rev. Father, saying, “Sister Agnes, sit
down. Not without leave; you should ask first.” I coloured as if accused
of some great crime, and sat down, but was too ashamed when recreation
time came to ask to kiss him then. I had only been a novice for a few
months, and did not think of my vow of poverty being broken by using my
arms, or lips, or will, without leave.
Another time—it was at Christmas—I saved a mince-pie to give away to the
first poor person who came to the door. I was portress then. An old man
came, and I related at recreation how pleased he was with my gift; but,
alas! I brought down upon myself a little lecture, and was told that
I had no right to give convent property away. “But,” said I, “it was
mine—my very own.” Whereupon I learnt that for me the words “mine” and
“thine” did not exist, since by this vow of poverty everything belonged
to the Father Superior.
We might not even borrow a pocket-handkerchief, though, as we were
allowed but three, it was often very necessary to borrow one, for we
could not without permission even wash them without breaking rule. If
a sister brought with her several dozens, they would be distributed
according to the needs of the community, and the rest put away for future
use, as the new novice would be breaking her vow by retaining more than
she needed for present use.
We were very fortunate in being allowed pocket-handkerchiefs at all. I
know another English sisterhood where the nuns are only allowed hard
blue-checked dusters, and as the rev. Father and Mother and sisters have
the disgusting habit of snuff-taking, they must find these dusters very
Should we use any other article in lieu of a pocket-handkerchief, it must
be confessed, and reparation made by holding such article up high at the
Magnificat, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, so that all who
were assembled might see that we had robbed God of what we had promised.
Again, if we broke any article, or put it to an improper use, the
penance consisted in placing the said article, or piece of it, upon the
head. Unfortunately for me, I was famous for breaking machine needles,
and consequently I had to balance them on the top of my head, which was
no easy matter.
Again, should we carelessly leave anything out of its proper place, we
had to wear that thing the whole of the day. On two or three occasions
I have been adorned with a pail; I have had a brush and dustpan round
my waist, and a large coil of clothes-line round my neck. I hope my
readers will now understand a little better what is implied by the vow of
poverty. This has been a short chapter, but not, I think, an unimportant
The Vow of Chastity is broken by allowing any part of the arm to be seen
above the wrist, so that if we should be engaged in cleaning furniture,
or scrubbing floors, or washing clothes, we are not allowed to turn up
our sleeves; and as the under garments are made of coarse serge with long
sleeves, which are only changed once a fortnight throughout summer and
winter, the discomfort of this may easily be imagined. However, the feet
may be quite bare all the year round, for those of us, at least, who were
considered strong enough, as it is quite in accordance with the Vow of
holy Poverty, to go without socks, stockings, or sandals.
As I was very anxious to become a saint, I gladly went about with bare
feet for two winters, until I had a bad cough, and was then not allowed
to do so any more. Often my feet were so swollen and covered with blood
that I could scarcely move, but I was rather pleased at this, because the
saints endured like afflictions. By saints I mean those men and women
who have been canonized by the Church of Rome. To this source we went in
order to find examples of how we might follow Christ. Of course our lady,
the “Mother of God,” as the Church of Rome calls the mother of Jesus, was
always set before us as an example. Then we were in the habit of placing
our holy Father St. Benedict before us; then to the various saints, monks
and nuns of our holy Order throughout the world we went, and again to all
the saints who had been pronounced blessed by all the Popes who had ever
There is one saint, “blessed John Berchmans,” who is brought
prominently forward in the “Diurnal of the Soul,” who particularly
irritated me, because he was so perfect in every iota of his life. I
used to almost wish he had been occasionally careless, or had now and
again lost his temper. Whilst reading “The Monks of the West,” I was
quite staggered by the wholesale self-butchery several of these saints
practised after their conversion.
I could never understand some of these saints. St. Benedict, in order
to overcome temptations to break his Vow of Chastity, is said to have
jumped into a bed of thorns and briars. I thought I would be before him,
and prevent evil thoughts even presenting themselves, so I obtained
permission to sting myself with stinging nettles twice a week, and
continued to do so for years, though it hurt me dreadfully for two days
after the operation.
A nun or novice breaks her Vow of Chastity by allowing the dress of a
secular lady to brush by her sacred habit, or by raising her eyes to a
lady’s face when speaking to her, or by raising her eyes at any time
except during the one hour’s recreation. Should her brother or father
come to see her, she must keep her face closely veiled from their view.
Very, very seldom is she sent to speak to any other man, and then only
if convent duty makes it a necessity. It was quite impossible to kiss or
shake hands with any one, as we were only allowed to see visitors through
a small grille, the holes of which were about an inch square, while a
professed nun was always near to hear what was said. After a time the
rule became stricter, and the grille was covered with a thick baize
curtain, and we received orders, in addition to keeping our large thick
veils down below the chin, not to draw the curtain back to speak even to
a woman. It was also a great sin to speak to, or let any secular women
see our faces.
I remember at one time we had a charwoman to work, and I was sent to
sweep the kitchen, with orders to keep the veil low down over my face.
In vain did I try to sweep, for I could not see, and dared not raise my
veil. At last the poor woman tried to take the broom, saying, “Let me do
it.” I dared not allow this, for in so doing I should have been guilty
of the sin of disobedience, and for the same reason I dared not speak.
She tried hard to get the broom, and I tried hard to keep it, without
speaking. At last I was almost forced to open my mouth, and I said to
her, “Thank you, but I _must_ do it.” So I finished the work, and then in
fear and trembling confessed my fault to the reverend Father. He was very
angry, and made no excuse for my awkward position, but told me not to
attempt to justify my conduct, and that there was no excuse for an act
of disobedience. As a punishment, he sent me then and there to recite the
Should we grow to love a sister very much, we are speedily forbidden to
speak to, or hold any communication with her. This of course does not
refer to our Superior, as she is in the place of God to us.
Should we put our arm around a dear young sister’s neck or waist, or even
take hold of her hand, such conduct would be a breach of this Vow of
Chastity, and we must confess that we have been too demonstrative in our
affections towards a spiritual sister. In Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,”
we read that “St. Clare was so chaste that she would not even touch her
father’s hand.” It was different with our Superior’s hand, as it was the
rule to kiss that hand when receiving the blessing.
In regard to confession, the same rules were observed as have always
existed in the Church of Rome. Every thought, word, and deed had to be
confessed, and we had to answer any question the priest might put to us,
as nothing is wrong the priest asks in confession; at least this is what
we were told.
The priest I confessed to for the greater part of my convent life made me
clearly to understand that all he said to me was for myself alone, and
was not to be repeated. He bid me keep nothing back, and told me that if
I did hide any known sin I should be guilty of sacrilege, my confession
would be rendered invalid, and I should be putting myself in the position
of Ananias and Sapphira. When I had finished my confession, he used to
ask several times, “Are you sure you have told me everything?” It will
thus be seen that there is no loophole or excuse to keep anything back,
and I never did. Twice he asked me the most outrageous questions, which
made me almost shriek, “No! Oh, no!” I had been to him for some
years, and had laid my whole life open to him, and there really could
be no occasion for him to put such questions to me on subjects that had
never before been presented to my mind, in any shape or form. This priest
is dead now, and I seldom confessed to another. After I had been a sister
and under his direction for nine years, he advised me to leave that
convent. Why he gave this advice, I do not know; but I replied at once
that I would never go back.