What is a Novice?

The article below is an excerpt taken from “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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After that first year of postulancy, the next important step is to enter the novitiate. There are two novitiate years, and today we have two sisters, Sr. Mary Andre Phalen and Sr. Mary Consolata Klucik, to talk about these years.
The novitiate is quite serious: it is actually mandated by Holy Mother the Church in canon law, whereas postulancy is not. We prudently think it is essential, but other communities might not choose to agree with us. However, we know that the Church mandates at least one year of novitiate. So let’s talk with these two beautiful sisters about the novitiate years.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Sr. Mary Andre & Sr. Mary Consolota, why do you think the Church mandates that year? What is the novitiate year? Let’s start with the canonical year, which is our big year.

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Sr. Mary Andre:
Yes. I loved my time in the novitiate. I mean, I think a lot of people get nervous thinking about it because there’s so much time spent in prayer. We call it our most cloistered time. For a lot of people, that seems overwhelming. But I found that time to be beautiful and important in so many ways. You can never go back, but sometimes I would love to. I think that time in the novitiate, even more than in the postulancy, is about coming to understand who you really are as a religious woman.
When I go off to teach, I can’t be thinking about, “What would a sister do in this moment? How can I be a Dominican Sister?” That identity is formed in the novitiate, and it makes you so free when you go out and teach. Now when I go out to teach, I can be funny with my students or I can wholeheartedly try to lead them to God. But I don’t have to. I have freedom because I had that time to be formed as a sister, as a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
What about you Sr. Mary Consolota? How do you view the novitiate, especially as you look at our novices now?

Sr. Mary Consolota:
Well, the two things you realize during this time are how to form your identity and how to fix your attention on Christ. I remember being so overwhelmed with how much I was loved; every day I was receiving so much. I thought to myself, “There is so much that I’m being given,” and as a novice, I thought I had been carried by God. I had been so close to him and felt; I was held in his arms and received everything he gave me.
Now, I am realizing that I’m walking beside him. I am not even holding his hand; He is letting me be that free. Everything that I am being given is a choice that I choose to say yes to. As a novice, you have a silence and rhythm to your day: the studies and activities are kind of a step back from your way of life before when you had so much calling and distracting your attention. Put simply, all you need to fix your attention on is Christ. This allows you to realize how much he’s asking you to be with him. Not that you are walking slowly or being carried, but you are given the opportunity to make a choice. And that’s the novitiate life; it is such a special time.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Sr. Mary Andre, the bridge between the postulate year and the novitiate year is one of the most fun times for the entire community. Tell us why we all anticipate that so much. The postulants certainly count down the days. Why is that?

Sr. Mary Andre:
Yes, we call it Reception of the Habit. It’s one of the most special times in our community. Of course, the peak of our religious life is when we make vows and go on to live it. But the ceremony of Reception of the Habit is so fun for so many reasons.
First, the young women, the postulants in the summer, sow their own habits before the Reception of the Habit. Now, some of us had challenges with sewing, but it was a beautiful experience. I look back on that time, and it is like making your wedding dress. You are preparing to offer your life, not yet in vows, in a new way to receive that habit and take on a new name.
It is so fun to see our young women take on that habit and enter the religious life in a deep way for the first time. They also receive a new name, and that is something that postulants think and pray about for the whole year. I remember reading saint books throughout the whole year and thinking, “Is that my saint? How does that name sound?” It’s a process of writing it out to see if it fits. But in the end, it is a gift. We request three names from Mother, but Mother, listening to the Holy Spirit, gives us the names. I think that’s such a beautiful thing. Receiving a new name has so much depth to it, it really reflects so many scriptural moments where the prophets received new names, where Peter received a new name, and that’s a new mission in the church. Our names say something about that special mission we feel called within our community to respond to.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Sr. Mary Consolata, why did you ask for your name?

Sister Mary Consolata:
I hadn’t really been thinking what my religious name would be before I had entered. However, a few weeks before I entered, I was talking to you, and you suggested that I think of the name Consolata.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Isn’t it beautiful?

Sister Mary Consolata:
Well at first, I was thinking “I should really think about this.” But I had never heard it in Latin before. As that postulant year went on, I came to understand consolation. If you break the word down, it means with (con) and alone (sol). This could mean to be with someone who is alone, or another interpretation is to be with the Son. Once I learned these definitions, there was just this revelation that I was never alone my whole life. I’ve known how deeply loved I am, and I need to share that gift with the world. So the name Mary Consolata fit.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
It is true. It fits perfectly. Each of our names, as the sisters have indicated, really comes from God. Now, what classes and what things about the novitiate years make this time so different?

Sr. Mary Andre:
We are so blessed to be able to take classes in the house. We’ll have professors come to us, and sometimes even our own sisters will teach us. It’s a combination of things. As postulants, we all take classes either in catechism, scripture, or mariology. When we get into the novitiate years, we add a couple of really important courses. One of them is studying our vows and constitutions, which is important because the vows are the cornerstone of our life.
We take three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Most people understand these as negative, but they are not. For poverty, we give up holding our own things. Even in our convent, many things are simple. We don’t eat out very often. We eat simple, nourishing food. Our cells are very simple. Our rooms that we live in are very simple. That’s part of poverty. As part of chastity, we give up marriage and children. As part of obedience, we give up the ability to decide what we want to do with our lives on a daily basis and over the whole course of our lives. When thinking about these three vows, that’s what a lot of people focus on. While they have negative aspects, they also have the positive aspect.
In the end, giving up worldly good, the ability to decide what I’m going to do with my life or my day, and the ability to marry this one man and have children, also means having the ability to receive so much more. There is the scripture, “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on Earth where it can be destroyed. Store it up in Heaven.” That’s really what we do. Even right now, we save ourselves wholly for marriage with Christ. That’s chastity. We are longing for only His riches. That’s poverty. We give ourselves wholly to His will through the voice of our superiors. That’s obedience.
We also study the constitutions. Like Sister was saying, that is where you really form the identity. We enter a family that has its traditions, the things that we hold onto, the things that we all want to live out and carry with us the rest of our lives. That’s what our constitutions are. I know I love that class because our novice mistress, who has lived this life, goes through them and tells us how to pray. What is silence for? Why are we silent? Why do we live the way we live?

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
And do we have a lot of silence?

Sr. Mary Andre:
Well, that’s one unique thing about the novitiate: you have a lot more silence than when you’re a teacher in classroom all day. But in our lives, we still do have silence. And why? How do you listen to someone? You have to be quiet. Silence is hard to think of. We can think of silence as the absence of noise, and when everything is dead. But really, it is an opening of your heart and a sense of awareness. You can’t just assume that all you need to do is be silent and then the Lord will talk. You need to actively choose to be silent so that you can listen. I think that’s hard for all of us, and it is especially hard for a postulant. You realize that there are a lot of things you don’t need to tell someone about. Your inclination starts to become, “I need to tell Him about this. I need to tell Him.” In our lives, as a novitiate we have a lot more of that time because we’re still learning how to talk to Him. We take that with us for the rest of our lives.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Now, we’re going to bridge over to the second year, the apostolic year.

Sr. Mary Consolota:
The apostolic year tells you what it is. It’s when you’re going out more. The apostolate of our community is teaching, and we spend at least a day every week going to the schools as an apostolic novice. Again, this is our family, and you start to realize that God doesn’t call you somewhere and hope that you’re going to get along and like what you’re doing. He calls you, and your heart is made for that. During the apostolic year, you realize what your heart is made for.
I remember being in a classroom and realizing that, at the end of the day, I could do nothing for these children. I wanted to do so much, but I realized that this is what motherhood means. I have to rely on my spouse. At a minimum in the canonical year, you’re learning how to love the Lord. During apostolic year, you’re learning how to love those outside of our home.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Beautiful. And then, at the end of this year, we have a very special ceremony. So Sr. Mary Andre, what do you live for that entire year?

Sr. Mary Andre:
You live for making your vows. You just cannot wait to give your whole life to Him. I think the most obvious symbolism is the wedding symbolism. You can see that in every detail of our lives. We have final vows and first vows, and the planning starts early. Well, like any marriage, the marriage prep has actually been happening since the beginning, for three years and on. But the ceremony takes some prep, too. All the sisters come together to cook and clean. Just this morning, we sent out about 1,000 invitations to all of our closest friends and family for the ceremony happening in about a month.
The other symbolism, which might surprise some, is the aspect of becoming brides of Christ on that day. We also lay down our lives in renunciation of self in an image of death. If you look at the language from that vow ceremony, it’s really not just bridal imagery. I mean, that’s all over, of course. But there’s so much imagery of death. I think it’s funny to say that we’re excited for it, but we are. We are because to give yourself wholly, whether in marriage or in death, is the total gift of self, and it can only happen when it’s complete. It’s this incredible paradox that’s kind of difficult to understand, but it’s beautiful from both the outside and the inside.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
That is beautiful. Ok, one of my last questions for you both that I am sure people may be interested to know is, where or what was your past before you entered? How old were you when you entered? What were you doing?

Sr. Mary Consolota:
I had the great blessing of knowing our sisters when I was little. I think I met the sisters when I was in first grade, and I just kind of thought in my heart, “Oh, I’m going to be a sister when I grow up.” That was just something I had in my mind. But also, at the schools that I went to school with the sisters, they really taught us about the Eucharist. I knew that Jesus was a person and that he looked at me and loved me. But in middle school, no one says they want to be a sister, so I never said that either. I tried to pretend that it wasn’t important, but I knew it was. It was tugging at my heart.
Then in high school, I moved to Ave Maria, Florida, and the Sisters lived right down the street from my house. I had this great desire to be a mother. I have a beautiful family, and I knew that the married vocation was such a beautiful one because of how I grew up. I just remember thinking, “Lord, how could you not ask that of me? It’s so beautiful.” I feel like His answer back was, “Do you think I want anything less for you?” Then from seeing and spending time with the sisters, I realized that this is everything my heart wants. Looking at their love for me made me realize that that is how I want to love. They invited me to enter after high school, but I wasn’t sure if I could do that. Yet the more I spent time in prayer, I realized, why would I not?

Sr. Mary Andre:
One thing that our audience might find interesting is that a lot of young women have tumultuous discernment journeys, and mine was one of those. What happens a lot of times is that some of us begin to focus on the negative sides of the vows and think, “How can I give this up?” And we forget the amount we’re receiving even in the present moment.
I was in college. I actually grew up very near the Dominican Sisters but didn’t know them personally until I went off to school. I was at the University of Notre Dame. I think during both high school and college, the Lord kept knocking at my heart, and I couldn’t send him away no matter how much I said, “I don’t know if I can do that.” But He is patient and faithful. He knew that was where I was called, and I think, like you Sr. Mary Consolata, He knew that was what I was made for. I knew it, too. I tried to run from it for a while, but I ended up entering when I graduated from college. A lot of sisters come straight from high school, some from college, some after working for a few years, but it’s beautiful because all of us come together, and we’re so different. We are diverse, yet we have so much in common in that we’re giving our whole selves to the Lord who has called us here.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Beautiful. Well, we want to thank you both for joining us for yet another wonderful podcast. Don’t you just love my sisters? Aren’t they just stellar? They truly, truly, truly are. So thank you, Sr. Mary Andre. Thank you, Sr. Mary Consolata. You’ve just been pure joy. You’ve just radiated through the screen into so many homes and hearts, so thank you and God bless you both.
One thing that our audience might find interesting is that a lot of young women have tumultuous discernment journeys, and mine was one of those. What happens a lot of times is that some of us begin to focus on the negative sides of the vows and think, “How can I give this up?” And we forget the amount we’re receiving even in the present moment.
I was in college. I actually grew up very near the Dominican Sisters but didn’t know them personally until I went off to school. I was at the University of Notre Dame. I think during both high school and college, the Lord kept knocking at my heart, and I couldn’t send him away no matter how much I said, “I don’t know if I can do that.” But He is patient and faithful. He knew that was where I was called, and I think, like you Sr. Mary Consolata, He knew that was what I was made for. I knew it, too. I tried to run from it for a while, but I ended up entering when I graduated from college. A lot of sisters come straight from high school, some from college, some after working for a few years, but it’s beautiful because all of us come together, and we’re so different. We are diverse, yet we have so much in common in that we’re giving our whole selves to the Lord who has called us here.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Beautiful. Well, we want to thank you both for joining us for yet another wonderful podcast. Don’t you just love my sisters? Aren’t they just stellar? They truly, truly, truly are. So thank you, Sr. Mary Andre. Thank you, Sr. Mary Consolata. You’ve just been pure joy. You’ve just radiated through the screen into so many homes and hearts, so thank you and God bless you both.

About:

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP is a Foundress and Vocations Director for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Her podcast And The Truth Shall Set You Free can be downloaded every Friday at 1:00 p.m. EST from iTunes. The podcast can be seen on YouTube at GoLEDigital.

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