There is a buzz in the vesting area just behind the Abbey Church – a palpable anticipation permeates the room as the monks line up to process into the Church to pray vespers. Monks vest in the attire appropriate to their role or status in the community. It is the monastic custom to line up in statio, or community rank, with the newest members at the head of the line. But, at the head of this line are two men in button down shirts: Charles and Marty. At least, those are their names for the moment. When they push the doors open their lives will be forever changed.
Vespers begin as normal and the Abbot intones the prayer: “let my prayer rise like incense before you, O Lord!” As they pray, the monastic community and all those gathered seek to lift the soon-to-be novices up, that the Lord will strengthen them in their pursuit of holiness and reveal his will to them.
The Psalms have a calming effect – as the words of praise are offered to God, His presence can be felt in the Church. Charles and Marty have spent the last four months as postulants, praying and working alongside the monks, and these prayers are a offer a comfort and familiarity that is all its own. But just as that comfort came, the Psalms come to an end, and the Abbot rises and processes to the Altar, where Charles and Marty will leave their old lives behind.
The Abbot is flanked by his brother monks, the server, Br. Jerome, and master of ceremonies, Br. Placidus, on his left; the Novice Master Fr. Jay and Fr. Simon on his right. He calls the candidate forward and asks, “what do you seek?” They respond in unison “the mercy of God and the fellowship of your community.” Monastic life is encapsulated in this one statement, that they seek God and wish to so with a group of brothers, banded together by a common purpose.
As they sit before the Abbot he instructs them as to what they are about to undertake:
“You desire to allow the Lord to know you in an intimate way and to witness to this reality as played out also in the lives of your brothers…to trust the reality of truth so as to the answer this question: Do you believe that I can do this?
Enter into this time of novitiate with abundant hope, for it is Christ to whom you begin to offer yourself, and it is Christ in whom you must place your trust…No matter what transpires in the coming 366 days, understand as you begin each new day – whether that is day one, or day 257 – Christ will not be outdone in generosity.
Despite what we might perceive in difficult moments, Christ never fails us.”
After the homily the critical moment for these men has come, when they receive their habit, the garment that will identify them as monks forever. As novices, they’re free to leave anytime – no vow binds them to the Abbey during this year of study, prayer, and discernment; but, should they persevere, these are the clothes they’ll be buried in, the last thing they’ll ever wear (Lord willing, they’ll wear it for a long time). They also receive their monastic name; consider the gravity of this.. Our name is the first thing we receive from our parents, the first marker of our identity. Taking on a new name, these men will be re-born in Christ in the monastery.
As Charles kneels before the Abbot, the habit is placed on his shoulders and total silence falls over the Church as if everyone is holding their breath waiting for the Abbot to reveal his name: “Hence forth, you will be known as Br. Angelus.” The Abbot presents him with the Rule of St. Benedict, the guide for Br. Angelus’ new life within the monastery. With a smile he returns to his place as Marty comes forward.
Kneeling, just as Br. Angelus and the hundreds of monks who have gone before him, he receives his habit and the total silence again falls over the crowd. A smile comes over his face as the Abbot announces “you will be known as Br. Maximilian Mary.”
The monks come forth to solemnly welcome the novices into their community, a customary sign of peace to let them know that they have been welcomed as brothers in Christ. And they return to their seats to conclude the evening’s prayer. Again the calm returns, a reassurance from God, that He is always present.
As Vespers comes to a close, the community processes out of the Abbey Church – as the doors close the community breaks into applause to joyously welcome the novices. Smiles, excited handshakes, and hugs conclude what is one of the most joyous occasions in the Abbey.