There has been much to celebrate at the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Kensington. The cloistered sisters, who moved to California from Nebraska three years ago, are the grateful recipients of a generous donor's gift of a monastery.
On two special days this summer, the solemn profession and veiling was celebrated in the chapel, with both Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, and San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who as bishop of Oakland had welcomed the sisters from Nebraska to their temporary home in Canyon.
In a ceremony dating back to St. Teresa of Avila, each sister, on her special day, made her final profession of vows and received, from Bishop Barber, the black veil that signifies her new status.
While friends and family filled the chapel, taking every available space in the pews and spilling out onto the courtyard, much of the ritual takes place beyond the eye of the spectators. The sisters, both of whom refuse to be identified, are seated behind the grille that separates them from the public portion of the chapel.
As she made some of her vows, and as she received her black veil, the sister could be glimpsed through the communion window behind the altar.
But she could be heard, as could her sisters, who sang and chanted during the Latin Mass.
In his homily at the Aug. 5 profession, Bishop Barber shed some light about the ceremony. Reading from the rubric for the rite, the bishop said, "The newly professed kneels at the communion window, the bishop places the veil on her head, and covers her face with it, saying at the same time in Latin, 'Accept the holy veil, sign of reverence and modesty, which you will wear at the judgment seat of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may have life eternal, and live for ages of ages.'"
He then answered the question of why the bishop covers her face with the veil. "Because those who look on the Lord face to face cover their faces," he said. "The prophet Isaiah saw angels covering their faces in the presence of the Lord." Moses, too, covered his face because it reflected the glory of God.
In this, the Carmelite nun is like Mary, he said. "Mary reflects the light of her son, even in darkness," he said.
During the rite, he said, the sister would receive a crown of flowers, and as she lies prostrate on the ground, she would be sprinkled with rose petals.
Today, he said, the sister is "clothed with flowers symbolizing the love her Lord and spouse has for her."
As St. Teresa of Avila, the refounder and reformer of the Carmelite order, taught, "the veiling symbolizes the nun's mystical marriage with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," Bishop Barber said.
The journey to that mystical marriage begins with a letter.
"First they write to us, introducing themselves, telling how they feel God is calling them to the Carmelite life," Mother Sylvia Gemma, OCD, the mother superior of the Carmel of Jesus Mary and Joseph, said in an interview three weeks after the solemn profession. "They ask if they can discern with us."
After a period of correspondence, a visit may be arranged. "When they visit, they are invited to learn more about the Carmelite saints: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese de Lisieux, St. Teresa of the Andes and Blessed Elizabeth."
Discernment proceeds at an individual pace; some take two or three years to decide, some decisions are made quickly.
The minimum age for entry is 18; 35 is the upper limit.
Upon entry, a woman becomes a postulant. For the next six months to a year, she lives with the sisters in formation under the guidance of the mother mistress. If she is progressing in her vocation, she takes the next step.
"She'll receive the holy habit and become a novice," Mother Sylvia Gemma said. "She spends one year as a novice, lives our daily life and receives instruction four times a week."
With the holy habit comes a new name and title, "according to the Holy Spirit, who knows our devotions."
With an eye toward the devotion to the Carmelite saints, names are considered by the community, with the mother superior making the final decision.
After one year as a novice, she is eligible to make her temporary vows," said Mother Sylvia Gemma. The professed novice receives a cross she carries over her heart for three years.
After two of those three years, she leaves the noviate to live with the solemnly professed sisters and takes on new duties.
After three years, she is eligible to make her solemn vows.
The journey of five to six years is celebrated with a black veil, flowers and great joy.
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