One is a postulant for two years at least, often for four; a novice
for four. It is rare that the definitive vows can be pronounced
earlier than the age of twenty-three or twenty-four years.
The Bernardines-Benedictines of Martin Verga do not admit widows
to their order.
In their cells, they deliver themselves up to many unknown macerations,
of which they must never speak.
On the day when a novice makes her profession, she is dressed in her
handsomest attire, she is crowned with white roses, her hair is
brushed until it shines, and curled. Then she prostrates herself;
a great black veil is thrown over her, and the office for the dead
is sung. Then the nuns separate into two files; one file passes
close to her, saying in plaintive accents, "Our sister is dead";
and the other file responds in a voice of ecstasy, "Our sister is
alive in Jesus Christ!"
At the epoch when this story takes place, a boarding-school
was attached to the convent--a boarding-school for young girls
of noble and mostly wealthy families, among whom could be remarked
Mademoiselle de Saint-Aulaire and de Belissen, and an English girl
bearing the illustrious Catholic name of Talbot. These young girls,
reared by these nuns between four walls, grew up with a horror
of the world and of the age. One of them said to us one day,
"The sight of the street pavement made me shudder from head to foot."
They were dressed in blue, with a white cap and a Holy Spirit
of silver gilt or of copper on their breast. On certain grand
festival days, particularly Saint Martha's day, they were permitted,
as a high favor and a supreme happiness, to dress themselves
as nuns and to carry out the offices and practice of Saint-Benoit
for a whole day. In the early days the nuns were in the habit
of lending them their black garments. This seemed profane, and the
prioress forbade it. Only the novices were permitted to lend.
It is remarkable that these performances, tolerated and encouraged,
no doubt, in the convent out of a secret spirit of proselytism
and in order to give these children a foretaste of the holy habit,
were a genuine happiness and a real recreation for the scholars.
They simply amused themselves with it. It was new; it gave them
a change. Candid reasons of childhood, which do not, however,
succeed in making us worldlings comprehend the felicity of holding
a holy water sprinkler in one's hand and standing for hours together
singing hard enough for four in front of a reading-desk.
The pupils conformed, with the exception of the austerities,
to all the practices of the convent. There was a certain young
woman who entered the world, and who after many years of married
life had not succeeded in breaking herself of the habit of saying
in great haste whenever any one knocked at her door, "forever!"
Like the nuns, the pupils saw their relatives only in the parlor.
Their very mothers did not obtain permission to embrace them.
The following illustrates to what a degree severity on that point
was carried. One day a young girl received a visit from her mother,
who was accompanied by a little sister three years of age.
The young girl wept, for she wished greatly to embrace her sister.
Impossible. She begged that, at least, the child might be permitted
to pass her little hand through the bars so that she could kiss it.
This was almost indignantly refused.