One does not become a monk overnight. The process that leads to becoming a life-long member of a monastery takes several years, and begins by contacting the vocation director. He guides men who are discerning a call to monastic life through the initial stages of inquiry, vocation visits, and the application process. If a man applies to the monastery and is accepted as a candidate, he will move into the monastery to enter the first step of his monastic formation: the postulancy. After completion of this first period of formation, the postulant may be accepted by the community into the next stage: the novitiate. After one year, a novice may profess simple vows as a Benedictine monk for three years. If at the end of these three years, the monk and the community feel that he is being called to life-long membership in the monastery, he may profess solemn (final) vows.
Typically the postulancy at St. Bernard lasts six months and one is free to discontinue at any point. During this time, postulants have the opportunity for a sort of extended live-in experience. The tradition at St. Bernard is for postulants to wear the monastic tunic, which is the first part of the Benedictine habit. Postulants have rooms inside the monastery and join the monks in their common life of prayer and work. Additionally, they receive instruction about monastic life through several classes and become oriented with the particular customs of St. Bernard Abbey. Like all the stages on the way to solemn profession, the postulancy is both a time for formation as well as continued discernment. If he so desires, a postulant may request to be admitted to the next step of formation: the novitiate.
The novitiate is an intense, yearlong period of formation, which one may choose to leave at any time. When a man enters the novitiate, he receives the monastic scapular, worn over the tunic he received as a postulant. Also upon entrance to the novitiate, one customarily receives a new name, signifying the beginning of a new life to which the Lord has called him. Like the postulancy, novices participate fully in the daily life of the community. In addition to the common schedule of the monastery, the day of a novice usually includes one or two classes; periods of manual work; common recreation; and time for private prayer, reading, and study. Novices meet regularly with the novice master and their individual spiritual directors. Like all the stages on the way to solemn profession, the novitiate is both a time for formation as well as continued discernment. At the completion of one year of novitiate, the novice may ask to profess simple vows as a monk of the community.
When a man professes simple vows, he promises stability, obedience, and conversion to a monastic way of life for three years. At his simple profession, the monk receives the monastic hood (capuche) as part of his habit. Unlike the postulancy and the novitiate, he is not free to discontinue until the end of the three years for which he vowed to live as a monk. The simply professed monk (a “junior monk”) is under the direction of the junior master. During these three years, the monk receives periodic conferences as a part of his continued formation. Now a professed member, he is given an assigned responsibility or job within the community. This may include teaching in our school, pursuing further academic studies, working on the grounds, or any other need of the monastery. Like all the stages on the way to solemn profession, the juniorate—the three years of being simply professed—is both a time for formation as well as continued discernment. After the completion of three years, a simply professed monk may ask to profess solemn vows.
Solemn profession of the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion to a monastic way of life is a commitment to faithfully live as a monk until death. At a monk’s solemn profession he receives the cuculla—a large, pleated cowl worn for important liturgical occasions. He will spend the rest of his life seeking God in his community through prayer and work. All monks participate in the daily common practices of the monastery, including the Divine Office, meals, and recreation. Receiving his assigned responsibility from the abbot, a solemnly professed monk’s work may include hospitality for guests, care for his brother monks, teaching in our school, pastoral work at the abbey or at local parishes, further education, groundskeeping, maintenance, a craft or trade, or any other need of the monastery. Though no longer in the formation program, a solemnly professed monk, through his vow of conversion, continually strives to conform his life to Christ.