Among the institutions of the Roman Catholic faith, monasteries form a conspicuous feature. It is impossible, I think, to reflect on the state of beings thus cut off from all the social ties of life, without a sensation of melancholy; a sensation which is more especially awakened to the situation of female votaries, their stricter rules, and more uninterrupted seclusion, separating them from the world by stronger barriers than those opposed to the other sex.
The profession of a young nun can hardly be witnessed without exciting feelings of strong emotion. To behold a being in the early dawn of youth, about to for-sake the world, while its joys alone are painted to the imagination, and sorrow, yet untasted, seems far distant to see her, with solemn vows, cross that threshold, which may not again be repassed, and which separates her for ever from all those scenes that give interest, and delight, and joy to lifeto imagine her in the lonely cell that is to replace the beauty and the grandeur of nature, presents a picture that must fill the mind with powerful feelings of sadness.
Such is the illusion, such the sensation inspired by the solemn scene, that I believe that he whose faith hallows, or he whom a different persuasion leads to deplore, the sacrifice, will yet, for the moment, behold it with equal emotion.
The mind, if not more than usually cold, will with difficulty suppress the tear that rushes from the heart, when contemplating, in perspective, the long listless life which lies spread out, in an unvarying form, before her who is thus, for the last time, surrounded by a busy throng, and adorned with a splendour that seems but to mock her fate.
The convent in which we were now to behold this ceremony belongs to an austere order, styled ” Lume Iacra,” having severe regulations, enforcing silence and contemplation.
One of their symbols resembles the ancient custom of the Vestal Virgins; like them, they are enjoined to watch continually over the sacred lamp, burning for ever. The costume of this community differs essentially from that usually worn, and is singularly beautiful and picturesque; but, while it pleases the eye, it covers an ascetic severity, their waist being grasped, under the garment, by an iron girdle, which is never loosened.
It appeared that the fortunes of the fair being who was this day to take the veil, had been marked by events so full of sorrow, that her story, which was told in whispers by those assembled, was not listened to without the deepest emotion. Circumstances of the most affecting nature had driven her to seek shelter in a sanctuary, where the afflicted may weep in silence, and where, if sorrow is not assuaged, its tears are hidden.
All awaited the moment of her entrance with anxious impatience, and on her appearance every eye was directed towards her with an expression of the deepest interest. Splendidly adorned, as is customary on these occasions, and attended by a female friend of high rank, she slowly advanced to the seat assigned her near the altar. Her fine form rose above the middle stature, a gentle bend marked her contour, but it seemed as the yielding of a fading flower; her deep blue eyes, which were occasionally in pious awe raised to Heaven, and her long dark eye-lashes, gave life to a beautiful countenance, on which resignation seemed pourtrayed. The places allotted to us as being strangers, whom the Italians never fail to distinguish by the most courteous manners, were such as not only to enable us to view the whole ceremony, but to contemplate the features and expression of this interesting being.
She was the only child of doating parents but while their afflicted spirit found vent in the tears which coursed over cheeks chilled by sorrow, they yet beheld their treasure about to be for ever separated from them, with that resignation which piety inspires, while yielding to a sacrifice made to Heaven. The ceremony now began, the priest pronounced a discourse, and the other observances proceeded in the usual track.
At length the solemn moment approached which was to bind her vows to Heaven. She arose and stood a few moments before the altar; when suddenly, yet with noiseless action, she sank extended on the marble floor, and instantly the long black pall was thrown over her. Every heart seemed to shudder, and a momentary pause ensued; when the deep silence was broken, by the low tones of the organ, accompanied by soft and beautiful female voices, singing the service of the dead (the requiem.) The sound gently swelled in the air, and as the harmonious volume became more powerful, the deep church bell at intervals sounded with a loud clamour, exciting a mixed feeling of agitation and grandeur.
Tears were the silent expression of the emotion which thrilled through every heart. This solemn music continued long, and still fell mournfully on the ear; and yet seraphic as in softened tones, and as it were receding in the distance, it gently sank into silence. The young novice was then raised, and advancing towards the priest, she bent down, kneeling at his feet, while he cut a lock of her hair, as a type of the ceremony that was to deprive her of this, to her no longer valued, ornament. Her attendant then despoiled her of the rich jewels with which she was adorned; her splendid upper vesture was thrown off, and replaced by a monastic garment; her long tresses bound up, her temples covered with fair linen; the white crown, emblem of innocence, fixed on her head, and the crucifix placed in her hands.
Then kneeling low once more before the altar, she uttered her last vow to Heaven; at which moment the organ and choristers burst forth in loud shouts of triumph, and in the same instant the cannon from St Angelo gave notice that her solemn vows were registered.
The ceremony finished, she arose and attended in procession, proceeded towards a wide iron gate, dividing the church from the monastery, which, opening wide, displayed a small chapel beautifully illuminated; a thou-sand lights shed a brilliant lustre, whose lengthened gleams seemed sinking into darkness, as they shot through the long perspective of the distant aisle. In the fore ground, in a blazing focus of light, stood an altar, from which, in a divided line, the nuns of the community were seen, each holding a large burning wax taper. They seemed to be disposed in order of seniority, and the two youngest were still adorned with the white crown, as being in the first week of their noviciate.
Both seemed in early youth, and their cheeks, yet unpaled by monastic vigils, bloomed with a brightened tint, while their eyes sparkled, and a smile seemed struggling with the solemnity of the moment, in expression of their innocent delight in beholding the approach of her who had that day offered up her vows, and become one of the community.
The others stood in succession, with looks more subdued, pale, mild, collected, the head gently bending toward the earth in contemplation. The procession stopped at the threshold of the church, when the young nun was received and embraced by the Lady Abbess, who, leading her onwards, was followed in procession by the nuns, each bearing her lighted torch.
It might be the brilliant light shed on the surrounding objects, or the momentary charm lent by enthusiasm, that dangerous spirit of the mind deceiving the eye and the heart, which gave to these fair beings a fascination more than real; but such were my feelings, so fixed my attention, that when their forms faded from my view, when the gate was closed, and I turned again towards the busy throng and crowded street, I felt a heaviness of heart, even to pain, weigh upon me.