1001 Questions

Please excuse us, we got a zero too many (nuns are not very good at counting). It should be one hundred and one questions instead!

The questions have been put to and answered by Sr.M. Patricia,
(with a little interference from her abbess!)

Hundreds of questions mainly from school children that have visited the abbey in connection with their history course. In the 4th class, they read about the Black Death and Saint Birgitta, their own compatriot, and the Abbey and Order she founded here in Vadstena. The questions are not only from children but also from adults who have been here for information. We haven’t yet been able to sort them out in ‘order of importance’, or so and they are a mixture of questions from youngsters as well as older persons.

If you only want the answer to a few questions, you only need to click on the subject group which follows. Then you don´t have to read all the questions.

Who are we?
The habit
Work, occupation, free-time
Saint Birgitta Life in a monastery
About monastic life
The rules
The monastic vows
How we live
Faith Income
Enclosure and trips home
Contact with the world outside
Vocation to the monastic life
Other religions and churches
About lies - sorry!


Who and how many we are, where we come from

How many nuns are there in your monastery?
Just now we are eight, in January 2015.

Where do you come from?
Sweden, Finland, Holland, Germany and New Zealand 
(and Skåne, the southern part of Sweden).

Are you very like each other?
No, not if you mean as to what is going on inside us. But if you think of what you can see, we all look alike as we have the same sort of clothes. Strangers cannot distinguish between us either, as everyone here wears spectacles! But we are really totally different from each other. The only binding link is our love of God and till each other, and the awareness of being called by God to this unusual kind of life.

How would you describe yourselves?

Picture: The Birgittine bird

As a joke: 
If we were birds, we should be described as rare birds indeed. A little, common grey bird with a distinguishing marks on its head. It is rather similar to the smallest bird in Sweden, the goldcrest, regulus regulus. The original Vadstena variety has its habitat in Vadstena, where it remains all the year. It is seldom found in other places. The species spread to other countries, but is still a non-migrant flock bird, at the present time very rare and it should be protected. There are some newer species, among them the Roman Birgittines which is more numerous and seen in many other places as it is a migratory variety which is very common in India.
(Sr. Maria answered this question in an allegory once.)

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Seriously:
“We are nuns in a contemplative abbey with a strict enclosure and with a certain apostolic task by means of a guesthouse and by receiving groups, mainly students.” 
(This is our own official description of us as formed a few years ago.)

The habit

Does your habit signify anything, and your crown?
The habit is grey. In the Middle Ages, when Saint Birgitta lived, all the very poor wore grey home-woven clothes. She prescribed that we were to have the same clothes as the other poor, grey, no colour. Only very wealthy people were able to have coloured clothing in those days. The crown is a reminder of Christ’s crown of thorns and his five wounds: Hands, feet and side. During Saint Birgitta’s time all married women wore a coif over their hair. Only their husbands were allowed to see that. Nuns wear a coif in order not to have to pay a lot of attention to their hair.

Work, occupation, free-time

What do you do all day?
We pray and we work either the one or the other, in a prescribed order. You can find it in the programme on one of the former pages.

What sort of work do you do?
Mainly household work just as anywhere else. We make the food and eat it up, wash up, do the washing, the ironing, the sewing: we clean the windows, look after the Guest House, make the beds (even our own, sometimes!!!), write letters to schools which have asked for information, do the gardening, repair the houses, (all six of them!), paint window-frames and icons, build computers, hot them up, complicate things for ourselves and are able to send strange questions to the neighbours etc.

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Drawing: Impatient nuns waiting for  the computer

Who looks after the garden?
We do inside the walls. At the Guesthouse a good friend of ours does a great job (and nowadays the weeds have no chance to take over!)

Saint Birgitta

What does she mean to you?
She is like a road-sign. She shows us the way to follow. But we are not expected to be small, shabby copies of her. Every nun is expected to develop in the way God wants her to. Not all flowers are roses, either! You have some ‘idol’ out there….. James Dean, or whoever. Who remembers him even nowadays? In six hundred years nobody will have any idea of who he was. But Saint Birgitta is still well known over the entire world. Since she became officially made a saint, her feast day 23 July is celebrated in every Catholic Church or chapel on this earth (i.e. if the local priest wants to)! She is really the only Swede who ever got that far. She has shown us a way to go and we are trying to do just that.

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Life in a monastery

What is it like to live a convent?
It is just like having a lot of sisters and brothers. We share everything, joys and sorrows, chocolate, books and work. We quarrel too, sometimes, just like any other family, but we always support each other if anything goes wrong.

What do you eat?
The same sort of food you eat at home. One of the nuns cooks it. Ordinary food on ordinary days, but when it is a feast day! - Then we can have a really fantastic meal.

Why are you silent in the monastery?
We want to keep our thoughts in check. You are silent too, when you are doing your homework, or reading an exciting book. We are quiet because silence helps us to pray. You must not think that ‘prayer’ means talking to God all the time so that he gets tired! That would mean that I pray only in order to get my own way. Prayer means rather that I am conscious that God is near me, that he is and that he loves me. You think a lot about the person you like best! That is friendship, love. We call the same thing ‘prayer’, we listen to God and think of him and speak to him.

Do you make medicine of the herbs in your garden?
No. They land in the soup. We do not have many herbs and what we have are useful in the kitchen.

Are you forbidden to drink alcohol?
No. But if we do drink any, then it is very little. No excess. Too much coffee is also harmful, or too much pea soup or Coke.

Do you smoke?
No! Who would pay for the cigarettes? (And we don’t think it is suitable for nuns anyway).

How do you celebrate feasts, like Christmas, Easter?
With extra church-services, festive meals on a decorated table, talk during meals (otherwise we eat in silence): maybe a (homemade) cake at teatime. In any monastery you can find a lot of joy by using small things.

Are you allowed to read books?
Yes, we read loads of books, mainly religious books of course, but also other books, technical books on various subjects, like computer; and we also read fiction sometimes.

Do you have hair?
Yes! What did you think? Feathers?

Who cuts it?
Anyone of the nuns who doesn’t manage to cut our ears off.

Why are you not allowed to show your hair?
When Saint Birgitta lived and founded our order, only unmarried girls had their hair loose. All married women kept their hair under a coif. The coif was a sign that the woman was married. And when you became a nun, you wore a coif, just in order to prevent any vanity. (And we don’t need to bother with curlers.)

Do you use make-up?
No. We don’t need to, unless we appear on television! And, once again, who would pay for lipstick, eye shadow, powder and all? We have no pocket money. And think a while, just why do girls use make-up?

Who sews your clothes?
They are made in the monastery by one of the nuns who take care of all our clothes.

Do you drive?
Yes. Most of us had our driver’s licence when we came here. Afterwards it is too late! It is too expensive for us to pay for driving lessons.

Do you do gymnastics?
No. We haven’t come here to trim our bodies, but to take care of our souls. But if it is necessary for anyone’s health, then they do the training needed. But we do not exercise regularly in order to slim or anything like that.

Are you allowed to swim in the lake Vättern (just outside your home)?
No! Apart from that the lake is so high just now that we risk floods, we keep out of the water, just in case!

Do you have pets?
No. We may not keep pets. And who would go out with the dog? And also some of the nuns may be allergic to furry animal. But not only because of that… we just don’t keep pets because we don’t want to be bound to anyone or anything. We just want to keep free from all that so we can be totally free for God and our neighbour.

Are you vegetarians?
(No. But the abbess is a Rotarian.)
No. We eat ordinary food, like you have at home, (that is, if you are not a vegetarian yourself!). We do have three meat-free days a week.

Do you speak Latin?
What on earth for? In Sweden we speak Swedish. But we do have some funny words we have adopted and adapted from our own various languages.

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The rules

What rules do you have?
We keep Saint Birgitta’s Rule, which was approved as ‘help rule’ in 1370. Our main Rule is Augustine’s Rule, which is much older. This is because since 1150 nobody was allowed to make any new cloister rules. There were so many. All the newer orders had to take Augustine’s rule and then have their own Rule as ‘constitutions’ like we have.

Is it hard to keep the Rule?
We do not even think of it! If you are out on your bicycle on the main road, you don’t keep thinking: ‘Goodness! Red light! I must stop and wait until it is green again.’ No, you just do it automatically. It is part of your reaction when cycling. It is pretty much the same with our Rule. We have been in the convent eight years before we promise to keep any rule and during this time, we have absorbed it and are able live according to it. Otherwise, we leave or are asked to do so.

Do you get punished if you break the Rule?
There are paragraphs about that, when it concerns important things. But not if you forget to shut the outside door. Then you get a reminder from the abbess. We are grown-ups and we have come here to serve God, not to be a nuisance and make life difficult for all the others.

Can do you do what you want to?
No and neither can you! Life is made up of rules: pay your taxes, you must attend school, keep off the grass (mainly!), keep to the right and watch out for the dog. There are rules in school, in football’s clubs, at work. Otherwise nothing would function. We keep to our rules and the way we want things in our house, and that means that nobody can do just what they like, when they like!

Do you know of anyone who has been expelled from the Order?
Yes. In Poland during the 17th century. An abbess had misbehaved very badly and the rest of the nuns and monks shut her out. But before we make our vows ‘forever’, we can be sent away if we are not suited for monastic life.

Can you leave it all?
See above. After the vows we make ‘until death’ it is more difficult to leave. We must apply to Rome for a dispensation from the vows we have made and we must have some very grave reason for doing so, and also have the support of our bishop. But before you make you vows, you have been in the abbey for eight years and during that period you have had time to think things over.

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About monastic life

How many nuns are there in Sweden?
About 200.

How many cloisters?
About 30, I think. The majority of these are active, that is, the sister do parish work, run a day-nursery or a convalescent home, or work somewhere packing fish or cleaning up in hospitals. Others, like us are contemplative, that is, have prayer as their main interest and occupation.

The rules

What rules do you have?
We keep Saint Birgitta’s Rule, which was approved as ‘help rule’ in 1370. Our main Rule is Augustine’s Rule, which is much older. This is because since 1150 nobody was allowed to make any new cloister rules. There were so many. All the newer orders had to take Augustine’s rule and then have their own Rule as ‘constitutions’ like we have.

Is it hard to keep the Rule?
We do not even think of it! If you are out on your bicycle on the main road, you don’t keep thinking: ‘Goodness! Red light! I must stop and wait until it is green again.’ No, you just do it automatically. It is part of your reaction when cycling. It is pretty much the same with our Rule. We have been in the convent eight years before we promise to keep any rule and during this time, we have absorbed it and are able live according to it. Otherwise, we leave or are asked to do so.

Do you get punished if you break the Rule?
There are paragraphs about that, when it concerns important things. But not if you forget to shut the outside door. Then you get a reminder from the abbess. We are grown-ups and we have come here to serve God, not to be a nuisance and make life difficult for all the others.

Can do you do what you want to?
No and neither can you! Life is made up of rules: pay your taxes, you must attend school, keep off the grass (mainly!), keep to the right and watch out for the dog. There are rules in school, in football’s clubs, at work. Otherwise nothing would function. We keep to our rules and the way we want things in our house, and that means that nobody can do just what they like, when they like!

Do you know of anyone who has been expelled from the Order?
Yes. In Poland during the 17th century. An abbess had misbehaved very badly and the rest of the nuns and onks shut her out. But before we make our vows ‘forever’, we can be sent away if we are not suited for monastic life.

Can you leave it all?
See above. After the vows we make ‘until death’ it is more difficult to leave. We must apply to Rome for a dispensation from the vows we have made and we must have some very grave reason for doing so, and also have the support of our bishop. But before you make you vows, you have been in the abbey for eight years and during that period you have had time to think things over.

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The monastic vows

Why are you not allowed to have children?
It is not so much that we ‘are not allowed to’. It is more that we have made a decision to refrain from marriage and family-life. If I was married and had several lovely children and God came to me and said: Look! I want you to…’ I would have to answer: ’No, God! Impossible! My husband is on his way home with his boss for dinner, and it is in the oven, and I have to drive the children to their riding lesson!’ But because I have chosen to be free from that responsibility, I can only answer: ’Here I am, Lord!’ And I think that God wants me to be here alone for him too.

Isn’t it difficult to live without love (sex)?
No. I am an adult who has made the decision to refrain from that sort of love which means getting married and having children, so I can be free for God. And he helps me to keep my vow or promise of celibacy. But that does not stop me from wanting to have some children of my own. That is quite natural for any normal woman. God has created us for motherhood, but I feel that he has called me to another sort of life. And I think that you ought to see the difference between love and sex. Sex is only one side of love’s many manifestations. Love for God and my neighbour and for myself is also important.

Would you like to leave the convent and do something else?
No!

Are you allowed to talk to monks?
Certainly. Why not? Most Catholic priests in Sweden are monks. Our bishop is a monk.

Where can you find any Bible-word saying that you ought to go into a monastery?
Nowhere. But there is nothing in the Bible either which says that we ought to play the piano and yet many people do so. Actually the idea of monastic life is very old. Even during the very first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection there were many people who were absolutely sure that he would soon come back and get them. They wanted to be ready to meet him when he came. They lived their lives in prayer. They earned their daily bread by selling baskets and mats they had made. Gradually they began to live in larger groups and by the year 300 ‘cloisters’ had developed. Some of the leaders wrote rules for their monks. We know who they were; Basil, Pachomius and Benedictus are a few of them. After the year 500 monasteries were quite common. Many cathedrals had a monastery right next door and in the monastery there was a school where new priests and monks were educated. It was just these monasteries which saw that civilisation survived after Europe had suffered many wars and revolutions. The monastic ideal is to follow Christ and live for him in celibacy, poverty and obedience. These three virtues are the foundation of everything we call monastic life today.

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Our abbey, how we live.

How do you live?
Each one of us has her own room with a bed, a chair and a writing-table. There is a little bedside-table with a reading lamp too. There no mats on the floor and when you are old and tired you get an armchair.

What does your room look like?
It is 3.5. x 4m. That is, 14.5 square meters. The rooms downstairs have parquet floors. Up- stairs they are linoleum. The walls a covered with jute and painted in soft pastel colours. Each room has a large window, a wardrobe as well as a shower and lavatory. Then we have a dining room or refectory, where we eat our meals together. There is a kitchen, laundry, parlour, library, recreation room and the chapter room where we gather before we go to church.

Faith

Have you never doubted?
Show me an adult who has never doubted.

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Income

Is it worthwhile?
What do you mean? It certainly is worthwhile. Is there a better way of life than the one we live, serving God in the way wants us to? It can be in marriage, or on the shop floor or in a laboratory, but as long as we answer ‘Yes’ to whatever God wants us to do, then it is worthwhile. If you mean ‘does it pay’ you will have to read a bit more.

How do you manage expenses?
Our income is mainly from the GuestHouse. We also run a little shop where we sell handwork, books, key rings, bookmarks and lovely cards designed by one of the nuns. Some of us who are over 65 years old get a pension, and we get donations too, from unexpected sources.

Do you go out to shop at the local store?
Seldom. When you have such a huge household as ours is, then you have to watch how you shop. You can’t come home with one loaf of bread and a pound of potatoes for thirty guests, eleven nuns and one priest! We buy what we need from a merchant who takes our order by telephone and delivers the goods the next day. (But we do go out and buy milk locally. It is cheaper.)

The enclosure and trips home

Are you locked in?
No and yes! All the locks are on the inside of the doors and every nun has a key to the outside door and the Abbey door itself. There is nobody locking us in. Just ourselves, freely and willingly. We want and need somewhere where we are free to move and work in private. This part of the house is called ‘The Enclosure’. It is geographically defined in our constitutions and it means that we live within its confines. We may not leave the area without the permission of the Abbess.

Why can’t we go into the monastery and have a look around?
Because we live here, it is our home. How do you think it would look if we let several thousand tourists tramp around our rooms? How could we keep silence? How could our scheme of work and prayer be? And think of the floors!!! No, we keep the inside of the place for ourselves.

Are you allowed to go home?
Yes, every fourth year to visit our families for one week. This is not a holiday. It is a family visit.

Who pays for the tickets?
The monastery does.

Do you wear other clothes if you travel by train?
No. We don’t have any other clothes. And it is a good idea too, to go as we are because almost every time we are out there is somebody who needs to talk to a nun. We are not out very often, but we have noticed this.

Do you go on pilgrimages?
Not after we have entered the convent, except in some absolutely unique case. Some of us have visited different holy places before we came here. But once a month we all go over to Mary’s Court, our pilgrims’ house and pray together.

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Contact with the world outside

Do you have contact with other nuns?
Yes. Mainly with nuns in our own Order and then mostly by writing to them. Other sisters come here on a visit, or for studies or to have a rest.

Are you allowed to look at television?
We keep an eye on the news at six but we don’t bother much about anything else. If we want to see something special, we must ask for permission. We make DVDs of anything we all want to see, films, which can be of help to our spiritual development.

How do you keep in contact with the outside world?
We take three Swedish daily papers and several Swedish and foreign magazines. By watching the news on television and reading the papers we find many reasons for prayer and many very big intentions for our prayers.

Have you met the king and queen?
Yes. Several times.



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Vocation to the monastic life

How old do you have to be if you want to be a nun?
We think that 25 is a good age and we prefer candidates who have a profession or some sort of qualified work, in case they have to leave us for some reason or another. A profession is always a good thing to have; otherwise it is more difficult to get a job again. And anything we can do professionally can be done in the monastery. We do most of our repair-work ourselves and we learn a lot from each other so in a few years you can become a plumber, carpenter, and painter… Miss Fixit!

What did your parents say when you went to the monastery?
To become a nun is a very serious step, but no more serious than getting married. Many parents accept a marriage, which would take a daughter far away from home, to Italy or to U.S.A., but if anyone wants to enter a convent here in Sweden, there is almost always a family drama. This is logical. From 1595, when our abbey here was closed, up until modern times, it was forbidden to have any monasteries at all in Sweden. This means that a lot of spooky stories have cropped up, about unhappy young women locked in behind high walls etc. Now that the Swede has begun to travel abroad and met all sorts of sisters on the streets or the hospitals of many countries, they are more open to the idea of nuns, as long as their daughter doesn’t want to become one! When parents have been here to visit their daughter they see soon enough that we are pretty much the same as any other group of women even if have a different way of life. Very soon they are here more and more often and they take other members of the family too and even hold weddings and christenings here in our church, or some big birthday party or other anniversary. As one father said: ‘ When Margaret went into the monastery in Vadstena, I thought that I had lost my only daughter, but now I have ten more!’

Why are you a nun?
Every grown-up feels attracted to some work or art. They want to be something: Doctor, teacher, and dustman. Some feel that they want to serve God on a permanent basis, make their life a service. Teachers have about three years’ training, doctors even more, and we have eight years to think about what we are doing.

What are the different grades you go through before you can be a nun?
After a period of getting to know each other, the candidate asks to be allowed to join our life as a postulant. (Postulant comes from Latin and means seeking or asking.) If the whole community thinks that this is a good idea, she is received into our family at a simple ceremony in the Chapter where only the nuns are present. She is a postulant for about eight months and during this time, she wears her own clothes, (but not jeans!) At the end of this period, the postulant asks to be allowed to take a step further and become a Novice.

If the community considers her suitable and think that she seems to have a vocation for our life, she is given the habit (the grey dress) and a white veil which means that she is not yet bound by any vows. She is given a new name and is now called Sister Maria Anna, or Hedwig or whatever. This ‘clothing ceremony’ takes place in the Chapter and only the nuns are present. Our noviciate is for two years and if all goes well, the novice herself asks to make temporary vows.

Again it is the community which makes the final decision and now the novice makes her vows for three years in the church during Mass with her family and friends as well as the nuns there as well. The priest receives these vows in the name of the Church. The junior sister is bound to the abbey for these three years. It is now, in connection with her first profession, that she gets an extra name, a name that means something special to her; maybe some mystery, which says something special to her, like Sr. Mary Angelica of the Most Holy Trinity, for instance. This extra name often hides something she has discovered as her unique vocation. As a sign that she has made vows, sister changes her white veil for a black veil. If all goes well and the community is sure that she is on the right way, sister asks if she might renew her temporary vows. If the community agrees, she is allowed to do this for another two years. This time the ceremony takes place in the Chapter, and she renews her vows in the hands of the Abbess.

Finally, after eight years, she asks to be able to give her Solemn Vows that is life-long vows. If the community is positive to this, we call the Bishop to come and receive these vows during a very beautiful High Mass with the sister’s entire family, friends and relatives etc present. During this Mass, the sister is given a gold ring with an engraving of the Crucified on it, the choir- cope which is fastened by a wooden button and a leather thong, and finally, she is given the characteristic Birgittine crown, which symbolises Christ’s crown of thorns with his five wounds.

Other religions or churches

What is your attitude towards other religions?
We have respect for and tolerance towards all other beliefs. In our country there are very many people who are not Christians or who are not members of the Church of Sweden. There is also a law, which guarantees everybody in Sweden freedom of religion. You can have a mosque or a synagogue or a chapel or a meetinghouse quite freely and nobody has anything to say about it, or make unkind remarks about anyone else’s religious beliefs or practises.

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About lies and such

Do nuns lie?
Yes, sometimes, unfortunately. But we do try to tell the truth. One lie is obvious here, if you haven’t found it yourself. There are not even 101 questions, but we are hoping to get a lot more to fill the quota. Sorry!

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