My wife and I, along with seven of our children, were graced on the last Sunday of September with the honor of attending the tonsuring of two young nuns from Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio. The tonsuring was performed by Bishop John Kudrick of the Byzantine Catholic (Ruthenian) Eparchy of Parma during Great Vespers for the Feasts of the protection of the Mother of God and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. This took place at the outdoor Shrine of Our Lady of Mariapoch, conveniently located directly across the street from the monastery, a tiny Eastern Catholic enclave in the middle of Amish country.
The tonsure is the symbolic cutting of hair that marks one’s initiation into a stage of religious life. We are all familiar with the tonsure of monks (the big bald spot) in medieval and Renaissance art, but all who enter into monastic life in both Catholic and Orthodox traditions are tonsured, and Eastern Christians also practice tonsuring those who receive baptism, though it is not always the extreme version we find in medieval iconography. The individual receiving the tonsure is also very often given a new name, a name bearing personal, psychological, but above all spiritual significance.
It had been raining all day, but the weather started to clear and a late afternoon blast of sun illumined the clear blue Ohio sky. As we drove the last two miles before arriving at the monastery, we passed groups of Amish. Some were walking down the road, perhaps to dinner or to a prayer meeting. Some were talking and laughing. We even saw a large group gathered to play volleyball. No one was working. The Amish, need I remind anyone, do not labor on the Sabbath.
We arrived an hour before vespers, as my son Aidan was invited to serve as an altar boy and we had a load of supplies donated to the nuns by our own parish back in Michigan. Mother Theodora welcomed us with open arms and warm hugs. My children have a deep love for Mother, and it took large amounts of persuasion and promises to keep the youngest of them strapped in their car seats so my older kids could help me unload the van without too much commotion. Mother Theodora told me that Jesse and Julie, the postulants, were across the street at the Shrine getting everything ready. I was already feeling a trickle of emotion well up in my heart.
Since we had some time to spare, we walked around the grounds of the Shrine. My son Tommy, who works as a counselor at a boys camp held every summer there, showed us a wonder behind the Plexiglass protecting a relief of Christ of the Deposition, the scene of the dead Christ lying in his mother’s lap. There, nestled in Christ’s lap is a bluebird, which must have gotten in somehow and not been able to find a way out. The bird is no longer alive, of course, but it looks as though it were sleeping, not unlike an avian version of an incorruptible saint. The blue of its plumage shows no sign of having faded, an example of some stunning visual poetry. Tommy told us it’s been there for two years.
When we returned to the Shrine from our walk, we were a little surprised (I don’t know why) to see the place packed. All of the pews were filled and we were fortunate enough to grab some extra chairs prudently added to accommodate overflow. What really surprised me, though, was the number of clergy, religious, and seminarians in the congregation, individuals from Eastern Catholic, Latin Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions. And I was even more surprised at how young most of them were. Of course, there were older clergy and religious as well, but the old-timers were vastly outnumbered. If I had to estimate, I’d say that the average age of clergy and religious at the tonsuring was thirty to thirty-five. I no longer accept the postmodern mythos about an aged and increasingly irrelevant number of those in religious life. These young people are like young people anywhere: they’re all, or almost all, on Facebook; they have cellphones; they go to movies. But they’re filled with spiritual fire.
Vespers is a beautiful service in its own right, but to have it presided over by the bishop on such a festive occasion added extra gravitas and extra joy to the proceedings. Services are always sung in the Eastern traditions, and with the abundance of clergy, religious, and seminarians in attendance, the singing was extraordinary—three (or more) part harmony augmented by joy. When she heard a recording of the event, an opera singer friend of mine, by no means a strong believer, was duly impressed. “Dang,” she told me, “that congregation can sing!” It was pretty stirring.
The most moving section of the service, not surprisingly, was the tonsuring itself. When Julie and Jesse removed their head coverings, I was shocked at how long their hair was (dark ringlets in the case of Julie and long chestnut locks in the case of Jesse), but it was their faces that most struck me. They looked absolutely radiant, filled with presence and love. Julie was first to be tonsured, and Bishop John was visibly moved as he prayed over her and gave her a new name: Sister Cecilia. Her mother stood by wiping her own tears, while her spiritual mother Theodora also wept. But, when Jesse’s turn came, now named Sister Gabriella, even the bishop lost composure. Likewise, I think, did most of the congregation. In mystical literature, this is called “the gift of tears.”
After vespers, everyone gathered for a potluck. These two brides of Christ celebrated their wedding to the Bridegroom, and so did all of their friends and family. It was an occasion for great joy. Great joy.
So what did I take away from the tonsuring of these two beautiful women? First, that religious life is far from irrelevant to young people, as the popular culture would like to have us believe. To the contrary, it is a source, as the ceremony itself says, of “unfading and incorruptible crowns of life and immortality.”
But, secondly, what I took away is that the Church, far from being a holdover from another, more naïve, era, is, in fact, the most modern of institutions. In the early twentieth century, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in all sincerity that “In all Europe only you O Christianity are not old / The most modern European is you Pope Pius X.” The Church, indeed, is ancient and modern at the same time. It always has been. It always will be. As the French Catholic filmmaker Eric Rohmer once said, “The more you respect the past, the more modern you are.” These two young nuns, and the grace that worked through them, have convinced me that this is the case.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English literature at Marygrove College. See his Twitter account here.
Link to Christ the Bridegroom Community here.