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Dear Phatmass Phamily, especially dear Vocation Station readers,

+Praised be Jesus Christ!

Our family has returned home from a wonderful vacation and I am beginning to catch up on everything going on here. Lovely to see entrances planned and ongoing spiritual development in “the phamily!” It has been a magnificent thing for me to return home to home and the computer, which was sorely missed!

As many of you know, before children, I had the privilege of working under the esteemed Dr. Margaret Singer (+RIP), who along with Dr. Robert Lifton, did ground breaking work into understanding destructive cults. My work as a therapist focused mainly on cult survivors (Christian based as well as others).

I have long been concerned about the direction many communities are taking in their formation; namely using mind control/thought reform tactics – albeit unknowingly. Please remember that not all “cults” are destructive, and I realize that religious communities in general fit the description of a cultic environment. Cults became destructive when they employ unethical methods of mind control/thought reform, which results in the loss of critical thinking. Holy Mother Church generously gives Her religious time to discern where their vocation truly lies. Without the benefit of critical thought, discernment is impossible. As many of you know, I have two daughters in religious life, and both are in cloistered (one papal/one constitutional) environments. I firmly believe that formation is possible in a healthy manner – allowing the individual to undergo “conversion of manners” (to use St. Benedict’s language) while still maintaining personal and individual integrity.

This is a very, very fine line – a person enters a community because of a supernatural call and pull, and places great trust in the leadership of the community by that very action – and on the other hand, a person’s soul, mind and body are individual, unique and precious to God. We talk often of abuse happening on a physical level and often neglect the psychological and spiritual abuse that can happen by faulty leadership or unethical means.

I recently came across a blog about a woman’s discernment experience. I have had no contact with her and don’t know her. It is her blog that has encouraged to me sit down and write to those in discernment (or even those under spiritual direction!). I will not reference the community that she visited. What this young woman wrote is one of the best examples I have seen recently of the use of what Dr. Lifton called “sacred science.”

This woman wrote about meeting with the Novice Mistress of a cloistered community. This is what she wrote:

[color="#800080"]She was direct, she was sharp, and it was obvious that the reality of what she told me pained her on every level.
She told me, [i]"It can be documented. If a Novice goes to speak with another Novice or a Professed Nun in order to get around the Novice Mistress, and receive any spiritual direction from someone else, ONE of them, or BOTH of them ALWAYS end up leaving! It can be documented! I always caution the Novices of this if they are tempted to cry on another Novice's shoulder, or to offer advice to another Novice. I ask them, [b]'Do you want to be responsible for destroying a Vocation? Someone else's OR your own?[/b][/i] She pointed out the guarantee of the Holy Spirit that even if she, the Novice Mistress, messes up her direction, the Holy Spirit will use it for their good. But no one else (but for the Abbess or Prioress!) have this guarantee. Not other Sisters, not other Novices, not someone outside the monastery. That guarantee isn't there. (please note: the italics and bold print belong to the author.)[/color]

Before this young woman even entered (if she does enter) the community, the Novice Mistress took an opportunity to set up a controlled environment AND she introduced a “thought stopping technique”. She made it very apparent that the new member would not be able to seek support from another. I recognize it is the accepted practice of most monastic communities to segregate new members from those under perpetual vows, and obviously, one novice is in no position to give another novice spiritual direction and/or advice (!) BUT…to end the advice with the threat of “destroying another’s vocation/or your own” is a very familiar and unhealthy tactic used to control behavior and/or critical thinking. It also removes the possibility for outside support in the event the Novice Mistress misuses or abuses her position of authority.

It is absolutely critical that in religious life a new member (or even vowed member for that matter!) has access to someone other than the person directly “supervising” them. This can be a spiritual director, a Confessor, the Prioress/Abbess, the Council, etc. It is extremely unethical to suggest that one’s doubts or a need for companionship/support would be regarded as “going around the Novice Mistress” and even more disturbing: it is a huge red flag that the Novice Mistress would use the threat of destroying another’s vocation as a means of curtailing communication.

I encourage ALL of you to please educate yourselves thoroughly as you discern your vocation. As I mentioned previously, the generosity in which Holy Mother Church introduces individuals to religious life is a beautiful thing. If a woman (or man) enters a community and is not allowed to use her mind to fully examine her vocation and decides to stay – for reasons that come out of a psychologically abusive relationship – such as – being afraid, having been manipulated, etc., then she has not been allowed to freely say “yes” which is a critical factor of any vocation.

I will use my own daughter as an example; the first community she entered was not right for her. She was allowed to freely determine this fact and in recognizing this, she left (as was her privilege) and she found the community that was right for her. She did not “destroy” her vocation, nor that of another – and I can assure you – had she discovered that religious life was not her calling, she would not have “destroyed” a vocation – she would have discerned truly where the Lord was calling her – and what He was calling her to. She would not have been able to complete this process had it not been for the support of the community and her Spiritual Director. Another good example of healthy formation is what Sister Michael Maria ("Annie/Nunsense") is experiencing. That particular Carmel displayed an excellent example of leadership and formation in that Laudem was "allowed" to visit with Sister; granted the circumstances were unusual given the location, etc., but excellent display of trust in Sister's growth, maturity and appropriate independence! I am sure that is not the normal practice, but clearly the Vocation Mistress or Mother Prioress used pastoral judgement and placed healthy trust in Sister Michael Maria!

I am including two links. It is my hope (and prayer) everybody will be motivated to educate themselves regarding formation and and at least be familiar with tactics employed; there are many, many more excellent websites, but these are good resources for initial education. I have also included definitions taken from the websites.



from the above mentioned website:

The "Sacred Science"
The cult's ideology becomes the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. The ideology is too "sacred" to call into question, and a reverence is demanded for the leadership. The cult's ideology makes an exaggerated claim for possessing airtight logic, making it appear as absolute truth with no contradictions. Such an attractive system offers security.


from the the above mentioned website:

[i]Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.[/i] The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing. (Singer, 1995)

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TradMom, you are wonderful. Thank you.

One of the things that attracted me to my community is that all the sisters displayed such different personalities. They seemed extremely wholesome in that regard. And yes, I think I've seen some communities that bordered on unhealthy, mostly because they were so anxious (which in itself is understandable) to preserve their charism.

Having a good novice mistress is so important! And I also loved how you point out the obvious trust Sr. Michael Maria's superiors have in her. (My prioress and novice mistress just informed me that I can have an extra family visit during my postulancy year, to accommodate the special position of a family friend who took care of my brother and I when my parents were divorcing. I didn't dare to ask. I think I'm more cultish than they are...)

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What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing your obvious insight and experience into such a timely topic.

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In the interest of public discussion, the lady who wrote that blog post doesn't recognise her community and novice mistress in the way TradMom analysed it, and [url="http://adorotedevote.blogspot.com/2009/08/defending-myself-against-libel-calumny.html"]wrote another post[/url] since she had trouble answering here.

Warning: she was a bit upset.

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I want to comment but i think it would be very risky! kinda scared, but anyway, TradMom meant no harm I think. There might some misunderstanding.

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I think so too - and I said something along those lines at the blog post. Since I respect both TradMom and Adoro Te Devote, and they're both grown-up, I'm sure they'll be able to sort it out amongst themselves. :)

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I think this post should be deleted any further discussion on the Subject should be between Tradmom and the blogger for privacy.

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Well, after reading the threads here and Adoro's blog, I hope I'm able to articulate properly my thoughts.

Adoro Te Devote's response post puts things into a different perspective[b] if [/b]one were to judge the community where she went for her visit. I didn't. I only read TradMom's post in the vein of discerning healthy communities in general. That's why she only quoted one paragraph that made her think of something about which she has experience whether it be professional or personal with her own family members' religious life experiences.

Actually, I could hypothetically tell you about a horrible visit I had with a community and how no one should go there (which hasn't happened to me)... and then someone else could visit, know it's where they're meant to be, enter, and remain for the rest of her life. That's why I NEVER would single out a particular community as a 'bad' experience. My vocation journey is not someone else's.

Seriously, and I write this to any discerner on here, ANY 'advice' anyone gives or post anyone writes, on here or anywhere else, should only be taken with a grain of salt and read for informational purposes only. We're not spiritual directors and truly that's the only one you should accept advice from. Vocation Station should be used as only a tool to discover various communities/vocations and to share our journeys.

As John Cardinal O'Connor once said: If God wanted every religious to be exactly alike, he'd make every human exactly alike. I think that holds true with religious communities. That's why there are so many varied orders.

I'm all for believing TradMom meant no libel by her post, just as I didn't believe the community that Adoro wrote about was unhealthy.

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Leaving aside a specific community, this is really an important topic. This is something I have noticed with some well-meaning communities, a tendency to break down individual personality and evaporation of critical thinking, under the explanation that they are trying to teach obedience. Which it is so important to do (teach obedience) it is one of the vows after all! But I think there is a healthy way to do it and an unhealthy way...

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[quote name='tnavarro61' post='1941795' date='Aug 6 2009, 07:10 AM']There might some misunderstanding.[/quote]


I think the blogger took TradMom way out of context. She states in her blog that TradMom "linked" to her--which she did not. She quoted an excerpt and deliberately avoided using names so as to make the scenario more anonymous and not point fingers at or malign any person or community. Her intent was to alert discerners to situations that may not be spiritually edifying for everyone, so that they can best educate themselves about the communities they want to enter. Unless a person was already a frequent reader of both PhatMass and that woman's blog they wouldn't have any idea which community that quote was referring to.

Adoro Te Devote can't post because new members need a minimum of 10 posts in order to post in the VS.

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+Praised be Jesus Christ!

Some clarification:

My post was intended to educate and inform, and I used an example taken from a public blog. I did not name the community (whom I know and do not consider a destructive cult!) nor the author on purpose - so as to avoid being perceived as judging (or analyzing!) either the author or the community; nor did I link the community or her blog. I used a public blog as a means to illustrate the use of a specific technique.

I did not approach the author because from her writings alone (and I said that I did not know her) she seems very well grounded, educated and quite able to make solid decisions. She has also indicated repeatedly on her blog that she is not open to advice from strangers. I respect that and her. AND, [i]her[/i] analysis of the experience with the Novice Mistress will surely be colored by [i]her[/i] experience, life and the fact that she had the conversation in person. And, as her days pass and she puts [i]her experience[/i] into perspective, some things will become more intense and clear, and others less so. That is normal and my intention was not to analyze the author or her experience, but to highlight a manipulative technique. I do not believe - and this is important - that the Novice Mistress INTENDED or KNOWINGLY used a manipulative technique. It is important that those seeking religious life are able to recognize particular techniques and systems, hence the links I provided.

Critical thinking is the key to a healthy and solid experience in any vocation in life. Nobody has the right to manipulate or use specific techniques to elicit a particular response/emotion or reaction. Education is paramount, and I strongly encourage all those who are considering placing their lives in the hands another - be it a religious community or spiritual director - to do so fully informed and educated.



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+Praised be Jesus Christ!

I have received a couple of emails and PM's with questions and comments from people in discernment. I dug up a list of questions we (daughters and husband) used as discernment tool when they were looking. It is an extensive list and I don't recommend bombarding a Vocation Mistress with the whole thing at once, but as I told one Phatmasser, it is a good thing to tuck away in one's journal and refer to. I had posted this once before, but I have no idea how to find it! Hope it helps!


What is the process of formation? How long is the postulancy, the novitiate and temporary vows?

Does the community "share" formation with another community (or communities) or send you to a different location? (If they do share formation, is it co-ed? )

What is involved in the process of application? (Letters from spiritual directors, psychological testing, medical and dental records, behavioral assessments, etc.)

What sort of financial arrangements would you need to organize in order to enter? (Meaning: Would you be responsible for your medical insurance, rent stipend, etc. until you enter novitiate or make temporary vows? Does the community ask for a dowry?)

Do they have the means and willingness to "care for you" in the event of a serious disease, illness or accident before you make solemn/perpetual/final vows? If something unfortunate were to occur in your life (God forbid...cancer, an accident, etc.) would they ask you to leave the community?

Would they help you get settled outside of the community?

Other than a community with strict papal enclosure, how do they handle family emergencies (in the event you live in another area)? In the event an immediate family member were seriously ill or died, would you be allowed to return home? If you were a postulant, novice or in temporary vows, would they find the means for you to return home? (There are Canon laws about how long you can be out of the novitiate, but it is important to know if they would help you financially in a time of need.)

How do they live out the charism of the founder or foundress of the community?

What spiritual or religious practices/devotions are particular to them?

Have they ever undergone a reformation? If so, why and how did it impact the community?

Do they have different "branches" - if so, what are the differences?

Have their constitutions changed? If so, how and why?

How did the Community incorporate the spirit of Vatican II into their daily life and spirit?

In what ways did they change?

Did the habit change? Please explain why or why not:

How do they manage the "corporate" life of the community? Do they exist purely on donations and benefactors?

Do they have arrangements for the care of the elderly sisters? (I would ask to visit the "retired/elderly" sisters/nuns.) Do they send the elderly, sick or ill nuns to a nursing home?

How do they "govern" the community? How is it organized? If the Foundress/Founder is living, is a council in place that has a voice?

Do they have an Abbess/Prioress/Mother Superior for life? How and when are elections held and what is the process?

Who is the Novice Mistress and what is her background? Has she had training outside of the community? Is your introduction to religious life an individual process (based upon your progress, temperment, educational background) or is there a specific formula/process that is more group-oriented?

Do you see diversity in the community? Are they open to women based upon their call from Jesus or is there another criteria they consider? (Example: education level, color, age, country of origin, etc.)

Would you have access to an outside Confessor/Spiritual Director not connected to the community?

If you felt you needed therapy at some point, would they object or would that be seen as a "weakness" or problem?

Are you "allowed" to have private (unrestricted) conversations/communication with family members and/or close friends? How often? If not, what restrictions are in place (as in...does the Novice Mistress read the mail and then decide whether or not to pass it along to you)?

How do they handle "problems" within the community? (Anger, conflicts, etc.)

How is intellectual growth stimulated and encouraged? Creative growth and/or expression stimulated and encouraged?

How do they encourage and promote a healthy (physically) lifestyle? (Foods, exercise, etc.)

How do they balance integration into a communal lifestyle while maintaining healthy personal space and privacy? Another way of asking is how do they create healthy interdependence with healthy independence?

In addition to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, do they take another vow? If so, what it is? What is their understanding of the vows? (Some communities have a very different understanding of what it means to be obedient...as an example.)

Do they incorporate any other sources into their lifestyle and/or formation that is not Roman Catholic? As an example, do they practice Zen Meditation, or host Inter-Faith Days of Prayer? If so, what are they?

If it is a missionary order or a congregation that is international, could you be transferred to another country? Do you have a voice in where you might go? If not, how do you feel about being completely open to God's Will through the voice of the Superiors?

If it is an Order/Congregation that has a specific ministry, how are the assignments given out? Are you involved in the process or choosing a location, or are you assigned where needed?

Do they practice corporal penances? If so, what and how?

In addition to their individual charism, do they follow a specific rule or hold special a particular spirituality? ("Sisters of Mary" might have Ignatian Spirituality)

How do they interact with the community in which they live (as in neighborhood)? Are they in good standing? (One community we visited had been involved with a variety of lawsuits.)

How do they actively live the corporal works of mercy? Especially serving the poor?

Do they have a chaplain (if they are cloistered) on the grounds? (Sadly, some cloistered communities do not have access any longer to Daily Mass.)

Do they offer hospitality to others?

If you have a special talent or hobby (weaving, music, art, etc.) would it be encouraged and put to use or would you be asked to give it up as a sacrifice?

Lastly, do you have any input into your name? Many communities allow the woman to submit three choices. What are some of the more recent novices names?

Ask them to recommend any appropriate books or reading material that would be of help to better understand the charism, spirituality and work of the community under consideration.

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Wow, those are a lot of great questions I never would've thought to ask!!

When is the "right" time to ask different questions? I mean, like some of those questions almost seem like one should be just about ready to ask for an application in order to ask them. Other seem more appropriate to ask at first/second/third conversations with the Vocation Direct/et al.

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+Praised be Jesus Christ!

As with all things, common sense is key. Some of these questions apply only to active orders while others apply only to contemplative/monastic.

Some of these questions will naturally be revealed as the discernment with the community becomes more serious - and some you will have to ask about specifically. Some questions will not necessarily be "an issue" for some of you - as an example, if you don't have family living - there goes any concerns about family issues. If you have a large trust fund - you can make arrangements to have it held in a trust until your final vows (depending upon the order) in the event you leave - which would remove financial considerations. If you are willing/open/excited about going anywhere in the world (if you are looking at a missionary order for example) then you might not have concerns about how and when your "missions" come up.

In our family's case, each daughter had a different concern/issue/focus. However...they did share one concern. My sister died in the cloister, surrounded by the nuns of her Carmel, so both of my daughters were very touched by that and wanted to be in a place that does not send their elderly "away." (Unless, of course, one's condition needs constant medical attention that a convent/monastery cannot provide - they do have common sense, I promise!) In our house, that was a "big issue," and came out of visiting different places, only to find out that some communities did not have the resources (be it people or finances) to care for the elderly or sick.

For all of those in discernment, I have no doubt as you go deeper into the consideration of religious life and get to know the community you feel most drawn to, specific issues and concerns will naturally come out. At that time, you will hopefully have a good (as in healthy, loving, welcoming and open!) relationship with the Vocation/Novice Mistress/Council/Prioress, etc., and questions will be answered appropriately.


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