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if, early impressed with the loveliness and sufferings of an incarnate Deity, an exquisitely tender mind grow restless and dissatisfied with a world as yet known only through the pictures of morose fanatics, and pant after the most effectual means of giving her celestial lover an unquestionable proof of gratitude ? The first nascent wish of taking the veil is eagerly watched and seized by a confessor, who, to a violent jealousy of earthly bridegrooms, joins a confident sense of merit in adding one virgin more to the ten thousand of the spiritual Harem. Pious parents tremble to place themselves between God and their daughter, and often with a bleeding heart lead her to the foot of the altar.
There is an extreme eagerness in the Catholic professors of celibacy, both male and female, to decoy young persons into the toils from which they themselves cannot escape. With this view they have disguised the awful ceremony which cuts off an innocent girl from the sweetest hopes of nature, with the pomp and gaiety which mankind have unanimously bestowed on the triumph of legitimate love. The whole pro. cess which condemns a female “ to wither on the virgin thorn," and “ live a barren sister all her life," is studiously made to represent a wedding. The unconscious victim, generally in her fifteenth year, finds herself, for some time previous to her taking the veil, the queen nay, the idol of the whole community which has obtained her preference. She is constantly addressed by the name of bride, and sees nothing but gay preparations for the expected day of her spiritual nuptials. Attired in a splendid dress, and decked with all the jewels of her family and friends, she takes public leave of her acquaintance, visits, on her way to the convent, several other nunneries to be seen and admired by the recluse inhabitants, and even the crowd which collects in her progress follows her with tears and blessings. As she approaches the church of her monastery, the dignified ecclesiastic who is to perform the ceremony, meets the intended novice at the door, and leads her to the altar amid the sounds of bells and musical instruments. The monastic weeds are blessed by the priest in her presence; and having embraced her parents and nearest relations, she is led by the lady who acts as bride's-maid to the small door next to the double grating, which separates the núns' choir from the body of the church. A curtain is drawn while the abbess cuts off the hair of the novice, and strips her of her worldly ornaments. On the removal of the curtain she appears in the monastic garb, surrounded by the nuns bearing lighted tapers, her face covered with the white veil of probationship, fixed on the head by a wreath of flowers. After the Te Deum, or some other hymn of thanksgiving, the friends of the family adjourn to the Locutory, or visiting-room, where a collation of ices and sweetmeats is served in the presence of the mock bride, who, with the principal nuns, attends behind the grating which separates the visitors from the inmates of the convent. In the more austere convents the parting visit is omitted, and the sight of the novice in the white veil, immediately after having her hair cut off, is the last which, for a whole year, is granted to the parents. They again see her on the day when she binds herself with the irrevocable vows, never to behold her more, unless they should live to see her again crowned with flowers, when she is laid in the grave.
Instances of novices quitting the convent during the year of probation are extremely rare. The ceremony of taking the veil is too solemn, and bears too much the character of a public engagement, to allow full liberty of choice during the subsequent noviciate. The timid mind of a girl shrinks from the idea of appearing again in the world, under the tacit reproach of fickleness and relaxed devotion. The nuns, besides, do not forget their arts during the nominal trial of the victim, and she lives a whole year the object of their caresses. Nuns, in fact, who, after profession, would have given their lives for a day of free breathing out of their prison, it has been my misfortune to know; but I cannot recollect more than one instance of a novice quitting the convent; and that was a woman of obscure birth, on whom public opinion had no influence.
That many nuns, especially in the more liberal convents, live happy, I have every reason to believe; but, on the other hand, I possess indubitable evidence of the exquisite misery which is the lot of some unfortunate females, under similar circumstances. I shall mention only one case, in actual existence, with which I am circumstantially acquainted.
A lively and interesting girl of fifteen, poor, though connected with some of the first gentry in this town, having received her education under an aunt who was at the head of a wealthy, and not austere, Franciscan convent, came out, as the phrase is, to see the world, previous to her taking the veil. I often met the intended novice at the house of one of her relations, where I visited daily. She had scarcely been a fortnight out of the cloister, when that world she had learned to abhor in description, was so visibly and rapidly winning her affections, that at the end of three months she could hardly disguise her aversion to the veil. The day, however, was now fast approaching which had been fixed for the ceremony, without her feeling sufficient resolution to decline it. Her father, a good but weak man, she knew too well, could not protect her from the ill treatment of an unfeeling mother, whose vanity was concerned in thus disposing of a daughter for whom she had no hopes of finding a suitable match. The kindness of her aunt, the good nun to whom the distressed girl was indebted for the happiness of her childhood, formed, besides, too strong a contrast with the unkindness of the unnatural mother, not to give her wavering mind a strong though painful bias towards the cloister. To this were added all the arts of pious seduction so common among the religious of both sexes. The preparations for the approaching solemnity were, in the mean time, industriously got forward with the greatest publicity. Verses were circulated, in which her confessor sang the triumph of Divine Love over the wily suggestions of the impious. The wedding-dress was shewn to every acquaintance, and due notice of the appointed day was given to friends and relatives. But the fears and aversion of the devoted victim grew in proportion as she saw herself more and more involved in the toils she had wanted courage to burst when she first felt them.
It was in company with my friend Seandro, with whose private history you are well acquainted *, that I often met the unfortunate Maria Francisca. His efforts to dissuade her from the rash step she was going to take, and the warm language in which he spoke to her father on that subject, had made her look upon him as a warm and sincere friend. The unhappy girl, on the eve of the day when she was to take the veil, repaired'to church, and sent him a message, without mentioning her name, that a female penitent requested his attendance at the confessional. With painful surprise he found the future novice at his feet, in a state bordering on distraction. When a flood of tears had allowed her utterance, she told him that, for want of another friend in the whole world to whom she could disclose her feelings, she came to him, not, however, for the purpose of confession, but because she trusted he would listen with pity to her sorrows. With a warmth and eloquence above her years, she protested that the distant terrors of eternal punishment, which, she feared, might be the consequence of her determination, could not deter her from the step by which she was going to escape the incessant persecution of her mother. In vain did my friend volunteer his assistance to extricate her from the appalling difficulties which surrounded her: in vain did he offer to wait upon the archbishop, and implore his interference: no offers, no persuasions could move her. She parted as if ready to be conveyed to the scaffold, and the next day she took the veil.
* See Letters III. IV. V.
The real kindness of her aunt, and the treacherous smiles of the other nuns, supported the pining novice through the year of probation. The scene I beheld when she was bound with the perpetual vows of monastic life, is one which I cannot recollect without an actual sense of suffocation. A solemn mass, performed with all the splendour which that ceremony admits, preceded the awful oaths of the novice. At the conclusion of the service, she approached the superior of the order. A pen, gaily ornamented with artificial flowers, was put into her trembling hand, to sign the engagement for life, on which she was about to enter. Then, standing before the iron-grate of the choir, she began to chaunt, in a weak and fainting voice, the act of consecration of herself to God; but, having uttered a few words, slie fainted into the arms of the surrounding nuns. This was attributed to mere fatigue and emotion. No sooner had the means employed restored to the victim the powers of speech, than, with a vehemence which those who knew not her circumstances attributed to a fresh impulse of holy zeal, and in which the few that were in the painful secret saw nothing but the madness of despair, she hurried over the remaining sentences, and sealed her doom for ever.
The real feelings of the new votaress were, however, too much suspected by her more bigoted or more resigned fellow-prisoners ; and time and despair making her less cautious, she was soon looked upon as one likely to bring disgrace on the whole order, by divulging the secret that it is possible for a nun to feel impatient under her vows. The storm of conventual persecution, (the fiercest and most pitiless of all that breed in the human heart,) had been lowering over the unhappy young woman during the short time which her aunt, the prioress, survived. But when eath had left her friendless, and exposed to the tormenting ingenuity of a crowd of female zealots, whom she could not escape for an instant, unable to endure her misery, she resolutely attempted to drown herself. The attempt, however, was ineffectual. And now the merciless character of Catholic super
stition appeared in its full glare. The mother, without impeaching whose character no judicial steps could be taken to prove the invalidity of the profession, was dead ; and some relations and friends of the poor prisoner were moved by her sufferings to apply to the church for relief. A suit was instituted for this purpose before the ecclesiastical court, and the clearest evidence adduced of the indirect compulsion which had been used in the case. But the whole order of Saint Francis, considering their honour at stake, rose against their rebellious subject, and the judges sanctioned her vows as voluntary and valid. She lives still in a state approaching to madness, and death alone can break her chains.
Such an instance of misery is, I hope, one of those extreme cases which seldom take place, and more seldom transpire. The common source of suffering among the Catholic recluses proceeds from a certain degree of religious melancholy, which, combined with such complaints as originate in perpetual confinement, affect more or less the greater number.
The mental disease to which I allude is commonly known by the name of Escrúpulos, and might be called religious anriety. It is the natural state of a mind perpetually dwelling on hopes connected with an invisible world, and anxiously practising means to avoid an unliappy lot in it, which keep the apprehended danger for ever present to the imagination. Consecration for life at the altar promises, it is true, increased happiness in the world to come; but the numerous and difficult duties attached to the religious profession, multiply the bazards of eternal misery with the chances of failure in their performance ; and while the plain Christian's offences against the moral law are often considered as mere frailties, those of the professed votary seldom escape the aggravation of sacrilege. The odious diligence of the Catholic moralists has raked together an endless catalogue of sins, by thought, word, and deed, to every one of which the punishment of eternal flames has been assigned. This list, alike horrible and disgusting, haunts the imagination of the unfortunate devotee, till, reduced to a state of perpetual anxiety, she can neither think, speak, nor act, without discovering in every vital motion a sin which invalidates all her past sacrifices, and dooms her painful efforts after Christian perfection to end in everlasting misery. Absolution, which adds boldness to the resolute and profligate, becomes a fresh source of disquietude to a timid and sickly mind. Doubts innumerable disturb the unhappy sufferer, not, however, as to the power of the priest in granting pardon, but respecting her own fulfilment of the conditions, without which to receive absolution is a sacrilege. These agonizing fears, cherished and fed by the small circle of objects to which a nun is confined, are generally incurable, and usually terminate in an untimely death, or insanity.
There are, however, constitutions and tempers to which the atmosphere of a nunnery seems natural and congenial. Women of uncommon cleverness and judgment, whose strength of mind preserves them in a state of rational happiness, are sometimes found in the cloisters. But the true, the genuine nun-such, I mean, as, unincumbered by a barbarous rule, and blessed with that Liliputian activity of mind which can convert a parlour or a kitchen into an universe-presents a most curious modification of that amusing character, the old maid. Like their virgin sisters all over the world, they too have, more or less, a flirting period, of which the confessor is always the happy and exclusive object. The heart and soul of almost every nun not passed fifty are centred in the priest that directs her conscience. The convent messengers are seen about the town with lots of spiritual billetsdoux, in search of a soothing line from the ghostly fathers. The nuns not only address them by that endearing name, but will not endure from them the common form of speech in the third person :—they must be tutoyé, as children are by their parents. Jealousy is a frequent symptom of this nameless attachment; and though it is impossible for every nun to have exclusive possession of her confessor, few will allow the presence of a rival within their own convent.
I do not intend, however, to cast an imputation of levity on the class of Spanish females which I am describing. Instances of gross misconduct are extremely rare among the nuns. Indeed, the physical barriers which protect their virtue are fully adequate to guard them against the dangers of a most unbounded mental intimacy with their confessors. Neither would I suggest the idea that nothing but obstacles of this kind keeps them, in all cases, within the bounds of modesty. My only object is to expose the absurdity and unfeelingness of a system which, while it surrounds the young recluses with strong walls, massive gates, and spiked windows, grants them the most intimate communication with a man—often a young man—that can be carried on in words and writing. The struggle between the heart thus barbarously tried, and the unnatural duties of the religious state, though sometimes a mystery to the modest sufferer, is plainly visible in most of the young captives.
About the age of fifty, (for spiritual flirtation seldom exhausts itself before that age,) the genuine nun has settled every feeling and affection upon that shifting centre of the universe, which, like some circles in astronomy, changes with every step of the individual-I mean self. It has been observed that no European language possesses a true equivalent for your English word comfort; and, considering the state of this country, Spanish would have little chance of producing a similar substantive, were it not for some of our nuns, who, as they make a constant practical study of the subject, may, at length, enrich our dictionary with a name for what they know so well without it. Their comforts, however, poor souls! are still of an inferior kind, and arise chiefly from the indulgence of that temper, which, in the language of your ladies' maids, makes their mistresses very particular; and which, by a strange application of the word, confers among us the name of impertinente. The squeamishness, fastidiousness, and morbid sensibility of nuns, make that name a proverbial reproach against every sort of affected delicacy. As great and wealthy nunneries possess considerable influence, and none can obtain the patronage of the Holy Sisters (Mothers, as they are called by the Spaniards,) without accomodating themselves to the tone and manners of the society, every person, male or female, connected with it, acquires a peculiar mincing air, which cannot be mistaken by an experienced observer. But in none does it appear more ludicrously than in the old-fashioned nundoctors. Their patience in listening to long, minute, and often-told