Jesuit life · Reflection

Vows and new year

Last Friday marked one year since I and the rest of my year arrived at the novitiate. The previous Monday we moved rooms – one of the annual traditions for novices. My new room has a view into the garden, where I have noticed that the fruit on the trees and shrubs is attracting a lot of bird life. Not that I have had much time to gaze out of the window.

First vows, 3 September 2011
First vows, 3 September 2011

Towards the end of the week family and friends of our second years started arriving and I suddenly realised that the community was going to change and that the change had crept up on me. The vow Mass affected me more than I expected. Partly, I was more involved organising it than last year. Partly, I knew those taking vows quite well. But also, I was aware that next year I will hopefully be kneeling there before communion committing myself to a life of celibacy, obedience and poverty in the Society of Jesus; will I be ready to do that? Of course, I have another year to prepare, and although my throat was dry while they were reading out the vow formula I also felt quite good about the prospect, which I found affirming. There was a big celebration afterwards – some people commented that they’d come just for the party. I was really surprised at how quickly those who took vows moved into a different world. One or two of them joined us for communal prayer a couple of times, but they just seemed to move on very quickly.

2011 Second year novices
2011 Second year novices after vows

That left us to get on with starting our second year. There were some jokes going around about how our attitude had changed – thinking that we run the place now. Joking aside, to some extent we need to change our attitude – to give some lead and example to the new novices and to prepare to take vows ourselves, next year. I felt a change as events were vaguely familiar from last year. That will hopefully give me the confidence to push ahead with the work of this year. My novice master said that there is no one so conservative as a second year novice – by which I understand that because something was done one way last year, we assume that it is the only way it has been done or can be done. Many contemporary Jesuits entered the Society on 7th September and so it is a fondly remembered time of year. The conventional wisdom is that this is how it always was. However, a quick browse through our catalogue suggests that this too is a short memory. Before about 1950 I saw more Jesuits who entered on other days. I was alerted to this recently when reading about three well-known Jesuits; namely Teilhard de Chardin entered on 20th March 1899; Alberto Hurtado entered on 15th August 1923; Pedro Arrupe entered on 15th January 1927. Perhaps it was the restoration of an older tradition in the Society? But more interesting to me is that it suggests quite a different approach to the novitiate program because it seems that there wasn’t a single intake each year. Apparently Hurtado chose the date because of his devotion to Our Lady and Arrupe arrived two weeks earlier but had to wait for a letter from his bishop. Did one just fit into whatever was going on at the time? I may have the wrong end of the stick, but I find it quite intriguing and will write more about it if I find out.

We started rereading some of the foundational documents of the Society, and the novitiate in particular, which we read for the first time last year. The first of these documents is a letter the previous superior general, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, wrote about the novitiate. I found it affirming to realise that I have gone through some re-orientation that he says should happen in the novitiate. And one section that refers to the Spiritual Exercises which I was a bit doubtful about last year, I now recognised from when I did the long retreat in January. Although I haven’t achieved it, I could at least recognise it. I also got a kick when I recognised some quotes from the Spiritual Exercises or the Constitutions or documents of the general congregations or could look them up in the relevant books.

I’m looking forward to the next year, but am mindful that amidst the busyness I need to take some time to be still and maybe look out the window and notice the birds in the garden.

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