“We call you people Sniffers!” the Irish Vocations Director said with a grin as we waited outside the refectory for the evening meal. Four men had come to Manresa House in Birmingham to sniff out what life was really like in the Jesuit Novitiate over the course of a weekend. It’s a strange and disorienting experience being a guest in a religious house – the strict timetable governs the rhythm of domestic and devotional life and visitors have to quickly absorb and assimilate that routine into their own lives, taking care not to disrupt the regularity of the novices’ world. Those novices, some of whom were not long into their own journey of discovery were scrupulous in their welcome – introducing themselves with broad smiles and a relaxed, easy manner that said that they too knew how it was to arrive in this house for the first time.
Over the course of the weekend there was a good deal of contact between the novices and ourselves – meals were taken in common of course and there were also opportunities to socialise in those times when we weren’t called for sessions with the Vocations Directors. These meetings were intense experiences – for some of us it was the first opportunity to tell the story of our own journeys in an open forum. Each telling of a faith-story uncovers something new; the vocation journey is a pilgrimage best observed from the sidelines. For many there is no one great unequivocal sign that points to a conclusive destination – rather the pilgrim gathers impressions, half-glimpsed at the edges of the road and one learns to watch closely and more closely until a coherence begins to emerge which gives the journey shape and a measure of lucidity. The telling and re-telling of a story may uncover those aspects of ourselves and our journeys that we missed the last time. We may well find that God was present on a patch of the road that we scarcely noticed before – ‘stay awake’ must be the axiom of the pilgrim on a journey of discernment. This message was further endorsed when we joined the house for an informal screening of Emilio Estevez’ The Way on the Saturday evening.
The vocation calls not only to us but through us to the wider world – being present to ourselves is important but it is also vital to accompany others on their way. On our last day we went with a group of novices out to nearby parishes to assist in their Sunday Eucharists. Birmingham is hardly a handsome city and it certainly wasn’t looking its best on a cold and drizzly morning in November, yet the feeling of close community – and a multi-cultural community too, was palpable from stepping foot in our respective churches. The dazzling display of ages, community-customs and cultural inheritance made for a vital celebration of the Mass that did a lot to dispel the mid-winter gloom outside.
Jesuits are about activity; the ever-present question ‘Yes, but what are you going to DO about it?’ governs every aspect of life in the Novitiate and beyond. Even simple routine things like washing-up and cleaning are dominated by this idea; we do it together and we do what we do as a community – we accompany each other on every step of the journey no matter how humdrum. The weekend at Manresa House was for we four at the same time life away from our ordinary routines and life present to ourselves and others – best exemplified for me by a talk about the Jesuit Refugee Service on the Sunday afternoon. ‘So you’re a priest and yet you still do all this stuff?’ said Father Jim Conway of the JRS as he told us of his first encounter with a Jesuit. Ignatius might have said that it is in this very stuff that we find God and that if we want to discern God at work in people’s lives then look no further than this stuff. And get involved.