“Don’t set sail on someone else’s star”

Today, we have a reflection by Norbert Litoing. Norbert was ordained a deacon in February, and missioned to study Islam at the University of Birmingham, with a view to engaging in the ministry of interfaith dialogue. Norbert is a member of the Manresa House Community. 


Don't set sail on


This African proverb captures a fundamental truth I have learnt, from the few years I have now spent in the Society of Jesus: there are as many ways of being authentically Jesuit as there are Jesuits. Jesuit formation does not seek to clone a prototypical Jesuit. It rather tries to tap the very best in each person, allowing him to be fully what God calls him to be. This lets each person, as it were, to set sail on his own star, not on someone else’s. However, this does not entail an individualistic and selfish approach to life in the Society. Each person’s uniqueness finds meaning and scope within the community gathered around Christ whose mission each Jesuit and the Society as a whole is called to serve. The individual Jesuit and the body of the Society of Jesus all dance to the tune of God’s spirit.

From the outset, life in the Society for me has been a pilgrimage, not only because so far all my years of formation have been spent far from my home country, Cameroon, but also because the variety of experiences I have made have been a constant call to “put out into the deep.” This journey began ten years ago on the banks of Lake Kivu, where I spent the two years of novitiate. One of those things that stand out vividly from my novitiate experience is the experiment I made with mentally disabled children. Inasmuch as it was frustrating to be trying to teach the alphabet to a child and still be on ‘B’ three weeks down the line, it was very consoling to witness the love and generosity that characterized our life in common, as my fellow novice and I shared these children’s lives and only went to the Jesuit community for week-ends. Living with these children helped me to learn, in concrete terms, that a person’s worth lies not so much in what he or she can do, but in the fact of being created in God’s image and likeness. I discovered, as Saint Augustine would put it, that “Pondus meum amor meus” (“My love is my weight”). I keep to this day and cherish the gift they offered me when I was leaving: a heart drawn on a piece of paper.

Drawing offered to me by the children of Akamuri (literally, little light or spark in Kirundi)
Drawing offered to me by the children of Akamuri (literally, little light or spark in Kirundi)

My life with them confirmed what I had felt during the Thirty-Day’s retreat, a strong urge to strive to offer God’s unconditional love to those I encounter. At the heart of this love lies a radical respect for difference.

After my novitiate in Rwanda, came Philosophy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The three years of philosophy opened me to the diversity of world views, to the fact that others have had to struggle with the same existential questions as I do, coming up with different ways of finding meaning and fulfillment. This helped me to come to a better appreciation of my Christian perspective. I then moved on to Senegal for two years of regency. The fruit I drew from it is the awareness that our life has meaning only inasmuch as it is lived as a gift to others. In a sense, all that we refuse to give freely is lost. I helped in a parish, taught in a school, trained catechists, and accompanied young people. All these took time and energy but filled me great joy. I then moved on to Kenya to study theology. I apprehend the time spent in theology as basically an effort to come to a better grasp of my faith. It wasn’t just an intellectual venture. It was equally a matter of growing in my relationship with God and coming to a better understanding of the mission he wants to entrust to me in his Church.

I was ordained a deacon in February this year and missioned to study Islam in the University of Birmingham, with a view to engaging in the ministry of interfaith dialogue. My time here in the novitiate helps me to continue deepening my experience of two things which I highly value in the Society of Jesus: companionship and inter-culturality. These open my heart to a love that is universal in its scope and meaning. After a day spent reading and reflecting on Islam, raising questions for which there are no ready-made answers, following my own star, as it were, it is very refreshing to pray and share a meal with fellow Jesuits and simply take care of the scullery together, as an expression of our commitment to build a community that is, in itself, a witness to a way of life inspired by Gospel values. The community offers me the haven where I can nurture my relationship with God and learn from other people’s experiences, thus providing the wind for my sails.


Norbert Litoing SJ


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