There’s a touching scene in the film Brother Sun and Sister Moon, which tells the story of Saint Francis of Assisi. One of the group who first gathered round Francis has fallen in love. With some fear and trepidation he tells Francis that he doesn’t think, after all, that he can live a life of celibacy. Francis listens with great sympathy, and then tells his friend that he should then go and live a different good life as a husband and father. They embrace, and so the young man hurries off, full of joy at the new possibilities opening up before him. But what stays with me most is the moment in which Francis looks after him a little wistfully, sad as he thinks of what might have been.
One of the novices left this week. He had come to the conclusion that God wasn’t, after all, calling him to the Jesuit life. He still respects this vocation, and those of us who live it. But he’s decided that it’s not for him. He, too, left happily, looking forward to new possibilities. As his novice-master, I was pleased to see what had become a burden taken off his shoulders. But, like Francis, my joy is mixed with a little wistfulness. This man might have become a good Jesuit, a valued companion. And now that won’t happen.
What sense can we make in speaking of God’s call to someone who comes to the novitiate and then leaves? Do we have to say that one of the decisions, to come originally or subsequently to leave, was wrong? That at some point the will of God was misinterpreted, either by the man himself or by those who interviewed and accompanied him? I don’t think so. A man can gain, from even a few weeks in the novitiate, a much clearer and broader sense of the richness of the options that God is holding out to him. If he takes that with him when he goes, those weeks were certainly ones well-spent. And the wistfulness of those of us who remain is a price worth paying for that.