1. About beginning
I want to attempt
To be naked
Nude perhaps like frozen purple
Isn’t like this the very beginning of beginning
In his poem Verse 6, the Antwerp-based Flemish poet Paul van Ostaijen describes the way things are for him. In 1919 the then 23-year old poet finds himself in Berlin, on the run for a conviction of three months of prison, on the charge of subversive political activism. Europe’s mainland is shattered to pieces and in a corner of an inn, in a city far away from home he realizes how much his old life has come to a standstill.
I cannot collect stamps
I cannot gather pictures of women
I cannot collect amourettes
And no wisdom
I can’t do anything anymore
I can’t do anything
The seemingly fatal impasse in the last two verse lines – I can’t do anything – clouds the irony of the passage a bit. The avant-garde dandy Van Ostaijen must have been the last person you could suspect of collecting stamps. Possibly he had collected pictures of women, probably he could look back to some ‘amourettes’, and certainly he had already acquired some wisdom, but the word ‘collect’, he must have written with a smile around his lips, there among the German regulars of his pub. As soon as we readers realize this touch of humour it chases away the heaviness of the personal failure the poet describes. Suddenly the impasse seems less fatal than futile.
Rire pour ne pas pleurer, the French saying goes, but these lines are about more than that, because at the moment Van Ostaijen’s life has reached point zero, this touch of humour hints at a bubbling puddle of vital energy. Deep down, hidden under the imploded building blocks of his past identity, some reality has remained, some unextinguished willpower that he then first expresses as a desire:
I want to … not know anything
I want to … not ask questions
and soon after he expresses it as a resolution:
I shall begin to give my ruin
I shall begin to give my bankruptcy
In these few verses the poet may not yet factually have moved away from his point zero, but his frame of mind has changed. He has again connected to the nucleus of energies that move in him and hint at who he is and what he can aspire to. In far and foreign Berlin he realizes that over there he will be able to take distance from the snowed in opinions and the settled patterns of his Antwerp life that so brutally has come to a standstill.
He therefore appropriates the waste land within him and around him as the starting grid of his new beginning.
I shall give myself a piece of torn poor land
A trampled land
An occupied city
I want to be naked
2. … and beginning again.
Seven weeks ago, on September 6th 2013, a solicitor ( Dominic), two nurses (Rene and Steve) and a teacher (myself, Robrecht), freely rang the doorbell of Manresa House the joined Dutch, English, Flemish and Irish Jesuit novitiate in Brimingham. We are here because we want to be here. Before entering we have given ample consideration to our choice and have extensively consulted friends, family and a few wise Jesuits. For some time we had been looking forward to making that move ahead and we felt driven by a broad undercurrent of positive energy.
And yet the situation we find ourselves in now surprisingly resembles the situation of the young poet Van Ostaijen in exile. We left the town and circle we lived in and went to a place where no one knew us. Searching and groping our way, we entered into something new and totally different.
After 7 weeks of novitiate also the undertone of the poem resounds a bit more clearly in our minds. I presume I’m not the only novice who during the past weeks has thought about what he can’t do anymore. Not that it gnaws so much that I can’t anymore hit the keys of that faster apple-laptop, or that along the way I can’t quickly take my iPad to write down something, let alone that I can’t collect stamps anymore. I stopped doing that in April 1992. On the whole you quickly get used to a stronger material regime. Not so quickly I get used to living somewhere else, among only people I didn’t know before. But neither that is too difficult, especially when you feel welcome among straightforward and good people. No, the toughest nut to crack is living in a different rhythm, doing things you are not used to, having to come to yourself again in the time-frame which is given to you.
Special to the novitiate is the fairly tight but varied day-schedule during weekdays. A great amount of energy the past weeks went to preparing for and participating in the conferences. The past weeks we dealt with ‘religious life today’ and the ‘complementary norms’, which are recent addendums to our basic regulatory document, the Constitutions. How do you enter into a flow of energy when your working hours are interrupted by indoor works before noon and outdoor works after noon? How do you pick up your pace again on Thursday afternoon, when you’ve just returned from an apostolate in St-Joseph’s Home, where you’ve gladly adapted to the rhythm and charisma of the elderly residents? In the novitiate you often find yourself having to make a new beginning and almost every so often you have to start to do something with little or no previous experience in your backpack. Time and again, you start from a standstill.
In his biography of our founder Ignatius of Loyola, Jose I.T. Idigoras writes that true conversion can only be brought about on a still moment, when your old self has come to a standstill. Only when separated from your old occupations and unable to revert to your well-known strategies – the old box of tricks – you receive the time and space to become another being. The ambitious 26-year old nobleman Inigo falls down in this silence when in Pamplona his legs get seriously injured, and he is bedbound for many weeks. Madly seeking honour he had, against the advice of his retreating superiors tried to defend the fortress of Pamplona for the Spanish Crown, until a cannonball hit his legs.
In the family castle, where he was treated afterwards, he realized that not only his legs were broken and splintered but also his old existence. The ambition that was the main impetus in his old life now seemed bitterly unadapted. His old dreams and expectations appeared futile, empty, gone with the wind.
Just at that silent moment in his life-story, when he is powerlessly bed-ridden, a new desire settles in his heart, a desire to do what Jesus has done, to become a true companion of him… In the realisation of this desire he will find the new dynamism for his existence, in which the splintered pieces of his self (character, desires, memories,…) would find a new union. Some years later he would gather a circle of friends around him who were united in their love for and discipleship of their Lord, Jesus Christ, and who would venture on a journey to acquiesce the needs of the world in their Age. They would do this as poor among the poor and they would journey to the far ends of the world.
I wonder what is in store for us, here. We – Steve, Rene, Robrecht and Carlos (who is in his second year) – step by step learn to know ourselves in a new reality. We all came here with the desire to make Jesus the core of our existence, but how will that receive its concrete manifestation for each of us? We were certainly not naked when we came here. We came as ourselves, with a history, a personality and a network of relations, with own specific desires and a humour of our own. I don’t think anyone of us arrived with a desire to reach a total point zero, like Paul Van Ostaijen. Nor were we forced by external circumstances to be here, like Ignatius on his sickbed. And yet…
Yet we expect to slowly turn into a powerful new dynamic which will give unity to the new bits of self that we discover here in stop-motion. A small guess: not in our concrete realizations or in the results of our work will we find that unity. We do too many different things here and too short after one another to build a work-related self-image, let alone a steady reputation. Rather in who we are and in how we move within our world, in how we relate to whom we meet, something new shall appear. What it shall be, we can but guess right now, but from strength to strength we stride along, the pilgrim’s way within our hearts. (Ps 84) Not entirely naked, but beginning … and beginning again.
 Meanwhile Dominic McDevitt has decided to leave the novitiate, moved by the desire to give form to his Christian commitment as a lay person. We wish him all the best luck in the good works he is about to fullfil.