There’s a lot the Society does in advance to prepare you for arrival at the Noviciate, so that what is – undoubtedly – an unusual experience, nevertheless, has a few anchors to normality. First among these is the weekend visit to Birmingham as part of the application process. Those crucial couple of days mean that when you finally arrive at the Noviciate for the start of your 2 years, you at least know some of the faces and have an idea where to go to make a cup of tea.
But for me the best introduction, not only for the Noviciate but also for a life in the Society, comes on the first full day. For our 4 provinces (Ireland, Flanders, Britain and the Netherlands) Day 1 for the new novices is also Vow Day. Those of us newly arrived have the privilege to witness, and indeed participate in, the ceremonies – religious and social – to mark the entry of the previous crop of second year novices into the Society proper as they take their first vows. In what has been part of the cycle of Jesuit life for many generations, arrival into the noviciate is also departure.
Putting to one side for a moment the sheer joy of the occasion, there were two particularly valuable and meaningful parts to Vow Day. First, we saw and met a whole swathe of the Society – men of all ages and multiple experiences – who had come to celebrate this moment of transition. We were immersed in a room full of stories, packed with an equal measure of reminiscence and advice. The many realities of Jesuit living were brought to life in a powerfully personal way. On what is a day of nervousness for us newcomers, we were carried onwards on a wave of good will.
Second, we witnessed what is also the end point of our own time in the Noviciate. We caught a glimpse of our own future as we watched the two second year novices – Rene and Steve – make their public commitment. I can only speak about this year’s service, but the emotion was almost overwhelming at stages. There was a simple beauty to the service, culminating in the promises made – centred on the three vows of perpetual poverty, obedience and chastity – by the two men standing before the Eucharist. As they made their commitment to God, they spoke with confidence and quiet determination. It is a memory that will stay with me and nourish me in the months ahead.
Watching them later, as they entertained family and friends back at the Noviciate, I had no doubt that this was a moment of real grace for them and for all of us present.
Part of the Ignatian way is to see God in all things and on that afternoon God was palpable and present in the many smiles, the many conversations and even in the camaraderie of washing up what was an unfeasibly large pile of dishes over the course of the day.
The day was an inspiration, the best possible start to this new chapter in my own life, providing spiritual rocket fuel for the first formal period in the Noviciate: First Probation. And as we move forward, Rene and Steve remain firmly in our prayers.