One aspect of the Noviciate I hadn’t been fully aware of during my application is the period called ‘first probation’. As I prepared to come down to Birmingham, I had a vague notion that, for the first few days, we would have restricted contact with family and friends. There was also the sense that this would be the Society giving us a final once over. But that was about the sum of my knowledge. As it turns out, first probation is a much more substantial period both in time and purpose.
Yes, there was limited contact with the outside world and, yes, this was the Society’s first opportunity (and our own) to have second thoughts, but most importantly from my perspective, it also served as an ‘on ramp’, enabling us new arrivals to slowly get up to the right speed. To extend the metaphor slightly, I’m pleased to report that, so far, there have been no crashes, just the occasional clunk and grind as we’ve changed up the gears.
For me, the three stand-out elements of the probation period – which lasts just under a fortnight and culminates in a 3 day period of silent retreat – were the work to (i) build our sense of community, (ii) deepen our prayer life and (iii) broaden our knowledge of the Society and our place within it. I will write at a later date about prayer and community, as these were the places I found God most powerfully in the first few days.
It did occasionally feel strange not to be able to access a computer or pick up the phone and, indeed, on arrival we had to put our personal phones and any iPads or laptops out of use. But, the theory behind the approach is a good one. If we are to make the most of this new life, it is important for us to make a clear step in a new direction, breaking the patterns of our old ways of living. The restriction on contacting our families and friends was symbolic of that choice, but also an important part of it. In my previous work, computers and phones and constant connectivity were a big part of my day to day experience. It is certainly a blessing to take a step back from that old reality.
In terms of studies, the bulk of the first week was spent looking at a range of material, including some of the founding documents of the Society and the auto-biography of St Ignatius. These, in essence, set out what the Society expects of us – the sort of people we must work and aspire to be – and the nature of the mission that we are being prepared for. It was the Society saying very clearly: this is what you are signing up for. Are you up to it and up for it?
At the heart of the mission that was set out is the desire to be true companions of Christ, with all that means for attitude and outlook. That central desire then flows into a determination to help build God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love and mercy – around us. That is something as far away from the rat-race as you could imagine – a shift of approach and vision of 180 degrees. What could be more exciting?
First probation, therefore, seems to be for us Novices, a taste of the life to come and the life that is possible, if we choose it. So far, the answer is a definite Yes!