Before coming to Birmingham, I had lived on my own for pretty much 8 years, with only a short period of flat-sharing in the few months immediately before. I’m used to single living and, in many respects, I thought I was set in my ways. I’ve been a little fearful of the realities of community life, although also very conscious that it has been part of the appeal of the Jesuit way of living. I like the ideal of us making our way in the world and then coming back to community, at the end of each day, for mutual support and encouragement.
It was with a fair degree of trepidation that I arrived in Birmingham, not really knowing how the community side of things would work and with the most basic worries – e.g. will I like any of them – whirring through my head.
I wrote a few days ago about Vow Day and the experience that gave of the wider Jesuit community. On top of this, and right from the first moments in the noviciate, every effort was made to build a sense of unity and common endeavour. We were all in this as individuals, but also together. And, I’m pleased to say, the community side of things, so far, has been one of the greatest blessings.
Clearly the Society has learnt a lot over 500 years about how to build community and this knowledge has been woven into the experience so far. At the heart of this was a series of personal presentations, when we each talked a little about our life experiences: what had brought us here, what we are passionate about, major events in our life story, our backgrounds and family. Hearing all the different experiences, it became very clear that there were (sometimes unexpected) connections and overlaps – points in common – between each of us. We gained new insights and at the end of that process, to put it simply, I liked each and every member of the house more.
The foundations were set for future conversations, new bonds and shared understandings. We began to see each other, very quickly, in multiple dimensions, which has proved to be an essential part of gelling us together as a team and a household.
And beyond community building through conversation, or through what I might call the official induction programme, we’ve also had it through our everyday actions. A sense of purpose has been created by working together in the garden (outdoor works as they are called – something that was very alien to me as an inveterate city dweller, but in the late summer sunshine has become a pleasure) and by the odd game of all-levels-of-experience-welcome cricket or touch rugby as part of our Wednesday afternoon of ‘sport’. A few of our fellow novices are talented and enthusiastic musicians, which has brought another source of connection and engagement. On top of this, during our first few weeks, there was a very conscious effort to throw us together in more social situations, and the conversations have flowed.
Of course, not everything is perfect and we may face times of challenge or even conflict in months ahead. After all, we each have our foibles and ways of doing things, our different world-views, and there are always people in a group who you have more in common with. But these bumps along the way are as nothing to the general desire to connect and support and move forward together.
At the end of each day, I reflect on where I have found God and as often as not it has been in the actions of one of my fellow novices. Community not only means living together, but as I am discovering, more importantly looking out for one another. It is seeing the small thing you can do that will make a positive difference to those around you – the small gesture with the big effect. On the days when my head has been down a little, when life is a little out of sync, almost without fail something has happened in the wider community to knock me back on track. That is the Spirit at work but, as I am discovering, also part of the power of a small group of people who care for each other.