When I was going through the process of applying to join the Society, life in the Noviciate seemed clouded in mystery. We had the very useful candidates’ weekend, which gave us a glimpse of daily life, but I was regularly scanning this blog for any hints about what my life as a novice would actually be like.
Now, in our second month, what I would say is that life is remarkably normal, despite all that is new (and indeed the occasional thing that is unusual). This may seem a statement of the obvious, but I am still the same person I was, even though I am performing different daily tasks.
The pattern of our week is now set, at least until the start of next year when us first years have our long retreat for the Spiritual Exercises.
Looking at our week, Thursdays are different from every other day. We all have apostolates – voluntary work in various places across Birmingham, from schools or a local hospital to centres for homeless people or asylum seekers. I think most of us get a great deal from our Thursday work – it is an opportunity to put our faith into action and is a taste of the work we could be doing later in our Jesuit life. It is also a break in the week, which is useful because we would otherwise be spending all our time with the same people and in the same place.
On each of the other weekdays, the pattern of daily life is very similar. As I wrote a few days ago, we have a very structured prayer life, both personal and communal, and that provides the framework for the day. In addition, we always start the working part of the day with ‘indoor works’ – ever changing household chores, ranging from vacuuming the chapel to cleaning the communal toilets on the novices’ floor. I don’t need to tell you which is the less popular task. . .
We then have Conferences – discussions on aspects of religious life, with one or two of us leading the conversation based on material we have been asked to read. The idea of this is less an academic presentation and more how we have reacted to the ideas contained in the paper. So far, we’ve had an overview of religious life and we are now exploring issues around the vow of obedience. As you can imagine, each of us has a different presenting style and approach, which helps tease out the full range of issues and possible reactions.
In the afternoons, we have ‘outdoor works’ three days a week and one afternoon of sports. The outdoor works, at the moment, require us to do a lot of leaf clearing. More generally though, we look after the lawns and keep the garden and grounds in as presentable a condition as possible. This aspect of our life might seem odd to some of you, but I find it surprisingly rewarding. I like in particular the repetitive tasks, which become almost meditative. It is also good to be able to get out and move around, and to have a break from the more mentally demanding aspects of our life.
Over the course of a week, different novices take responsibility for different aspects of our liturgy. So we have a daily rota of readers and servers and usually each week two of us are asked to give a short reflection on the readings at our community mass. This week was my first experience of doing this and it brought home to me, in a new way, what our time here is actually about. We aren’t just here to do the garden or read documents, but to prepare ourselves for a future life as brothers or priests – serving people and hopefully bringing them closer to God.
Perhaps the most arduous liturgical task is leading our morning prayer – which means setting the tones for the singing and making sure we have the right hymn, psalms, antiphons, readings, intercessions and concluding prayer for the day. It is the role that I am least looking forward to, if I am honest, in part because it is the thing that is most outside my comfort zone.
We have a period of quiet time – personal study, reading or any personal projects – every afternoon before mass and dinner. And in the evening, we always finish the day with some time off. That can involve mindlessly sitting down in front of the TV in the recreation room (most often my choice) or for others it is a time for music, or chess or just general conversation.
So far, I’ve enjoyed the balance of work, activity and prayer – in the house and out of it. What I am finding is that the activities themselves are not what is important, but the environment within which we do them and the attitude we bring to them. They are all part of the building up of community that I have written about before and, as importantly, the building up of ourselves to test whether this is, indeed, the life that is right for us. God is inviting us to hear his call in different ways through the many and varied experiences. God is, very much, in all things: that idea, and indeed that reality, is at the heart of the Noviciate so far, even in our routine.