Noviciate life is nothing if not a source of the unexpected, and occasionally unwanted, and this indeed is part of its purpose: bringing new challenges and then asking us to work out where God has been, in the event and, perhaps more importantly, in its aftermath.
This past couple of weeks has been a prime example of this for me.
My Thursday apostolate is a centre for homeless men and women, where people can get breakfast, lunch, clean clothes and a shower. One of my jobs is keeping tabs on the queue for the shower and, once everybody is through, removing any towels, bits of clothing or empty shampoo bottles that are left in the shower room. On each of the last two Thursdays at the centre my tidy up has revealed, under a pile of dirty socks and pants, human excrement. It’s been my job to remove it and clean up.
This week’s leftover was particularly foul, leaving me close to retching and, if I am honest, totally miffed. How dare they, I thought. Why should I be left to deal with this?
Over the next few days, back in the Noviciate house, fate, or perhaps the Spirit in mischievous mode, transpired to present me with a whole panoply of annoyances. I would walk into the bathroom and the paper towel holder would be empty and so I would have to trudge down to the basement with my hands dripping as the dark cloud got darker in my head. I’d open the fridge and the orange juice would be finished and no new carton put in its place. The milk jug was empty, the toilet roll left with a single sheet on it. Did these people think I was their mother, or their skivvie? What could God possibly be trying to tell me with all these affronts?
As some of you will remember from previous blogs, one of my challenges here has been coming to terms with the shift of pace, and feeling, sometimes, that what I was doing before was in fact more meaningful. As you can imagine, these events played right into this negative internal narrative. It was, therefore, a tough few days, and I found myself putting up barriers to the whole noviciate experience and to others in the community.
But of course, God was at work. Over these last couple of weeks, we’ve been blessed to have two great Jesuit scholars in the house, introducing us, first, in the case of Brian O’Leary, to the writings of St Ignatius and, second, via Nick King, to the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Each, in their different way, urged us to the same path: go to the scriptures. Find Christ there, and from that find your model for living.
And, alongside this learning, the story of Martha and Mary had been lurking at the back of my mind: one working her socks off while the other sat at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word.
On the walk to mass on Sunday the different pieces of the jigsaw began to come together. It was a sharp, cold morning, with the sky clear and a deep silence hovering over the houses. Sometimes silence can be oppressive, but this morning it was rich and alive. The sharpness in the air brought clarity to my mind and I realised that what God was saying to me was simple. In my time here in Birmingham, I need to be more like Mary – listening and learning. That, ultimately, is what the noviciate experience is about.
But, equally, being ‘more Mary’ doesn’t mean I have to stop being Martha too, because service, and availability for any service no matter how grand, is what Jesuit life is all about. There is a tension and a balance that has to be lived and that, I think, is the lesson for me from these events.
I have to be a true servant, willing to deal with shit, proverbial or actual. But I also have to sit at the feet of Christ, watching and listening, learning and growing. That is the real challenge of being a true contemplative in action, with no airs and graces, completely available and enriched by an intimate connection with God. It is a lot to ask, but my sense too is that by being more Mary I will also be a better Martha. I’ll see over these next few weeks whether that hunch is true.