It’s been a busy couple of weeks since I last wrote a blog, including a week in Catalonia at Manresa and a week of being under the weather, both of which I will come to later. However, first and most important, the house is now feeling particularly Christmassy. We’ve had our final ‘formal’ week of conferences and the usual routine and now move into a week that is fully focused on preparation for Christmas, including a couple of days of reflection on our time in the Noviciate so far.
The Christmas season, and spirit, has arrived in two particular ways. First, we had our traditional supper and carol singing at the house of Colette and Martina, the two wonderful women who look after us novices in so many ways (whether it is producing birthday cakes or cooking the fabulous weekly Sunday lunch). They had put on a beautiful spread and we responded with a host of carol songs, sung on the most part with greater enthusiasm than talent. Christopher and Thomas provided the musical accompaniment. The two of them had spent many a morning practising (Christopher with his cornet and Thomas trying to work out how his guitar could compliment rather than clash with its dominant sound). Their hard work paid off in what was a great evening of laughter and friendship.
We also put up our Christmas tree and hung decorations around the house. There are, essentially, two ways of decorating a Christmas tree. First, the angelic approach, in which the tree is tastefully decorated as though the angels themselves had come down from heaven to arrange the tinsel and drape the lights. Trees of this sort tend to be carefully colour co-ordinated and symmetrical. The second way sees decorations thrown randomly at and around the tree, to create a melange of colour and confusion, as though they had been dropped, not from heaven but heaved out the side of Santa’s sleigh. I am a big fan of the second approach – it is my inner 5 year old responding – and am delighted that this year’s decorator-in-chief, Patrick, shares my view. The tree is a triumph of randomness and colour.
This Christmassy climax to the week came after my first period of proper sickness in the house. I was in my bed for most of the first three days, which opened up a few new insights into this way of life. To start, the community side of things. I am used to being sick in private. If I was unwell, I would retire to my flat and either (a) sit, mumping and miserable, wrapped in a duvet watching rubbish on TV or (b) go to bed, equally miserably, and try to sleep it off. Above all, I would suffer, and be insufferable, out of sight.
This is simply not possible in a house of 16 other people, which made for a rather strange experience. Everyone is very nice and very concerned which is very annoying, initially, when all you want to do is curl up in the corner. The only option for that, the only hiding place, is your bedroom, which very quickly becomes very small. It was nice though to have the space, in terms of time, to fully recover. In my old way of living there was always a pressure to get back to work and productivity as soon as possible, but here, instead, I was able to get back on my feet at a decent pace and as a result feel much better on a whole range of levels. And that feeling is linked also to the experience I had in Manresa.
Manresa is one of the central locations in the story of St Ignatius. I won’t repeat it all here apart from saying that he regarded his time there as a sort of spiritual noviciate. He had a very powerful encounter with God which opened his mind to deeper understanding. The roots of Ignatian spirituality are very much in Manresa. A couple of us were across helping out at a conference on leadership organised at a European level. It was an outstanding experience, not only giving us the opportunity to meet leaders within the Jesuit family from 22 different countries but also to observe and learn a great deal from the contents of the course itself.
There were two particular highlights. First, on the first evening, the six key members of the team delivering the conference and us two helpers had mass in St Ignatius’s cave (the place where he stayed in his time at Manresa and which sits at the heart of the retreat centre and church on the site). It was a profoundly powerful spiritual experience, knowing that Ignatius himself had encountered God in the very place we were sitting.
Second, we went as a group to Montserrat, the monastery where Ignatius had left his sword and dagger by the altar in the chapel of Our Lady of Montserrat as a sign that he was starting a new phase of his life as a pilgrim dedicated to Christ. We each took an item with us representing something that we too wanted to leave behind before starting this next stage of our journey. These mementoes and the memories attached were left by a side altar and one by one we walked away from them. It was another great moment, hugely emotional for many of the participants, and spiritually and psychologically very potent.
My big take-away from the week was confirmation that my task at the moment is to do less and be more, but added to this was an additional element and a new perspective. The course talked not only of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ but also ‘knowing’, and I think this means noticing more what is going on in my life, evaluating it through prayer and then adjusting what I am doing in response. If I can master this over my time in the noviciate, rather than getting lost in a whirl of activity, then I will have gained something hugely valuable. The new perspective also came from comments made during the course and is linked in many ways. Instead of waking up every morning thinking ‘what can I do’, it is better to consider ‘how can God use me today’. Emptying myself means that God can fill me up.
When I got back to the noviciate last Saturday I found myself slipping back into my routine and then I got sick and I had to stop and then I had to get back on my feet slowly. And that down time has given me the break I need to start again with this new element of understanding and new perspective more firmly rooted in my thinking. Our God who is in all things, it seems, was there too in my sickness. And for that I am very grateful.
I may not blog again before Christmas, so I hope that you, and all those you love, have a happy and fulfilling Christmas period.