In the week after Christmas, we all had the opportunity to go home for a short period. We got back a few days ago and, since then, have been turning our attention to preparations for the spiritual exercises – our long retreat – which starts this weekend. I hope to write a short blog over the next day or two looking forward to the retreat, but before doing so (and in true New Year tradition) a quick look back . . .
The week home comes at a very clear moment of transition as we move from our time in the house to our time out and about (on retreat and/or doing experiments). But as well as marking this shift in focus, it seems to have some other important purposes. First, and best, it is an opportunity to catch up – and indeed reconnect – with friends and family. So, as a group we dispersed to different corners of Europe, with some lucky folk enjoying Italian or Spanish sunshine. I was furthest north, so while I had some sunlight it was mainly dark and rain. But where I was let down by the weather, my week more than made up for it in other ways (but more about that later).
Second, and probably most important, it gave us the chance to see how well we could live a Jesuit life outside the ‘safety’ and security of the noviciate and in the familiar environment of our home turf. If it is easy to be a Jesuit in the novice house, is it also manageable when we are back in our old haunts?
Third, and finally, it is always good to get a break and a change of scene, not only for us novices, but quite clearly for the senior community too. They were also enjoying a much-deserved few days of absolute peace and quiet.
I think we all left for our home visits with a real spring in our steps because Christmas in the noviciate this year was excellent. It was one of the best Christmases I have ever had – great on multiple levels. I had become a bit of a Christmas cynic over the years, worn down by the deadening flood of commercialism that had swept away almost any depth or meaning to the feast in the ‘real’ world.
However, in the noviciate, we built up to Christmas slowly and without the pressure of purchasing multiple gifts or feeling the need to attend multiple Christmas-party celebrations. Through the daily liturgy, we gently followed a pattern of prayer and reflection that brought home clearly the true, multi-layered meaning of this great feast. And we had events, like the wonderful Christmas Eve at the hospital where we helped gather folk for, and participated in, the vigil mass. Later, a few of the novices went round the wards as wandering carols singers, bringing the spirit of Christmas to people in their beds. They reported an amazing atmosphere as patients shouted out requests and joined in the singing.
Christmas is usually a time when I feel a sickly fullness caused by over-indulgence – a sort of candy floss effect where there is absolutely no real substance. But this year I felt full in the deepest possible sense – refreshed and renewed and ready for the new year. And a big part of that was the day itself. The meal was lovely, made as always by the magnificent Martina and Colette, and it was followed by our rather unusual Christmas present exchange. We had each bought one present and they were all put into the middle of the room. We drew numbers and the first person picked a present. The second person then had the option of picking a present or taking the gift off person 1. If No.1’s gift was taken, he/she opened up a new one. This would go on, with multiple chains of gift taking, much of it tactical. It is difficult to explain in a single paragraph, but safe to say it provided us with a couple of hours of post-lunch fun. There are many Ignatian lessons from the game but perhaps the biggest is about attachment – if you pick a good gift, don’t get too attached to it, because it will almost certainly be taken off you!
I was back in Scotland for New Year and stayed with the Jesuit Community in Edinburgh. I caught up with some long-standing friends as well as family and also managed to visit my old Crossfit gym a couple of times (which was an absolute highlight for me). I noticed two things in particular about the visit. First, clearly my life is now on a very different path from my friends and the nature of the friendships themselves have shifted, which took a little adjusting to. But overall, the adjustments were made. Second, it confirmed to me the depth of friendship and connection that has been made here in the noviciate. As one of the guys said on our return, it became so clear how much we have shared together, in terms of life experience, even in such a short period. And I think that is part of what makes us Jesuits – a shared experience, which will only be enhanced and deepened by the experience that is the spiritual exercises.
The break gave me a fresh appreciation of my new life here in the noviciate and in the Society, but also a clearer sense of what I need to cherish and keep from my old life. It was a time of great blessing and has left me feeling ready for what comes next.