December 1996. Washington, D.C. It is Christmas Day,
cold and rainy (typical December weather in Washington), and I am sitting by myself in a near-empty Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill, sulking over my half-eaten meal.
I am preoccupied with thoughts of my family and friends in Detroit. I should be back there, I think to myself. But this is what I can anticipate should I enter the Society of Jesus. I will be away from family and friends. I won't be . . . home.
I decided to stay in Washington that Christmas as a way of "testing" myself. If I was accepted by the Society, I'd no longer be spending Christmas with my family. Fr. Brendan Hurley, SJ, my spiritual director at Georgetown, had given me a copy of the documents from the Jesuits' 34th General Congregation a few months prior. What had inspired me to spend a Christmas in solitude was a passage regarding Jesuit community life. It states that though community life does not take the place of family, "it can and does support a life that is lived in their denial."
The Congregation's documents also cite Luke 18:29: "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life."
I knew the novitiate was no longer what it had been in years past, when novices were not permitted to visit home during their two years there. But I also knew that if I were to enter religious life, I had to let go of my family and those times most associated with family, including Christmas.
I walked back to my house that rainy night, uncertain as to what I would be embracing as I let go of family. Well, you made it through this test, I said to myself. But is this what Christmas will be like in the Society?
Now, almost two years later, whenever I am tempted to laugh at this self-inflicted trial, I pause. Presumptuous as it may have been (I had only just begun the application process to enter the Society), I can still see truth in the endeavor. For most men entering the Society, the first Christmas in the novitiate is their first Christmas away from home. Being separated from family at the time of year most associated with family is a thoroughly foreign experience. It is natural for first-year novices to approach the holiday season with some trepidation, if not outright anxiety.
Fr. Bruce Maivelett, SJ, novice director at St. Andrew Hall, our novitiate in Syracuse, paid great attention to the fact that our first Christmas in the Society might be a time of adjustment. As the Christmas season approached, as we would ask Bruce what Christmas would be like, he would reply with feigned stringency, "Santa Claus doesn't come to this house." Yet he always fostered the feeling that St. Andrew Hall was not a house but a home. This attitude crystalized during the holiday season.
For me, the Christmas of 1997, my first as a novice, turned out to be an incomparable time. It was the best of both worlds, since we left the day after Christmas to visit friends and family for a few days. Sharing the days leading up to Christmas as well as the day itself in community at the novitiate was different from spending Christmas with family, but it still held all of the joy and warmth of the holiday season.
That December had all the energy and anticipation I fondly recalled from my childhood. We spent a good portion of it preparing for Lessons and Carols, a tradition at St. Andrew Hall for a decade. Lessons and Carols is an evening prayer service and a reception held a week before Christmas to which novices invite friends from the hospitals, nursing homes, and parishes where they do volunteer work. Hosting 70 people in your home is no small task! The kitchen became the social center of the house, with everyone lending a hand in baking and cooking. There were Christmas trees to be bought and decorated, there were lights to be strung outside; it was just like . . . home.
A powerful moment for me came a few days before Lessons and Carols, when I recognized something that I had been feeling increasingly during that first fall in the novitiate: we were not just a group of men living together in one house, each working, studying, and praying individually; every one there had become deeply invested in each other's lives. A fraternal bond had developed. Through grace and work, our community at St. Andrew Hall had become a family. Having burnt the candle at both ends in all the Christmas preparations, I had come down with a nasty strain of the flu that had me in bed, sleeping most of three days, drained of all energy. Bruce and a number of my brothers came to my room to check on me daily. Kevin O'Brien, one of my second-year brothers, brought me ginger ale, just like my mother would do when I was growing up. And each day, George Witt brought me Holy Communion. These were not just housemates. These were my brothers, "friends in the Lord," as Ignatius described it. Fortunately, I recovered in time to finish with many of the last-minute details for the Lessons and Carols evening.
Also invited to the novitiate that night were Jesuits from Le Moyne College, across the street from the novitiate. During the festivities, a number of them pulled me aside to ask if I were feeling better. Growing up, I was always amazed how quickly news traveled throughout my extended family via the grapevine. I realized that night that I had become part of another community with an equally rapid grapevine, an extended family just as concerned about my health and well-being.
Last Christmas Eve we novices enjoyed a meal of Cornish hens prepared by Tim Calvey and Kurt Denk, two second-year novices, and then we attended liturgies at different parishes in Syracuse. Christmas Day was spent visiting with the residents at Loretto Nursing Home, where I had volunteered throughout the fall. We returned home to a dinner prepared by the novitiate staff. After the meal, we all sat around the table for hours, enjoying one another's company.
Everybody knew that this would be the last time we would all be together, living under the same roof. That was because the second-year novices, after a few post-Christmas days with their families, were going to travel directly to their long experiments, a time when they live in a Jesuit community in full-time work.
"I was struck by an incredible feeling of gratitude that evening," novice Anthony SooHoo remembers. "Gratitude for the gift of the lives and vocations of my brother novices."
Early on the morning of the 26th, we left by plane or car to spend a few days with family and friends. I was excited to be returning to Detroit, confident that my family would realize that all was indeed well in my new life.
On the plane, however, I felt for the first time something I have experienced numerous times sinceómelancholy over leaving St. Andrew Hall. I knew that when we first-year novices returned from making the Spiritual Exercises in February, the house would not be the sameómy second-year brothers would be gone. The community here, like any living organism, continues to change. This is part of the life of a Jesuit, part of our charism: to be available for mission, to be ready to be sent at any moment. Saying goodbye is difficult, especially doing so time and again. The temptation is not to truly give of yourself, to pull back out of fear. Yet this moving from place to place cannot prohibit me from investing myself completely into the community I find myself in.
This Christmas I was where my second-year brothers were last year, saying goodbye to those novices who arrived last August and, for the first time, my second-year brothers; people with whom I have shared and who have shared with me joys and struggles. Anthony SooHoo heads to New York to teach at Nativity Middle School, Phil Hurley will work in campus ministry at Wheeling Jesuit University, and I will be teaching at Gonzaga High in Washington, D.C.
I am prepared to say goodbye to St. Andrew Hall, my home for the past year and a half. Along with a bit of melancholy is a feeling of excitement and sense of hope. I may come across as unabashedly idealistic and sentimental; I make no apologies. I now know that my Christmases as a Jesuit will not be anything like that rainy Christmas I spent alone in Washington. Wherever I celebrate Christmas, I will always be home.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, SJ, [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine. Created: 3/4/1999 Updated: 3/25/1999