by Martin McHugh
They'd come from Cincinnati, Detroit, New Orleans, and Philly. They'd been civil engineers, doctors, professors, and flight attendants. Outside interests? They were backpackers, poets, and golfers, just for starts. Volunteer experience? They'd done it all, from tutoring juvenile delinquents to working in parish RCIA programs.
They were the 43 novices who joined the Jesuits in the United States in '98, starting a program that led to first vows as Jesuits this August.
What words of wisdom do they have for the 44 novices who arrived at these same novitiates this past August? Plenty!
"The best advice is always be patient with your brothers and yourself," says Sean Dempsey, from the novitiate in Culver City, California, who describes moving to the novitiate as "the ultimate dislocating experience."
James Ackerman, from the novitiate in Berkley, Michigan, had a jump start on community life: "During my eleven years in the airline business I dealt with all kinds of people, so the diverse types at the novitiate were not jolting," he says. "Don't sweat the small stuff; don't overreact to small problems."
The years that Scott Hicke, from the novitiate in Syracuse, spent living with roommates in apartments during college and grad school taught him how to get along with others. "But there's a difference in a religious community," he says. "We're not just a bunch of bachelors living together who happen to pray a lot. Make yourself available to your fellow novices for spiritual conversation; be conscious of being with other people who you are when you're in prayer; it'll help you promote your own vocation and the other guys' vocations as well. Take being brothers seriously."
There's room and a need for some "me" time as well, in Ackerman's mind: "I looked forward to a community setting and was not disappointed, but I realized that I had to take time out to recharge my battery. Taking walks alone, jogging, and so on, was quite necessary."
"After a while the novelty wears off," says Anthony Borrow, remembering his first months at the novitiate in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. "You begin to notice other people's habits that annoy you."
Dempsey echoes Borrow's words; he remembers thinking when he met other novices that "some of these guys would probably be friends for life, and that others, well ... wouldn't."
Borrow and Dempsey changed. "Deeper relationships, deeper commitments develop," says Borrow. Dempsey adds: "If you're open to your brothers you'll discover, as I did, the amazing people attracted to life in the Society of Jesus and the multitude of gifts they bring."
After settling in, it is time for the Spiritual Exercises, the 30-day retreat. "The Spiritual Exercises will change your life," says Dempsey, "but for me it's been a gradual change. Don't expect, as I did, pyrotechnics and special effects. God will most likely work with you in a gentle, loving way." Borrow puts strong emphasis on the retreat as well: "For me it was a powerful experience, a time to grow closer with Christ. It's a pivotal experience of the novitiate."
The chances novices get for doing ministry-short "experiments" while at the novitiate and longer stints while living at other Jesuit communities-are great opportunities for self-discovery. "Find out where your strengths and weaknesses are," says Borrow, who taught CCD and worked with potential high-school dropouts and at a youth detention center in McAllen, Texas.
Kevin Buckley, another Californian, cooked at an L.A. soup kitchen, helped out at a medical clinic, and ran a shower, food, and clothing program at a Jesuit parish. The work had a definite effect on him. "People ask me why I'm taking vows, why I'm becoming a Jesuit. I tell them it's because for the first time in my life I can see God. Earlier in my life I'd think of God, and once in a while I felt him. But now I can see God in the faces of those with whom I've worked in L.A. I've also seen him in myself. I've learned what St. Augustine meant when he said that God is as close as our breath."
"I worked with the old and sick at a Detroit hospital, young adults at Covenant House in L.A., teens at a Jesuit high school in Chicago, pre-schoolers at a day care in Detroit," says Ackerman. "It was definitely a stretch and a test of my versatility -- an Ignatian necessity."
These experiments are aptly named, thinks Hicke: "You learn where your desires come from," he says, "yourself or God." He worked in Honduras with community groups, trying, he discovered, to do too much. "It was a very Jesuit desire to want to help these people in as many ways as I could. When I concentrated on discerning what God desired for those people rather than what I desired for them, it became much more fun and a lot less toil."
Borrow's long experiment led to Texas. "I told the novice director that I was interested in working at a Catholic Worker house in Houston that provides food and shelter to immigrants. He agreed that this would be a good experience, and I was sent."
His family asked him if he'd chosen Houston. "The answer's a little more complicated. I expressed a preference, but the decision was the novice director's. It's his job, through mutual conversation and discernment, to decide. Jesuit formation is more than just following orders-it's discovering what Christ is calling you toward."
Hicke agrees: "That obedience is not passive at all; it's actually very active reflection on what God is doing to me, with me, and then acting on that." This structure to decision-making taught Buckley how much he valued control. "It's been a lesson for me about how individualistic I am. Remember those lines from Isaiah? 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.' You surrender control over daily things to the novice director and spiritual things to God, but it's more positive than passive obedience-it's a free self-surrender, it's opening up your sails and letting God be the wind."
Be prepared for changes, suggest the novices. Midway through the two years is a major one: "In August, second-year novices take vows and go on to studies-first-year novices become second-year novices-new applicants become first-year novices," says Borrow, "so you help teach the new men what it is to be novices."
Hicke remembers one change he witnessed: a fellow novice left and is now working on a reservation. They keep in touch via e-mail. "He learned that he didn't have to be a Jesuit to do what he felt called to do; I learned that I do have to be a Jesuit."
"During the years some novices leave for various reasons; it's difficult to let go," Borrow adds. "The buddy you used to run with leaves; now you run alone. These transitions are not easy, but they are a crucial aspect of Jesuit life."
"The novitiate is a time of discovery," says Borrow. "Be ready to be challenged. You learn, sometimes painfully, to let expectations and fears go and to trust that Christ is present, helping you discover your religious vocation. It's a time to dialogue with Christ, to trust his direction."
Ackerman echoes Borrow's thoughts on personal discovery: "A vocation is ongoing discernment; it doesn't stop when you enter the novitiate. Trying to figure out if you are cut out for a religious life is an ongoing task; that's the purpose of the novitiate."
The novitiate is a time of growth, change, comings and goings, personal revelations and discoveries. These second-year novices are now collegians, studying philosophy at Jesuit universities across the country, the next phase of formation. Change will be an ongoing part of their Jesuit lives, as it will be for the Society's newcomers. But Dempsey's words can serve as an anchor:
"Always remember the dream of serving God that made you want to enter the Society. Remember that it's Christ who you are laboring for; it's his Gospel that you bring to a world that cries out for it. If you keep this perspective, if you put your heart and soul into the novitiate, only good things can happen. Which isn't to say the novitiate will be easy; it won't be. As a novice, I've been asked to sacrifice more than I ever dreamed. But I've also been given more than I could possibly deserve. With God's grace, the same will happen to you."