I entered the Society of Jesus two years ago at age 33. I moved into the novitiate in Berkley, Michigan, outside Detroit, right on the heels of a terrific experience as principal of Immaculate Heart of Mary grade school in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, near Akron.
Being uprooted out of an independent adulthood and transplanted into a new, unfamiliar environment is not a passive, unemotional experience. It brings to my mind a special piece of music, “Waters of March,” an old bossa nova piece by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. The piece depicts in lyrics and melody the birth of spring, a beautiful, new, fresh season but also an upheaval, a period of turbulent change.
In reflecting upon my novitiate experience, I associate many of these same images and moods with my experience as a Jesuit novice. These last two years of my life were a time of dramatic change but also a positive experience, I learned, as long as I kept an open attitude and gave concerted attention to the Spirit’s movement within.
The novitiate was a challenge: I was pushed to change or redefine myself as I adjusted to living a vowed, religious life, experienced the men and the institutions of the Society, and reformed my interior life of prayer.
The greatest challenge in shifting from single adulthood to religious life was adapting to a community environment. I moved into the novitiate on a Saturday; by Sunday I was facing a daily order that was going to eliminate many of my former individual pursuits, including watching the Cleveland Indians’ night games or hopping a flight to Chicago for the weekend or to upstate New York for some skiing. I knew that part. But it was also going to include a novice director who, on first impression, seemed to be prison warden and standup comic in equal measures and living with a group of men I was not sure I would have chosen right off the bat to be lifelong companions.
Things didn’t prove to be as difficult as this first impression, but some aspects of community life proved to be, well, unique. Our daily schedule ran something like this: community prayer at 7 in the morning, classes on religious life and Jesuit history from 9 to noon, community mass at 5, community dinner at 5:45, and then community faith sharing from 7 to 8:30, with personal prayer to be done during the day.
I recall looking at the schedule and thinking “This isn’t too bad!” Prior to joining, I was an active person; I worked hard and then I played hard, busy all day. However, despite the fact that novitiate life was a step back from my previously hectic lifestyle—each day lived at a thoughtful and slower pace—I was more exhausted than ever before.
At the novitiate, each of us came to rely upon every individual there but also on the community as a whole. We were all affected by each other and therefore had the potential to be sources of great strength or harmful distraction. Living communally involves following rules of conduct as well as understanding the effect of both positive and negative behaviors. It means learning the importance of being on time for community events, using community resources, from cars to computers, in a sensible way, doing chores, and so on.
The end result is that we arrive at the point of being able to live healthy lives as individual Jesuits. Through key components such as spiritual direction between novice and novice director and practiced discernment in making life and behavioral decisions, we “learn” behavior that ideally will carry us through our lives.
Remember the movie A League of Their Own? Tom Hanks plays the manager of a women’s baseball team. In one scene he screams at a player who’s having a breakdown: “There’s no crying in baseball!” The rest of the team instinctively reacts to the way their manager is treating a teammate. They begin looking inward and realize that their success depends not only on their individual talents but also on their ability to work as a group. That was how they could win ball games as a team and also grow personally with and for each other.
Similarly, I realize that I owe a tremendous amount of my formation process to the two men on my team, Ralph Cordero and Pat McGrath. They have been sounding boards, faith-filled examples, and leaders in community. We shared a lot: car rides to different ministries and works, beers at a local pub, movies we saw together. I learned from them that good community is central to religious life and is affirming and supportive individually and collectively. Ralph and Pat are incredible friends who have significantly aided my personal growth as well as giving me a rich experience as a Jesuit.
Right from the start we novices learned that the Society of Jesus extends far beyond the walls of the novitiate, beyond Detroit, beyond the United States. Studying Jesuit history and traveling fostered a broader sense of being. Learning to shift your vision to thinking and observing globally is an exciting change and challenge. I made the Spiritual Exercises in Gloucester, Mass.; worked at an inner-city legal clinic in Washington, D.C.; studied Jesuit history in Denver with novices from all over the States and others from Canada, Jamaica and Great Britain; and learned Spanish in Lima, Peru, where I lived with still other Jesuits and started to develop the cultural and political awareness needed for the Jesuit mission in other parts of the world.
As I am starting to see and think globally, I am able to put a human face onto abstract concepts such as “inculturation” and “option for the poor” with a greater ability than I would have two years ago.
Perhaps my greatest change has occurred interiorly. Daily prayer, spiritual direction, the Spiritual Exercises, and the study of Ignatian spirituality have all served to develop in me an Ignatian sense of being. Through my experiences, through listening and learning from the encounters that those around me have had, I have begun to move consistently toward being a contemplative in action, that is, someone who learns to begin asking and seeking the answer to foundational questions. For instance, from last January through May I worked at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland in the development office, on the admissions committee, and also with campus ministry, leading student prayer groups and helping on retreats. In all these efforts, when I started consciously asking myself what I was gaining from and giving to the school on any one day, it became clear to me that my presence could mean something significant to someone that day.
One such primary question might be, “Are you comfortable with the real you?” I believe no one can fully say yes honestly! Our brokenness is an essential part of what makes us human. As a sinner, there are many aspects of me that I would rather ignore and hide from. However, I am more comfortable with myself now than I’ve ever been. (I’ve even accepted being a life-long Cleveland Indians fan and believing without doubt that at the start of each season they can win it all!)During a prayer period in the midst of my 30-day retreat of the Spiritual Exercises, I pictured myself in the boat with Jesus on a turbulent sea. In my prayer, Jesus, instead of turning to me and asking where my faith was, said that he had faith in me—this despite all of my own issues and questions. Such a moment was a first for me, a small but wonderful example of Ignatius’s great gift. I know that I’m a child of God. As trite as that may sound, I’m not sure that there can be any greater objective for today’s Jesuit formative process.