37. The Novitiate
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The novitiate is a time of progressive initiation into the life of the community. Novices are putting their vocation to the test of experience. At first they participate in our active ministries only in limited ways, so that they can devote themselves with a single mind to conversion of life. Their training is in the hands of the novice guardian; the Superior will help him and appoint at least two other experienced brothers to assist with the work of formation and discernment.
We are to help the novices to let go of their previous life and work, and to come to a changed understanding of their relationship with family and friends that makes room for their new and primary loyalty to the Society. We expect them to grow into our full life of worship and prayer and offer them training in spiritual disciplines. Recognizing that our novices will not have had equal exposure to the resources of Christian knowledge and wisdom, we will guide them in corporate and individual study that will help each brother explore the scriptures, Christian doctrine, history and spirituality. We help them to grasp the meaning of this Rule and to explore our particular tradition and the teaching of our founders. The novices begin to make the Gospel of John their own, and to understand the role of the monastic way in the life and mission of the Church, past and present. We give our novices work in which they have opportunity to practice obedience and cooperation, learn humility, and discover within themselves a readiness to act with generosity.
Growing into our life under this Rule is not a matter of mere adaptation but of inner change and conversion of life. We expect emotional and spiritual trials to be part of the experience of the novitiate; many stages of genuine transformation are marked by experiences of confusion and loss. The brothers who have a special responsibility for the work of formation help the novices to face these trials with courage and to gain insight into their meaning.
The other professed brothers participate in the formation of novices in many ways. Novices learn the meaning of our vocation from our daily witness to the mercy of God and the graces of the vowed life. Our encouragement enables them to endure the stresses of adjustment and change. Their readiness for commitment is fostered by the faithfulness of our prayerful friendship. And we contribute our insights into their development by means of the regular evaluation sessions.
Our hope is that the novitiate will lead to the discovery of an inner freedom to choose this life gladly, or to take up again the challenge of Christian life outside, if this seems God’s will. The novitiate normally lasts two years. Towards the end of the second year the Superior shall consult with those who train the novices, and decide whether to propose to the Chapter the election of the novice to profession in initial vows. The novitiate may be extended, but not beyond a third year. Every novice prepares for profession in a retreat of two weeks.
Pondering what this chapter of the Rule might mean to those not called to the religious life has led me to realize that we all face times of novitiate no matter what out state in life or our age. Sometimes a new phase of life is a choice, but sometimes it is forced upon us by a loss, like that of a loved one, or a job, or what we thought was financial security. Then, like the novice described in this chapter we may face a time of confusion and trial. Then is when we need all the guidance which is found earlier in the Rule. The nurturing of silence, a dependence on prayer, a trust that this new state will bear fruit are all supported and encouraged by the wisdom of the Rule.
What is the difference between initiation into the monastic life versus a cult? Forty years ago, some believed Jim Jones was the Saviour and joined his community in Jonestown, and died. How does one know if the life of the community is based on God? It seems critical that the initiation process is one of discernment, and that a long time, two years, is taken to make the decision. In psychotherapy it takes two years for a person to reach the point that he or she is ready to change. Many quit therapy at that time. Perhaps the process is similar.