(Formative tips for the stages of postulancy and novitiate presented in in the meeting of superior Generals in Rome in 2006 by Fr. EDWARD MERCIECA, S.J)
From the learning of a new style of Life – to an affective reorientation of Life in faith with Christ
Soon a novice will understand that this is a new and different style of Life. This is a new culture – in religious life – which touches all dimensions of life and which at first makes one feel rather lost: language, habits, daily rhythms, and personal relationships, all invite to a new perception of realities and a proper conduct that follows. Little by little one discovers the “ideal way” of reacting to work, rest and prayer. Many attitudes and conduct which one day will be personalized and assimilated, are at this very first phase of religious life rather in an external imitation stage, where “what will they say?” and “how do they perceive me?” are important questions. Daily living and time impregnate that “familial ecology”, fruit of the congregation’s charism. A new/different value system is being integrated by the novice, followed by a set of behaviours and a way of proceeding typical of religious. The young person’s sensitivity to stimuli and impatience, make the postulant/novice sometimes rather uncomfortable.
During this first phase of religious life not feeling master of oneself and the present living situation may cause pain because it touches identity.
In fact he is struggling to form a new and different identity from the one he has had up to now – the identity of a religious. This might cause anxiety and sadness due to the loss of self he knew up to now. A confusion which is exacerbated by the fact that he is leaving what he knew before but what he is going to be and to become is still vague and in a way distant. Leaving behind family, friends and per¬sonal interests is difficult. Besides, not disposing of time according to one’s desires, interests and likes is a continuous renunciation. The dream for entering religious life was to become a brother/or a priest to serve the world. And now here I am as a novice “in formation” a period lasting for years. It is not easy to find meaning in all that others propose.
The rupture/breaking off which hurts most is the sensation of NOT being self-contained, self-sufficient: Who am I here? 1 am not the man I was and neither am I the man I will be!
Still, the novice is building another type of trust in his life. A new life is being born: a new vital horizon wider than those imagined, new objectives, a new ability to be with oneself and reflect. The novice is learning to express in words the interior spiritual experi¬ences, he is learning a new sense of friendship and finally yet importantly he is learning affective-integrative prayer. The best of oneself is coming out but this time peacefully. The experience of Jesus – person and mission -, passionately loved, synthesizes this phase of reli¬gious life and prepares the next years which follow. This will always remain as the basic foundational experience, an important reserve that with time grows and guarantees the way ahead.
• From the very beginning the postulant/novice learns to be serene with himself to grow in intimacy [to gain the habit of thinking, praying and discerning by himself – in a culture where there is lit¬tle space for this]. He learns to grow in community. He grows in “personal” prayer: in awareness of the process being experienced. He learns to name the prayer experience and to share it with others.
• Role-models in the congregation with their style of life and their apostolic thrust, help from the very beginning [the identification process] in the formation of mind and heart of the young postulant/novice. In our time and culture where high ideals and political utopias are rather weak and absent, “role-models” lived by members of the same order or congregation energize, give meaning to our vocation and elicit great desires in our young.
• Transparency, mutual trust and dialogue between postulants/novices and their formators and among the peer group itself should be encouraged and promoted.
• Direct contact with people suffering, living in poverty and being marginalized should be encouraged. These experiences maintained through time, purify motivations, heal distorted self -images [in par¬ticular those coming from “narcissism”] and centre life in Jesus Christ, the Servant.
• The novitiate is not the proper time for professional psychological help or therapy. Ideally these should be done before the novitiate. The focus during this time is to grow in affective (person to person relationship) and effective (apostolic mission and service) love of Jesus Christ, the ultimate and absolute reference for the building of our religious identity. This is truer today where “frailty” and “fragmentation” assault the identity of the young.
This time of intense spiritual experience is the proper time to grow in the capacity of postponing satisfactions and as Ignatius of Loyola says “…the surrender of self-love, will and interests” [Sp.Ex.189].