My good friend, Steve, and I recently embarked on two significant vocational changes. My husband and I became parents for the first time and have spent the last 19+ months expanding our family and marriage to include our daughter. While I was pregnant, Steve began the formal process to join the Society of Jesus. He has spent the last year adjusting to his community of Jesuit brothers and has begun his first year in the novitiate. I continue to be amazed that while our individual acclimations remain very different they have been similar in how we, imperfect individuals on a journey, continue to experience God’s love in our lives and how our communities support us in these transitions. Steve’s Jesuit “experiments” and my “experiment” in parenting continue to break our hearts open.
The Society of Jesus describes the first part of formation:
The novitiate is the first stage of Jesuit formation and novices begin to learn through experience about the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as lived in a community setting. He learns the traditions, rules and expectations of the Society of Jesus. During this time he makes the Spiritual Exercises in a 30-day retreat and engages in a variety of “experiments,” such as serving the poor, the elderly and teaching children. At the end of this two-year period of prayer, work and study, he pronounces perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience either as a brother or as a scholastic who will prepare for priestly ordination.
Steve completed his first 30-day retreat using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The last week of the Spiritual Exercises has the retreatant focus on the union between sin and God’s love. The incredible experience of spending 30 focused days ends with a contemplation on God’s love and Suscipe prayer. Directly following his retreat, he was assigned to his “hospital experiment” which had him living with a L’Arche community. The order of Jesuit experiments can vary but I was so struck by the pairing of the 30 day retreat, focus on God’s love, Suscipe prayer and entering into a L’Arche community to “live with” the community in a ministry of presence in spirit of Jean Vanier. These experiments and the retreat seem to ideally move a Jesuit novice through stages of spiritual, personal and communal formation. Are these not analogous stages to pregnancy, childbirth and family expansion?
The stages of parenthood form us is similar ways. Pregnancy gives a couple nine or so months to prepare for parenthood. Childbirth is the witnessing of someone not-quite-tangible entering the world. Sleep deprivation, diapers, nursing, financial changes, health scares and adjustments to a different type of life partnership are all “experiments” to provide growth for parents. Some are full of joy. Some are full of pain. Continual personal and communal adjustments as well as flexibility continue to be absolutely necessary for any family—or Jesuit—undergoing transition.
I see both parenthood and the novitiate as St. Ignatius’ recipe for an Ignatian Community:
Gently take one imperfect individual at room temperature.
Place individual into the mix of a diverse community.
Shake and stir community for optimal mixing.
Let this concoction age for at least 9 months alternating placement in dark and light spaces, cold and hot temperatures, noisy and quiet sounds, in solitude and with the world.
Remove one community member.
Consider where God is working.
Discern whether to bake, freeze or let rise.
Repeat process again and again. Pray and adjust recipe as the spirit moves you.
As parents and those called to a religious or single vocation, let us continue to enter our “experiments” with an open heart and keep in mind the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will—all that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.
Sarah is the Director of Mission & Identity at Canisius College. Sarah has been a member of the Ignatian Family for 18 years and loves all of the connections, friends and justice-y things that have developed during that time! She lives with her husband, two daughters, and two cats in the City of Good Neighbors, Buffalo, NY. Sarah loves reading, donuts, women’s spirituality and going on adventures with her daughters.