“With God, all things are possible.” – Mt 19:26
“There is need of only one thing.” – Lk 10:42
Dear Jesuit woman,
My purpose is simple and increasingly humbled: to find you, who feel called to be a Jesuit, and bring you together with other women who describe their call in the same way. That is my whole purpose, the purpose of this website, the purpose of this letter. In this letter, and in posts to follow, I aim to describe a process of discernment to which I am now wholeheartedly vowed, and to which you may also feel called. I have chosen to refer to this process as a “Jesuit novitiate” and to myself as a “Jesuit novice” because these are the best words I have so far found to describe what is in my heart and prayer, and what God has been doing with my life.
These words are also problematic. There is a serious and valid concern, expressed by both male and female religious who have reviewed this idea, that to call the process a novitiate and myself a novice is too far from common understanding to be meaningful, because a traditional religious novitiate is not only a time of individual discernment but also of mutual discernment, between an individual and a specific religious congregation. As one Sister reviewer put it, “novitiate is, for lack of a better analogy, like dating – you can’t do it without a partner, an institutional partner embodied in a director, community, etc.” And as one Jesuit reviewer put it, “I don’t understand what you are doing. Novitiate is a time where the novice gets to know the Society, and the Society gets to know the novice. But we already know everything we need to know about you – your gender!”
They are both right, and I am thankful for their authenticity. The reason, upon reflection, that I still choose to use “Jesuit novitiate” and “Jesuit novice” to represent this process is that these imperfect phrases, in addition to expressing what is in my heart and experience, also hit at the heart of the dilemma for a woman called to be a Jesuit. She feels called to a dance with no visible partner, to a group that does not accept her. The commitment here is not mutual, and yet the call persists. For a woman called to be a Jesuit, the paradoxical first act of obedience is to accept that her brothers do not accept her. This reality, which is painful to experience directly and repeatedly, nonetheless creates a valuable shift in perspective when it is brought to light. Some women I have talked with describe this shift as a new ability to see past their own desire to be accepted by Jesuit men – to see its “disordered” aspects. Others describe the shift as a new awareness of Jesuit men’s vulnerability or humanity, which clerical culture tends to obscure. From this new vantage point, a burning question emerges for the woman who admits that she is called to be a Jesuit; if it is not Jesuit men calling her, then Who is calling? And to what?
I cannot say that I know exactly what we are called to – but I think that together, we can find inspiration in the words that Eli taught Samuel to say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!” (1 Sam 3:1-10) If we take discerning the call as seriously as our brother novices do, we can find out where it leads. You can retrace my steps over the last year here (invitation and acceptance), then here (further education), then here (first fellowship and first vows), and then here (the Spiritual Exercises), which brings us quite close to the present time and place.
I invite you, then, into the mundane 52 square feet of hardwood floor in Denver, Colorado, that demarcate the 8-month-old Novitiatum Societatis Iesu ex Maria, Mater Dei – the Jesuit Novitiate of Mary, the Mother of God.
I am indebted for everything I know about a Jesuit novitiate to the Constitutions, the Spiritual Exercises, visits to canonical novitiates, and regular dialogues with a diverse and far-flung circle of friends in these Exercises and this life. And I am still learning.
Why Mary, the Mother of God?
I had often imagined that if I were called to found a house of Jesuit women, I would nominate Alphonsus Rodriguez as its patron saint. He is definitely a great model for Jesuit women: his brothers consistently overlooked him for his age, and yet he knew who he was – humble and persistent, faithful to his vocation, willing to compromise, willing to suffer. He became legendarily hospitable, wise, and on fire for Christ-in-others. I also thought he might be an excellent patron for a Jesuit woman’s novitiate process because he could keep her ego in check, while still inspiring hope and perseverance in the project. But on January 1st, 2018, as I continued to live a rhythm of “re-entry,” working in practice and waiting in prayer for Jesus to call the shots on my next steps post-Exercises, it was Mary herself who spoke up.
Mary is quiet, open, and deeply purposeful. She rarely speaks to me in words, more often choosing images and feelings. On this morning, a lot of images arose at once – Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation, Our Lady of the Way, Fratelli Bonella’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Vladimir, the Mother of Tenderness. But then came the words. Found the novitiate, and name it for me. I will protect it, and form you.
I was surprised and excited. I had been getting to know Mary better since the Exercises, but honestly hadn’t thought to ask her for guidance in this. I had been too caught up in trying to make it happen by myself, and to make it make sense. But this made more sense than anything I could have made up. Who else could model this kind of trust for me, this kind of “yes” to a great journey into the unknown? Who else could help me follow my great desire bravely, boldly through the specter of shame, ostracism, and suffering, and yet also inspire the willingness to hold that desire lightly enough to let it go, even to let it die, in order to help this little part of God’s great mystery be incarnate? With Mary’s patronage, the novitiate process was named and could really continue. I still listen for her guidance.
Discernment: the work of a novice
The novitiate has a clear purpose, and it’s not exactly what I thought. Being a Jesuit novice is not boot camp, and it’s also not glamorous, “sexy,” cozy or secure. It’s not particularly intellectual! The Jesuit novitiate is primarily a time of discernment, asking, “Who am I, and what am I called to?” in the context of a series of apostolic experiments, the first of which is to make the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises. Coming out of the Exercises, a Jesuit novice begins the intensive interior work of cultivating the capacity to continually discern the spirits, shaping a heart available for mission, and making space for an election, or a fundamental choice about how to follow Christ, to emerge.
So what is discernment? Over the course of the Exercises, you learn Ignatius’ basic rules of discernment of spirits, and then practice them – a lot! Based on this experience, I would characterize discernment as a patient, prayerful blend of feeling, reasoning, waiting, and choosing, in ongoing dialogue with Jesus. I’m assuming that you have some experience with discernment, too. If you’d like to hear more of my take on discernment, see here.
The aim of discernment is essentially to “know” God’s “will.” But this is not as simple as it sounds. As I cultivate interior sensitivity to the two spirits, through cooperation of mind and heart, I begin to understand that what I think God wants me to do may be only a hint of where God is actually leading me in the service of God’s people and creation. And I begin to understand that God’s will is immanent in my deepest desires, and yet God thinks differently about these desires than I do. God’s “will” is more a way of life than a fixed image. We travel God’s way by using discernment to heal the wounds that limit our interior freedom, becoming more and more free to love. If I am paying close attention to God and discerning carefully, the decisions almost make themselves. (This is only one perspective. I have found in many conversations that the discernment process, and the idea of what is God’s “will,” is a little different for everybody.)
The novitiate is all about learning to discern in order to find this “will” of God that is present in my deepest desires, leading to the election of a state of life in which to live out the call to love. For a Jesuit man, this election clearly involves whether to take canonical vows, and whether to become a brother or a priest, though he also learns much more about himself along the way. For a Jesuit woman, the election is more subtle, because there is not a visible, conventional option for commitment, but in the experience of those I have talked to, the election nonetheless occurs, and is profound. As a novice, then, I cultivate a space of patience and attentiveness to both my desires and my obstacles, and place myself in God’s hands for the long haul.
Space and principles of the novitiate
So how do we create this exterior and interior space for discernment? One thing to know is that the Jesuit novitiate is flexible. This may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me. But it makes sense. Ignatius was practical, and the Constitutions are full of clauses that create flexibility and freedom to respond to particular cases, in a context of respect for norms and rules. Novitiates respond to the needs of the novices, the provinces, and the culture of surrounding communities; and novitiates always adjust to the changing needs of our Church.
Creating space for a novitiate is a process that balances intention and accommodation. The physical plant is important, but not an end in itself – it is geared toward a specific purpose. I had the opportunity to visit two canonical Jesuit novitiates as the call intensified in me, and they were very different! One rural, one semi-urban. One breathtakingly historic, built with bricks that the Society of the Sacred Heart gifted to the Society of Jesus nearly 200 years ago. The other pleasantly contemporary, housed in a former novitiate building of the Sisters of St. Joseph that was bought by the Society of Jesus less than 20 years ago. But both gave me a sense of how the Jesuit Novitiate of Mary, the Mother of God, might be put together. Simplicity was always important. The Eucharist, central. Art on the walls, curated with care. Books on shelves, meant to stimulate reflection on God and growth in fundamental inquiry. Places to relax, recreate, and gather. A simple but well-appointed kitchen! A simple bedroom – a desk, a reclining chair, a bed, a closet – the rule being to keep your room in such a state that another person could stay and feel comfortable on any night you weren’t there. In all, an atmosphere focused on helping diverse beginners to assimilate Jesuit history, Jesuit culture, Jesuit saints, Jesuit hospitality, and the rudiments of a life for God and others.
As I talked with my brothers about the life they were leading, some principles for the Novitiate of Mary developed. A Jesuit woman’s novitiate, like her brothers’, can be:
1) Experiential – based in experience rather than theory, yet through reflection, acquiring shared vocabulary with other novices to shape further experience (Logos);
2) Day-in, Day-out – not rarified or glamorous, but really digging into the nitty-gritty of daily discernment and a life of service;
3) Focused on the interior work of a novice, with all activities carried out in a spirit of recollection, and geared toward discerning a deeper commitment to God;
4) Communal – carried out in the context of communities, with plenty of opportunity to grow in generosity, obedience, flexibility, authenticity, love, and presence;
5) Practical and Flexible – working creatively with what is, and letting God use what’s available for growth;
6) Foundational – patient, gradual, intensive, repetitive, and basic; and
7) Joyful – a place to discover the joy and simple pleasure of being alive with others, and to taste the satisfaction of life in and for God, whatever form that life takes. Joy and satisfaction are central to a balanced life, and a good discernment.
Every novitiate space and process can embody these principles in its own way. The three snapshots of my own discernment that follow, in the form of an “FAQ,” are not intended as a guide, but rather as an inspiration to enter the process and co-labor with God and others in your own Jesuit formation.
How can you be a novice if you have a job?
Good question! The way I see it, even the Apostle Paul, who lived a life of prayer and tireless mission for God, had a day job. (We think he was a tent maker.) Early on I realized that if I were going to embark on this adventure with God, I would have to cut my hours at work, and eventually I might need to leave my paying work entirely. It seemed important, too, that my work be something congruent with formation. I took a position as the Homeless Outreach Nurse for the community health center where I work, which gave me the opportunity to step further outside of my cocoon and connect with others. So 8 months before I took first vows, I had already gone down to 30 hours a week at work in order to make prayer the priority, and had entered a role at work that could really challenge my blind spots and help me grow in love and service.
Wait, you took first vows? Where? How? Is that possible?
The vows are a key part of my vocation story. Early on, I felt pain and resentment that the Society of Jesus did not want my vows. I felt anger that historical women who felt called to be Jesuits were offered only partial vows, or somewhat grudging and secret vows, by Jesuit men in leadership. (Read here for a fair-minded and generous account of that time in our shared history.) But over time, God showed me just how much I was missing the point. In prayer, Jesus informed me that he would receive my vows, if I chose to make them. (Please note: he did not say “I will make Jesuit men receive your vows.” Key difference!) I didn’t understand at the time how that could come about. But six months later, at an unexpected time and from a trusted source, there arose the opportunity to make a Jesuit vow that I could make: a devotional vow, which novices sometimes make on the way to canonical vows. Straight from the Constitutions, this vow formula allowed me to dig into the nitty-gritty of a Jesuit discernment: could these vows offer me the freedom to follow God completely? I learned, too, while discerning the vows, that they are made to the Body and Blood of Christ. The provincial signs the papers, but Jesus receives the vow. Now I understood what Christ had meant in prayer! In the end, with joy, I did decide to take the vows and live into them, waiting only for the right moment. Then another unexpected opportunity came up from a combination of chance and 17,000 soon-to-expire airline points: to make my vows along with a class of novices, at a mass dedicated entirely to these First Vows. As I knelt at the back of the center aisle of the church at 10:10 am that Saturday, my whispered vows mingling with the mic’d words of one of my brothers, Jesus smiled from the chancel ceiling. I cared a lot about the mass, the space, the crowd, the provincial, and the presence of my brothers at my vows. But Jesus only cares about the condition of my heart.
Do you have a novice master?
I looked and prayed hard for a novice master. You might even say that I “interviewed” potential candidates, though I certainly allow that they each had a very different view of those conversations. Again, God showed me that I was missing the point, thinking too small about this. I was not called to “capture” one Jesuit friend in the role of a mentor, but to accept, hold lightly, and release each friend in the context of ongoing conversation – to inhabit a space of real mutuality, which is mutual sharing and learning. Instead of sending me a proper “Jesuit Father,” God is gradually weaning me off of the need for affirmation, approval, and “rightness” – security, certainty – that was a disordered aspect of my desire for a novice master. I remember directly addressing Jesus about it once. Restless and a little heartbroken after one particularly disappointing interview, I asked the white balsam crucifix on the wall, “Who will direct my novitiate, then?” There was a tone of both reassurance and reproach in the response: I will direct your novitiate. I direct all the novitiates.
In my formation, the closest thing I have had to a human novice master is a circle of dialogue partners, and a wealth of spiritual conversations. At first I was very intentional about setting up these conversations. One a week was my goal. I took notes on each, and kept them in a folder pocket labeled “Spiritual Conversations,” to give a sense of order and progress. But as my approach to spiritual conversation evolved, I started to realize that there were many more dialogues than “one a week,” and that God was in all of them. Life is my novice master. Sometimes I think that sounds awfully naive – but then I think, hey, easy there, you’re only a novice! Novice: from a Latin word that meant “newly arrived.” Naive: from a French word that meant “natural.”
There are other frequently asked questions, which I hope to explore with you in further dialogue. See here for a list, and please get in touch if you’d like to add a question to it!
Give yourself time to be a novice
If there is any advice inherent in the sharing above, I think it would be this: invest in your own formation. Let God invest in you by giving yourself the time and space to be a novice. Before you are tempted to produce or be very active in mission, give God the chance to teach you the basics. During the Spiritual Exercises, I learned a lot about Martha of Bethany, the friend and disciple of Jesus. I had the chance to stand in her shoes as Jesus, smiling, looked into my eyes, put a playful hand on each of my cheeks and shook me gently, saying, “Martha, Martha….there is need of only one thing!” (Lk 10:38-42) Then he invited me to come and sit with Mary and his other disciples, saying, “I know you love to serve, and you will…but sit with me now, and let’s speak of the things of God.” The Jesuit novitiate is like this: apostolic by nature, but also a time and space of intensive, focused learning and reflection, a lot of which is learning how to wait for God’s initiative. Jesuit women need this, as much as Jesuit men do. And the Church needs fully-formed Jesuit women, as much as she needs Jesuit men. More than ever, she needs you.
So far, we have talked a little about the purpose, space and principles of the novitiate. I feel like I haven’t shared much with you about my day-in, day-out experience as a novice. I would like to tell you more about weekly spiritual direction and in-house retreats; taking vows and living in them; the search for a novice master, and what it taught me; the crucible of true dialogue with Jesuit friends in formation; the joy and sorrow of actually finding other Jesuit women, and of visiting women’s religious communities; the challenges and graces of apostolic experiments; and God’s poignant and humorous object lesson in community life – that after 16 years apart, as a first-year novice in the Jesuit Novitiate of Mary, the Mother of God, I lived with my mom! And now she is letting me go, as this novitiate space is dismantled and I enter my second year of Pilgrimmage and Long Experiments.
But as Blessed Oscar Romero observed, “No statement says all that could be said….It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
I will be writing to you more about these experiences, always in the hope of hearing your experiences, too. As you know, my central purpose is simply to find you and gather you with other women for communal discernment. In the meantime, if you are a “mapper” like me, feel free to navigate here to see concept maps of key insights from the first 8 months of this novitiate experiment. May they be of benefit to you.
with love in Christ,
P.S. Here are a few pictures of the space that I created, in continual collaboration with Jesus and Mary in prayer, and the Holy Spirit through circumstance. Yours might look quite different! You will notice, even in simplicity, some mess. I have learned over the last 8 months that novitiates can be messy – and novices, too! Believe it or not, God likes us that way.