Interrupting life

There is a hole in my resume.

In fact, as of July, there is a two-year gap.  You see, in the summer of 2012, I left my job as the assistant director of a community center run by an intercity parish in Philadelphia, and I haven’t been employed since. 

Well actually, that’s a bit of a lie. It’s true that in the last two years, I haven’t held a paying job, but I would argue that in that time, I have most certainly been employed. My work? You might ask . . . Novitiate.

The work of novitiate is that of soul searching.  It requires digging deep, meeting yourself and God head on, facing your true self, learning about what religious life is, nurturing a deeper prayer life, learning to live intentionally and with constant discernment, and prayerfully considering if the call to live in this way with a specific congregation in their manner of being is right for you. Suffice it to say, you don’t get weekends off.

Technically speaking, novitiate is a two-year period of time in which a novice is initiated into a religious congregation. As the novice deepens her prayer life and understanding of religious life through lived experience, she discerns her call to religious life in this context, just as the congregation of which she has become a part discerns her suitability for life as a vowed member. Twelve months of this two-year period is qualified under canon law and called the canonical novitiate. The whole of the two-year novitiate serves to allow a novice to actively learn about the heritage and spirit of a congregation, while also coming to understand the call to simple vows and life in the church as lived in community by women religious today.

For all its structure and specificity, though, each novitiate is different, just as each person is unique and every congregation varies. The work of life contained in those two years can’t be standardized. It is a time set apart, a time to engage in integration, growth, and discovery. You bring with you everything you have.  That is to say, divested of most of your personal belongings, you bring to novitiate all that you are – yourself and your life – in all its beauty and its brokenness. 

Leaving behind life as you know it, you enter into this time and sit at the feet of your experiences – at the feet of Jesus – to learn. The story of your life lies before you, the story of salvation deep within you. The work is in identifying the grace that longs to be discovered, the hardship of reconciling life experiences, and the process of growing in relationship with God, as you face the transition and transformation of novitiate together. It is work that takes time and energy. In the midst of the good, the bad and the ugly, lessons are learned. With openness and honesty, the novice faces herself, who she truly is and who she is called to be, attentively listening to God’s will in the process. As personal as this process is, she doesn’t do it alone.  These years and the growth that accompany them are lived in the midst of community, shared with trusted mentors and formation directors, and united with God through constant, prayerful self-disclosure.

Every sister will tell you something different about her experience of novitiate, and yet they will all agree on one thing: it is a time to be cherished.

That sentiment echoed in my ears when I first became a novice. This time is special; appreciate it and savor it, every sister I talked to or who wrote me seemed to say. Truly, I hope that in the last two years I have. This is a time like no other. I didn’t need a cavalcade of sisters to tell me this, but having them remind me over and over again surely didn’t hurt.

To have the time to study, grow, deepen and discern has been a blessing.  All of this has been done through prayer. It is intensive prayer. It is a prayer that is partially taught and partially grasped through living. Ultimately, it is a form of prayer that is surrendered to. It pervades every moment of your day. You must surrender to the whims of this prayer; it goes at its own pace and works in all different ways. It also requires you to stand open and powerless before God, in the midst of all else, to deepen a relationship that is, and becomes ever more, second to none.

To that end, novitiate is a time not to do, but to be.  That takes a lot of adjusting. It means cutting down communication, sacrificing your plans and immersing yourself in the process. Each moment holds opportunity to be in union with God, whether you're a novice or not; God is constantly working in each and every one of our lives. Our ability to notice and actively engage in this work is what is called discernment. Novitiate simply creates the opportunity to develop the ability to recognize the moment you are in right now, to find God and listen, to consecrate not only yourself and your relationship with God but the very time in which you exist.

And in so doing, novitiate bears lessons that will last a lifetime. In creating a time and space where you can discover yourself and your relationship with God in a new context, novitiate interrupts life as you know it. And, if you’re truly engaged, it assures that you’ll emerge forever changed. This transformation doesn’t end after two years – it sets you on a path of lifelong discovery. 

Rather than taking two years, novitiate requires giving two years of your life. That investment is a process that interrupts your life – so that you might be able to start living in an uninterrupted manner wherever you go and however you are called to serve. Such time away is hard to quantify on paper, but it is irreplaceable in experience and grounding. It is a blessing, a gifted way to begin a religious life.

As I near the end of my novitiate, I still must face the hole in my resume. It is a space I never will be able to fully describe or fill. No matter the words or descriptions I give to it, I know that moving forward my novitiate will always stand in stark contrast to all I have done and all I will do. It is a defining moment. It is the time I came to define myself as sister, the time I learned that interruption is just another space for grace, and the time I will forever carry with me – whether it’s on my resume or not.

[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, who is currently completing her second year of novitiate. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she has published work in various periodicals.]