Authored by Brenden Bell
Over this summer, I had a strange challenge of communication. As I told friends and relatives I was entering into novitiate, I had the difficultly of trying to explain to them what novitiate is. This challenge was made all the harder because I had no experience of novitiate. I settled on the inadequate definition that novitiate was like being on retreat for a year. Now, after living almost three months of novitiate, I have found that it is so much more that a long retreat, but I am still at a loss for an adequate description of the novitiate experience. Yet, as luck would have it (or more accurately providence), last Sunday has given me a metaphor that can come close to revealing what novitiate is like.
Last Sunday we novices and some of the postulants went to the Top of the Hub restaurant at the top of Prudential Building to celebrate both Jeremy’s and Jorge’s birthdays. Not for a whole meal but just for a drink (my novitiate stipend could not afford a meal and even the drink was a special expense). The restaurant is on the 53 floor of the Prudential Building and gives a spectacular view of almost all of Boston. It was a real treat to stare out the window on to the city below in the fading afternoon light. Up there looking down on the city we call our home, it looked so peaceful and calm. It took us a while to get our bearings and to recognize different landmarks, which were so transformed by our elevated perspective. Just before we left, we went to the other side of the restaurant and searched for St. Clement’s, which took us longer to find than you would think. It looked closer to the Pru (Prudential) then it did when we were walking on the street, and it looked not only smaller but different in a way that cannot fully be described. The proportions that are designed to be viewed from below looked strange viewed from so high up.
To some extent my experience up above the world in that restaurant is similar to my experience out of the world in novitiate. Now don’t get me wrong, novitiate is not just sitting in a fancy restaurant looking out at amazing views. Their similarity lies in the change of perspective. When you are walking on the street you are bombarded by all the noise and energy of the city and your attention is on the surface level looking to the next intersection. Up in the tower all the noise fades and you slow down; you look down into the depths and off into the horizon. As part of novitiate we enter a media fast — no TV, no cell phone, no internet except email once a week, and only select movies. The exterior noise fades and the sounds of the interior life can be heard. As a novice, I don’t take any philosophy or theology classes, so I am not focused on midterms or finals. We are freed to take a step back and view our vocation from a broader vista. We increase our spiritual reading and do an hour of meditation a day to dive deeper into ourselves, where Jesus wants to meet us.
While it was a calming experience up in the restaurant, that is not always the experience of novitiate. When you follow Christ into the higher and deeper regions of yourself, he will sometimes take you to the places you do not want to go. To those things you have buried far below and to heights fearful to behold. Much like the transformation our altitude gave to St. Clement’s, novitiate is transforming the way I look at myself. The difference is St. Clement’s was architecturally designed to be viewed from below, so our high perspective gave it a somewhat unnatural quality. But you and I were designed by our architect to be viewed from God’s perspective, which is not so much from above as from within, from within our hearts where God has chosen to make his home. It is only from His perspective that our true self can be seen correctly. Most of the time we are looking at ourselves from our perspective, this gives us an unnatural appearance, like looking at a painting upside down. Novitiate helps us to see ourselves more as God sees us and therefore know who we truly are and what we are called to do.