Testing and Experimenting: Life in the Jesuit Novitiate

Jesuit novice Penn Dawson

Second-year Jesuit novice Penn Dawson in the remote village of Karasabai in Guyana.

A scientist who has an idea that he wants to test runs to his laboratory. There he applies various tests to see whether his initial idea was a sound one. Some people use the laboratory analogy to try to explain the novitiate experience, and in many ways a “lab” is an accurate analogy for this first stage in Jesuit formation.

When a man enters the novitiate, he has a good idea that God is calling him to become a Jesuit – he has discerned and spent many hours in the application process being interviewed by Jesuits, doctors and even a psychologist – but he has never lived as a Jesuit; he has not yet tested his vocation. Likewise, the Society of Jesus has a good idea that the man they have admitted is a good fit, but it needs some real life experiences with this man to know for sure. The novitiate is this time of testing and discernment.

One of the reasons a laboratory is a good analogy for the novitiate is because St. Ignatius designed the novitiate to have specific tests which are called “experiments.” No, novices are not asked to deliver electric shocks to one another, nor does the novice master ring a bell before meals and measure salivation. Instead, the various experiments, many conceived by Ignatius himself, test whether a novice can do what Jesuits do and live as Jesuits live.

The first experiment is arguably the most important – the undertaking of the full 30 day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In this powerful and moving experience, a novice moves through the retreat, seeking to know and follow Christ more closely and to more clearly hear His voice in his life. He will draw on this experiment for the rest of his Jesuit life.

In our novitiate, the experiment that follows the Long Retreat is the “Primi Class Experiment.” All of the first year novices, called primi, go to Kansas City, Kansas, to work in a variety of ministries and to work on building a stronger sense of community. This year the primi worked in parishes, schools and a hospital. In addition they worked with Burmese refugees who have been granted asylum by the US government and with the Turnaround Program, a program which seeks to help recently released prisoners get their feet on the ground in their new life.

Jesuit novices lead a teen retreat.

First-year Jesuit novices lead singing at Mass during a teen retreat.

Next, for the Pilgrimage Experiment, the novice master hands each novice $5 and a one-way bus ticket to a destination, different for each novice. Ignatius thought it was important for all novices to understand the importance of begging for what one needs – food, shelter, transportation – as he did in his own life, going from his home in Spain to Jerusalem shortly after his conversion. On pilgrimage, the novice “[puts] all hope in the Creator and Lord and accept[s] sleeping poorly and eating badly because it seems to us that the one who cannot live and walk for a day without eating or sleeping poorly cannot persevere long in our Society.”[*] The journey depends on the grace that he is praying for in his spiritual life or that he received during the Exercises or on a particular challenge the novice master believes that man needs.

Ignatius tells us that it is important for a novice to work in a hospital, caring for the needs of the people there. In Ignatius’ day, this was by far the most grueling experiment because unlike today hospitals were large places which held those for whom no one else would care – those at the edges of society, the poor, the mentally or physically disabled and the dying.

Today, novices find themselves working in the infirmaries of the New Orleans and Missouri Provinces and places similar in character and work to the hospitals in Ignatius’ day. They also work at Good Shepherd or Loyola Academy “Nativity” schools in New Orleans and St. Louis, l’Arche communities or the inner city of East St. Louis, among others.

In the fall of his second year, each novice undertakes the Jesuit Experiment, designed to give each novice an experience of living in a Jesuit community while working at a Jesuit apostolate, living the sort of life he would lead were he to take vows and continue on in Jesuit life. Many novices find themselves in Jesuit high schools, however some end up in Jesuit universities or other locations.

During the Long Experiment that follows, each man is assigned to a location for three months to work in a community, usually in the developing world. Novices have gone to distant locations like Guyana in South America, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. It is of utmost importance that novices experience the various kinds of poverty that exist in the world and learn to identify with those who are most vulnerable. This experiment provides such exposure. Also, in the longer timeframe of this experiment, a novice ideally can plug in to the life of a community better than in the shorter experiments, and he can more deeply and more richly experience the life and work of the Jesuits in that location.

After his many tests, the scientist can come to a conclusion about his initial observations – the same holds true for the Jesuit novice. After the successful conclusion of the experiments, much prayer and discernment, and with the permission of the novice master and provincial, the hopeful novice is approved to profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Jesus. Even though he has no need for a lab coat, graduated cylinders, or mass spectrometers, a man who enters the novitiate readies himself for the testing that happens in this initial “laboratory” of Jesuit life. [New Orleans Province]

[*] José Ignacio Idigoras, Ignatius of Loyola, the Pilgrim Saint, trans. C. Michael Buckley, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1994), 456.

One Response to “Testing and Experimenting: Life in the Jesuit Novitiate”