My Novitiate

.Before I joined a Religious Order I used to work. Which isn’t to say that I don’t work now. Then one day I decided to become a Priest in the Carmelite Order. I didn’t want to tell my work colleagues because I didn’t think that most of them would appreciate it; and if I told the one or two that would, they’d tell the rest. So I told no one. On my last day at the office, the tea lady came around as usual with her tea and rolls. She knew I was leaving but didn’t know where. She told me she didn’t mind where I was going, as long as I wasn’t going to be a monk! More than once I have heard people say, “what a waste”! Not that they say it now!

What’s wrong with being a monk? I suppose to many people it’s as odd a way of life as you could choose. Monks were not like other people they were different: and for monks read: Nuns, Priests, Brothers. But, truth to tell, I did feel different. Not different in a arrogant way, but definitely different. And when I visited the lady who was making my habit and looked at myself in the mirror, there could be no doubt: I saw myself as different. And I was happy to be different.

Just before going to the Novitiate I was drinking at our local pub. There was a crowd of us, as usual. And someone who knew I was going off to be a Carmelite friars said in all seriousness: ‘John, don’t change’. To this day I remember his words and the sincerity with which he said them. But what was I to do? I couldn’t help but change. My whole lifestyle was to change: no more pubs, drinking, parties, girlfriends.

In our Carmelite novitiate there was no tv, radio, newspapers. We prayed in the chapel for five hours each day, and the rest of the time we were in our rooms. We were not encouraged to write too often, not at all during Lent. We never ate meat; just fish everyday, even Christmas day. But, yes, I did change. I couldn’t but change. And I was happy to change.

From my first visit in February 1975 to entering the novitiate wasn’t long. I didn’t eally have a proper postulancy; that period before you enter a novitiate. But I was prepared. I read about Carmelite saints, I went to church every day and did a lot of work in my local Church. It took place about six months before I eventually joined.

As I entered the chapel all the friars were saying the Miserere, Psalm 50, ‘ have mercy on me God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offense’. It was the psalm we read before the gospel. So here were these ‘monks’ (actually friars) admitting to being sinners: But of course I couldn’t believe that they were sinners. You only had to look at them. They were so holy. Not like other people. And I was going to be one of them. But then, one day, I discovered that I wasn’t quite so different from others. Actually, it wasn’t something I discovered in a day, it took years. It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was still very human, with all the selfishness and pride like everyone else. For a long time I was in denial. But then one day I acknowledged that I was a sinner. Our dear holy Father, Francis, said the same shortly after becoming Pope.

My novitiate lasted a year. It was a long year but so full of new experiences. I learned so much in that time. I learned to slow down, to focus on small things; I used to watch the pine needs change colour; from dark green to light. I watched robins fighting for territory. I discovered myself, that part of me which is interior, my soul. Reading St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross helped me in this discovery. But above all it was my novice master who taught me. He was serious and focussed. Nothing was more important in his life than us novices; we began with eight. I owe so much to him. He said that we would never have another year like the novitiate and he was so right. You don’t get a second chance. I was so grateful to God and to the Order for accepting me. I got the best of starts in religious life. Deo Gratias.