Although our primary focus for being in Wisconsin last week was an interprovincial Postulancy workshop on sexuality, we enjoyed the added bonus of visiting the Novitiate house and meeting the Novices. We weren’t given a ton of free time throughout the week, but enough that we were able to hear from the Novices about their year so far, share meals with them and the Novice masters, experience their prayer style, and get familiarized with the house and grounds.
By the end of the week, I understood why the three stages of initial formation are called pre-Novitiate, Novitiate, and post-Novitiate: the Novitiate experience is clearly the center and frame of reference for the whole process. The Postulancy year, thus, is not just a waiting or trial period, it has the crucial objective of preparing men for the intense community and prayer life of the Novitiate.
So, what exactly do they do in the Novitiate, and are we being prepared well enough?
To oversimplify the concept, the Novitiate is a year of prayer, work, study, and community, in preparation for simple vows at the end of the year. The Novices in Wisconsin pray together four times a day, have class for two hours in the morning, do chores for two hours in the afternoon, and take turns cooking meals with and for each other before being allowed two hours of free time in the evenings. They are not allowed cell-phones, credit cards, or use of the internet, they’re not allowed to travel more than 15 miles away from the house, and there is a grand silence that begins at 9:30pm each night. It is through these extreme measures that the Novices are encouraged to take great steps in their prayer and community lives, freeing them from the many distractions of the outside world to focus more attentively on those things that are at the center of our lives.
And while this is necessary for a life as a friar, this lifestyle would be too much of a shock for most people right out of the gate. What would the retention rate be like if men left their old lives one day and showed up to this one on the next? Even as someone who is quite affirmed in his vocation, I would have struggled with the transition. Thus, Postulancy.
Having now seen the life of a Novice, everything (except the traveling) that we do makes perfect sense to me now, and I see that the Postulants of Holy Name Province will be as prepared as any for next year. We pray everyday as a community either twice or three times, emphasizing the importance of prayer but doing so in a bit more casual of a way; we attend class twice a week on basic Franciscan studies, preparing us not only in content but also in structure; our weekly group meetings, both as a whole house and as the formation group, keep us in touch with the needs and attitudes of the others, helping us to find our role in community; having set meals seven days a week has enforced a sense of responsibility and community; and our lack of freedom, whether it be in time off, ability to leave, use of technology during the day, limited stipends, or chores, has been taken slowly as to help the adjustment process. Taken together, the year is a stepping stone for the next, an introduction and preparation to the rigors that lie ahead.
In all reality, the hardest thing about next year will be that which we cannot prepare: living in a house with 24 other men. Because it’s an interprovincial Novitiate, we’ll be sharing the experience with at least six other provinces, having completed seven different postulant years, with seven different levels of preparedness, and 25 different personalities. I’m not sure if anything can fully prepare someone for that type of experience. Until that day comes, I look forward to living in the moment of each day as a Postulant, while always remembering what that moment is for: preparing for the Novitiate.