Backtracking to Wednesday the 27th, when two of the novitiate program directors visited us. They politely but firmly disabused us of any illusory impressions we may have received from well-meaning brothers currently in novitiate or recently graduated from that program. We received, straight from the sources themselves, a description of aims, along with some preliminaries about the routine and regulations.
First of all, they gave us a word about the kind of attitude that will make novitiate worthwhile. It is unwise to seek merely to "put up" with the novitiate experience when formation gets to be frustrating. Do not fall for facile promises of a great year, and do not be troubled by intimations of agony, either. Novitiate is a whole new experience, and as a program of formation it is unlike anything that has come before it or will come after it. Come in humility, and come receptively.
The purpose of novitiate is to devote one's time to the cultivation of a prayerful, contemplative nature. It is a time to listen with God. It is a full year to develop and enrich one's contemplative life. It is a time to discover how God is calling you and what it is God speaks to you.
The novitiate is designed to help a brother better understand his divine vocation as a Capuchin contemplative, and the Capuchin's unique manner of being. It is a time to form the mind and heart, to test the spirits. It is an intense initiation into religious life and an opportunity to decide freely for that life.
Under a schedule of prayer, ministry, and both social and personal time, the novices live in community for twelve months. The length of time in this phase of formation is prescribed by the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. It is therefore a legal requirement for becoming an officially vowed religious. But it is the spirit of this time obligation that concerns us more directly here. For the structure is given to novices in order to allow them to develop a true interior life and robust spirit of prayer. The year of novitiate is like a retreat to the desert, a time of preparing and proving, such as Jesus undertook; or it is like a cave experience, such as Francis of Assisi had in the early days of his conversion, when he sought to know the will of God for him. In novitiate the brothers hope to come to an honest knowledge of themselves and the authenticity of their call to Capuchin life. A year is probably too short a period of time to complete such a soulful journey.
To guide us on this amazing and sometimes anxious and fearful journey, we have formators who are determined to promote and protect the sanctity of our quiet and prayerful environment. The formation staff is also the advisory staff: each novice will be assigned a formator who will meet regularly with him to check in on how it goes with his soul. They will offer counsel and encouragement as we discern and prepare for our taking of vows. What we share with our formation advisors is shared with all three formators but stays within their confidence. We will also have meetings with spiritual directors, and of course, confessors will be available, to whom we can entrust the most precious things in our hearts. The advisors will not pry, but they will do their best to keep tabs on the novices' well-being.
The directors described the different kinds of "time" in which novices live and move. There is personal time: this is for on-site activities such as rest, exercise, recreation, reading, prayer, hobbies, and unstructured fraternal interaction. This is a gift especially for introverted souls in need of individual time for self-care. There is prayerful time: hours dedicated to spiritual reading, contemplative prayer, and general quiet. This is a period when fraternal interaction and use of media are to be avoided. There is hermitage time: a recent innovation in the Capuchin novitiate, it is an extended length of time, usually an entire afternoon, for prayerful silence. And there is communal recreation: the brothers gather for conversation and conviviality.
Novices should expect strong limitations on Internet usage in order to open up their "bandwidth" to receive God and to interact meaningfully with the fraternity. Brothers have access to community computers, but they are not to upload any software or applications to the machines.
Novices need permission from the formation team and their provincial minister to attend weddings and funerals. Travel arrangements are made by the provincial minister and novitiate team. Novices will be given the time they need to attend these events, but no more than this. Generally it will be the minimum time necessary, so as not to interrupt the course of intense discernment away from the world.
Visits from family and friends are permissible beginning late in October. No visits are allowed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. Novices must consult the formation team about any plans for visitors, and they must always check the schedule. Generally more latitude is given for family visits, and there is less leniency when it comes to visits from friends. As a rule, visits are restricted so that novices can spend more time in deep discernment, listening for and with God.
San Lorenzo Friary is in Santa Ynez, Calif., which is out in the country. The Capuchins have been here since 1924, when settlers of Irish descent donated 28 acres to them. Later on, the same family deeded another 400 acres to a corporation for use by the Province of Our Lady of the Angels.
Santa Ynez is in Santa Barbara County. In the country of Santa Barbara County, there are snakes, spiders, and tarantulas. (Just a warning.) Some brothers may suffer allergies. There is no snow to write home about, but it does occasionally get cold in the winter dawn. Santa Ynez is not hot like Victoria, Kansas, in the summer, but it's often very warm. The novices' home, built California-style, is a campus of several buildings instead of one big house; therefore, we will walk daily to and from the chapel, refectory, dormitories, and laundry building. There are two residence halls; on Wednesday we selected our rooms by lottery. (I live in Marian Hall, St. Anthony Wing, Room 21.) There is an exercise room and a library with spiritual reading.
There is Mass on Sunday at 9 a.m. at San Lorenzo Friary, but groups of novices will attend Mass at parishes throughout Santa Barbara County on a rotating basis.
The novices will perform ministry one day a week. Sites include Catholic Charities of Santa Barbara County; Mission Santa Ynez Parish; University of California-Santa Barbara; a convalescent home; social services for the developmentally disabled; and others.
One of the professed friars prepares lunch and dinner from Monday to Friday. The novices take turns cooking for the fraternity on Saturday and Sunday.
The novices live in fraternity with a few senior friars, who do not exercise any authority over formation but do offer their insights to the formators.
Investiture is Sunday, July 22, at 4:30 p.m. during evening prayer. Now I know exactly when my life takes another decisive turn.
The last thing we were told before the novice directors bid us godspeed: This year is a gift. Regard it as a treasure.