By Sr. Romina Sapinoso
Religious life formation is not for the faint of heart. I have come up with a long list of figurative language with which to illustrate the experience of formation. Novitiate is like being in timeout… for a whole year. Timeouts in the classroom are meant for a wrongdoer to have the opportunity to ponder and reflect on his/her faults. Just like timeouts, the space in novitiate allows for shadows to come up and be more glaring for an individual. Most novices, to begin with, might already be slightly at a loss with recent physical relocation, being away from typical support groups, culture shock, and a host of many other factors. Novitiate is like being in a pile of compost… it’s murky, dark, and smelly, with every inch of space filled with creepy crawlies. Novitiate is like… you get what I mean.
Besides being a novice, I am also an immigrant. The experience of being uprooted and replanted are not new to me. However, the uprooting and replanting in novitiate involves much more than a physical and emotional reorientation. The inner attentiveness to the spiritual work can sometimes feel so intense that one will suffer the urge to run away… for good. Still awaiting my US citizenship, being an immigrant during this time of President Trump is especially daunting. In addition to the limitations of the novitiate year to studies and prayer (with no real active ministry), being a permanent resident instead of a citizen of this country limits my political and civic participation as well. It is especially hard for someone who has been, for long stretches of time, all of the above: full time employee (teacher), active parish minister/community volunteer, and a full time graduate student. It is even more difficult when issues arise about matters I am most concerned about and prepared to contribute my voice to especially as a member of a religious community: immigration, climate change, education, human rights and all other life issues. The feeling of not being able to do much looms over like a cloud.
Though the space in novitiate may initiate feelings of aloneness, it is always good to remind myself that novitiate is not an individual journey. It is a process I am undertaking with supportive members of the community I am discerning with. Besides this wonderful group of women, my novitiate has also been a journey with intercommunity communities -- other novices from other religious congregations who are in the same boat as I am. Just in our small group of five women and three men last semester, 4 continents in the world -- Asia, Africa, North, and South America, and six countries -- the United States, South Korea, Philippines, Kenya, Canada, and Guatemala were represented. Each week, every person in the group grew more into a strong source of support for the others. At some level, we all knew what each is experiencing and are able to be in solidarity without need for explanation. Novitiate is an instant bond that we share this year as we continue to navigate the combined intensity of community life, prayer and study, as well as the complexities of immigration and being a foreigner in these lands during these times. Even sojourners need companions on the journey.
For all my rant about this period of novitiate, I can appreciate that it is, most of all, a time of transformation. Timeouts give an agitated or angry student some much needed time to cool off. Composting, as disgusting as it is to look at, smell, and feel, can produce a great deal of richness and nutrients to make fertile soil that will eventually bring good harvest. Even the creepy crawlies have the important role of being useful catalyst friends-- there to hasten the breakdown and radical change of the muck. Feelings of helplessness bring to front the difficult yet fundamental lesson that I am nothing but dependent on God’s mercy and grace. Sandra Maitri has some wise words to help with my novitiate journey at this time: “When we have stood in an unprotected way in God’s light… we are marked by an awareness that characterizes a traveler in a new land… have a heightened sense of the realities of our lives… able to name who we really are and who we are not-- our limits, traps, affections, falseness and unfreedoms come clear as do our beautiful gifts.” As vocal as I am about the challenges of this process, I also need to proclaim that I am truly and honestly grateful for this time of formation and God’s work in me. There is definitely more than enough good here to, in the words of our founder St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, “Hazard yet forward!”