Friday, September 16, 2011

(More) on the experience of tertianship.

As previously noted here, New England Province Jesuit Jack Siberski has been keeping a blog on his experience of tertianship, the final stage of Jesuit formation. Back in January, I shared some of Jack's reflections on how the experience of tertianship differs from that of the novitiate despite some outward similarities between the two probationary periods that serve as effective bookends in the lengthy formation of a Jesuit. Having completed his seven-month tertianship in Australia in mid-August, Jack has spent the last several weeks traveling in Vietnam and Taiwan on his way back to the United States and an expected new assignment.

In his most recent post, written from Taipei, Jack offers further reflections on the differences between novitiate and tertianship, inspired by a question posed to him by a Jesuit novice in Vietnam. The novice wondered how making the thirty-day retreat as a tertian differed from making the same retreat in the novitiate. Was it true, the novice wondered, that for tertians the Long Retreat served as a "school of the heart"? Reflecting on all of this, Jack writes:
There are some very obvious differences between novitiate and tertianship. Unlike trying to understand the Constitutions as a [first-year novice], we had been living them for years and had a working knowledge of what they meant. The same can be said of the General Congregations. When the novice asked about the school of the heart I realized that while the novitiate is a school of the heart as well, there is much more "school of the head," a cognitive-learning component, that has been internalized by the time of tertianship. Because it is internalized there is more room for the school of the heart side. We were fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of the school of the head.

It is difficult to explain these subtleties to someone not living in religious life. Having never been married it would be foolish of me to draw analogies between tertianship and the changes that occur in a couple’s relationship after years of marriage, though from the perspective of thirty-six years as a physician, I’ve certainly observed changes and growth in successful marriages, or had to deal with the lack of same in marriages that were falling, or had fallen, apart. Religious vows are different. Formation in the Society of Jesus is unique even among other religious orders and congregations. Tertianship is not a universal experience in religious life.

When we were novices there was an oft-invoked statement that was true but also used as a form of put-down similar to the W.C. Fields line, "go away kid, you’re bothering me." That line was "You’ll understand after (fill in the blank)." "After" was defined as the long retreat, the pilgrimage, the long experiment etc. whatever necessary to suit the older novice’s need. . . .

There is, however, a great deal of truth in that statement. No one can truly understand until after he has experienced the long retreat, or the pilgrimage, or, as is becoming apparent, tertianship, what a particular step in formation means.
Jack's further reflection on this topic leads me to recall a point that I sought to make in response to comments on the aforementioned post from January. For novices, the experience of the Spiritual Exercises is pedagogical as well as spiritual. Made in the first year of novitiate, the Exercises are a part of one's immersion into the life and thought world of the Society, a process that also includes the study of the Constitutions and some of the letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola as well as the decrees of our more recent General Congregations. As a result, there is often an emphasis on exposing novices to the 'whole' of the Exercises - that is, to as many of the meditations as possible - as a way of giving them greater familiarity with the text and the ways that it can be interpreted and applied. Jack's observation about the novitiate as a "school of the head" is quite apt, applying not simply to the textual study that forms an important part of novitiate life but also to each Jesuit novice's experience of the Spiritual Exercises.

The "you'll understand" bit at the end of Jack's reflections also got me thinking about the various stages of Jesuit formation - not simply about the novitiate and tertianship, but about everything in between. In my own Jesuit life, moving from novitiate to First Studies to regency has involved a series of discoveries that affirm the truth of "you'll understand" statements. I've never felt ignorant of what would come next: before I made each transition, I had spoken with people ahead of me in formation and visited the places I would be sent, so I often had a very detailed picture of what to expect as I moved forward; in all instances, though, the reality of what has happened to me in each stage of formation has not exactly matched the "very detailed picture" that I created in my mind ahead of time. In other words, I've always been able to anticipate what the next stage of formation was like in an abstract sense, but knowing what's like in concrete terms is something that I've had to wait for.

Of course, there are always things that one cannot fully anticipate ahead of time. For example, I'll never forget the thoughts that went through my mind the night before my first day teaching as a regent. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to fall asleep, I realized that I really had no idea what the next day would bring: I had spent a lot of time preparing syllabi and lecture notes and thinking about how I would approach various topics in class, but in spite of all that work the real experience of teaching would remain a mystery until I actually did it. Teaching my first class at SJU the next morning, I quickly realized that I could teach, that I could do it well, and that I was going to enjoy it; as teaching became a concrete "experience" and not simply an abstract aspiration, the sense of uncertainty that I'd felt earlier disappeared.

My last two paragraphs may take us some distance away from Jack Siberski's initial reflections, but I do think that the point he's making about tertianship applies more broadly to other stages of Jesuit formation. As I finish this post, I ask your prayers for Jack, me, and Jesuits at all stages of formation - especially the thirty-two new novices who entered the Society in the United States last month. Please pray that we may persevere with faith in the calling that we have received. AMDG.


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