“BUT what will you do there?’
It is a question I had to answer on an almost daily basis in the weeks before leaving for my novitiate.
I can’t tell you how tempting it was to reply: “nothing”.
Of course, I did not thereby wish to imply that our novitiate was to consist of us simply sitting on the edge of our beds, staring at cracks in the wall as we waited for the next bell to summon us to a meal.
I was simply irked at the emphasis inherent within the question – that ceaseless activity is the supreme expression of our existence, that our worth and lives are to be measured according to what – or how much – we “do”.
I am sure I am not the only individual to have been confronted with the now obligatory examination upon meeting a new person: “So, what do you do?” Dreadful. As though the clearest expression of who we are is summed up with the pithy phrase: “I work as a …”
Such a question, and such a response, misses the central point – who we are in the sight of God matters infinitely more than what we do.
I understand that it might be a tad awkward to ask someone you have just met, “So who are you in the sight of our Triune God?”
In fact, that person might thereafter go to great lengths to avoid being caught in conversation with you.
Yet the question itself seems, at least to me, to accord us rather more dignity and avoid adding to what seems to be one of the prevailing errors of our time – the overemphasis of work and deed that is implied in the original question; the ceaseless need to forge ahead; the sense of an urgent need to rush everywhere and exploit everything to the utmost, especially time.
Everybody seems to be in such a rush to go nowhere.
And the novitiate is meant to remind us of that.
Over the course of our twelve-month stay here in Hong Kong, cloistered in a large building overlooking Victoria Harbour, we are supposed to be removed from all the distractions of modern life in order to remember what, in the end, is most important. What our ultimate end will be. How our lives ought to be lived in light of that fact.
In a society obsessed with “learning outcomes”, “achievables” and “deliverables” – in a world obsessed with “doing” rather than “being” – contemplative prayer and year-long novitiates organised around prayer have become rather difficult to explain, let alone justify.
To some people, faced with such a line of questioning, God too seems to have become difficult to justify.
Yet God needs no justification: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14), “The way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6), “The alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13).
In light of all that – in the light of Jesus Christ – a twelve-month novitiate spent in prayer seems to make a great deal of sense.
And it needs no more justification than God.
By Sebastian Condon
Br Sebastian Condon is from Brisbane. He is undertaking a novitiate with the Dominican Order in Hong Kong.