Party of one

I am your novice. Those words roll seamlessly off my tongue. But, they didn’t always. In fact, as simple as they may seem, those words are carefully picked; they have come with experience and encompass a sentiment I am learning to embrace.

I began my two-year novitiate with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia in the fall of 2012. That beginning meant the end of many things. At the age of 26, it meant leaving behind my major possessions, relinquishing access to my personal savings and leaving my job ministering at an inner-city parish’s community center.

It was a beginning, though, that I had wholeheartedly discerned and chosen. I am called to a relationship with God that defines all else in my life. That call draws me into communal life with women of many generations; it calls me, in ways both challenging and rewarding, to be in relationship with all people and to discover the wonder of the world around me and deep within me each day.

As the sting of leaving all behind and growing spiritually became more familiar, the phrase “I am your novice” began to surface within me. To be honest, its origins were much more practical than profound. Within my first few months as a novice, I was sent one day a week to visit with our elderly and infirm sisters. When I would meet sisters as I wandered our retirement facility, they would inevitably ask who I was. I would point to my name tag and identify myself as a novice.

“Oh! You are one of our novices” they would gleefully declare. “Yes,” I would cautiously reply, “I am the novice.” The response of each individual at that point was a toss-up. Some sisters would pause for a moment taking in the “the” that I had used. That one little pronoun packed a punch. It meant I was the only novice – a fact that sisters would either grapple with for a moment or chose to disregard.

Either way most would smile and ask me more about myself – how I met the sisters, what my family was like and how I was enjoying my novitiate. In exchange, I would ask them about their experiences, the lessons they had learned and the story of their own call to religious life. Being able to be with them was a blessing; it meant that each week I was graced by the opportunity to plunge deeply into the wisdom they had to share.

Yet, each time I was asked to identify myself, I found myself pausing ever so briefly before responding. In a way, I regretted having to inform them that I was the only novice in the congregation. That moment – even if I was talking to someone who knew I was in the novitiate alone – was a moment of sorrow and realization for them. Numbers on a page are one thing, but to have just a single person standing before you is quite another.

The collective consciousness of the congregation remembers a time 50 years ago when novitiate groups, what we in Philadelphia call “parties,” were brimming. The Party of 1961, the largest in our history, numbered 110 novices. And while the collective consciousness knows that parties did not continue to be so large, the memory still lingers and influences, even if subconsciously, the way our membership is perceived today.

I am a party of one.

The wisdom my sisters share with me about the novitiate comes with a caveat – they were not novices alone. And as much as my saying “I am the novice” affects the sisters I interact with, speaking that phrase is also a moment of sorrow and realization for me, too. I face the fact that even as I take part in a program that brings together Sister of Saint Joseph novices from various congregations around the country, I will eventually return home. There I will be in the company of women I love, able to live the life I feel called to, no matter how many “younger” members there are.

Living religious life today means taking an objective view. Interpreting numbers is an exercise in relativity. Our membership numbers, however, do require us to recognize that what once was will not and cannot be. That will be the reality that echoes throughout my religious life; it is the truth that is resonating within religious congregations as we speak. Yet, it is a reality that I was well aware of when I chose to pursue this call.

Bearing that reality in mind, not dismissing the sorrow it carries for all of us, young and old, or the toll denial can take and the role it plays in congregations, we move forward in hope.

Religious life is changing and our processes of formation need to change with it. After all, formation for an individual is much different than for more than a hundred. Just as women religious have always done, we need to read the signs of the times, meet interested women where they are at, and hold true to the values and charisms that make us who we are. If novitiate has taught me anything, it is that being refined is a process of integrity. It requires brutal honesty and vulnerability; it means being true to who you are and who God is calling you to be.

And yes, some things will never (and should never) change. Novitiate will always be a time of growth and transformation. It is meant to root a novice in the love of Christ and without fail, it does that. As a party of one, I have been met where I am, have been integrated into a community larger than myself, and I look forward to sharing that process with readers here.

At some point, I stopped referring to myself as “the novice” and began to say to our sisters, “I am your novice.” In many ways, this is true. I owe the preservation and progress of the vocation I am discerning to those who came before me; I sit at their feet and seek to learn what it means to live this life with integrity and truth. As much as I am a party of one, I am also a party comprised of every member of my congregation. They are my sisters, and I am proud to be on this journey with them.

As we embark on this journey of exploring religious life, I also realize that I am your novice. And as much as I am a voice on this website, I am not alone. I hope that I, and the other sister writers featured here, can speak to the reality of the hundreds of women in formation throughout the United States. We all share in the same reality, and so I hope to share my own observations on the graces and challenges of pursuing vowed religious life in this day and age.

I am your novice, but first and foremost I am your sister. May we look at the present and toward the future together and may that be a lesson to us all.

[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, who is currently completing her second year of novitiate. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she has published work in various periodicals.]

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