We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand. – Is. 64:8
“I know why you went on the Long Retreat, Mom,” offers Mike. “It wasn’t to pray, it was to form us as men.”
For five weeks, while I was away, my two sons and husband courageously kept the household afloat. Laundry, meal planning, permission slips and housecleaning – they did it all.
Life in this temporarily all male household was, perhaps not surprisingly, a bit more ascetic. Rumor has it that tablecloth usage went down, while easy-to-cook spaghetti consumption went up. And I returned to find that my kitchen has been rearranged to suit the more spartan sensibilities of its users.
It’s not only the kitchen that’s changed. I returned to find my sons have each grown measurably in height – an inch apiece – and in ways less easily quantifiable. As I finished my piece of the welcome home cake the boys baked for me, Chris quietly and without prompting gathered up our plates to take into the kitchen. Putting my duffel away in the basement, I ran into Mike doing a load of wash – unasked.
While I was away on retreat with the novices being formed as Jesuits, as men for others, it seems the same forces were at work on my sons at home, forming them as men, (and I hoped) men for others as well. As Isaiah tells us in this beautiful passage, we are made by God’s hands, wherever and whoever we are.
In Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, we are reminded, “If one member [of the faithful] endures anything, all the members co-endure it.” From this perspective, it makes sense that my sons could be formed by the Spiritual Exercises as the Jesuit novices were.
From my letters, Mike and Chris knew some of what the novices had given up to try their vocation as Jesuits. They were living a more ascetic life. They’d surrendered motorcycles and cell phones, facebook and iTunes accounts. Lawyers, Navy officers and scientists were now obedient to their novice masters.
Asceticism is an indispensable part of religious life as well as religious formation; it is a mirror of what Christ gave up for us in His Passion. But the call to simplicity and selflessness goes out to us all. In its Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life points out “[o]ne cannot live out one’s baptism without adopting asceticism.”
Like the novices, Mike and Chris got a taste of the ascetic life, giving up some of their accustomed comforts while I was away: Mom’s homemade pizza, her goodnight hugs and her editing of their English papers. Instead of sitting down to dinners that Dad had shopped for and Mom cooked, they were uncomplainingly (or so I understand) giving of what had been their free time to help grocery shop, cook and clean. Learning to be for each other, not just for themselves.
The Directives on Formation go on to say that all Christians “have need of coaches to assist [us] in running along the ‘royal way of the Holy Cross.’ They need witnesses.” I will be ever grateful to the 18 Jesuit novices from the provinces of Detroit, Wisconsin, Chicago, New England, Maryland and New York, for even in the earliest days of their religious lives standing as witnesses for my sons to the value of a life in and for God. I’m thankful, too, for their Jesuit novice masters and my own Jesuit directors who, through their coaching, have indirectly shaped my sons’ lives.
Many of the novices grew beards over the days of retreat, but as with Mike and Chris, I suspect the growth that mattered most for them could not be measured in inches. I can see the hand of the Potter on them all – formed by God, conformed more closely.
From our earliest days, O God, You call us by name. Make our ears attentive to Your voice, our spirits eager to respond, that, having heard You in Jesus Your anointed one, we may draw others to be his disciples. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. – From the Opening Prayer for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.