THE  REAL  THING  :  THE  NOVITIATE

I had already visited Maryfields, between Campbelltown and Camden, when Mick was a novice.  Arriving now, ten years later, to become a novice myself, I remembered the sunburnt fields around the friary, and especially the enormous ants, omnipresent cow-dung and occasional frilled-neck lizards, all of which we had to avoid when we picnicked with Mick.

I remembered too the “puffin’-billy”, the ancient locomotive that serviced the short, uphill run between the two country towns.  Soon I was to discover that sometimes, after stopping at the Maryfields station, the train could not, literally, get up enough steam to manage the relatively steep slope up to Camden, and would actually roll back to Maryfields before making a second try, gasping “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can …”.  The children’s onomatopoeic jingle about the little train that struggled laboriously up a hill before, hopefully, cruising down the other side (“I-knew-I-could, I-knew-I-could !”), came to mind every time when, during strolls intended for spiritual meditation, I witnessed the occasional Sisyphean drama.  The distraction did, however, provoke some questions : “Was there a symbolic significance here ?  Would life be an uphill battle after the  Novitiate ?  Would some of us slip back to “the ways of the world” ?

Besides a handful of companions from Robbo, our group of Novices included several “outsiders”,  High School graduates and a couple of “late vocations” (including a diocesan priest in his fifties, no doubt a lonely man, from a remote country parish) who joined us to spend a year intended to test our “vocations”.

The “Reception” ceremony was a moving experience for all of us, and for our families.  Not only did we give up, as Francis had done, our secular clothes (though this did not, thankfully, involve public nudity), but we also gave up our name.  There was, for me, a certain irony in relinquishing my baptismal name, Francis, to become a Franciscan, Brother Leon.  But more impressive still was the donning of the brown habit, complete with hood or capuche, the white cord with its three knots symbolizing the vows we would take – perhaps – a year later, the oversized string of rosary beads and crucifix attached to it, and the black sandals.

The wierdest feature of Reception was the tonsure.  Each of us submitted, with some amusement, to the most radical haircut of our lives.  All that was left of my (then fashionable) crew-cut – already a mark of the “worldliness” I was now renouncing – was a close-cut ring of hair around my head between my  ears and bald scalp.  Therese, after the ceremony, could not resist rubbing her hands over the bristle that had been my hair.

The “Nov” was radically different from Robbo.  We were no longer school-boys but apprentice Friars.  The adage, “Ora et labora” (“Pray and work”) of the monastic tradition, summed up our daily schedule, featuring frequent periods in the Chapel, notably for daily Mass, meditation, the reciting of the Rosary and other prayers, and especially the chanting of the Divine Office, the traditional series of seven prayer-services, from Matins to Compline, which punctuated each day of monastic life.

Every day Father Peter, the Novice-Master, who could have passed for Friar Tuck, would conduct “classes” concerning the Franciscan Rule, Franciscan History and Franciscan Spirituality.  In retrospect, I am amazed that all of us dutifully accepted Fr Peter’s “pedagogy”, which consisted of dictating to us notes he had written years before in a set of exercise-books.  He was rotund but stern, conscious of his responsibility to give us the training, the knowledge, the discipline and, I suppose, the holiness necessary to equip us for life as followers of Francis.  We observed “the silence” including during meals, while one of us would read, in Latin, the Martyrology, stories of the Saints of each day, the “Ordo”, details concerning the day’s Divine Office, and in English, chapters of pious, edifying literature.

Besides prayer and its preparation which the Novice-Master’s classes were meant to be, there was the daily component of manual labor.  This consisted essentially of housekeeping and garden work, but also of special jobs like the preparation of Good Friday.  The Friars had constructed Stations of the Cross, statues of the figures at each of the fourteen “stations” of  Jesus’  Way of the Cross, around the fields surrounding the friary.  Every year thousands of Sydney’s Catholics would come to Maryfields to participate in this devotional (and indulgenced) exercise, which had, centuries before, been created by the Franciscans (as had the Christmas crib), and which was practised in every Catholic church in the world.  Ours, however, was an outdoor exercise, through the paddocks where our cows grazed.  Holy Thursday meant first a Solemn Mass commemorating Christ’s Last Supper.  It was followed by a chore which was the   privilege of the novices : shovelling into bags the omnipresent dollops of dung along the Via Dolorosa, so that our visitor’s shoes and our own sandals would not encounter these excremental land-mines.  People marveled at the beauty of our flower-beds and the luxuriance of our vegetable gardens.  The secret was top-quality compost.

Perhaps the most unusual, not to say “striking”, feature of Novitiate life was the discipline, not in the form of rules and regulations, but in the form of a whip, a knotted cord for self-flagellation.  “Mortification” had been part of my Catholic upbringing.  Essentially for me as a child, it meant not eating lollies (candy) during Lent (and saving them in a jar for an Easter orgy !)  I suppose it was also behind the forbidding of eating meat on Fridays (as though eating deliciously prepared Pacific Ocean fish were a deprivation).  But wearing hair-shirts, severe fasting, throwing yourself into the thorned branches of rose bushes, and flogging yourself, were things saints like St Francis, not ordinary people, did.

My vocabulary at the time included neither “sadism” nor “masochism”, and though surprised to discover the little whip hanging on the inside of my cell door, I accepted the Friday evening ritual, where, in the privacy of one’s own cell, we were expected to pull our habit up over our knees and start lashing our legs, not covered by the shorts we wore.  Painful ?  Noisy, yes (I always suspected that some of my fellow whipping-boys did not pull up their habit at all before they started . . .), but it was only as painful as you wanted it to be.  There were, at all events, no screams of pain, because we were all chanting a Latin hymn as we mortified our adolescent passions, attempting to tame what St Paul had called “the old man” in each of us.

The Novitiate was not a Marines’ boot-camp.  Apart from the discipline – a practice that would continue during the following seven years of preparation for the priesthood, and only for those seven years – we freshmen Friars enjoyed Maryfields.  Was it the novelty, was it the conviction of doing what God wanted us to do, was it the feeling of being, well, special, because of our “vocation” ?

“Many are called, but few are chosen”.  We were among the latter.  Or, at least, some of us thought we were.  During the year, several of my fellow-novices decided to leave.  The Order was not a sect.  Neither candidates to the Order nor their families were financially exploited.  We had virtually no contact with the “outside world”, but we were permitted to have our families visit us.  And we were free to leave whenever we liked.  We suspected that some of the departures were at the initiative of Father Peter and the other friar-priests who made up the community.  The decision to take vows in the Order was bilateral.  We were discovering whether or not we wanted to follow Francis, and the Franciscans were deciding whether or not we had the right stuff.

Years later, after my ordination to the priesthood and appointment as the Provincial Superior’s personal secretary, I happened – innocently, of course – on the files of the individual reports on each of the 1954 novices.  One of the priests at Maryfields, a venerable Irishman and notorious alcoholic, expressed doubt about my acceptability for Simple Vows (the green light for continuing in the Order with a three-year commitment to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience).  He had nicknamed Brother Leon, “Brother … Singular”, and considered me a candidate for black smoke.  He was voted down.

Clearly, I could have been told to leave.  My crime, apparently, although I bore the same habit (yet another uniform) as everyone else, was that I had an unfortunate tendency to want to do things my way (as the Other Frank – Sinatra – would later sing), to stand out from the crowd, not because of any special talent or intelligence, but, God forbid,  because of . . . PRIDE !  I had an opinion on  everything, and did not hesitate to let it be known.  Nothing radical, of course.  But it seems the signs were there that Leon had not understood St Francis’ model of obedience : a corpse !

We were anything but cadavers.  Though a group of only eleven, we played hard at rugby in two tiny teams, exploited to the full the outdoor handball court and put all the muscle we had into manual labor.  But we were expected to display total obedience, total conformity, total acceptance of what we were told and the way to do it.  There was nothing of the Socratic maieutic in the training we were receiving and would continue to receive during the future three years of Philosophy and four years of Theology.  We were not expected to discover or to articulate questions, but to assimilate the Truth.  We were not encouraged to develop our individual personalities, but to allow ourselves to be molded into fungible Franciscans.  This post-factum judgement, made nearly six decades after my Novitiate, is, of course, too harsh.  In fairness to the Friars, it should be underlined that none of us in the Nov felt manipulated or in any way physically or morally coerced to conform.  But Father Celestine was lucid enough to be able to detect unmistakeable danger signals in the “pride” of seventeen-year old “Brother Singular”.

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