I live in Dublin, Ireland. Sometimes. Most times I live in my head, quite unaware of my surroundings – if you know what I mean… If you succeed in tracking Sean Walsh, please let me know, ok? I've been searching for him for years…
The Friary. Killarney.
Here I am – in the Novitiate, in brown and in the best, oh the very best, of form. This morning, at the end of an eight-day Retreat, we were received – all twenty of us – into the Franciscan family. But I am way ahead of myself and so much has happened during the past few days – so much of the wonderful – that I simply refuse to let it go unrecorded!..
Oh, I was very glad to see your face in the crowd at Kingsbridge, Michael. Thanks for coming to see me off. So like you to show up when least expected, most needed. Your quick smile and sunny words helped a lot.
The other young men on the train – as nervous about the future as myself – soon overcame the shyness: “we got talking…”
They were from all over – Cork, Dublin, Wexford, Dundalk, Derry…We compared notes – the games we played, the friars we knew, the holidays we had enjoyed… One question was foremost in everyone’s mind: what was it going to be like?..
As the Diesel came to a grinding halt at Final Destination, the friar on the platform who was to be our Master of Novices for the year ahead, moved to meet us.
Then the procession from the station: men in newly pressed suits, awkward with baggage and umbrellas… A few minutes’ walk and I caught my first glimpse of “home” – a fine church in cut-stone with adjoining friary, grey-white in the sunshine… terraced lawns, falling in measured tread, to the railings and the road.
We climbed the steps to the main entrance. I took one long last drag, stepped on my cigarette, and advanced… Inside, dark after sunlight. A long corridor, tiled, a scent of varnish.
And suddenly, coming to meet us, the novices! Vigorous hand-shaking, back clapping… a steady stream of Hello-How-Are-You?.. We had arrived.
‘Time to freshen up. Then to the Refectory and food, water, tea… Chatter between mouthfuls… Ready? The final lap. A stairway that led up and up again to the Novitiate. A door unlocked, swung open – and we were in. A long corridor, each of the Newly Arrived had been allocated a room/cell.
I found my name on a door, entered, dropped my gear on wooden floorboards, noted the sparse furnishings, tested the mattress – oh no! Am I expected to sleep on that?.. My room/cell for the next twelve months – if I go the distance… Home from home, yes? No…
That evening we went on Retreat. The Director, a visiting friar, began by assuring us that a Retreat was a coming home – to God. He then gave us a simple formula that would carry us through the eight days: eat well, sleep well, and pray well…
So we did. The daily time-table gave us ample opportunity to do just that. And mind you, Michael, the bed wasn’t too bad – once I got into it!
In free time, the novices who were soon to end their novitiate, took us in hand, led us into the garden, made a first attempt to introduce us to the mysteries of the Roman Breviary and, between times, answer our several breathless questions:
When can we write home?.. How do we get the results of the All Ireland?.. Do we ever get to see a newspaper?.. What is Night Choir?.. Where can I get a tube of tooth paste?.. Who stamps the letters?.. Is that old brother in the kitchens a saint?.. When can we play handball?.. Why are we only allowed to eat the windfalls – why can’t we pick the apples off the trees?.. How do you mean, take the discipline?
From morning Mass until night prayers and “lights out” life was a continuous sequence of bells, exercises, talks, devotions – all done in a spirit of quiet enthusiasm. It was the atmosphere that touched me – the simplicity, the silence, the friendliness, the wanting to help…
Some things I endured, most things I enjoyed, nothing was beyond me. To be sure, there were things I missed: doing it my way, at my own pace, the leisurely smoke after a meal… But I survived. The fact that I haven’t laid eyes on an ash tray – not to mention a cigarette – has helped me no end in overcoming the Deadly Habit.
Tonsure time. Two of the novices, armed with electric cutters, proceeded to shear us, one by one. Soon the floor of the Convocation Hall was covered with mounds and cuttings of hair – black, fair, ginger. How they managed to achieve a perfect circle of baldness atop of each cranium while leaving the remainder of the hair intact, was beyond me.
New life, new name. Another time we returned to the Assembly area and a list of available saints’ names displayed on a notice board. Each of us in turn went forward, checked the list, turned away after making a choice: Evangelist… Jude… Benen…Laurence… Berard.
When I returned to my seat, someone asked what name I had chosen. I said, Innocent. A stunned silence. Then laughter, incredulity, disbelief… Laughed out of court, maybe not – but certainly persuaded to return to the list and make an alternative choice. This time I spotted the name of a Jesuit saint, Peter Claver. End of drama…
And so to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, 1950. And Reception.
The ceremony was brief but to the point: putting off the Old Man, putting on the New… Kneeling there on the upper step of the High Altar, before Father Guardian, I said goodbye to my civvies as a brown tunic was slipped over my head and shoulders. Then the capuche. Lastly, ‘bound at the waist with a white cord. I was a Franciscan novice.
May I always be as single-minded. Prayers, Michael…