We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28)
What did the novitiate teach me? A lot about Dominican history. A lot about prayer. A lot about how to live in community without wanting to kill my brothers. But I think the single most important lesson I learned in the novitiate was trust. To trust God.
I just made a vow of obedience to God, to blessed Mary, to blessed Dominic, and to my superiors in the Order of Preachers. The vow commits me to them for two years. I don’t really know what the next two years will be like. I know I’m going to live in St. Louis at the student house. I know I’ll attend classes at our Aquinas Institute of Theology. I couldn’t tell you what classes we take. I know I’ll do some sort of ministry at some time or another. Again, I have no idea what kinds of ministries are even options. I really know very little about what lies ahead in my future. And yet I still committed myself to the Dominicans. I’m able to make this choice because I’ve learned to trust the Providence of God.
The reason I came to the novitiate in the first place was because of my trust in God. That’s what faith is, trusting that God acts in the world and in our lives. Before the novitiate, I trusted God, but I still felt the need to control my own life. The decisions I made were what dictated what happened to me. Intellectually, I trusted God, but in practice, I tried to do it on my own. The novitiate taught me it doesn’t work that way. Br. Jordan Coonen, O.P. celebrated his 50th year in the Order with us while we were in Denver. He told us a number of times, “If you are going to pray, then don’t worry. If you are going to worry, then don’t pray.”
On Wednesdays during the novitiate, I helped in a third grade class at a dual-language elementary school. I’ve never taught nor worked with kids before. This was a private school that helped primarily working class families. Many of these families were broken: kids’ parents were divorced, or they might only know one parent. Many of the families were very large, with all the adults working multiple jobs, so that the children struggled to get attention in their families. I was completely unqualified for this task. I didn't know how to manage children and I didn't know how to teach. I didn’t know how to counsel, either, but none of that mattered; I had to do it. I realized early on that I had a few different options: I could have anxiety and worry about being effective and actually helping these children, or I could trust in God and pray, doing the best I could and keeping myself open to the Holy Spirit. If there were something God needed me to say or do, it would happen, even without me knowing, if I kept myself open to Him.
A big part of the novitiate is learning to be someone bigger than yourself. One of the ways this was the most obvious for me was through wearing the Dominican habit. We often wore the habit in public, particularly to Masses, conferences, special dinners and other Catholic events in Denver. When someone sees me in my habit, they don’t think, “Oh, there’s Br. Raphael.” Instead, they’ll usually think, “Oh, there’s a Dominican.” Which means I represent the Dominicans, and really not just the Dominicans, but the whole Church. I have to be welcoming and friendly to all who approach me, no matter how I’m feeling that day. This was a difficult lesson to learn. Wherever I went, people would notice me because of my habit, and because of that, I constantly had to be vigilant about my behavior and interactions. This, in many ways, is an extension of trusting in God. By trusting in God, I open myself to His Spirit and to following the path He has prepared for me, not the path I choose for myself. I began to abandon my own selfish desires and selfish goals. By wearing the habit, I am reminded that I am no longer solely me. I am a part of a larger entity. I learned to abandon my own selfish desires for this reason as well, aligning and conforming myself to the Body of Christ, of which the Dominican Order is a part.
Sacrificing (or immolating, as I like to say) our own selfish desires and ambitions really is one of the most important elements of learning to trust God. If I know true happiness is only found by entrusting myself to God, why would I want to continue my own personal missions instead of His? One of the many ways I encountered this fact during the novitiate was simply through community itself. One of the most important elements of the Dominican vocation is that we live communally and share possessions, spaces and responsibilities. We all encounter conflicts through communal living. Not everyone gets along. One of the lessons the novitiate taught me is to examine why I dislike or am annoyed by something a brother does. I soon figured out that when I dislike something about a brother, it usually reflects something about myself that I need to work on. The reason I notice particular flaws in others is because they reflect some flaw about myself. Thus a large part of Dominican life, and especially the novitiate, is figuring out what flaws and selfish motivations I personally have, which my interactions in community help me realize. These little revelations led me to discover the particular actions, thought patterns, desires I needed to immolate for the good of God’s plan for me, and for the good of the community. I strive to achieve perfect charity, but I must hack off many of my own rough edges in order to grow in charity.
Discernment of vocation is a primary purpose of the novitiate. Consequently, many men discern out of the Dominicans during the novitiate and leave part way through the year. This can be challenging to those who remain. My class started our novitiate year with 10 novices. We finished our year with 7 professed brothers. Three men left Denver during the year. Some of the guys struggled with the vows, some with the prayer life or the fraternally focused intimacy. Each time someone left, it made me examine my own discernment and vocation. Am I willing to commit myself for the rest of my life, not to an individual, but to a large, ministry-based organization? Am I willing to submit my will to my superiors within the Order? That is a scary notion.
But I trust God. I cannot manage life on my own; I cannot find lasting happiness and peace through my own efforts; I cannot make a positive impact on the world through my own works. It is only by giving myself to God and allowing Him to direct my life, in trusting Him and His supreme Wisdom, can I actualize my potential. As St. Théodore Guérin, missionary to Indiana, said, “What does it matter what becomes of us, provided God’s work be accomplished?”
~Br. Raphael Christianson, O.P.