Welcome in the New Year on this Eighth Day of Christmas! We pray your New Year’s Day will be a peaceful and inspiring one. It has only been since 1582 that January 1 has always been the Eighth Day of Christmas. In that year, Pope Gregory XIII implemented a revision of the Western (Julian) calendar in order to better track the days. Since then, Europeans have always celebrated the New Year on January 1, the Eighth Day of Christmas.
It is an historical accident of sorts that in the very season when we remember the birth of the holy one among us, we also celebrate the birth of the new year. On this day of new beginning, then, we will investigate another monastic room as we have done before: this time, the Novitiate, the process by which a person becomes a monastic. As we ponder how we will enter this new year, let’s pause to see what inspiration we can get from those practiced in beginning anew.
Apropos our theme of rooms, the Noviatiate is both a time and a place. It is the time of formation and testing for novices, those who desire to become monastics. And it is also the name of the house where these novices were housed, near the Church but separate from the cells that housed the monastics who have taken final vows.
Why are novices kept separated? It is not mere preference for hierarchy or for severe initiation rites. It is instead that the novices are secluded, protected from other influence, in order to guide their new beginning. They are beginning to explore a new way of life that is in some ways strange, and they need room (both time and space) to explore, learn, and practice this new way of living. In this process they are cared for by those who are both good models of the monastic life and good teachers of all things monastic. The guide for the novices helps to set the structure of the day, provides instruction, discernment, and encouragement for the beginner, and also serves as an example for a life well lived. For this reason the guide is carefully selected by the Abbot or Abbess and usually lives with the novices in the building called the Novitiate. After some time (usually from 1 to 3 years) the novice may, with the agreement of the community, move on to take vows. And from there, the process is repeated for the rest of their life: it is always about learning anew, beginning again, and finding support.
Learning to Begin
What lessons might we take from this place and process for our own beginning again? As we ponder how to birth the holy in us, ever new, always beginning again, how might the Novitiate serve us as a model? Or, as we consider how we will approach a new year, how might this monastic practice and place guide us?
New beginnings have both promise and peril. The fervor of the new beginning is dangerous. In the rush to commitment, we are often led astray by denial of, or inattention to, our weaknesses or limitations. We generate false hope in ourselves and in others of our speedy reform. The monastics have it right: such wholesale renovation (and often even the seemingly minor changes) need more than simple willpower to lead to success. It needs a guide, someone who can coach and motivate us. It needs practice, and the space and time in which one can practice. So the novice in the monastery has 3 years with a guide to practice, to learn, and to gain skill in the new way of life.
Instead, we often simply make resolutions, and the root of the word (resolve) suggests the thin reed on which resolutions are grounded: our own sheer willpower. But willpower often fails when it is most needed. The lesson of the Novitiate is twofold. First there is the good news: it is always about beginning again. Deep reform comes from slow practice of doing the next thing, perhaps not getting it right, and then trying again. Second is some good advice: resolutions and willpower are false friends. The best way to begin is to find the support and structure and guidance that allows us to practice daily at educating the heart.
Making even a small change, much less practicing the complex renovation of birthing of the holy, cannot be a simple exercise in willpower. It should instead consist of finding, constructing, or designing the influences we need to keep us going in a particular direction. It requires a place, like the Novitiate building; time, like the Novitiate process (often more than a year), and a guide.
But even with all this help, it still requires perseverance. The good news about perseverance is that it turns on failure. In order to begin anew, one must need a beginning. In order to get up, one must have first fallen down. One must, always again, use the supports to start anew the process. Here is a story about the process of beginning anew.
Falling Down, Getting Up
A woman visited a city to stay for several months. While there, she regularly walked through one quarter of the city that contained a monastery. She saw monks leaving and entering the walled enclosure and began to wonder what it was that went on behind the closed doors. One day the large wooden doors were open. Perhaps it was a feast day, but there was a monk standing there at the gate. So she walked up to him and said, “I have often passed your doors and wondered what it is you do in the monastery. Can you tell me?” The monk smiled and thought for a while, and then said “Well, we fall down, and then we get up. Then we fall down, then we get up again.”
Some questions for your New Beginnings
We will always fall down, despite all the support we might build or design. Then we need the grace to forgive ourselves rather than despair, to get up again and continue. The support, and even our perseverance, are more evident in how we get up again than in how long we manage to walk without falling. So as you plan your life in your inner monastery, or wonder about what to do and what to let go in the new year, consider these questions:
What is it I want to begin anew in practicing this year?
How can I find the support, guidance, and space and time for this practice?
Look kindly on times you fell last year. What insight might you draw from that experience?
A Blessing for your New Beginning
May you find grace in falling in this new year
And sweet freedom in having failed like so many others
so that, getting back up, may you learn to walk somewhat farther
and fall with somewhat more grace.