Lock Down and Open Up!

Published on 21 Apr 2020

Lessons for lockdown from a Jesuit novice-master

A sign which says: Walk softly and listen - mother nature at work

Make your bed

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed!” These famous words by Admiral McRaven to graduates of the University of Texas, (Austin, May 17th 2014) presume, of course, that you are already out of bed. In these days of lock-down, what will help me get out of bed in the morning? In the words of Fr Joe Whelan, SJ (1932-1994) ‘What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.’ Perhaps in the current lock-down we may be tempted to ‘stay in bed’, to sleep until this nightmare passes us by, or to sleep-walk our way through the current reality, dreaming of the future. This would be a missed opportunity.

Be you! Be here! Be now!

When Jesuit novices begin their two year novitiate they normally do want to change the world. They are men with big hearts, men of passion, who want to give all that they are to this goal. So, when they are shown to their small cubicle for a bedroom, told that they will have no access to social media, will have limited movement outside of the novitiate for only specific apostolic needs (for example, social projects), that they will spend much of the day in house-cleaning, working in the garden, studying and in prayer, they often wonder if they have come to the right place. The temptation is to think that if I was somewhere else, if the circumstances were different … if I was surrounded by kinder, more interesting people … or, if only I was richer or cleverer or more talented or … then I would be able to change the world. I can imagine myself as someone else, in the past, in the future but not me, here, now. So, as one of the senior, wise Jesuits often repeats to the novices: Be you! Be here! Be now!


Monks, it could be said, live lock-down all the time; going nowhere, living with the same group of people, doing the same things over and over again. 'How boring!', we might think. And, yet, their life is carefully balanced: eight hours of prayer; eight hours of work; eight hours of rest. To have a care-fully prepared, balanced, way of life, especially in the limitations of lock-down, can be very helpful. On a normal day, the novices spend around one and a half hours in personal prayer, at least half an hour in spiritual reading, and stop twice a day – once in the middle of the day and once at the end – for a quarter of an hour each time to re-view the day, the so-called Examen: where, when and how have I been fully alive and when, where, how, have I been half alive or only half awake? There are courses and seminars alongside the daily house cleaning and outdoor works and the whole day is centred around the celebration of the Eucharist – the love of God in action, God giving himself completely to us and to our world. Of course, each person’s circumstances are unique, whether I am living the lock-down alone or with young children or elderly parents and so the balance for each one will be different, but the idea of balance, structure and routine is one we can all learn from.

Stop Look Listen

Seek the Spirit

Jesuits are not monks; we are not formed to stay in one place with the same group of people. On the contrary, we are formed to be ‘pilgrims’, the road is our home. From the very beginning, St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wanted Jesuits to be formed for the unknown, the unexpected … travelling, for example, to Japan, India and Ethiopia, to a world with different languages, cultures and faiths … not to mention classrooms full of teenage boys! While the external world was unfamiliar, incomprehensible even, Jesuits were formed to respond with an internal compass.

In the novitiate, the focus of the two years is to grow in the life of the Spirit and in virtue. (Constitutions, 243) In other words, to recognise how God is living and working in my life, in those around me and more widely in the world, and to grow in virtue – in faith, hope and love, in prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – so as to be able to respond better myself to God’s loving life and work. Old-fashioned words with actions and attitudes needed for this modern crisis: prudence from the Latin word prudentia, meaning to be able to see ahead; temperance, meaning moderation and self-control, rather than a culture of greed and constant consumerism; fortitude, meaning courage and the capacity to persevere in the face of struggle and suffering rather than a culture that seeks instant fame and wealth and, finally, justice, having a passion for those who are considered unimportant and useless in a ‘throwaway culture’, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless man or woman, the refugee or asylum seeker, the unborn. The lock-down is forcing us to re-evaluate our priorities: What do we need? How do we spend our time and money? Who and what do we value? What do I love? We need to re-read our compass, to re-assess where we are headed.

Small steps 

How can we, then, help change the world? St Ignatius says that love shows itself more in deeds than in words. Words are important, especially as Pope Francis reminds us, those simplest and hardest of words - “please”, “sorry”, “thank you” – but we show our love more by what we do. St Paul in his letter to the Romans urges us to ‘outdo one another in showing honour’ (12:10); to look for occasions when we can honour others by showing them our love. St Jan Berchmans SJ, a Flemish Jesuit and one of the patrons of Jesuits in formation, speaks of doing ordinary things with extraordinary love … cleaning the bathroom, emptying the bins, chopping the vegetables, making a cup of tea, buying groceries for a vulnerable neighbour, phoning or writing to someone. Looking out – taking the gaze off myself and what I want and need and looking out for one another. If we want to change the world, we need to start small. To start out on a journey, we have to take a step, one step, followed by another, followed by another, followed by another. One small, loving step at a time.



One of the symptoms of the coronavirus is that we lose our sense of taste and of smell. For St Ignatius, praying with our senses is very important, imagining, for example, being in Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, smelling the stable with the ox and ass; being at the Last Supper with Jesus and His disciples, tasting the meal and the mood of the room; being at the foot of the Cross of Jesus with Mary and John, what does that scene smell like, what does it even taste like? Now, more than ever, we, too, are appreciating more deeply the smell and taste and touch of our world, of creation, of our relationships. It is as if we are being invited to live each day not as if it were our last, but, rather, as if it were our first. Savour.


When asked what he thought was the biggest challenge for the Jesuits, the previous superior, Fr Nicolás said, ‘I believe that one of the primary challenges facing the Society of Jesus today is that of recovering the spirit of silence. I am not thinking of disciplinary measures, fixed times of silence, going back to religious houses that look more like monasteries. Rather, I am thinking of the hearts of our men. We all need a place inside ourselves where there is no noise, where the voice of the Spirit of God can speak to us, softly and gently, and direct our discernment. In a very true sense we need the ability to become ourselves silence, emptiness, an open space for the good of others and of the Church.’ (Fr Nicolás SJ, Nairobi 2012) How easy it is to fill our hearts and minds, not to mention our homes, crowding out any space. “How are you are?” we ask. “Busy” we reply. We can live in large open spaces with all the comforts of our world and be so full that there is no room, for ourselves or for others. The lock-down, with all its external limitations, is inviting us to open up … to create space … to look out … and to invite in. As we hear in the Book of Revelation: ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.’ (3:20) Let’s lock-down, then, and open up.

Fr Simon Bishop SJ is Novice Master for the Jesuits in North-West Europe (Ireland, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Flemish speaking parts of Belgium.) 

If you would like to try some recipes in lockdown, what about trying Colette and Martina's book Saintly Feasts. Soon to be followed by its sequel, Saintly Scones! 

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