Tuning up the instrument


Nick Austin SJ preaching at Farm St

When friends, family or colleagues learn that I’m about to take my Final Vows as a member of the Society of Jesus, they are often surprised that it has taken this long. I have been a Jesuit for 21 years, and a priest for 11. ‘And you still haven’t taken Final Vows? I knew that Jesuit training took a long time, but I didn’t know it took that long!’ Well, I guess we’re slow learners...

During a Mass on 1st December at Farm Street Church, I will kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and the famous ‘fourth vow’ of obedience to the pope in matters of mission – essentially a promise to be available to be sent wherever the need is greater. After the Mass, in the sacristy, I will also take five simple vows, which include promises not to ambition for higher offices and not to relax Jesuit rules on poverty.

For me, Final Vows is also a time to look back on my life as a Jesuit so far, and to recognise the ways in which the God whom I believe called me to this way of life has been faithful to his promise to help me to walk it. More than ever I realise that a vocation can’t be lived alone, but only through the grace of God. What strikes me is the way in which that grace has come through other Jesuits, friends, family and colleagues. As Gerard Manley Hopkins put it so unforgettably, ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his’. For each of those channels of grace, I am truly thankful.

Many of us would be able to say with confidence that, ‘God has worked in my life through so many loving, wise, compassionate people.’ The real trick, the challenge, is to recognise that the opposite is also true: God can work through me in others’ lives. Saint Ignatius put this so well when, in the Jesuit Constitutions, he expresses the desire to be ‘a human instrument closely united to God’. I love that image: each one of us is called to be an instrument in the hand of God, like a violin or a guitar in the hand of a great musician, playing the music of the Spirit in the lives of others. That is what the long process of Jesuit formation has been about – tuning up the instrument, so that it can channel God’s grace.

As I approach Final Vows, I am conscious of the needs of the mission, at home and abroad. We need apostles who are at work for a just society, who care for the earth and who show us, in a world that struggles with faith, how to become ‘closely united to God’, the source of all that is good. As I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and pronounce my vows, I will add my voice to those, both lay and religious, who say, ‘Here I am Lord... send me!’ I am conscious of the ways in which, like a recalcitrant instrument that doesn’t want to be tuned, I often fail to hit the right note. But I trust in the master musician who knows how to play, even with imperfect instruments, his wonderful symphony of good news for all.