The novitiate is fundamentally a time of probation, by means of various experiments or probations, as they were established by St. Ignatius. The real meaning and purpose of these experiments is precisely to test and verify the existence of the call of the Lord and the novice’s maturity and freedom for a definitive option for the Lord in the Society.
The experiments should bring out their true motivation, their maturity and ability to confront difficult situations, and the extent to which they are adopting our way of proceeding. The type of the experiments and the way to assign them should be such as to bring to the surface the availability and obedience of the novices and make them realize what it means in practice to follow Christ in poverty, chastity and obedience.
In the same way, at the time of the experiments, they must show how faithful they are to their relationship with the Lord and how easily they can find Him in all things, without the help of the structures proper to the novitiate. The experiments should place the novices in limit situations so that, by coming through them successfully, they may be in a position to give a more conscious, free and definitive “yes” to the Lord.
The experiments are also designed to facilitate and foster the “cut” or “disconnection” from one’s former life which is sought in the novitiate, that is, a radical re-orientation of the whole person. The novices should be keenly aware that the Lord calls them to a radical change of life, to self-transcendence, frequently to renunciation of their own likes and interests in order to form an apostolic community fully available for the mission that each one will later receive. This radical change leads to a different way of thinking, feeling and valuing the world around, the result of a profound spiritual experience and the decision to follow Jesus in the Society. On the novice’s part, this “cut” implies a new way of relating to family and friends, an attitude of detachment and freedom from material and human goods and a life-style which reflects and nourishes this new orientation.
The experiments make it also possible to discover hidden apostolic abilities. To achieve this discovery, there should be no hesitation to let the novices plunge into experiences contrary to personal tendencies and likes.
What are the main experiments?
The first and most important experiment is the month-long retreat – the Spiritual Exercises. It is the foundation of all the rest. It is a month of prayer, a time to deepen the knowledge of the Lord, a school of prayer and an opportunity to re-read one’s personal life.
A one-month service in a “hospital” (usually in the structures of the Cottolengo). The novices «take their meals and sleep in it […], or serve for one or several hours during the day, according to the times, places, and persons. They should help and serve all, the sick and the well, in conformity with the directions they receive» (General Exam, 66).
To be in touch with, and close to, the poor and the suffering will help us to discover in them the suffering face of Jesus and to live the preferential love of the poor as a grace by means of which Jesus draws near to us and transforms us ever more into Himself. The feeling of helplessness in the face of pain and suffering, their own and that of others, should lead them [the novices] to seek the deepest meaning of human existence in Jesus and his Paschal Mystery. Thus, «serving in everything their Creator and Lord, crucified for them,» and «abandoning all the reliance which [they] could have in money or other created things, [they] may with genuine faith and intense love place [their] reliance entirely in [their] Creator and Lord» (Cf. General Exam, 66-67).
The Pilgrimage without money is the experiment that usually arouses most curiosity. The purpose is to grow in trust of God’s providence, thus without taking neither money nor provisions but only putting in the backpack the essentials. It is done in twos, with a starting point and a destination to reach within a maximum of fifteen days. The novices ask for food and lodging every day, presenting themselves just as simple pilgrims, without accepting money nor provisions but just accepting whatever is given, even rejection. It is a way to experience free offerings, generosity and transcending oneself. It is a school of hope in God, who knows what we need: therefore without looking for certainties and comforts, without backing out of discomforts, in food and lodging.
Lent experiment: it is about spending the six weeks of Lent during the second year in an apostolically active community. Such a context, much less structured than the novitiate, helps to verify that what has been proposed during the novitiate has been acquired and interiorized (life of prayer, sacraments, balance between apostolic life and community life, obedience and the ability to collaborate, relating to people of different ages, affective dimension).
The summer months are equally a time to be missioned to collaborate with various works and activities of the Jesuits. Naturally, daily life, with its ordinary routine, remains the most effective and meaningful testing ground.
(mostly taken from the document «Spiritual Formation In The Novitiate»)