Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
~ Mk 10:21
This scene from Scripture has always caught me, and pained me. It is sad to imagine the Rich Young Man, with such high hopes, leaving Jesus dejectedly in the face of a challenge that seems insurmountable to him. Only lately have I begun to see Jesus’ face as he looked upon the young man and “loved him,” and to hear Jesus’ voice offering a gentle invitation – not a mockery, not a gruff challenge, but a real invitation to take the next step. Sometimes I like to imagine what happened next: the young man goes home, and mulls over Jesus’ words. Later, maybe years later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the young man, now a middle aged man or even an old man, does just what Jesus said, and finds his happiness.
Lately I have elected to follow the call, wherever it may lead. After three years of research, retreats, travels, and making relationships with other orders, I decided to follow the advice of an old priest who said to a friend of mine, “I’ve heard that you are considering joining the Jesuits, and I’m very disappointed. You should not consider this life until you have exhausted other options – you should not consider it, unless you can’t imagine doing anything else.” I’m not quite there yet – there are options I haven’t exhausted for my life, and my imagination is very active. But in the words of Archbishop Coleridge, it is good to seek the “genuine clarity” that is found by actually grappling with reality, with the issues at hand in a given question.
Some weeks ago, I said that The Big Question is why interested women were excluded very early on from the particular privileged sacrifice of applying for membership in the Society of Jesus. But lately, my bigger question is: what is essential to being a Jesuit? What is the heart of it? This question cannot be reasoned out in the abstract. It must be lived out, in the flesh.
It is interesting how the decision has affected both my state of mind and my circumstances at once – and how I now feel much less “in control” of my path than I did before taking it. Here are a few ways this vulnerability has shown up so far:
- When I decided to devote myself more entirely to a life of prayer and service, suddenly my hours at work dropped, with the opportunity to take a role in which I am directly accompanying people who are experiencing homelessness, rather than orchestrating and managing the structure around that service. Many positive feelings accompany this change, and yet at times I find myself both disoriented and lost. I feel both less busy and less important. There is more human complexity and a more obvious need for prayer in my work than before.
- As I clearly saw the need to “distribute all the temporal goods [I] might have, and renounce or dispose of those [I] might expect to receive,” (Our Jesuit Life: Constitutions, General Examen, Ch 4 Point 1) my comfortable solo rental arrangement with a friendly community of Franciscan sisters ended, and I had the opportunity to consider and enact this total letting-go. (This is more complicated and time consuming than it sounds! Unlike my inspiration, Father Ignatius, who renounced a title and castle that others were happy to take up, nobody else really wants my stuff. Even with one carload of possessions left to my name, and two standing debts, I see now that I will be distributing, renouncing, and responsibly disposing for at least another year before I can truthfully say that I am free in this way.)
- Almost as soon as I realized, with a squirm, the need to develop humility and genuine obedience – which does not discriminate based on “the person to whom it is offered” but finds its source in “Him for whose sake it is offered” (ibid, Point 29) – I, who have always cherished and chosen freedom of movement over many other things in life, accepted the opportunity to move into a maternity home: a caring temporary home for pregnant women and mothers with infants, run by a small, loving, and conservative community of Catholic laywomen, who happen to need me to serve as live-in staff at least six days a week. This need is non-negotiable, though exercised with mercy and thoughtfulness for who I am, and for what I have to offer. (I considered leaving on the fifth day in residence, until it became clear that the Spirit was presenting me with the perfect opportunity to “obey, be humiliated, and gain eternal life”) (ibid, Point 45).
Furthermore, in the midst of all of this change, I am frequently confronted with my own resistance to what I most deeply desire. The more I firmly set my gaze toward an incarnation of this powerful desire to be with God, to serve God, and to be an agent of God’s help and friendship to others, the more I see all the ways in which I fall short of the goal. Also notable is the mercy that others show me in these times. Without these clear shortcomings, I would not be able to receive and know this gentle mercy. God unfailingly leads me, through my own folly, to glimpses of God’s own truth.
I have so many ideas about who Jesuit women can be, and what Jesuit women can do together for our faith: each one on her own, and as a network, and in friendly co-creation with Jesuit men and all members of the Jesuit family. If you have read this far, please pray for my courage and perseverance, as I first must start on the path, in order to be able to discern the next steps with greater freedom from my personal attachments. It is a well-worn path, and a fruitful one. Will you pray that I walk it sincerely, and that God will provide the guidance that I need to walk it well?