Boundless Compassion


Through her heart, this sorrow sharing

All the bitter anguish bearing

Now at length the sword has passed.

 ~Stabat Mater Dolorosa, 13th Century 

Dear Jesuit women, this is the story of a broken heart.  Not a wretched heart, but simply a broken one – and this distinction is important to both our charism and our life together.

Part 1: To be a Jesuit is to thrive with a broken heart

In the three years since I was surprised by the question of becoming a Jesuit, I have met six women, spread between three Jesuit institutions, who have felt a seemingly similar call so strongly and explicitly that they followed it for years into education and ministry, remaining in the Jesuit family.

I also heard from a friend-priest, when I first voiced my sense of call to him, that a young woman in his Jesuit spirituality class had written just a few weeks before about her desire to be a Jesuit in a reflection paper.  “Hm, that’s interesting!” he said brightly.  When I asked if he might put her in touch with me, he said definitely not, and invoked FERPA, the federal student Privacy Rights Act, which is simultaneously both a fair response from a conscientious teacher, and one small example of the deep structural and psychological obstacles to the unity of Jesuit women.  In the Jesuit family as it is, she could only write to him about her desire, and in the situation as it was, he chose not to find a way to connect her with someone who might understand it.  (I should add here, that no one died because of it, and I remain fond of him.)

But seven women, in two institutions, over three years, from no more arduous a search than a series of chance conversations.  In a time and a place when religious vocations are fewer, this is actually a pretty impressive statistic!  It was this tiny sample that inspired me to cast a wider net for Jesuit women.   I imagined what these seven lives, freed completely to mission, could be and do for souls.

As I have spoken with them further, that vision remains, but it’s complicated because these women are already doing much.  How could they be more free to mission than they already are?  But still, all of them have felt a sense of incompleteness.  My first impression (and there is still much investigating to do) is that the aspects of a Jesuit life that these women miss are 1) a public sign of their commitment; 2) an explicit formation and missioning process; and 3) a community of support and practice.

These wants are not to be discounted.  It is a hard life without these three elements, a life of humility, questioning, and a deep sense of being alone.  But one theme that I have found among these women, is that all have found a way to stay and thrive with broken hearts.  Whether teaching, publishing, learning to preach, visiting prisons and hospices, giving spiritual direction, or working in the public sector, they live in ministry to others.  The last time I corresponded with one contact, she was just about to graduate with her Masters in Divinity, and said that she and her classmate in a doctoral program had decided “to give up our call.”  They were staying within the Jesuit family, finding ministries and helping to usher in the future Church.  Her words reminded me of a saying I once heard attributed to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which, like our Roman Catholic Jesuit tradition, is known for producing contemplatives-in-action.  He said, to a student of contemplative practice beset with difficulties:

“Don’t give up.  Give in!”

When you close your eyes for a moment and imagine it, you can feel the difference between “giving up” and “giving in.”  The first involves throwing up your hands and walking away; the second, relaxing and moving with the flow.  The first means you leave your vocation behind, and the second means that you accept it without trying to define it any longer.  I think, from my Jesuit sister’s actions, that she and her friend are not in fact giving up, but giving in to their vocations.  I’m still working through this, yet aspire to follow in their footsteps.

Part 2: A Prayer Experience – Jesus suffers with me

This is not to say that there is no desolation in it.  I think that one reason Jesuit women don’t talk very much to one another about our sense of call and how we have followed it, is that we are afraid of being crushed by the shared suffering that might ensue, if we did.  And one reason we stop talking about it with Jesuit men (whose company we greatly enjoy, most of the time) is that we don’t want to hurt friendships or become tiresome.

I typically fear experiences which bring up a sense of rejection or powerlessness. I have also seen the way that the enemy of life uses resentment to try and draw me off a good path.  This voice of fear focuses me only on what I don’t have, instead of what I have.  It tries to tell me about what I am not, instead of what I am.  It tries to absorb me in plans for what I need to make happen, instead of letting me tune in to what God is doing in me and through me.  It gets me angry at individuals, instead of angry at injustice itself, and thirsting for recognition and a sense of rightness, instead of thirsting to fulfill God’s desire for me.  In trying to avoid these experiences of fear and anguish, I sometimes avoid even looking at circumstances that put me at risk of becoming resentful, because I don’t want to face that voice.  I am afraid of fear itself.

In my experience, this “fear of fear itself”  can be so strong that once, for many months, I was reluctant even to talk with Jesus about it.  But after one session with my spiritual director, I knew I had to address Jesus in prayer.  I realized I was very afraid of his response.    In my imagination he might look at me incredulously, tell me in so many words to please stay in my place, and then turn his attention back to the prayers and missions of his company of men.  (Ouch.) This was not the Jesus I had known in prayer, but the image and the fear were still strong.

I asked him on a Sunday, sitting out on the deck in a cold spring sunshine, and did not hear an answer, so I let the question float in the peaceful air.    “Would you accept me into your Society, Lord?  Would you trust me to be your courier, your soldier-at-arms, your minister?”

The days passed quickly with business, routines, chores, patients at the clinic.  The question echoed only faintly in the backdrop of more pressing concerns.  On Wednesday, with a busy and long day of work ahead, all rumpled and sleepy in the pre-dawn dark with a candle lit, I slowly and quietly intoned, on the rhythm of my breath, “Come, Lord Jesus.”*  Sunday’s question seemed long gone, and my main intention was to gather strength for the day to come.  But Jesus surprised me.  Here is a lightly edited journal account of what happened, written two days later:

Friday night

It’s something I know I can’t pin down by putting it in words, but in order to look back and remember how it felt:

I stayed with this question for a few days…why do I avoid Jesus, and Jesus, will you receive me under your standard?  

On Wednesday I stumbled up the stairs and made a cup of chai.  I lit the candle and sat enjoying the space, the homey-ness of the kitchen, and the big picture of Jesus by Kiko Arguello, trembling in the light from the little flame.  

I don’t remember exactly how it began, except that I said the mantra, “Come, Lord Jesus,” which became, “Come, Jesus.” * 

At some point, into the silence I felt Jesus say, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry this has been so hard for you.”  I felt the words in my heart, rather than hearing them in my ears like a human voice, or in my mind like a normal discursive thought.  My heart burned – it burns now, thinking of it.  I felt thrilled because Jesus had spoken to me, and deeply embarrassed that he would say something like that, from under the weight of the cross, from within the circle of thorns, exhausted, battered, and tender.  How could he look across the kitchen table at me and say “Sorry”?

I knew that he was sorry because he felt it with me – felt all the pain, doubt, and fear of years.  Felt the longing and the vacuum, the uncertainty of vocation, the sense of being looked over and of overlooking myself.  “I’m so sorry,” he said.  Still surreal, because how could he who sits in judgment be the one asking forgiveness?  It was very humbling.  He was empathizing with a pain that to me at times seems so small and petty – that there is so much more to be grateful for, and so much that I have – and yet he felt it, and felt responsible in some way.  I felt a sense of regret in him, that by the words he had used which were memorable and passed on, he had somehow limited the mystery of God severely – in needing to explain it and draw some lines around it, he had inspired a tradition that both nourished and hurt me.  

“I’m sorry it has been so hard for you.” And then he said, “I will accept your vow if you take it.”  He said again, “I will accept your vow if you take it.”

My heart flooded with joy, pure joy.  Plus the desire to rush ahead, 

If I take it?!

When I take it!

But the ‘if’ stood.  He is still giving me this probation.  He did not take for granted that I would take a vow.  He left it to my decision.  But the promise still floored me.  I will accept your vow, if you take it.  I’m sorry this has been so hard for you.  I will accept your vow, if you take it.

Years ago,  in another time and place, I remember receiving a flood of emails from X, who was commonly acknowledged to be “crazy.”  She was trying to organize me and other people she had met at a shelter to fight homelessness, to advocate for something, but many of the emails were completely incoherent to me.  I remember how she was both a light to others, and clearly, to the medical mind, schizophrenic.  There is this little voice in the back of my mind that says, if I listen to Jesus – if I take my vow and happily anticipate that he will receive it, temper it, shape it over my lifetime – will I become completely unhinged and unable to communicate with others?  

I think that is what he needs to let me work through.  That is the ‘if.’

And yet there is something to that fire, that deep joy that animated me in the prayer, and into the morning and even the afternoon at work.  I imagine myself taking the vow, and Jesus receiving it.  It fills my whole being with music, with joy.

Part 3: Boundless Compassion

I have learned that it is good not to depend too much on dramatic events or prayer experiences.  Though every human being is wired to access and communicate with the divine – in fact, in our tradition, that is exactly what it means to be human – it’s wiser to ground the experience of God in the mundane and the everyday.  So in my waking hours, I carry that prayer experience lightly, and let myself benefit from its core message:  Jesus Christ is a source of boundless compassion.  His compassion extends as completely to a bruised ego, a cut finger, a child who feels rejected, as to a person who is starving, or terminally ill, or truly oppressed.  He opts with the poor and yet feels with us all, at all times.  Even slowly suffocating on the cross, he feels the pain of the oppressor, of the falsely comfortable, of the deeply ignorant.  He really does take upon himself the sins of the world, and invites me to share in his compassion for me and for others, beyond my human ideas of scale or limit.

I share the experience of Jesus speaking to this heart, because I suspect that other women have had a similar moment in prayer.  And if this is true, it seems that there is an open invitation to Jesuit women, which is to set foot on the road Christ took to Jerusalem.  It is a path of humiliation and boundless compassion, which we walk not as the Son of God, but as the graced sinners he calls friends, and it hurts.  I have written before about the necessity of forgiveness and reconciliation.  But how do I actually do this?  How is it possible to actually forgive, so that when the time comes, I can take my vow with an open heart?

A mentor-priest once shared with me, in conversation about these matters, that while there is a well-known tradition of physical mortifications in our Church, less known is the tradition of spiritual mortifications. Spiritual mortification is the experience of consciously seeing and holding multiple layers of reality at once.

I knew that he was speaking not only theoretically but from his own experience, and found in this a doorway to compassion for him.

As Jesuit people, we can commit to a twice-daily practice of the examen of consciousness, which is a time to look back and re-live the day through God’s eyes, learning about ourselves and our spirits in the process.  This is a wonderful, fruitful practice, and not an easy one.  It is not easy to really look at oneself, at one’s daily gifts and sins – and even harder to do it gently, to look at oneself through the eyes of love.  It leads to a kind of compassion and openness that can be described as nondualism, or colloquially, the “Jesuit both/and.”

For example, I remember the first time that I really understood the implications of growing up as a White person in America.  I had attended a talk about “Whiteness,” given by a soft-spoken white woman at a conference on racial healing and reconciliation.  I think it was her gentleness that got me.  I had been aware of racism for a long time, but I had never really been able to see myself as White, as a player in a system deeply conditioned to privilege some qualities over others, and to amass wealth, privilege, health and mobility for certain groups of people at the expense of our brothers and sisters.

And I saw more clearly than ever before, how my conditioned role had not only limited my sisters and brothers, but limited me – how it had cut me off from life, even as I lived life.  I couldn’t hate myself, but I couldn’t let myself off the hook either.  I saw multiple layers of reality at once.  And when I had taken in these layers of reality, I went and had what a brother of mine calls a good “ugly cry” – tears, snot, all kinds of wild sounds, a whole-body cry.  Then I regained some poise and went back to the conference to learn more.

This experience gives me a source of empathy for my Jesuit brothers, who in their commitment to justice in the service of faith, certainly encounter racism and two other -isms waiting in the wings of their examens: clericalism and its close cousin, sexism.  We are human beings who, faced with a system which promises to invest in us enormously if we follow Mammon’s rules, make the best choices that we can, and try to live for others.  In doing this, I know that they encounter constant spiritual mortification, just as I do.

All this gives me a fresh take on last year’s hot topic in the Catholic Church: “clericalism.”

Here is my take on clericalism. I can compare it to a time when I was, in a work setting, the manager of two teams at once.  One of the defining experiences of this role was feeling constantly responsible for things that I couldn’t control.  It’s enough to drive a person crazy.  I felt that people asked me lots of questions I didn’t know the answer to, and brought me interpersonal problems I didn’t know how to solve.  All of a sudden, I knew office gossip and draft policies from different levels of decision-making, and had to be careful what I shared in different settings, and with whom.  Thanks to God, I could be skillful sometimes, but I do remember as things got busier, that I became a little self-absorbed and very tied up in my identity as “manager.”  Intending to serve, I frequently got caught up in just trying to survive.

Now imagine all of these dynamics put together, plus the additional job description of representing God and a 2,000 year old tradition.  This is “clericalism,” and we can certainly have compassion for anyone who is caught in that dynamic.  If your eyes are opened by examens, it is a spiritual mortification – you are constantly human, and yet frequently expected not to be.  You are as clueless as any gifted, limited human being, and yet expected to know the answers.  Some people think your vocation is incomprehensible, and other people prize it far beyond what is healthy for you.  Because what if you realized it wasn’t for you anymore?  And where are you, and where is God, in all of this?

It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago as a high school student with a teacher-priest.  I transferred into his class and felt uncomfortable about its non-participatory structure, and a sense of difficulty in being able to speak up in class.  Jumping to conclusions, I thought this was his fault, that it was his ego and sense of “knowing” that had shaped the class that way.  You might think I was the one with the big ego (and you would be right), but it was actually really hard for me to tell him this.  I felt scared and defensive, but wanted to be authentic.   When I was done giving him that feedback, he told me something that created a seismic shift in the way I saw him and other Jesuit men.

“My classes never used to be that way,” he said, meaning before he wore clerics.  As a young lay teacher, he had prided himself on having participatory, open-discussion classes where a sense of community was built.  For the first half of the year in question, he had tried every way he could think to get his students to speak.  Once, a student did share an intimate personal experience of the material openly in class.  “I wrote and said, thank you so much,” he said, a little wistfully. “I thought after that, that people would start sharing.”  But they didn’t, and so he made plans every class session to fill the space.  He described the pages and pages of excellent notes he would write, in order to fill up the class with something valuable.  He described how by the end of some classes, he would lose his voice.  “And yet I realized that they are doing fine,” he said.  “They understand the material, they write great papers, their reflections are…great!”  There was still a little sadness in his air.

In this conversation, I had the chance to see and share his spiritual mortification.  He had tried to meet the class where we were.  Maybe we were tired and it was hard to do the homework.  Maybe, in an introductory class, we just needed some knowledge-base to be able to talk about things in depth.  Maybe we were intimidated by his clerics, his Greek letters, his friendly rapid-fire verbosity.  Maybe the room was set up wrong for a good discussion.  Maybe we come from a tradition that for about 1650 years, at least since the Edict of Thessalonica, has associated the ordained priesthood with coercive political power.  But whatever the intersecting factors were that led to it, our behavior shaped his as much as his shaped ours.  And in being vulnerable enough to say it, he broke my heart, in a good way.

Clericalism cannot be undone by clerics (though they can help.)  It can be undone, perhaps, by a combination of boundless compassion and courageous mutual activity.  The day that our little family invests as much in the formation and ministry of Jesuit women as Jesuit men, regardless of ordination status, is a relaxing day for everybody.  And the deep truth is, that day may already be here, if I allow it to be.

Afterword: Mary and John, beloved disciples at the foot of the cross

The icon at the head of this page, photographed in the chapel I currently call home, has always moved me.  There are various Gospel accounts of the disciples who stood at the foot of the cross with Jesus.  The only person who is mentioned by name in every account that mentions names, is Mary Magdalene.  (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40; Lk 23:49; Jn 19:25) In the Gospel of John, which has a special significance to Jesuit people for the way that it invites us powerfully into prayer, we also see at the foot of the cross the disciple whom Jesus loved.  We believe this to be John himself.

At the foot of this iconic cross stands a vision of who we are as a Jesuit family: John and Mary, Mary and John, friends of Jesus.  We work together, with our gifts, our vulnerabilities, and our ever-expanding compassion, to spread the Good News with our lives.  My broken heart, Jesus’ broken heart, and the broken hearts of Jesuit women and Jesuit men the world over.  This is the story of hearts broken open not in wretchedness, but in a growing understanding, which is love.



*The mantra mentioned in Part 2 is described in Ch. 4 of Mark Thibodeaux, SJ’s easy-to-read prayer manual, Armchair Mystic.  The book is full of helpful and practical thoughts on the view and methods of contemplative prayer.



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