All are welcome: the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Trinity Icon

Let us build a house where all are named,

their song and vision heard,

and loved and treasured, taught and claimed,

as words within the Word.  

Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace,

let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:

All are welcome, All are welcome, All are welcome in this place!

Image:  Trinity, Andrei Rublev,  1411 or 1425-27
Text: Marty Haugen, Copyright icon centered 1994 GIA Publications, Inc.

Dear Jesuit women and friends,

On the day of this post, it has been exactly 90 days since I emerged from the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which are, quite simply, a miracle.  The purpose of this post is to encourage you see them as both an accessible miracle and a necessary miracle.  It is sometimes said that these Exercises are made by invitation – that God invites us into them, and meets us there.  But what we forget to say is that the desire itself is God’s invitation.  So it follows that if you have ever desired to make this 30-day silent retreat, then you are welcome.  It is God who invites you.  God is waiting for you.  Listen to God, and help God get you there!

There are two main forms, and a great many variations of the full Spiritual Exercises.  The main point is, to find the form of the Exercises that draws you, and when the time is right, to make the retreat.

Here is a pithy description of what actually happens:

One month long, this retreat is divided into four flexible weeks of meditation: the first week is on the principle and foundation of life; the second on the life of Jesus; the third on the passion and death he suffered; and the fourth on the new, resurrected life of the children of God.

And the fifth week is the rest of the Jesuit’s life.

(William J. O’Malley, SJ, The Fifth Week: Loyola Press, 1999)

It is said of the Exercises that you do not stop praying them on Day 30.  That instead, you will live and “unpack” them for the rest of your life.  The rest of your life is “The Fifth Week.” And it’s true that the Exercises call a person to live in a new way.  I am still myself – in a way, I am even more myself, because in the process of the Exercises, God gives a person back many parts of herself that have been forgotten or buried by the cares, concerns, compulsions, and hurts that we all pass through in this life.

One of the remarkable features of the Spiritual Exercises is their flexibility.  In the deep space created by silence, rest, prayer, and spiritual direction, God speaks to each person individually.  This means that God will speak to you through your own Exercises, much better than I can by telling you about mine.  God, having known and loved you first, will communicate through the language of your own thoughts, memories, hopes, fears, and meaningful images.  And in sharing a few thoughts and images from my own experience, I hope mainly to encourage you to enter that space and let God speak to you.  (And if you’re so inclined, to then contact me so that we can unpack some of the experiences together!)

I experienced these Exercises in three surprising ways: as a school of prayer, as an intensive healing space, and as a house of welcome. And good news! In the 5th Week, the prayer, the healing, and the welcome all continue to unfold.

A School of Prayer

I remember the night five years ago that the little flame of desire in me to make the Spiritual Exercises was lit.  For about 6 months I had been wanting to go to Church again, and especially felt the desire to learn how to pray.  But I was busy and preoccupied.  My dad had died recently, and between working full-time while going back to school, and going through an extended break-up with my partner of 5 years, I didn’t know where to start to bring prayer back into my life.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was also ashamed to bring my problems and rough edges to God.  I loved God, but unconsciously believed that in order to preserve the relationship, I could not actually tell God the whole truth about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  However, in early spring of that year, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Jesuit!” and as a Google search for a Jesuit parish led me to a description of the Exercises, I wanted very much to go on retreat.  The distance between that vision of a 30-day retreat with God, and the busy, driven and highly caffeinated life I was leading, felt huge.  Nonetheless, that vision lit the flame that fueled my heart on a pathway to God.

This seems to be a common experience among busy human beings, whether things are going well or not.  We know we want to learn to pray, but the hard question is how?  How do we actually make space and time for God to speak into our lives, and to feel God’s embrace?

More good news: God wants us to learn how to pray, too, and is willing to go to great lengths to form and teach us. One example of the great investment that God is willing to make to meet us where we are, is the Jesuit path of formation itself.  A Jesuit completes the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises, also known as the “Long Retreat,” twice: once at the start of the formal path of formation, and once at its end, with fifteen years of prayer, ministry, community life, and study in-between.  I used to think that this seemed kind of lavish – if I were to become a Jesuit, why would I do a 30-day retreat at the start of formation?  Wasn’t it more of a culmination, something for holy people, proven people, special people who were already strong in prayer?

Not so.  In fact, last year I learned that a novice does it as the very first experiment.  And over time, I had developed more trust, both in the transformative power of a Jesuit pathway to God, and in the call in my heart to follow that pathway generously, with integrity, according to my circumstances.  So with a couple of years of spiritual direction and a little short retreat practice in tow, I finally took the leap and applied to go on the “Long Retreat.”  (Yes, at most retreat houses there is an application process. It isn’t difficult, but it does give you the chance to examine your life, your motives, how God has called you here, what kind of a director you are seeking, and whether this is indeed the time to go.  It’s really helpful.)

As a committed beginner in prayer, what I discovered inside the Exercises is that the “Long Retreat” is actually a great first experiment for a person who has some foundation in Ignatian spirituality, and wants to more fully inhabit a life of prayer. Because the Exercises themselves are a school of prayer!

Let’s relate this to a pretty common (though admittedly not universal) experience for a college student in the United States, which is the country I happen to be from.  Imagine for a moment that you’re this student, about to graduate and enter a service profession, and English happens to be your only language.  So because you live in the US (where according to the census, over one in ten of your fellow Americans speak principally Spanish in the home) you choose to learn Spanish.  You took two years of classes in high school and learned how to communicate at the level of an average 10- or 12-year-old.  But in order to serve your future clients better, you desire to bring your Spanish to the next level.  So you save up (or even more commonly, take out a student loan!) of $2500 for tuition, room and board. You set aside four weeks one summer, buying the cheapest ticket you can to Cuernavaca, Mexico.  There you study Spanish full-time in a setting that forces you to use it: at home, at the grocery store, in the dance hall, in restaurants, in banks, and while buying movie tickets.

Along the way, you develop a real enthusiasm for Spanish.  Suddenly in Cuernavaca it becomes a living language for you, with slang, abbreviations, history and cultural idiosyncrasies.  You learn that here you are called estadounidense, “United Statesian,” and you start to associate certain words and phrases with funny, tender memories of getting to know your host family.  Then you start to learn words and phrases that have no real translation in English, because they spring not from the experience of being estadounidense, but from your host family’s experience of being mexicano.  You know your Spanish has reached the next level the day that somebody tells a joke at dinner, and you actually laugh along with everybody else!  You come home with a new flame of passion for Spanish in your heart, a new sense of shared experience, and an even deeper desire to know the Spanish-speaking clients that you serve.

Bringing this back to prayer: the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises could be compared to a month-long immersion course in Spanish, except that in the Spiritual Exercises, you have invested your money, time, and energy into learning God’s language.  Your whole life so far has prepared you for it – all the prayers you memorized as a kid, the hours that you spent in Mass or at Service (even if you thought it was incredibly boring!); the relationships that you had with your parents, siblings, extended family, friends, neighbors, and sweethearts; the songs that got stuck in your head; and your favorite holidays, favorite pets, favorite poems, foods, travel experiences.  Even your personal tragedies, the times that you suffered or became acutely aware of the suffering of others, have prepared you to learn God’s language.  Everything that makes you “You,” God will use.

Along the way, you develop a personal prayer language and practice with God.  You are encouraged to ask for what you want in every prayer period, and to recognize when and how God offers it. You learn that every prayer period is different, and that there is not just one “right” way to pray.  You may start to tell the difference between when you are calling God to prayer, and when God is calling you to prayer (a two-way street!). You get to know very practical things about prayer, such as how long your own natural “hour of prayer” actually is (mine is about 40 minutes), and the felt difference between prayers of consideration, meditation, and contemplation. You learn how God speaks “through” and gets “under” the words of the Scriptures, delivering surprising insights that you never would have received if you hadn’t prayed with a passage. (For example, ever wonder where the women disciples were during the Last Supper? Make the Exercises, and let me know what you find out!)

There are lots of surprises on the Long Retreat.  As the learning progresses, you may become more transparent before God by sharing your thoughts and feelings without censorship, and in doing this, you may learn about what matters most deeply to God, and experience God as vulnerable, too.   You may experience what it means to be God’s daughter, or what it means to share in the life of the Trinity, or maybe you will hear Jesus’ heartbeat.  You and God may develop little personal jokes and family stories.  God may sing to you, or speak to you through images, or call up long-forgotten memories and say “Remember that?  I was there.”  God brings you exactly what you need, in the way that you need it.  Through this mutual giving and receiving, the boundary between “God outside” and “God within” may begin to dissolve, to the point that listening to God and listening to your heart no longer feel like separate activities.  And as the silence and stillness deepen, you may experience it all as profoundly healing.

A Healing Space

So far we have been talking about what might happen on “your” Exercises, based loosely on the sharing of experience that I heard from the small cohort with whom I made the retreat on our “Days of Repose.” (Yes, you do get to talk for a couple of days during the retreat!)  But at this point I will stop speculating about “your” Exercises, the Exercises that I hope you will share with me sometime, in order to relate some particulars of my own retreat – just a few vivid examples of the teaching and healing that God is eager to work in every single life.

If the Church, as Pope Francis has said, can be seen as a “field hospital” for the broken, the wounded and the hurting in the world, then the space created by my 30-Day Spiritual Exercises might be seen as a kind of “operating tent” in this hospital, safe and clean and organized enough that a massive tumor could be discovered and removed, the organs re-arranged, the gaping wound irrigated and lovingly tended, and the heart left open, uncovered, without fear for my life.

Just as an operating tent has its own processes to protect the safety and well-being of the patient, my Exercises moved thematically from God’s profound love (Disposition Days), to the reality of sin and suffering (Week 1), to Jesus’ humanity and his desire for friendship with each of us (Week 2), to the sacrifice he made for his friends (Week 3), and finally to the reality of the Resurrection (Week 4). In the final days of retreat, our prayer landed again on God’s profound and intricate love for the universe (Contemplatio).   I experienced these thematic “movements” as a series of healings that flowed one into another, each healing leaving me more free, more alive, and more deeply trusting of God’s goodness, providence, and deep personal care for me.  That massive spiritual tumor, the fundamental interior unfreedom that had been occultly growing for years inside of me, was discovered on Day 8 and removed on Day 15 of the retreat, somewhere in the middle of Week 2. The personal details of that healing are not as important, at this moment, as its context. It arose as part of an evolving constellation of images and insights that changed how I saw God, myself, and others. And particularly, two healing images which arose repeatedly in prayer have significantly changed how I live.

The first image was prompted by Ignatius’ “Meditation on Sin.”  It’s important to note here that in the Exercises you do not meditate on sin without first meditating on God’s love.  For several days, my cohort and I had silently experienced God’s active and abiding love for us in the form of prayer with Scripture, the natural world, and the amazing Soul and Cajun Food at the retreat center that hosted us.   (Another thing we often forget to say, when we are talking about the key lessons of the Spiritual Exercises, is that you learn three times a day how the highest place in Heaven, that throne beside King Jesus that John and Andrew coveted (Mk 10:37), is actually reserved for the one who cooks!)

So clearly, by the time I hit the “Meditation on Sin,” I was already saturated in love.  This love imbued a whole new image of what sin actually is, and how it is remedied.  Sin is only, and forever, a shutting-off to love.  God, as we have so often heard, is Love (1 John 4:16.)  God cannot help but love.  God’s love spilling over is how I exist at all.  But love is not love without freedom!  And so God, by God’s nature, had to give me freedom to choose my path, because if God were to coerce me to receive love, it would not be love, but aggression and control.  And so God created me with free will, because God is Love!  In this Meditation on Sin, a clear image arose in my mind of a door on the mind and heart of every human being, a door that can remain open to receive God’s love, or can shut God’s love out.  When the door shuts and we act on that, we call it sin.  When the door opens, we call it love, and what pours through the door is grace.  The beauty in this insight was how practical it was.  If the door could open and shut, then when I noticed it was shut, I could pray for it to open.  Simple as that.  And this is what I did, over and over again, on the Exercises.  Notice that the door to love is shut.  Pray for it to open.  Notice when the grace is received. Simple. Not always easy, but at least simple.

The second image served to extend the first.  This image came with Ignatius’ “Contemplation of the Incarnation,” in which the retreatant imagines the Trinity discussing whether and how one Person will enter the world in order to save it.  (I should tell you here, that while God spoke to Ignatius of Loyola in courtly, luminous visions, and to Teresa of Avila in sensory ecstasies, God typically spoke to me using Popular English-Language Movie Classics of the ’80s and ’90s: E.T.!  The Never-Ending Story! Forrest Gump!  American Beauty!  At first I thought God was just low-balling, but now I prefer to think of God as the ultimate Pragmatist, using whatever works to communicate the message. You’ll have to tell me what God used to communicate with you, and let me live vicariously through your ecstasies.)

So while contemplating the Incarnation, I found myself looking out upon a fascinatingly weird hybrid of Trinity (the painting you see above, by the 15th century Russian monk and iconographer Andrei Rublev) and the scene in which Atreyu is missioned by the Southern Oracle in that great 1980’s movie classic, The Never-Ending Story.  In this oddly beautiful imaginative prayer, I was very content just to stand back and contemplate the Trinity, pink and gold and luminous, around their friendly table.  But the Trinity wanted more than that.  They instantly, even casually, beckoned me into their circle, and though a little hesitant, I agreed.  As they offered me a hand onto the table, I suddenly realized how incredibly huge they were, and how unimaginably tiny I was.  They were like massive burning suns in black space, absolutely still and yet roaring, seething with energy at the same time.  I listened as the Second Person volunteered to become human. They looked upon that Person with tenderness, knowing the suffering that was to come.  I felt their infinite compassion and loving-kindness toward the human race, including me, this tiny ant-person on the table.

At that moment I felt the real miracle of the Incarnation – that Jesus was completely human and yet could not shut the door on God.  Because he was God!  “Begotten, not made,” as we say in the Creed. He was the Second Person in the Trinity, who chose to experience every human limitation except being able to shut the door on God’s love.  By choosing this,  he lived a life that helps me both to understand my limitations, and to experience how, by God’s grace alone, I might transcend them in various ways.  By his young mother’s deep commitment and thoughtful “Yes,” this person opened the door to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person, into all flesh. Including mine! So every time I see my own little door shut in fear, distraction, or self-absorption, and pray that my own little door be opened to listen, receive, or reach out, I actually participate in the glorious life of the Trinity. So simple, practical, possible, and free, this continual transcendence of my tiny ant-self.

From these two images together flowed a deep joy that confounded me.  In my Week 1 journal there is a scribble that says, “Almost goofy blissful…Ask myself, why feel this way when I’m studying SIN?  Thought: it’s because sin has a recourse, an ever-available remedy.  Turn to God.” This changed how I approach life, because now I am ready, almost eager, to know my sins – all the ways that I turn away from God and turn away from myself and others – all my fear and judgment and withholding and hedgebetting and vainglory, my egoism and racism and sexism and consumerism and clericalism and workaholism. The sin in me runs deep. But God’s mercy, and my own inherited goodness? Deeper. This is Good News. And like the Prodigal Father (Lk 15:11-32) or the Great Mother (Is 49:15), God is always there to welcome me home.

A House of Welcome

Which brings us back to the song:  “All Are Welcome!

And a story about this song: there a Jesuit man in my faith community, who is well past 60 years into his formation and has a sense of humor that is equally dry and sweet, like a perfect martini. (Life goals!)  He uses this song by Marty Haugen as either the entrance or the exit hymn, nearly every time he celebrates mass.  And that’s a lot.  He argues that it doesn’t matter what the Scripture is for the day – this song always fits.  It’s the mission of the Church.

On the Long Retreat, having heard the first three verses many times in my faith community, I was floored one day by the opportunity to hear the sixth verse at a daily mass.  “Named, heard, loved, treasured, taught, and claimed” – that’s how people feel in a house of true faith.  Welcomed!

The Exercises are a house of welcome on so many levels.  At a very basic level, the retreat house where I stayed was welcoming.  The building itself was intimidating on my first night there.  It a large, venerable former college building, and had three wings, one for the active and retired Jesuit communities, one for the novices, and one for retreatants.  But within a few days, I felt really welcomed.  Before going into silence, I was able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day with the building staff, my cohort, and all my future brothers and fathers in the Exercises, just chatting and getting to know each other.  There was a feeling of family in the house – and I don’t mean family in a rosy, denial-saturated kind of way – I mean a real family.  One that prays together, stays together, works together through neurosis and runs on a fundamental principle of welcome.

After our cohort had settled into this basic level of welcome and had moved into silence, my retreat director intensified the feeling.  Each day she created a space in which all my thoughts, feelings, and spiritual movements were welcome.  “Bring it all!” she said in the beginning. “Don’t judge it!  Just write it all down, bring it, and we’ll discern the spirits together.”  This was news to me, that I didn’t have to try to pray in a certain way, or achieve anything in prayer.  Prayer was simply a place where God could speak to me, and where I could tell God about my feelings and desires, too.

With the help of my director, I began to feel an even deeper sense of welcome – God’s welcome.  This was a very intimate place, where I could be happy, playful, tired, grateful, edgy, lustful, raging or railing, profoundly regretful, dull and distracted, or weeping with some realization.  God welcomed it all with open arms, and so my trust grew.

It grew to the point that one night I had a dream that really disturbed me.  In the dream, I had ridden my bicycle a long way into the city to make amends with a person that I had once cut out of my life suddenly, due to circumstances that were not of her making, but my own.  I was getting back onto my bicycle, feeling reassured that she was all right, and we could both move forward with our lives.  But as I rode away from corner where we met, I saw just across the street a very long, double-wide line of people waiting to enter a shabby 3-story motel for the night.  These people were in a state of utter chaos – disheveled, filthy, clothes falling off, wounded, and emotionally out of control.  They yelled and spit at each other, wrestled on the ground, fought over trash, conned and cajoled, gestured obscenely and made unwanted sexual advances on each other.  There was an overwhelming atmosphere of hunger, loneliness, and depravity.  And yet in some improbable way, the line was orderly.  They knew why they were there.  They were waiting to get into the motel for the night.

In the dream I felt ashamed, because I was unwilling to meet them.  I averted my eyes and rode my bicycle on like the rich man, stepping over Lazarus on his doorstep (Lk 15:11-32).  When I woke up, I thought this dream was about my fear of deeply engaging the suffering of others in my work as a nurse.  But in spiritual direction that day, I realized that actually, the dream was pointing out something even more fundamental, which if remedied, could still help me encounter suffering in others with greater authenticity.

I realized that every disheveled, hungry person in that line was a neglected or disdained part of myself.  And the task, both during retreat and in life after retreat, was to welcome every one of them into my house with love.  Named, heard, loved, treasured, taught, and claimed.  Imagine it: “Ah, Woman-who-is-mean-to-her-mother! Welcome!  Have you had anything to eat?  Please come in, and sit down.  Tell me your story.”  Or, “Hello, Woman-who-interrupts-people-in-conversation.  You look like you could use some warm, fresh clothing, a hot drink, and a clean bed.  I’d love to hear what makes you happy.”

The line went on, but you get the idea.  This is one of the many forms of magic in the Exercises: we are invited, in God’s presence and care, to become the “house where all are named.”  This is what it means to become integral, whole – when no part of me is disowned, I become a safer and safer space for others, and Christ shines through me more and more as I become increasingly transparent before God and the world.  The Exercises were the House, and now I am the House.  My family is the House.  All my relationships become the House.  The Society of Jesus and the Jesuit family become the House.  The Church becomes the House.  And at last I am able to see that the World is my House.  But it all starts with the conversion of one person.

This seems to be the essential message of a Jesuit life.  It grows from a foundation in the Spiritual Exercises, which deeply ground a person in “two facets of the gospel message, [that] Jesus Christ has come to set us free and to make us more alive” (O’Malley, xiii).  From this freedom and life will flow many commitments, and a deeper and ever-more-subtle letting-go of selfish concerns, in the great enterprise which is putting on the mind and priorities of Jesus Christ amidst all the complexity of life in the world.  I talk like I know what that looks like, but in fact I am a total beginner.  What I learned on the Exercises is, that’s okay.

So there you go!  All are welcome in the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which are a school of prayer, a healing space, a house of welcome, and so much more.  I simply cannot wait to hear your stories.

amdg

 

 

A Surprising Summer – John 15:9-17

I have called you friends…

it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you

and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,

so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.  

This I command you: love one another.  

~Jn  15:15-17

Last supper

Detail of The Last Supper by Teresa Duran

Copyright icon centered2016 Regis University Santos Collection

Used with permission

Dear Jesuit Women and friends,

This summer I was planning to spend a quiet three months studying the Constitutions on a regimented schedule, in tandem with regular spiritual direction and my work as a community health nurse.  I had this whole self-improvement blueprint ready to go, intending to emerge in the fall much more knowledgeable, much more secure, much more ready to say with certitude,

“whether [I] possess among [my] resources enough spiritual capital to complete this tower; that is, whether the Holy Spirit who moves [me] is offering [me] so much grace that with [her] aid [I] have hope of bearing the weight of this vocation.” (Formula of the Institute, Pt 4)

But God is life, and life is surprising!  As it turns out, the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus are a living document — carefully, prayerfully, and thoroughly devised, but not dry or static, and certainly not just material to master.  In fact, through May and June I had the uncanny experience of wrangling with the Constitutions – watching them goad and console me, probe my perceived needs and hang-ups, challenge my assumptions about what it means to be a Jesuit, and prompt growth throughout the season.  Sometimes I stopped reading for days or weeks at a time, as a lesson sank in.  It surprised me how each page could prompt an interior journey.  (The journey was helped by the guidebook, “Our Way of Proceeding”, by William Barry, S.J., which I highly recommend to any first-time reader of this text, especially if you are drawn to the idea of undertaking a Jesuit way of life.)

And even more surprising, the journey was not confined to my interior experience.  In mid-June, I went to mass one day at the college and was struck by the conspicuously large number of very clean, polite, and simply dressed young men my age (of whom, in the summer, there are normally relatively few.)  It took me a only a moment to realize that the novices were back!  72 first-and-second-year men roaming the campus and the city for a month, with their novitiate directors and teachers, while taking a history course on the Ignatian congregation they aspire to join.

It was easy to put the pieces together, because this wasn’t the first time I had seen the history course transpire.  Others had come two years ago, just at the time that I was starting to seriously ask myself the question, “Well, why not Jesuit women?”  I remembered asking one of the novitiate directors at that time, in a rough-edged, bursting kind of way, if I could sit in on some of the classes and learn Jesuit history with the novices.  I remembered how kind and polite his manner had been, as he said that he would take the question to his fellow novitiate directors and get back to me.  He took my phone number and called two days later, leaving a voicemail.  “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was agreed that it would change the tone.”  I remember being disappointed, but a good kind of disappointed – the kind that comes when you have spoken up and asked clearly for what you want, ready to accept the response you can’t control.  I appreciated the fact that he had treated my request with respect.  It was a watershed moment in my Jesuit journey.

This summer, of course, I was more experienced.  I knew not to bug the novice directors, who are generally too absorbed with the many details of forming Jesuit men to even consider Jesuit women.  In fact, I knew not to bug anybody at all!  I had learned, by grace and a few hard knocks, that the way to connect with others is not to pursue or cling, but to be open and still inside, yet also ready for opportunity.  It goes a long way.

Being open and still, and ready for opportunity, allowed me to connect with my brothers this summer in a way I hadn’t been able to, two years earlier.  Just through being open, ready, and responsive, I was led to daily mass once a week, to vespers in French, to lunch, to night chapel, to a bench watching silly Youtube videos on a Sunday night, to a recording session, and even to a faithshare at Starbucks with my brothers!  I was able to sing a hymn set to Finlandia in 4 parts, adapted on the fly for a small A-T-B choir with some novice acquaintances at mass.  (Guess who was the “A”?)

And what I learned throughout, is that Jesuit women have more friends and aspiring friends, than I think we realize.  In the course of befriending the novices, I was surprised to find that some were not only curious about the idea of a Jesuit training and identity for women – they were actively looking for ways to be reconciled to women like me.  The day they arrived, I already knew that these young men were an unlooked-for answer to my prayer for dialogue and communal experience. But it was only with time and talking that I realized:  I might also be an answer to their prayers!  They, like many millennial Catholic women with whom I have talked about vocation, sometimes feel limited by an inherited gender separation in religious life and religious roles.  Like us, they respect tradition and honor it, yet also long to go further, to evolve.  One of my favorite memories now is of a warm moment after mass when, as the A-T-B novice-and-me choir started to dissolve into clean-up mode, a choir mate turned to me suddenly and wrapped me in a big maroon sweater-hug.  “Oh, thank you!” he said, with great feeling.  “We never get to hear a woman’s voice!”

“Well,” I said, surprisingly surly, “You might be getting some more of that!”  It surprised me, how taken aback I felt to be welcomed and wanted there.  The whole exchange showed me that a surprising part of the interior work here, is to become ready to be accepted.  I couldn’t believe how ready I was to be overlooked, underestimated, “othered,” patronized, or asked to prove something.  But was I ready to be supported?  Was I ready to speak freely?  Was I ready to be invited?  Was I ready for who God is, and what God has in store?

If Jesuit women are to help the world flourish, we must be ready to update our thinking and adapt to these invitations as they arise.  We must be willing to issue invitations, too, and be still, be open to what arises in response.  I see now that something cherished must die in order to move forward in this way.  What dies is my “rightness,”  that sad and frozen security I derive from expecting the worst.   What rises, then, is a willingness to live –  I am still me, and yet I am completely new – I have died and I have risen, ready to love.  And though loving is painful and often messy, it is life-giving.  It is who I am.  As written in one adaptation of the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, love is where I came from, what I am made for, and where I am going.

Love also begets creative activity!  If my summer is a story in four parts, then Part 1 is wrestling with the Constitutions, like Jacob did with the mysterious angel (I also came out a little bruised, but with a new name); Part 2 is finding friends among the novices, and becoming ready to love; Part 3 involves a surge of co-creative activity; and in Part 4, these experiences all lead to a deeper commitment to Jesus, and an open question.

Part 3: Creative activity!  This summer I became a sound engineer and a composer of music, and edited my first film, all springing from the creativity and love I discovered in the Constitutions, at prayer, and in conversation with one of my Jesuit sisters, and many of my Jesuit brothers.  I realized:

  • that all you need to start being a sound engineer is a Tascam DR-O5 stereo recorder ($99), a campus atrium with good acoustics (free), your favorite hymnal (borrowed), and some friends who can sing (priceless)!  (Feel free to take a listen to our results, here.)
  • and all you need to compose a song is an inspiration (mine was the Anima Christi); a chapel piano; a few semesters of auditing music theory classes with a great teacher; and perhaps a hymn with an accompaniment you really like, on which to model your own.
  • and all you need to make a documentary interview about your faith journey is a friend who’s a film-maker, a weekend visit with her, and a free trial of some editing software.  (Along with willingness to weather the emotional highs and lows of learning how to use that software…)

What I love about all of these projects, is how collaborative they were.  I found God in my choir friends, my composition teacher, my film-maker friend, and in the beautiful music and images that we created together.  I also found God in using my little Tascam to help a novice friend make his own recording of his own beautiful song, and in being one among many voices of encouragement for him to think big and share it with others.  I realized in all of this that confidence and creativity are renewable resources – and when I collaborate and encourage others in their creative activities, my own creative impulses take on new life.

But the greatest blessing in all of this, is Part 4: a deeper commitment to Jesus.

To give you some context, a priest-friend once shared with me and the whole community, via a homily, the following powerful image of God’s process in the world.  In this image, God the Trinity

  1. Gives gifts,
  2. Dwells in them,
  3. Labors through them, and in this way
  4. Calls us back, more deeply, into God’s self,
  5. Only to begin again.

To give a little more context: in our spiritual tradition, the Jesuit Catholic tradition, there is the idea of “call” – by “call,” we mean to say that God takes the initiative, and is always watchful, waiting patiently for our response.  God gave me the Constitutions, and friends in it, this summer, and dwelled in our conversations, co-creations, and discoveries.  God labored for me through these gifts, revealing my own frozen places, my arrogances, my blindness, and my deepest desires.  Then God called me back, in the form of an unexpected opportunity, offered by a mentor-friend, to discern a deeper commitment to Jesus himself, in the context of the Society of Jesus.  In the tradition of Juana, S.J. (though she, unlike me, was canonically a member of the Society of Jesus) and more to the point, in the company of several great-hearted women that I know today, and more women whom I hope to know, I became what you might call a vowed woman, among other vovendi.  After a process of prayer, listening, and deliberation, I made a vow to Jesus, in the context of the Society of Jesus.  I am now living into that vow, to find out where He will take me.  As a Roman Catholic, I am also committed to communally discerning the meaning of these events in dialogue with others, and through a deeper study of tradition.  If you are interested in how all of this came about, please contact me, as I would like to meet you.

When I explicitly started this journey in 2014, I had three questions.  So far, I have received one decisive answer.  Maybe you have had the same questions, and so I list my discoveries here, and invite your answers, too:

Q1: Who will receive my vows?                               A: Jesus himself.  (Read more.)

Q2: How can I get the training I seem to need?  A: (Live this question.)

Q3: Who will mission me?                                         A: (Keep listening.)

At the mass where I made my vow to the Body and Blood of Christ, the assembly read from the Gospel of John: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give you.” (15:16)  These words brought to fruition a quiet revolution in my prayer that had been growing all summer.  I understood then that my vow was not a decision independently undertaken.  It was a choice, but not by my own initiative.  It was rather a response to God’s initiative.  It was a Yes! – made through the grace and support of Mary, the Mother of Yes.  And then I understood that prayer, in which I have so often tried to make God a means to my own ends, could function in another way entirely: as a way to make myself a means to God’s ends.

And even to say it that way is a little too one-dimensional, because Jesus wants me to partner with him in this, which means that I come to him with my research, my best-discerned desires, and offer them, and then listen.  This is the working definition of “colloquy” with which I will enter the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises on October 2nd.   In preparation for the Exercises, I am living a rhythm of life modeled on the Jesuit novitiate and intended to move me toward, in the words of another mentor-friend, “a certain disposition of heart: the openness and readiness to engage in a 5-period-per-day, 30-day silent conversation with Jesus.”  Will you pray with me, for me?  Even withfor me?

I believe that very few people will read these last words I am writing, and this is a good thing, because God works quietly and patiently in our hearts, and tiny seeds create massive trees.  If one of those people is you, then I offer my hope that you are the right person to read these experiences; that you may find some encouragement and consolation in them; that you may even be moved to share your own experience of God with me.  I am looking for you!

amdg

 

 

 

 

 

2nd Experiment: Read the Constitutions

 Buzz Lightyear

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Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;

and I have not rebelled, have not turned back.  ~Is 50:5

It feels a little misleading to you, reader, to call this my “2nd Experiment” when there is no “1st Experiment” post.  The truth is, I’m still processing the first experiment in this journey of discernment, which was a 10-week live-in position at a maternity home, and I can’t publish thoughts on it yet.  Enough to say for now that I learned an enormous amount about:

  • myself
  • Jesus
  • being homeless
  • being poor
  • being privileged
  • the immense value of charity
  • being Catholic
  • being a tiny baby (it’s a roller coaster!)
  • the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy
  • parenting
  • crisis
  • love
  • reconciling (i.e. saying I’m sorry)
  • “pro-life”
  • “pro-choice”
  • fundraising, Mother-Teresa style
  • burn-out and sustainability in ministry
  • the courage that it takes to truly open heart and home to others
  • and the courage that it takes to accept help.

But until I can write with integrity about this, and with the assurance that my words are acceptable to the women with whom I shared home and life, I ask for your prayers in my second experiment: a 4-month study of the Constitutions and Norms of the Society of Jesus.  (See here if you’re curious about what I’ll be reading and praying over.)

It has been said that there are four important texts to study, for a person who is contemplating entrance into a Jesuit way of life (and, of course, for the person who has said yes and is living it from day to day.)  These are 1) The Spiritual Exercises; 2) The Autobiography of St. Ignatius; 3) The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus (along with the Norms, which include changes, updates, and extended interpretations of the original Constitutions); and 4) the thousands of Letters written by Ignatius to friends, co-founders, spiritual directees, mentors, benefactors, and colleagues, throughout his ministry.

Today is Day 1, and I’m excited, and also afraid.  I’ve pondered that – why does it feel like dying, to just say what you love and do it?  Maybe because in doing so, you are not doing other things.  There is a sacrifice involved.  And also because it brings up the specter of failure, which can be so strong a presence in any new project.

I find that it helps, when the fear becomes strong, to go back to a simple statement of desire.  What is my purpose in studying the Constitutions?  Put simply, what do I want?

I want:

  1. To keep growing in my ability to discern and live according to the will and creative Spirit of God.
  2. To find out more about the life to which I feel called – what is it actually like?  Am I really called to it, or to something like it, or to something else entirely?
  3. To understand Jesuit men better, and learn to respect and accept them as they are, even if it hurts, confuses or irritates me sometimes. (Realizing that in genuine relationship, my actions and attitudes may hurt, confuse and irritate them at times, too.)
  4. The chance to speak with Jesuit men, as my brothers and friends, about these shared principles – to deepen my knowledge so that I can relate to them on their level, and share my experience and ideas openly and (perhaps) skillfully.
  5. To meet and support other Jesuit women, and be able to voice our experiences and learning to one another.
  6. To contribute to a viable method of mind, heart, and body training for laypeople who feel called to a greater commitment and a more intensive, lifelong Jesuit formation.
  7. To enrich the vision of Jesuit Women, and to connect it in spirit, practical reality, and truth to the Jesuit tradition.

And finally, most deeply, I want to be a better person.  To me, this means a more whole person, more in tune with God’s love and God’s dream for me as a human being, and for all humankind, all creatures, all worlds.  I feel a little like Buzz Lightyear: “To infinity and beyond!!!”

So let’s check back on that in 4 months (and periodically, in between.)

This study will involve reading and prayer every day for 21 weeks.  If there’s sufficient grace for it, I’ll end the study with a 3rd Experiment in October: praying the 30-day Spiritual Exercises at a retreat house in my province.  I need God, and your prayers, to run the race.

Will you pray for me?

amdg

 

 

 

Boundless Compassion

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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.  (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.

amdg

 

*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.

 

 

To Heal is a Way of Life: Mk 5:25-34

There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years.  She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had.  Yet she was not helped but only grew worse.  

She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak.  She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.”  Immediately her flow of blood dried up.  She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.  

~Mk 5: 25-29

In this passage, so often used in Ignatian prayer sessions, we meet a very relatable character:  a woman who talks to herself.  (Amiright?!)  Usually the Gospel writers narrate the Jesus story in the objective third person; the action is clear and the context is rich, but the thoughts and feelings of those involved need to be interpreted through the lens of the reader or pray-er’s own imagination.

Here, though, we have direct access to a woman’s interior life, to her personal history of suffering, her moment of resolve, and her miraculous healing. I wonder if this is the only time in the Gospels that we experience this kind of intimate open microphone to a character’s internal monologue.  (And yes, good Scripture nerds, that musing is your mission, should you choose to accept it.)

Much has been written about the woman with hemorrhages.  In some translations, she is named “The Woman with an Issue of Blood.”  This translation contains a fruitful play on words: first, that blood is literally issuing from her, and second, that this blood has become a major issue that dominates her personal, social, and spiritual life.  And trying to correct the imbalance, she has “suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors” who offered various solutions, none of which healed her.    But one thing is sure: the life was literally draining out of this woman.  A natural and gifted function, way out of balance.  And then she touched Jesus.

I often underestimate the power of a simple gesture.  In a world of awe-inspiring and sometimes horrifying complexity, it is easy to feel lost.  But there are two features of this woman’s attitude that inspire me.  The first is her perseverance, and the second is her trust.  It would be easy, after all of the well-meaning and expensive snake oil she has imbibed, to feel burned out and cynical toward the idea of healing at all. And yet she says to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” (Mk 5:28)  This reminds me of the centurion we commemorate every Sunday, who said, “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” (Mt 8:8)

Jesus himself recognizes these qualities when, after being startled by her gesture and wanting to find out who she is, he says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” (Mk 5:34)  I have heard “faith” defined as a combination of trust and openness.  In the case of the woman with an issue of blood, this trust and openness towards God’s grace heals her permanently.   But this simple gesture of touching Jesus with trust and openness can also be cyclical.

All people can relate to her moment of decision.  Have you experienced that moment when you think that you can’t go on, and through God’s grace you find it in yourself to touch Jesus?  Do you remember feeling in your body how you were healed of your affliction?  Sit for a moment and feel it, let your body remember it.  (I owe that helpful exercise to my spiritual director, a Jesuit woman and mother of one.)

In the words of Superior General Arturo Sosa, at this time in history and in our own lives we are receiving “a great call to reconciliation.”  We are also called “to do not only the improbable but the impossible because nothing is impossible to God.”

What do you feel is impossible? And is God possibly calling you to seek it?

amdg

Obedience: Mk 10:35-45

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.  Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.  But it shall not be so among you.  Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

This experiment in obedience is getting harder.  It makes me think of this Gospel story, which is commonly labeled “The ambition of James and John.”

The verses above are an afterword to the key dramatic event of the story, which is basically a conversation.   After stewing a while on Jesus’ many miracles, brothers James and John decide to ask Jesus for their own desire: to sit in triumphant glory with him, one on the right and one on the left.  They do this privately, knowing that it will anger their friends.  And so it does!  Furthermore, judging from the way I hear this passage referred to in scripture classes and homilies, the audacity, and even mendacity, of James and John in trying to secure a backdoor entrance into God’s glory, still has the power to inflame indignant disciples of Christ.

Recently, though, I’ve started to see myself in James and John, in the most surprising area: my attitude toward obedience.  In an attempt to discern whether and how my vocation might be a Jesuit one, I have embarked on what I hope will be a series of experiments.  This first experiment is a chance to live in a maternity home, a community that 1) seeks God’s will and has a clear mission: to reverence, love, and serve pregnant women and their babies; 2) engages completely with Church tradition and teaching; 3) needs me to make it my first priority outside of my own paying job; and 4) gives me the chance to live almost entirely from the generosity of others, and importantly, to discharge student debt in order to be free for further missions.

One of the key qualms I’ve heard expressed with regard to the idea of Jesuit women, is that the Society of Jesus is founded in total obedience, and that women are not, by nature, obedient in the manner of men.  (Let’s hold off for now on whether there is truth in this…at some point, I will post all of the fears and objections I’ve heard to the idea of Jesuit women, including this one, and we can examine them gently together, one by one.)  Suffice to say that hearing over and over again from both women and men that I am not, by nature of my sex, obedient, only amplified the sense of romance that I already had around perinde ac cadaver, Ignatius’ way of expressing in the Constitutions this quality of total obedience: to be directed by a superior “as if one were a lifeless body” in fulfilling a mission.  Total self-abnegation has always held some romance for me – the peace, power, and freedom from sin that it promised.  “For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” – Rom 7:15.

So I entered into this arrangement 6 weeks ago, with high hopes, high romance, a sense of purpose, and a frank and simple notion of obedience: I expected that my community’s director would tell me to do things, representing Christ, and I would do them.   She would tell me to be there, and I would be there.  She would tell me whether and when I could go to class, or to the rec center, or on retreat, or on vacation, according to the needs of the house.  And once this practice of obedience had smoothed away my rough edges, my rebelliousness, my urgent need to call the shots, then I would be humble and gentle and ready for the “next stage” of spiritual development.

The attraction of this frank, literal obedience is that it promises to make things very simple.  Hard, perhaps, but simple – achievable, through willpower and prayer.  And the real benefit of this type of commitment to obedience is that it certainly reveals the rough edges.  With these self-imposed boundaries in place, it is possible to see one’s self and grow in a way that can be difficult without the boundaries.

However, there are a few elements to obedience that I didn’t see at the start.  First, obedience has to include some element of personal authenticity.  After the first few giddy days, there is something that rings false about just running around obeying everybody, in the sense of doing what they say or what they ask.  And it also rings false not to be authentic with the other, to show them who I am.    I have heard from Jesuit men in formation that their vow of obedience, to be fully observed, assumes a vow of representation – that one must, in order to be fully obedient and fully discerning, also be aware of and candid about the movements of one’s own heart – one’s desires, joys, inspirations, and opinion on the next best step.  (The Commonweal post linked above to offer a preliminary explanation of perinde ac cadaver contains a wise description of this process, from a person who seems to have had plenty of experience in it.  Here are his words on their own, for your consideration.)

Beyond this authentic representation, a key element of obedience is trust.  And for strong trust to develop, there seems to be a need for that mutual authenticity, plus a certain gradualness to the relationship.  I skipped over the trust element in my eagerness to be here (“zeal without knowledge?”), and hoped it would work itself out.  Recently, that haste endangered the experiment as I was caught in a situation where my fragile trust was wounded.  But I am beginning to see that trust, like the authenticity in which it is founded, takes attention, intelligence, time, and bravery.

So back to the sons of Zebedee.  How is a Maggie like a James or a John?  It’s this: that the ambition of James and John resonates with the challenges in formation of any disciple and apostle of Christ.  Like James and John, she begins with an idea of what the goal is, of what it means to “be with” Jesus.  And usually that idea is simple and frank, and involves some worldly metaphor – sitting at the left and right hand of a powerful lord, or taking orders from a powerful boss, or sitting as a sage in an ivory tower, close enough to touch God in the white clouds.  Or she may have a fixed idea of what it means to be a servant, to be the slave of all.  She is willing to do anything to arrive at her idea, and this leads to confusion about where the path actually is.

Fortunately, I have a sharp spiritual director.  She is my age, learned and wise, and has a two year old son, which might contribute to her humility and patience.  Last week she wondered gently, “Can a person make an idol out of obedience?”  And again, “What about this is life-giving for you?  And what isn’t?”  And once more, “Do you remember what brings you joy?”  “You mean what brings me joy about my work in the home?” I clarified.  “Nope, just what brings you joy,” she smiled.

amdg

It Gets Harder Before It Gets Easier: Mk 10:17-31

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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?

amdg

Patience: 2 Peter 3:8-10

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.  The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.  

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.”

Like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I am taking a break for Advent, trying to make some space in my life just to listen.  While praying Friday night vespers to Mary, Mother Immaculate, la Virgen de Guadalupe, with friends at the college last weekend, this passage from the second letter of Peter got a hold of my imagination.  Lately I’ve been studying Paul, both trying to understand the early Christian communities better and trying to reconcile personally with Paul himself, to understand his mind and his priorities as a missionary who had a deep conversion experience of the Risen Jesus.

As Paul made his impassioned visits to Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Thessalonia, Jerusalem, and beyond, he was animated by the expectation that the world would end soon.  God’s reign was coming!  Meanwhile Peter, the Rock, who so often errs in the Gospel narratives, seems to have it right here.  God’s rhythms are surprising to human beings.  Sometimes too slow for our taste, sometimes breathtakingly fast, a conflagration, an earthquake of change.  But, it seems, with an all-expansive logic: that all should come to awareness, that all should be saved.  Goats with sheep, demons with angels, lions with lambs, sinners with saints, wheat and chaff together.  God doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In this spirit of patience and listening, I share with you a spiritual journal entry from 14 weeks ago, the 3rd of September.  Much has happened since then in our world, but the vision is the same:

3 September 2016 , Saturday night

I spent the day entirely by myself, except for the people I saw on walks and in transactions – and of course a few text exchanges.  It was nice, after a full weekend and week with others.I’ve noticed some unrest in my heart and gut lately – some sense of discomfort, openness – like grasping at air, or dangling.  The new wines, old wineskins parable has been in my thoughts frequently.  Sometimes moments that were uncomfortable, or indeterminate, play over and over again in my mind.  It’s like I’m trying to figure out what to make of them – how they fit into my story of myself, the story of who I am and where I’m going.  Sometimes they are moments when I was vulnerable, or revealed in some way.  It was like that at the end of my conversation with Z on Tuesday – we talked about various options for action and questions of what to do next, most of which were the same options and questions as in our conversation in January 2015 – write an article for America or Commonweal, use Facebook or Twitter or create a blog, and decide whether I am trying to convene a discernment group, or an action committee, or a grassroots movement that will bring the reality of Jesuit-called women more into public language and discussion.  

The same questions for my training also came up – how can I acquire the training, the knowledge, the connections and skills to suit me for this organizing work?  I do not have them yet.  I want a Masters in Philosophy (First Studies), an MDiv, and a PhD in theology.  Altogether, probably about $350,000 and 11 years of training, of life lived.  And yet I can’t wait to do the work – I need to be doing it now with an open heart, even if I find myself inexperienced and not as qualified as I’d like to be for the job.  I want to practice discernment with guidance and companionship.  That is probably the core skill needed in order to seek God’s leadership in this, along with the ability to have some detachment from my thoughts as they pass.

And also, as before, I was asked by Z, “What are you trying to do?” with my writing, as well as “What does the Society of Jesus have to offer you that women’s orders modeled on its constitutions or employing Ignatian spirituality, do not?”

At this moment, one answer I could give is “freedom, mobility, investment, and equal opportunity.”  Another simple-minded answer I might give is, “to be a Jesuit.”  To give my life to Jesuit apostolates, with the support of Jesuit structures, missioning, and community life.  It rings true.

And what am I trying to do with my writing?  I am trying to get Jesuit women in one place, to share energy, ideas, and prayer – to seek God’s will, God’s dream for us, together.  Right now, the women who want to be Jesuits are called to a form of spiritual life that may not yet exist.  (This is where I need to be really flexible and open to the movements of life that spring up as my writing stimulates discussion – I need to be open to movements and ideas that do not look like my exact vision, because the Holy Ghost, with her bright wings, is in these.)

Not only a form of spiritual life, but a particular form of training and community that will allow us to become bridge-builders in the Church – willing to engage with and abide by traditions, while remaining merciful, open, learning in all forums and all environments in which we find ourselves.  We need to be well-grounded in traditions of theology and philosophy, as well as art, popular culture, politics, and personal experience, in order to be able to bridge-build in this way.  

The work is already being done by so many – all that we need is each other, that connection with each other, to embody the relational God who is loving us constantly and mutually, into what we will next become.  A way of organizing ourselves, a name, a container, will be like a lamp for the flame, a lens gathering the light, to make it more powerful, more clear, more purposeful, more of use.  For the Greater glory of God.

In order to be a vessel for this, I really need to be able to let myself go.  To look after the needs of others co-equally with my own.  To listen, even to what I think is impossible from past experience, like Peter with the nets.  He still cast, even in his disbelief.

I felt so vulnerable at the end of that conversation with Z – I didn’t know what to say, and my words had revealed that I still desire most of all to be like Ignatius – and also, that I think I can be – that I could gather a group of companions willing to embark on a journey together that is both simple in purpose and deeply mysterious – that will be open to and guided by the Holy Spirit, by Hagia Sophia, our God relational and spacious.

Exposed like this, I had no words left.  I could only look at him silently.  I could feel my deer-in-the-headlights look.  ‘See you, sweetie,’ he said, maybe feeling a little sorry for me.

I might need to get used to that look, if I am really committed to persevering in this.  As L said, it is important not to look at this or present it as one person’s idea, but as a movement of that Spirit (‘which, of course, it is,’ she said).  It will help me, in those moments, to remember that my idea is not so much a radical inspiration from one person, as one springing, of many, of God’s idea.  And that in expressing it, I am ushering in this thought or dream of God’s, with others.  I am only helping to enrich, gather, focus an idea, a movement that is like water, welling up – like wind, sweeping through, picking up.  There is no way I can own it, but I can let myself be moved by it, and in turn move others.

All this makes me think of the old man I saw in his bright purple wide-legged suit and fedora at St. Mark’s coffee shop.  With his presence, being kind, blessing sneezes, saying hello, and watching people.  Walking in, walking out – just being present, just willing to belong.

amdg

Non dualism: Luke 14:21-23

Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’

The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and the hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.’

In this parable, Jesus presents God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, as a man who throws a great feast.  Those invited to the feast beg off, each with his own excuse ranging from the mundane, to the lame, to the racy, to the downright mysterious.  The host, angrily realizing that none of the invited are disposed to come and enjoy his hospitality, sends out a messenger to all the untouchables in town.  When the banquet hall is full of those most rejected by society, there is still room!

So he goes out to the highways and the hedgerows to bring in anyone and everyone to his dinner party.  Imagine who might be out there…a wealthy landowner overseeing the pruning of his hedgerows?  An alcoholic, sleeping underneath the same row?  A woman with her wash coming back from the river?  A noblewoman in a litter, being carried by six servants.  A little girl, running home from the fields with her brother.  A burglar, a con-artist, a highway robber.  A tired traveler grateful for the unexpected meal.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of the invited ones who declined, let’s look at who ends up in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The answer is, everybody.  E v e r y b o d y, in the end, is invited.  This is Church.  Instead of in groups and out groups, we are one group, one body.  As Christian women and men, we have cared about this image for a long time, ever since Christ described the Kingdom of Heaven this way.  And as Jesuit men and women, particularly, we have asked ourselves how to extend this kind of open invitation to God’s table.

Another way of describing this Christian invitation is non-dualism.  We focus not on me/you, them/us, either/or, but both/and.  Over the course of a dedicated Christian life, the concept of “we” widens, and broadens, and deepens.  As Jesus did in his ministry, we go out to what we perceive as the margins, pushing the very boundaries of “we,” and finding God’s love already there.  This kind of magnanimity should feel great, right?

It is certainly great, but that doesn’t mean it always feels great.  The non-dualism of a Jesuit life can be very painful and difficult, and at times confusing.  The margin is not always easy to locate, not always predictable.  It is also different for each of us.  I often find myself suddenly at the margins when I hear the thought inside, “That is not me.  That is not who I am.”  But in trying to imitate Jesus, I find that a non dualistic approach does not mean erasing or rejecting the apparent contrasts and contradictions of life.  It simply means developing a kind of ‘homing’ instinct for God’s mercy, love, and creative Spirit, alive at the heart of them.

The mark of non dualism is all over a Jesuit life.  We could talk about politics and civic engagement – and likely we will, soon!  But I want to start with the non dualism of a more grounding reality: funerals.  At the small Jesuit university I call home, campus ministry stages many funerals for the members of our extended family.  Earlier this year I helped with the enormous state funeral of a university benefactor, who gave land worth millions of dollars to fund a service program that weekly connects people who live and study here with people who have no homes, living on our streets.  At this funeral, all the men from the Jesuit community attended and concelebrated, and the church was packed with the Who’s Who of the city.  The funeral was grandiose, and also beautiful and meaningful, even from the back of the cathedral choir loft.  After the closing song, we all filed out and drove over to the local country club for an elegant reception and story-telling session.

Later in the year, I assisted with the funeral of a young woman, a recent graduate of our college who, having lost her parents early in life, had no immediate family to sponsor a funeral.  This woman, throughout her life, had confronted her own feelings of smallness, inadequacy and marginalization, and with her presence, her love, her words and her networking, spurred the re-invigoration of our struggling campus diversity and inclusion initiative.  Her funeral was small and intimate, deeply felt and deeply prayed.  It was very simple.  No  men from the Jesuit community came or concelebrated, yet almost the whole University Ministry office was there.  After the service, there was a spontaneous vigil of nearly an hour as her friends, teachers, and collaborators stayed around a blue and white urn and a smiling picture of her, sometimes coming up to pray silently by the little altar.  The pianist, seeing what was happening, just played and played until everyone was finished and went to eat together on campus.

As I reflected on the contrast between these two Jesuit funerals, both beautiful, I was tempted to say of the millionaire and his state funeral, “That is not me. That is not who I am.”  I was also tempted to say of the student’s funeral and her dear friends and colleagues, “Is this who I am?  Do I belong here?”  God keeps answering, “Yes, that is who you are.  And that, and that.  And yes, you belong here.”  In funeral after funeral, I have seen us honor lives lived in sometimes vastly different circumstances, with the resources available and in accord with what is requested.

I have come to see this feast of the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, this feast that extends out to the highways and hedgerows, as a real experiment.  In the Jesuit experiment, the Christian experiment, we do not expect to achieve our values and ideals.  They are, in fact, impossible to achieve.  Instead we seek to embody the invitation more fully, and in doing so dig ourselves deeper and deeper into the humbling hole of being loved unconditionally, and able to accomplish anything good through grace alone, through the power of that homing instinct for receiving and offering mercy.

I bring to the table my agenda, my ambition, my self-clinging, my armor.  It is, in fact, exactly what brings me – and then it is shaped, worn, smoothed, tempered and polished away.  Jesuit women are called to the table by our hopes and desires – the hope of being highly trained, invested in, supported, mentored, and missioned – the desire, one day, to be able to speak with true authority – not coercive, but legitimate – into the sacred spaces and decision-making counsels of our Church.  We come to the table and watch our agendas dissolve into the reality of mission, the reality of obedience to the real needs of the Church in all her apparent contradictions, her evolving perfection.

It’s a painful process, a dying process, but cheerful too.  As an American, and a music lover, I always hear this scripture with a song:

In the highways and the hedges,

in the highways and the hedges,

in the highways and the hedges,

I’ll be somewhere a workin’ for my Lord.

amdg

The Big Question: Mark 7: 27-29

He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first.  For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’

She replied and said to him, ‘Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’

Then he said to her, ‘For saying this, you may go.  The demon has gone out of your daughter.’

This entry is dedicated to two feisty professors in the small Jesuit college that I call home.  The first is a Jesuit woman who hosts civic dialogues that I like to participate in.  Called to the Society of Jesus at a young age, she has elegantly, achingly, joyfully, and wryly persevered for 20 years in her vocation to service, piety, and community.  She asks in her scholarship and with her life: what does it mean to be Church?

The second is a Jesuit man, who teaches a Scripture class that I like to sit in on.  He put off his own call for about a decade before acknowledging it, and has persevered gracefully, achingly, joyfully, and goofily in the decade since.  He asks in his classroom and with his life: who is Jesus, and how are we being formed as his companions, with Ignatius to guide us?

Recently, these two have offered a couple of new behaviors that I’m trying on for size:  1) to sit longest with the passages of Scripture that I find the most uncomfortable; and 2) to care about questions that I don’t understand.

First, then, the Scripture.  Jesus speaks here with a Greek woman, a Syro-Phoenician, who has sought him out in a moment of retirement to ask him to heal her daughter.  His response?  My mission is to my people, the Jewish people – not to the Gentiles.  As my Jesuit man professor pointed out, the language Jesus uses seems incredibly insulting.  He basically calls her a bitch, though the word likely lacked the particular charge and layers of meaning that it carries for a 21st century woman in America.

What does the Syro-Phoenician woman say in response?  Instead of getting stuck on the ‘bitch’ part, she uses Jesus’ metaphor to make her own point: ‘Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’  And Jesus, sinless Son of God that he is, catches her drift.  His reply echoes a frequent theme of the Gospels, as the completely human and completely divine Jesus journeys into his own self-understanding.  For saying this, you may go home – your daughter is healed, he tells her.  But what he seems to mean is, your faith has saved you.  Go now, and enjoy the fruits of your own trust in God.    And so his mission widens, and deepens. (And I’ll have to keep on sitting with this Scripture.)

Second, then, to that question that I don’t understand, am maybe reluctant to understand, but still care about.  Why did Ignatius intentionally preclude the possibility of an institutional women’s branch of the Society of Jesus?  Why, knowing all of the women who felt called and would feel called to the way of life he was suggesting, did he petition the Pope not to let them do it in his Company?  How could what feels like such an arm-bar be, perhaps, a fruitful decision, in both the short and the long run?

Though I can’t answer my own question thoroughly right now, I can offer a few  suggestions for discussion and investigation.  For one, as we have read, this ban was politically, socially, and psychologically expedient for the young Society of Jesus.  It restored a sense of unity and freedom of identity to Jesuit men, and unburdened the Society of Jesus from being required to devote time and energy to conventional relationships between male and female religious.  Second, in the centuries that followed, this decision allowed the foundresses of Ignatian women’s religious orders to successively renew both the Jesuit Constitutions and the Church, each in her own way and according to the needs of her own time.  “Jesuit” and “Ignatian” are not synonymous, as we can discuss later.  But the development of large, independent Ignatian women’s religious orders was a major positive outgrowth of Ignatius’ original ban on women.

(As a side note to this point on Ignatian women’s orders, it is very interesting to compare the numbers of SJ today with the numbers in women’s orders founded at least in part on the Jesuit constitutions, or formed in Ignatian spirituality.  First, take the orders of sisters with an explicitly Jesuit rule: according to the websites of each order, there are an estimated 14,000 CSJ, 2,600 RSCJ, 2000 CJ, and at least 500 RVM in the world as of 2015.  Add to these women the rc, MSC, and other Ignatian-inspired orders I have certainly missed, and we have 19,000+ daughters of Ignatius in formation and ministry as we speak.  This represents a very healthy and diverse counterpoint to their brothers, the just under 18,000 Jesuit men in formation and ministry today.)

And we have not spoken yet of another group of women very close to my heart, whom I call Jesuit women.  Ignatius’ decision puts us in an interesting place in this time, in this sea-change Church.  At times in our Church, we have felt like the proverbial dogs under the table.  But by not taking conventional responsibility for women called to his way of life, way back when, Ignatius also created some space – space to move, and speak, and breathe, and choose.  Space to think, to write, to listen and minister in creative ways.  Space to explore, without a definite bureaucratic identity and its corresponding red tape.  We know the frustration and sense of impoverishment that can come with no fixed identity, but do we also realize the freedom and creative potential of that space?

It’s up to us to inhabit that space and that freedom now.  What does the Pope mean when he says, Mary is more important than the Bishops?  What does he mean when he calls for a greater and deeper role for Catholic women that is not clericalized, and for a prominent feminine genius that is not tied to women alone?  The Pope is a man who is willing to be really guided by the Holy Spirit, even when she leads to challenging places.  So what is the Holy Spirit trying to tell us through this Pope?  Jesuit women need to get together and find out.  My question is, what are the needs of our changing Church, and how can Jesuit women gather, discern, focus, and organize to meet those needs?

amdg