Pilgrimage: The Freedom of Just Enough (Mk 6:7-13; Lk 10:1-12)

“Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. 

Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one along the way. 

Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ ”  (Lk 10:3-5)


Dear Jesuit women and friends,

On July 24th, 2018, I set out from Grand Coteau, Louisiana with the clothes I was wearing, a bus ticket to an unknown destination, and $20 in my pocket.  The goal was to reach Chimayó, New Mexico by August 30th, relying on God and the generosity of others to help me along the way.  If you have spent time in Jesuit culture, you may recognize this journey and its guidelines as “the pilgrimage” – one of the more colorful parts of a Jesuit novice’s first year of experiments in prayer, discernment, community, and service.

It was a graced time, and God brought me back safe and full of stories.  (At this point, your mother might want to know that we have not lost one young man or woman yet on the Jesuit pilgrimage…if you have felt drawn to making this journey, please see some guidelines for a safe and spiritually fruitful pilgrimage here.)

I found that the pilgrimage is like the Spiritual Exercises.    In fact, we could think of the pilgrimage as an extension of the Exercises.  On the 30-Day Exercises, we enter a silent, protected space into which God can speak, intimately and idiosyncratically, to our mind, heart, and soul.  On our pilgrimage, we carry this relatively newfound intimacy with God out into the world, and literally let Jesus take care of us as the Holy Spirit breaks open the lives of the people and conditions that we encounter, revealing the presence of Christ in everything.  This description may sound a little esoteric in the abstract, but on the pilgrimage Christ becomes concrete, very real and direct and personal.

Because the pilgrimage is not an idea but a direct, sustained experience of God (3-D! Multi-sensory! 24-7!) there are literally hundreds of ways I could speak to you about it, and just as many stories.  Today I would like to tell you about pilgrimage as an experience of freedom.  And one aspect of freedom in particular – the freedom of “just enough.”

The Freedom of Just Enough

To know what something is, you sometimes need to learn first what it isn’t.  The first 36 hours of my pilgrimage were like that, a crash course in basic needs.  I landed in Dallas on the Greyhound bus at 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night.  The news said that it had been 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 days in a row, and the city had finally cooled down to 99 degrees that day.  “Killer heat,” the forecaster had said, and the people I met confirmed that sadly, this was true.  People could die of exposure both inside and outside in this heat.  On the bus, my seat mate was a young off-duty police officer who had a wife, 3 children, a Christian men’s group and a podcast that he ran on living a Christian life.  He was coming back from a weekend of helping his in-laws in Houston with some overdue electrical repairs, and told me it was back to work in the morning.

Now, one thing about pilgrimage is the discovery that Greyhound buses, like city buses and Amtrak trains, are holy places, where you can strike up a good conversation with a person you might never otherwise meet.  And if you want to have an amazing conversation, just tell people that you are a pilgrim.  You will hear stories that are hair-raising, humbling, inspiring.  People will tell you all about God, and how God is working in their lives.  People will tell you what they love and hate about church, where they are growing and struggling, and what to pray for.  They will challenge you and tell you that you are “very brave,” which is sometimes a code word for “very foolish.”  Somehow the conversation cuts right to the issues and people that are most important, and the questions that are most unanswerable.  This is just one amazing thing about pilgrimage.

Bert and I had talked for 4 hours about God, family, police brutality, the vocation of policing, starting over, Church, and what faith really is, with an increasing sense of the mystery in all this.  Something in him came to life as the hours passed.  We stopped at a gas station, and he got back on the bus with a bag of chips and a big bottle of water for me, for which I was grateful because I was already a little hungry and thirsty.  As we got off the bus he said, “My dad is picking me up.  Let me see if he can take you to that ‘Catholic Worker’ house you’re trying to get to.”

When we got to the Catholic Worker house, which I had picked out from an online listing that had only a phone number, it appeared to be defunct.  It was 11:30 pm, dark, hot, and far from downtown, and there was loud music, bass bumping, at a house party going on two doors down.  Two men approached the van to ask why Bert’s dad was wearing a uniform.  He was a security guard at Radioshack, but I could see why they were suspicious.  Bert’s dad drove a white, unmarked van with no back windows and a cage separating the front seats from the cargo space.  I, too, had been a little suspicious!

All three of us – Bert, Bert’s dad, and I – just looked at one another, everybody thinking what to do.  As I was about to suggest that we go back to the bus station (my fall-back safety plan), Bert had an inspiration.  He had contacts at one of the emergency shelters and could put on his police hat to call and see if there was an opening, now that everyone else was checked in for the night.  “Hi, this is officer Miller,” he said in a friendly-professional voice into his cell phone, standing outside of his dad’s van in shorts, a tee-shirt, and trainers, and holding a piece of Wallace fried chicken in his other hand.  I had never seen a police officer like this, vulnerable, human, excited to help.  I thought of the men who had come to screen us from the nearby party, and my heart was squeezed by the world’s complexity.

They could give me a mattress on the floor at the emergency shelter overflow, which was turning away no one that night because of the heat.  When we arrived there, Bert threw me a big, rough hug.  “Ok, be safe! Call me tomorrow if you need a ride back to that ‘Catholic Worker’ house!”  A sign on the door said, “No outside food or drink allowed.”  I looked regretfully at my own Wallace chicken and fries, and my huge and mostly un-drunk orange soda.  It was midnight and I was hot, sticky, and exhausted.  So I pushed the bag into a concrete trash bin and entered the flourescent lobby of the emergency shelter, hit by a wall of welcome cold air.

I have worked as a nurse in homeless shelters, but I learned more about being homeless in the next 24 hours than I had learned in 2 years of staffing a shelter.  The learning was real over those 2 years, but it was also slow and once-removed.  At the shelter that night, though, and over the course of the next day (102 deg F and heavily humid) I learned what it feels like to be temporarily homeless with no money in a strange city.  It is a full-time occupation just to survive.

When you are homeless in the city, everything necessary is locked up – food, showers, a place to lie down and rest in safety, relief from extreme heat and extreme cold, laundry facilities.  It seems like everything you need is miles away from everything else.  I began to recognize the same people as I wandered through the city, trying to learn the streets and get to the library to do research on a place to stay for the night.  It was as though we were a network of ghosts, part of an unseen dimension.  Everybody walked by us on their way to the next thing, and sat absorbed in conversation in restaurants and stores.  We could see each other, but no one else could see us.  The lights in the emergency shelter, which was kept operating-room cold in order to reduce the potential for disease transmission, had slammed on at 5 a.m. that morning, and we were all gritty-eyed and shivering as we lined up to get breakfast.  There was a heavy emphasis on what we could not do.  (“Do not get out of line!  Do not take more than one piece of fruit!  Do not take too long to finish your milk!  You may stay inside the shelter until 8 am, but do not leave the boundaries of the TV room itself.”)

I was grateful for breakfast, grateful for a few hours of indoor sleep, and grateful for the shower and the toothbrush that the staff allowed me to take after hours, as a late arrival to overflow.    But I realized that there was another basic human need, which we were not experiencing in my short time at the emergency shelter.  This basic need lies somewhere at the intersection of beauty, warmth, respect, and a decent conversation.  Basic friendliness.  Maybe we could call it “soul.”  And if we can, then soul is a basic human need.

Over the course of the day, as I experienced the ups and downs of the street in search of food, shelter, and soul, I was surprised at how quickly and how far my spirit sank.  There were moments of consolation: Jhodyi, a woman soliciting donations for a children’s fund who had $4 and gave me 2, when she heard what I was trying to do.  Two packets of peanut butter and a banana from the grocery store, and a young woman in line who laughed with me and the cashier about the heat.  As we left she said, “Welcome to Dallas!”  A sweet secretary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral who asked her manager if I could use the phone to try the Catholic Worker number a few more times, and then to call Bert and let him know that I was OK but did not need a ride, since I hadn’t reached them.  And maybe most consoling, there was la Virgen de Guadalupe herself, who presided over the cathedral sanctuary and received my tears and prayers that I learn what God had for me to learn in this city.  Her peace was real.

There were times of desolation, too.  I will always remember sharing a tired 5:45 am breakfast with two women who were having tough days.  One woman, young with a sweet face, who had managed to do her hair nicely with lots of rubber bands sitting in a dark bunk before lights-on, had to go wait tables at Appleby’s after a night of only several hours’ broken sleep.  She sat with a hand over her eyes, not able to eat her waffle for many minutes.  “I have done things I never thought I would do,” she said.  The other woman, older, told me that pancreatic cancer was eating her up.  She had lost a third of her body weight in 8 months.  “I am tired, tired of being on the street,” she said.  There was no treatment plan for the cancer, she informed me.  It was just being monitored every several months with imaging.  She wasn’t sure why this was.  As we were shuffled out of the kitchen on schedule by staff who looked pretty tired, too, I rolled the prayer beads that someone had given me earlier from my wrist to hers and said that I would have her in mind and be praying for her.  “Thanks, honey,” she said, put her purse on her shoulder, and walked away to start the day.

Both of these women also mentioned sexual exploitation or rape as a trauma they had survived while homeless.  Later that day, I had a flash of understanding just how this happens within a woman, how we might get stuck on the street or in an exploitative relationship in a moment of crisis.  It is related to the freedom of just-enough, and the unfreedom of not-enough.

Just after 5 p.m., feeling tired, hungry, grimy, and lonely, I approached a place on the edge of downtown that I had heard about from a kind older woman sitting in the shade of a street sign with her dog, selling newspapers for and by the homeless.  I had arrived too late, though – the day center was closed.  In the street outside there were people wandering vaguely around, and a couple of mattresses set up on the ground.  There I met a man in a wheelchair who looked as though he may have suffered from multiple sclerosis.  He wore a clean white undershirt and a bucket fedora and spoke slowly, with an unchanging grin.  His voice was purposeful, but light and sighing, almost wheedling, like it was hard for him to breathe.

“Can you help me?” he said.  “I don’t want sex, I just want a friend.  I have a lot of money.  I have piles and piles of money.  Can you help me get a motel?”

“Maybe I can help,” I said.  “I don’t have any money.”

“Do you do drugs?” he said.  “No,” I answered, realizing that this was not a good situation and it was time to disengage. “Meth? Cocaine?” he continued.  “I have piles of money and I can’t help myself.  I don’t want sex, I just need a friend.”

Then I thought, Maybe if I can just help him get the motel room, find a phone…maybe he will give me $20, or enough to get somewhere safe.  “Can I help you call somewhere?” I asked, feeling an increasing tightness in my chest.

“What are you talking about?” he said.  “Are you stupid?  I can’t help myself.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go,” I said, starting to turn away.  “I will be sending you a lot of positive energy.”  (I say that when I’m not sure how people will feel about the word “pray.”)

“You can take that positive energy…and shove it up your ass,” he said in the same sighing, wheedling voice, still grinning.  “Ok,” I said, starting to walk more quickly.

I got a few blocks away and sat down on a concrete retaining wall outside of another large downtown building.  My chest still felt tight, with pain now shooting up the back of my neck and a throbbing headache.  I had a deep understanding at that moment of what might happen inside of me under the grinding pressure of not-enough – how I might perform sex acts for money, with everything locked up in this city and a crushing loneliness, and an urgent need to eat and be inside for the night.  How easy it would be for me at that moment to think that God had abandoned me.  And I realized that when our basic needs are not met, we are not free.  Without food, shelter, a place to rest, the ability to get clean, and some real friendliness – a little bit of beauty and a decent conversation – we are not free.  It may be possible, though, to approach freedom again through the door of just one basic need.

I walked heavily down Main Street and noticed a little park that was beautiful in the late afternoon sun.  It was still oppressively hot, but this park was shady, full of locust trees and multicolored rags, tied to wires strung between the trees.  The public art had a humorous effect, as though a huge balloon full of rainbows had popped over the square, draping everything in random color.  There were also rocks to sit on, with a little canal of water running through them, and a man playing the same short jazz progression over and over on a public art piano.  I sat a safe distance away from him and listened for a while.  Then I crooned a little over the chords, and he noticed and gave a little nod and just kept playing, which made me feel that he was friendly.  An officer on a bicycle stopped and leaned on one foot for a while to listen to our improvised song.  When we finished the tune, the man at the piano and the officer exchanged a familiar greeting, and the officer moved on.

The piano man beckoned me over.  “Hey, sister!  You can sing!  I’m Robert, and this is my park.”  He pointed to some wide marble steps, about 30 feet from us, that were part of a posh restaurant patio, with two floor-to-ceiling glass walls behind them.  “I sleep there.”  Robert explained that he had a disability check, but not enough to pay rent and food and medication, so he chose to sleep outside.  He had almost died four times, mostly from heart and stroke problems.  He didn’t believe in using people.  He believed in God, who had done a lot for him.  He invited me to sing another song.  “Maybe we can make up an act and make some real money.  You can sleep over there tonight if you want to – I won’t bother you.  I’ll protect you.”  I told him that I had a rule against sleeping outside, but that I really appreciated the offer, which was so true.  Sitting on a bucket next to the brightly painted piano, I listened to Robert’s chords and improvised a song, and he sang too.  We sang the blues and my heart felt unburdened, a little freer than before.  “You want a gatorade or something?” he said.  “Come on, let’s go to 7-11.”

One of the things that had been toughest in the city so far, even in only a day, was the loneliness.  A key aspect of this loneliness was a feeling that women were reluctant to connect with me, and men were immediately projecting all kinds of things onto me that I didn’t want.  Robert was an exception, hospitable and natural.  But on the way to 7-11, Robert said, “I think we could really make some money with this act.  And I’m going to ask the Holy Spirit if you’re ‘the One.’ ”  I assured him with great conviction that I was not ‘the One.’  “I’m still going to ask the Holy Spirit,” he said.  But he let go of the music act project idea, and outside of 7-11 introduced me to a young man in uniform who was on foot, a crossing guard for the DART light rail.  As they greeted each other, I thought of all the times in the last 20 years that I had wondered if somebody I liked was ‘the One’ (or had even tried to convince them that they were!)  And I realized that part of hospitality is being able to experience our projections without forcing them on people.  To offer others freedom in this way.  And that Robert was actually doing a great job of this!

We three talked about rental prices in Dallas, and how to tell if someone was conning you, and how each person determines their own boundaries about helping others with cash.  The crossing guard offered to buy both Robert and me sandwiches and drinks, and I remembered that I had meant to go to 7:30 p.m. mass at the cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  It was on the other side of downtown, but with the sandwich, and the drink, and a decent conversation,  I had the strength to walk there.  Robert said good-bye and God bless, and left me with the crossing guard, who told me that he himself had been homeless once for two weeks in Los Angeles, after running away from home out of frustration at losing his football scholarship to the University of Washington.  “I was stubborn, dumb.  I didn’t accept any help.  It’s different out there,” he said.  “You know that hierarchy of needs?  It’s like all of the top ones burn away, and it all boils down to the basics.  It was a good experience.  I hope you will be ok.  Hope to see you again.”

As I walked quickly to mass in the setting sun, still grimy and raw inside, still tired, but heartened, I thought about what a difference the hospitality of Robert and the crossing guard had made for me.  A little space, a song, a sandwich, a drink, and a decent conversation.  They had responded with generosity to my appearance in their lives, and had done this for others before.  At mass, I met another string of women and men who were generous like this, too.  They were not wealthy people, not associated with any organization other than the Spanish language cathedral choir, and yet they found a place for me to sleep, and offered a ride there, a shower, fajitas, a tee-shirt and soccer shorts as pajamas, a canvas mission bag, and an enormous amount of love and goodwill.  They laughed the next morning that I had fallen soundly asleep within 30 seconds of lying down at the far margin of their daughter’s bed, and slept for 10 hours straight.  All that is a story for another day, but what all of these people in Dallas taught me, aside from profound gratitude, was that the whole world looks different when you have just enough.  There is freedom in just enough.  And you can transform the world for another person, too, by noticing and meeting even one of their basic needs with friendliness and respect.

I want to know: when have you experienced the freedom of just enough?



Being a novice: Lk 10:38-42

“With God, all things are possible.” – Mt 19:26

“There is need of only one thing.”  – Lk 10:42

Dear Jesuit woman,

My purpose is simple and increasingly humbled: to find you, who feel called to be a Jesuit, and bring you together with other women who describe their call in the same way.  That is my whole purpose, the purpose of this website, the purpose of this letter.  In this letter, and in posts to follow, I aim to describe a process of discernment  to which I am now wholeheartedly vowed, and to which you may also feel called.  I have chosen to refer to this process as a “Jesuit novitiate” and to myself as a “Jesuit novice” because these are the best words I have so far found to describe what is in my heart and prayer, and what God has been doing with my life.

These words are also problematic. There is a serious and valid concern, expressed by both male and female religious who have reviewed this idea, that to call the process a novitiate and myself a novice is too far from common understanding to be meaningful, because a traditional religious novitiate is not only a time of individual discernment but also of mutual discernment, between an individual and a specific religious congregation.  As one Sister reviewer put it, “novitiate is, for lack of a better analogy, like dating – you can’t do it without a partner, an institutional partner embodied in a director, community, etc.”  And as one Jesuit reviewer put it, “I don’t understand what you are doing. Novitiate is a time where the novice gets to know the Society, and the Society gets to know the novice.  But we already know everything we need to know about you – your gender!”

They are both right, and I am thankful for their authenticity. The reason, upon reflection, that I still choose to use “Jesuit novitiate” and “Jesuit novice” to represent this process is that these imperfect phrases, in addition to expressing what is in my heart and experience, also hit at the heart of the dilemma for a woman called to be a Jesuit.  She feels called to a dance with no visible partner, to a group that does not accept her.  The commitment here is not mutual, and yet the call persists.  For a woman called to be a Jesuit, the paradoxical first act of obedience is to accept that her brothers do not accept her.  This reality, which is painful to experience directly and repeatedly, nonetheless creates a valuable shift in perspective when it is brought to light.  Some women I have talked with describe this shift as a new ability to see past their own desire to be accepted by Jesuit men – to see its “disordered” aspects. Others describe the shift as a new awareness of Jesuit men’s vulnerability or humanity, which clerical culture tends to obscure.  From this new vantage point, a burning question emerges for the woman who admits that she is called to be a Jesuit; if it is not Jesuit men calling her, then Who is calling?  And to what?

I cannot say that I know exactly what we are called to – but I think that together, we can find inspiration in the words that Eli taught Samuel to say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!” (1 Sam 3:1-10) If we take discerning the call as seriously as our brother novices do, we can find out where it leads. You can retrace my steps over the last year here (invitation and acceptance), then here (further education), then here (first fellowship and first vows), and then here (the Spiritual Exercises), which brings us quite close to the present time and place.

I invite you, then, into the mundane 52 square feet of hardwood floor in Denver, Colorado, that demarcate the 8-month-old Novitiatum Societatis Iesu ex Maria, Mater Dei – the Jesuit Novitiate of Mary, the Mother of God.

I am indebted for everything I know about a Jesuit novitiate to the Constitutions, the Spiritual Exercises, visits to canonical novitiates, and regular dialogues with a diverse and far-flung circle of friends in these Exercises and this life.  And I am still learning.

Why Mary, the Mother of God?

I had often imagined that if I were called to found a house of Jesuit women, I would nominate Alphonsus Rodriguez as its patron saint.  He is definitely a great model for Jesuit women: his brothers consistently overlooked him for his age, and yet he knew who he was – humble and persistent, faithful to his vocation, willing to compromise, willing to suffer.  He became legendarily hospitable, wise, and on fire for Christ-in-others.  I also thought he might be an excellent patron for a Jesuit woman’s novitiate process because he could keep her ego in check, while still inspiring hope and perseverance in the project. But on January 1st, 2018, as I continued to live a rhythm of “re-entry,” working in practice and waiting in prayer for Jesus to call the shots on my next steps post-Exercises, it was Mary herself who spoke up.

Mary is quiet, open, and deeply purposeful.  She rarely speaks to me in words, more often choosing images and feelings.  On this morning, a lot of images arose at once – Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation, Our Lady of the Way, Fratelli Bonella’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Vladimir, the Mother of Tenderness.  But then came the words. Found the novitiate, and name it for me.  I will protect it, and form you.

I was surprised and excited. I had been getting to know Mary better since the Exercises, but honestly hadn’t thought to ask her for guidance in this. I had been too caught up in trying to make it happen by myself, and to make it make sense. But this made more sense than anything I could have made up. Who else could model this kind of trust for me, this kind of “yes” to a great journey into the unknown? Who else could help me follow my great desire bravely, boldly through the specter of shame, ostracism, and suffering, and yet also inspire the willingness to hold that desire lightly enough to let it go, even to let it die, in order to help this little part of God’s great mystery be incarnate? With Mary’s patronage, the novitiate process was named and could really continue.  I still listen for her guidance.

Discernment: the work of a novice

The novitiate has a clear purpose, and it’s not exactly what I thought.  Being a Jesuit novice is not boot camp, and it’s also not glamorous, “sexy,” cozy or secure.  It’s not particularly intellectual! The Jesuit novitiate is primarily a time of discernment, asking, “Who am I, and what am I called to?” in the context of a series of apostolic experiments, the first of which is to make the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises.   Coming out of the Exercises, a Jesuit novice begins the intensive interior work of cultivating the capacity to continually discern the spirits, shaping a heart available for mission, and making space for an election, or a fundamental choice about how to follow Christ, to emerge.

So what is discernment?  Over the course of the Exercises, you learn Ignatius’ basic rules of discernment of spirits, and then practice them – a lot!  Based on this experience, I would characterize discernment as a patient, prayerful blend of feeling, reasoning, waiting, and choosing, in ongoing dialogue with Jesus.  I’m assuming that you have some experience with discernment, too.  If you’d like to hear more of my take on discernment, see here.

The aim of discernment is essentially to “know” God’s “will.”  But this is not as simple as it sounds.  As I cultivate interior sensitivity to the two spirits, through cooperation of mind and heart, I begin to understand that what I think God wants me to do may be only a hint of where God is actually leading me in the service of God’s people and creation.  And I begin to understand that God’s will is immanent in my deepest desires, and yet God thinks differently about these desires than I do.  God’s “will” is more a way of life than a fixed image.  We travel God’s way by using discernment to heal the wounds that limit our interior freedom, becoming more and more free to love.  If I am paying close attention to God and discerning carefully, the decisions almost make themselves. (This is only one perspective. I have found in many conversations that the discernment process, and the idea of what is God’s “will,” is a little different for everybody.)

The novitiate is all about learning to discern in order to find this “will” of God that is present in my deepest desires, leading to the election of a state of life in which to live out the call to love.  For a Jesuit man, this election clearly involves whether to take canonical vows, and whether to become a brother or a priest, though he also learns much more about himself along the way.   For a Jesuit woman, the election is more subtle, because there is not a visible, conventional option for commitment, but in the experience of those I have talked to, the election nonetheless occurs, and is profound.  As a novice, then, I cultivate a space of patience and attentiveness to both my desires and my obstacles, and place myself in God’s hands for the long haul.

Space and principles of the novitiate

So how do we create this exterior and interior space for discernment? One thing to know is that the Jesuit novitiate is flexible.  This may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me.  But it makes sense. Ignatius was practical, and the Constitutions are full of clauses that create flexibility and freedom to respond to particular cases, in a context of respect for norms and rules.  Novitiates respond to the needs of the novices, the provinces, and the culture of surrounding communities; and novitiates always adjust to the changing needs of our Church.

Creating space for a novitiate is a process that balances intention and accommodation.  The physical plant is important, but not an end in itself – it is geared toward a specific purpose.  I had the opportunity to visit two canonical Jesuit novitiates as the call intensified in me, and they were very different!  One rural, one semi-urban. One breathtakingly historic, built with bricks that the Society of the Sacred Heart gifted to the Society of Jesus nearly 200 years ago.  The other pleasantly contemporary, housed in a former novitiate building of the Sisters of St. Joseph that was bought by the Society of Jesus less than 20 years ago.  But both gave me a sense of how the Jesuit Novitiate of Mary, the Mother of God, might be put together.  Simplicity was always important. The Eucharist, central. Art on the walls, curated with care. Books on shelves, meant to stimulate reflection on God and growth in fundamental inquiry.  Places to relax, recreate, and gather. A simple but well-appointed kitchen! A simple bedroom – a desk, a reclining chair, a bed, a closet – the rule being to keep your room in such a state that another person could stay and feel comfortable on any night you weren’t there.  In all, an atmosphere focused on helping diverse beginners to assimilate Jesuit history, Jesuit culture, Jesuit saints, Jesuit hospitality, and the rudiments of a life for God and others.

As I talked with my brothers about the life they were leading, some principles for the Novitiate of Mary developed.  A Jesuit woman’s novitiate, like her brothers’, can be:

1) Experiential – based in experience rather than theory, yet through reflection, acquiring shared vocabulary with other novices to shape further experience (Logos);

2) Day-in, Day-out – not rarified or glamorous, but really digging into the nitty-gritty of daily discernment and a life of service;

3) Focused on the interior work of a novice, with all activities carried out in a spirit of recollection, and geared toward discerning a deeper commitment to God;

4) Communal – carried out in the context of communities, with plenty of opportunity to grow in generosity, obedience, flexibility, authenticity, love, and presence;

5) Practical and Flexible – working creatively with what is, and letting God use what’s available for growth;

6) Foundational – patient, gradual, intensive, repetitive, and basic; and

7) Joyful – a place to discover the joy and simple pleasure of being alive with others, and to taste the satisfaction of life in and for God, whatever form that life takes.  Joy and satisfaction are central to a balanced life, and a good discernment.

Every novitiate space and process can embody these principles in its own way. The three snapshots of my own discernment that follow, in the form of an “FAQ,” are not intended as a guide, but rather as an inspiration to enter the process and co-labor with God and others in your own Jesuit formation.

How can you be a novice if you have a job?

Good question! The way I see it, even the Apostle Paul, who lived a life of prayer and tireless mission for God, had a day job. (We think he was a tent maker.) Early on I realized that if I were going to embark on this adventure with God, I would have to cut my hours at work, and eventually I might need to leave my paying work entirely. It seemed important, too, that my work be something congruent with formation. I took a position as the Homeless Outreach Nurse for the community health center where I work, which gave me the opportunity to step further outside of my cocoon and connect with others. So 8 months before I took first vows, I had already gone down to 30 hours a week at work in order to make prayer the priority, and had entered a role at work that could really challenge my blind spots and help me grow in love and service.

Wait, you took first vows? Where? How? Is that possible?

The vows are a key part of my vocation story. Early on, I felt pain and resentment that the Society of Jesus did not want my vows. I felt anger that historical women who felt called to be Jesuits were offered only partial vows, or somewhat grudging and secret vows, by Jesuit men in leadership. (Read here for a fair-minded and generous account of that time in our shared history.) But over time, God showed me just how much I was missing the point. In prayer, Jesus informed me that he would receive my vows, if I chose to make them. (Please note: he did not say “I will make Jesuit men receive your vows.” Key difference!) I didn’t understand at the time how that could come about. But six months later, at an unexpected time and from a trusted source, there arose the opportunity to make a Jesuit vow that I could make: a devotional vow, which novices sometimes make on the way to canonical vows. Straight from the Constitutions, this vow formula allowed me to dig into the nitty-gritty of a Jesuit discernment: could these vows offer me the freedom to follow God completely? I learned, too, while discerning the vows, that they are made to the Body and Blood of Christ. The provincial signs the papers, but Jesus receives the vow. Now I understood what Christ had meant in prayer! In the end, with joy, I did decide to take the vows and live into them, waiting only for the right moment. Then another unexpected opportunity came up from a combination of chance and 17,000 soon-to-expire airline points: to make my vows along with a class of novices, at a mass dedicated entirely to these First Vows. As I knelt at the back of the center aisle of the church at 10:10 am that Saturday, my whispered vows mingling with the mic’d words of one of my brothers, Jesus smiled from the chancel ceiling. I cared a lot about the mass, the space, the crowd, the provincial, and the presence of my brothers at my vows. But Jesus only cares about the condition of my heart.

Do you have a novice master?

I looked and prayed hard for a novice master. You might even say that I “interviewed” potential candidates, though I certainly allow that they each had a very different view of those conversations. Again, God showed me that I was missing the point, thinking too small about this. I was not called to “capture” one Jesuit friend in the role of a mentor, but to accept, hold lightly, and release each friend in the context of ongoing conversation – to inhabit a space of real mutuality, which is mutual sharing and learning. Instead of sending me a proper “Jesuit Father,” God is gradually weaning me off of the need for affirmation, approval, and “rightness” – security, certainty – that was a disordered aspect of my desire for a novice master. I remember directly addressing Jesus about it once. Restless and a little heartbroken after one particularly disappointing interview, I asked the white balsam crucifix on the wall, “Who will direct my novitiate, then?” There was a tone of both reassurance and reproach in the response: I will direct your novitiate. I direct all the novitiates.

In my formation, the closest thing I have had to a human novice master is a circle of dialogue partners, and a wealth of spiritual conversations. At first I was very intentional about setting up these conversations. One a week was my goal. I took notes on each, and kept them in a folder pocket labeled “Spiritual Conversations,” to give a sense of order and progress. But as my approach to spiritual conversation evolved, I started to realize that there were many more dialogues than “one a week,” and that God was in all of them. Life is my novice master.  Sometimes I think that sounds awfully naive – but then I think, hey, easy there, you’re only a novice! Novice: from a Latin word that meant “newly arrived.” Naive: from a French word that meant “natural.”

There are other frequently asked questions, which I hope to explore with you in further dialogue.  See here for a list, and please get in touch if you’d like to add a question to it!

Give yourself time to be a novice

If there is any advice inherent in the sharing above, I think it would be this: invest in your own formation.  Let God invest in you by giving yourself the time and space to be a novice.  Before you are tempted to produce or be very active in mission, give God the chance to teach you the basics.  During the Spiritual Exercises, I learned a lot about Martha of Bethany, the friend and disciple of Jesus.  I had the chance to stand in her shoes as Jesus, smiling, looked into my eyes, put a playful hand on each of my cheeks and shook me gently, saying, “Martha, Martha….there is need of only one thing!” (Lk 10:38-42)  Then he invited me to come and sit with Mary and his other disciples, saying, “I know you love to serve, and you will…but sit with me now, and let’s speak of the things of God.”  The Jesuit novitiate is like this: apostolic by nature, but also a time and space of intensive, focused learning and reflection, a lot of which is learning how to wait for God’s initiative.  Jesuit women need this, as much as Jesuit men do.  And the Church needs fully-formed Jesuit women, as much as she needs Jesuit men.  More than ever, she needs you.

So far, we have talked a little about the purpose, space and principles of the novitiate.  I feel like I haven’t shared much with you about my day-in, day-out experience as a novice.  I would like to tell you more about weekly spiritual direction and in-house retreats; taking vows and living in them; the search for a novice master, and what it taught me; the crucible of true dialogue with Jesuit friends in formation; the joy and sorrow of actually finding other Jesuit women, and of visiting women’s religious communities; the challenges and graces of apostolic experiments; and God’s poignant and humorous object lesson in community life – that after 16 years apart, as a first-year novice in the Jesuit Novitiate of Mary, the Mother of God, I lived with my mom! And now she is letting me go, as this novitiate space is dismantled and I enter my second year of Pilgrimmage and Long Experiments.

But as Blessed Oscar Romero observed, “No statement says all that could be said….It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

I will be writing to you more about these experiences, always in the hope of hearing your experiences, too.  As you know, my central purpose is simply to find you and gather you with other women for communal discernment.  In the meantime, if you are a “mapper” like me, feel free to navigate here to see concept maps of key insights from the first 8 months of this novitiate experiment.  May they be of benefit to you.

with love in Christ,


P.S.  Here are a few pictures of the space that I created, in continual collaboration with Jesus and Mary in prayer, and the Holy Spirit through circumstance.  Yours might look quite different!  You will notice, even in simplicity, some mess.  I have learned over the last 8 months that novitiates can be messy – and novices, too!  Believe it or not, God likes us that way.



The “Real” Jesus: Lk 2:51-52


He Was One of Us: the Life of Jesus of Nazareth, by Rien Poortvliet, text by Hans Bouma.
Copyright 1978, Doubleday & Company, Inc.


He went down with them to Nazareth,

and was obedient to them;

and his mother kept all these things in her heart.  

And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age

and favor before God and man.

~Lk 2:51-52

Dear Jesuit woman,

As we enter the climax of the liturgical year, I’m thinking a lot about Jesus. My spiritual director delightedly called Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises “the cream” of the retreat. (If you want to read more about the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises in general, try here.) This is because, while Week 1 can teach you a lot about God and a whole lot about yourself, in Week 2 you meet the “real” Jesus.

I put “real” in quotes because of course, this Jesus is different for every person, befriending and missioning each of us individually. And I also put “real” in quotes to differentiate the Jesus I met in Week 2 from a variety of caricatures that I had carried into retreat – a fuzzy composite that I now call “Words in Red Jesus.”

There can be a lot of struggle in the Exercises; I struggled frequently and vehemently, prompted to greater authenticity with God by the safety and support of the retreat container. One of my most violent struggles was with doubt and anger about Jesus, based on a whole life of hearing Gospel stories that presented a mysterious and sometimes contradictory person who, by the way, happened to be God.

But if my experience has anything to tell you about Jesus, it is that Jesus is eager to show you who he really is. And he is ready for all of your most uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, long before you are ready to reveal them. When I first told Jesus how mad I was at him, and how stupid I thought he was sometimes, I felt a sense of eagerness and delight in the air, as though Jesus were rubbing his hands together and grinning like my middle school basketball coach. “It’s go time!” he said. So I made a list of all the terrible things I had thought at one time or another about Jesus, based on cursory contact with Scripture and Tradition. To me, Jesus sometimes seemed like a spoiled prince, a demagogue, a “bad boyfriend,” a jealous lover, unavailable, exclusive, complacent, limited, judgmental, a know-it-all. Jesus seemed like someone who didn’t think women were very important, was obsessed with his inner circle, was not interested in understanding me, didn’t see me, didn’t listen, secretly thought I was less, or (worse?), didn’t even know my name. As I looked at the list, my heart ached.

“I’m kind of afraid to say these out loud,” I said. But I read him the list, and then set the journal aside and went for a walk. Outside, dry October leaves were tripping down the road on a warm walnut breeze, and the afternoon sun glinted through several enormous spider webs, anchored on the lawn and stretched out to the low-hanging branches of a live oak tree. As I watched the spider weave, a single solemn sentence floated up into my mind.  I can see why you’d think that, the voice said simply.

That afternoon in our hour of conversation, my spiritual director noticed how worn- out I seemed. “You’re thinking too much – we need to change up the dance! New music!” she announced, pulling a large, slender hardcover off the bookshelf. “Don’t read too much or try to contemplate the stories,” she said, referring to the five scripture readings about Jesus’ birth and coming of age that were slated for five prayer sessions in the next 24 hours. “Just skim, and look at these.”

This was the start of a new Jesus for me. That little boy drinking from the bowl looked exactly like my brother at 5 years old. This Jesus played with a puppy, sucked his fingers, and gazed up into Mary’s face with a sleepy left eye as he breastfed. He was soft, and vulnerable, and lively. He learned a craft from his father and studied the word of God with his mother and her brothers. As the Week went on, my director introduced a form of prayer that involves written dialogue. In this form, you quiet down, ask for the grace you are seeking, and then start to write without stopping. You simply let the pen create a dialogue between Jesus and you, skipping a line where you finish talking and Jesus starts. Using this form for the next several days, I was able to ask Jesus all about his youth and coming of age, his early adulthood and his call to ministry. The Jesus who emerged became the “real” Jesus of Nazareth to me – he still said the Words in Red, and did all those things that had confused me in the Gospels, but I understood him and his experience better. He had my trust.

Sometimes the stories that came out of these dialogues surprised me. The biggest surprise was the story that follows, in which a certain Holy Week character, in a sudden twist, gained life, and breath, and great depth in my prayer of imagination.

10.16 – 7:30 pm

-Did you ever fall in love, Jesus?

Yes. I was in “love” with a cousin in Nazareth. I thought about her a lot, even dreamed about her. I loved her hair, I remember. It was dark and rich and shiny. One of the reasons I liked to go to the fields was that it went by her house. Sometimes I would see her out there, too, going to draw water from the well that was closer to her house than the center-town one. I didn’t speak to her for a while after the dream. I felt embarrassed and thought she would know. I wasn’t great at talking with girls, although I had some girl-friends, family, when I was younger. Her name was Maryem.

-That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that you fell in love when you were young. I kind of thought since you were God, that you would be mostly focused on God.

I did think a lot about God. Especially after the time in Jerusalem when I was 12, I wanted to know more about God and our history with God. I realized that I had a strong desire for this, to learn from the scribes. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable because it seemed like the scribes didn’t know the same God that I knew. The God that I felt I knew from my time in the fields was very quiet, and very friendly. He reminded me of my father when he was teaching me something, very patient, only dropping a word here or there, not intrusive at all but always watching. My father saw everything I did in the workshop. Later, while we ate or walked, he would comment on a tiny decision that he saw me make, about placement or design, and I wouldn’t even know that he had seen me do it. It was often like he had read my mind. This is the Yahweh that I knew, very close, very quiet, and extremely detailed, observant. Like I could feel his breath on my neck when I walked. I really related to the Isaiah stories about God, and the God in Ezekiel, when God is not in the fire, not in thunder, not in storm, not in wind, but in a whisper. When I talked with my uncles, though, and other scribes, it seemed that their God sat all day and prescribed endless rules. I saw a lot of hair-splitting, which bothered my young mind. I also saw that often the people who were said to know the most about God mistreated others, or ignored others. They did not care for the ill or the poor in our town, like the elderly wives and mothers. They left the care of our widows to a community of women who organized to help them, when they could have used some of the riches and space of our temples to help. They even avoided people who were sick, saying they were unclean.


When Maryem was 14, something terrible happened that also made me change my mind toward my uncles. One day I went out to the well and she was there, but she had been beaten, terribly. Her dress was torn, her veil was off, and her face was bruised, even with a little blood. She had been raped, and robbed of the food and drink she was carrying, by highway robbers, I think. It was the first time I had talked with her in two years, I was 15. I felt terrible, so angry I did feel I could have killed the men, and I wanted to help her. My mother had taught me how to bind wounds and treat bruises, so I went quickly and got some oil, some wrappings, and some cool cloths with milk on them. I brought these to her, washed her face and arms with water from the well, and stood off to the side with my back turned while she washed her own private area. She was not herself. As you would say, she was “in shock.” She was with me, said thanks, but also not with me, somewhere far away, and she did not cry but looked like she had been crying before I saw her. I asked her if she wanted to go home – it was evening, sun setting, and she said no, not yet, could we just sit for a while and be quiet, she needed to rest. So I sat with her, although I really wanted to go get my mother or her mother or somebody who could help. I prayed to God for her, and I even held her hand for a little while. Seeing her suffering changed me toward her. I was no longer afraid of her or afraid of myself around her. The worst had happened, and I felt free to help, which was a strange feeling because if I had walked by her an hour before and she was fine (and I would have been looking for her), I would have been mute and kept my distance.


I learned something as I pondered this, which is that when we are well sometimes we are worse off than when we are ill, because when we are ill, or see others who are ill, it opens us in a way we are not open otherwise. I regretted the time I had spent not knowing Miryam (sic), not asking after her or talking with her, because I was afraid of what I would feel around her. I took this lesson with me, forever.


When it was dark, I finally asked if I could take her back to her home. She said yes and we walked together slowly, her legs aching and my heart aching, aching. We went to her house and unfortunately, it was her father, my uncle, who answered the door (I was hoping for her mother). He was very cold when I told him what had happened. He actually seemed angry or maybe a little disgusted with Miryam, which I couldn’t believe. I couldn’t believe my father would have treated her like that. He looked at her like she was spoiled, a thing of less value than when she had left the house. Then he seemed to cover his face and reaction, and he regained his composure. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said. “God bless you, peace be with you, greetings to your mother and father,” and he beckoned Miryam, not touching her, and closed the door. “Thank you, Jesus,” she said quietly, before she turned her back and went inside.


I felt sick.


-What did you think? How did this affect you, and her?

-Well, it really changed my view of her father and the other scribes of the town. Before that, I had thought of them as treasure-troves of knowledge about God, the covenant, and the history of our people. They treated me with respect because we were family, and they respected my family. But when I saw Jairus treat his own daughter with disdain like that, my concerns about their conduct with other people became very personal, and I could not feel warmly about them anymore, or fully trust their counsel. I still wanted to learn about the scriptures, so I went and listened, but not with the same relish as before. And I went to pray by myself more, went walking with God by the same paths I would have taken to see Miryam by the well, and I noticed her absence every time. She became a very large part of my thoughts, where before she was a passing feature, a kind of fancy and a curiosity in my mind. Now her face was before me, both beautiful and thoughtful, as she had been, and battered and bloody, as I last saw her. Her father sent her to another town. I found out that she had been betrothed to an important man in Jerusalem, a Pharisee, and that since she was no longer considered clean or suitable for marriage since the attack, he divorced her. She was sent to live with an elderly relative, a widow who was quite poor. That was the last time I saw her before my ministry, years later when I started traveling. I saw her in Bethany, then. I was overjoyed to see her, and I feel that she knew what was about to happen to me, though I don’t know how because I had told no one of the vision I had of this. She gave me great comfort in a moment of great desolation, of feeling very alone. I felt at that time that God sent her back to me, just as God had sent me to bind her wounds in my first real act of eye-opening compassion. Miryam was my first love, and she opened my eyes, too.

This was certainly a prayer of imagination.  It flowed without stopping from a place of quiet in me.  At times it felt alive; as though I were reading a book or watching a movie, the story took me by complete surprise at the end as Miryam became the unknown woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-39 and 44-50).  There are many stories like this in the Exercises – points at which God invites you to get under the Words themselves and meet the “real” Jesus, who is both specific to each person and revealed to all in common, though the shared stories of Scripture.  Later, trying to make sense of the experiences, I wondered if the narrator is actually Christ in me, speaking from within through vivid images of my “real” Jesus of Nazareth.  As my director would say, though, it’s good not to try too hard in prayer.

Good Holy Week to you!  Be assured of my prayers, and please pray for me, too.


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.




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!







2nd Experiment: Read the Constitutions

 Buzz Lightyear

picture credit

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?





Boundless Compassion


Through her heart, this sorrow sharing

All the bitter anguish bearing

Now at length the sword has passed.

 ~Stabat Mater Dolorosa, 13th Century 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t give up.  Give in!”

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

Part 2: A Prayer Experience – Jesus suffers with me

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

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

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

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

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

Friday night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I take it?!

When I take it!

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

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

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

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

Part 3: Boundless Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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?


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.


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?