Latest from the Jesuit Post
Have you ever hesitated to bring your needs to God? Doug Jones, SJ, reflects on Bartimaeus and how he teaches us to boldly approach God with our needs. Based on the readings for Sunday, October 24, 2021.
Never doubt the power of prayer!
Hi, I’m Doug Jones, and this is my One Minute Reflection.
Have you ever hesitated to bring your needs to God? Surely there are bigger problems in the world, and there are more important things that need God’s attention, right? Maybe you and I should look to today’s Gospel the next time we feel this temptation.
Bartimaeus keeps calling Jesus, and he doesn’t care what anyone says! He knows what he wants: he wants to see. Jesus readily gives Bartimaeus sight, rewarding him not only for his faith, but for his persistence.
Nowhere in scriptures or the Church’s tradition does God put a limit on what he will do for us. In the first reading, we hear just the opposite: God is a shepherd and father to Israel. A shepherd lives among the flock and provides watchful care. The first duty of parents is to make sure their children have all they need.
It’s not for us to place limits on God. God will give us what we need, when we need it.
“What am I doing here?”
This question rises from my gut to my throat like a lump. I’m sitting in the office of the director of the ARC (Ashcroft Rehabilitation Center), the prison unit where I will serve as chaplain at Belize Central Prison. It is my first day. I’ve been in Belize for exactly one week.
The director talks to me for nearly 5 hours straight. Throughout, he is interrupted regularly by phone calls from elsewhere in the prison and “interns” (inmates in the program) asking for favors. I struggle to follow the thread of the director’s monologue. By the end of the day, I cannot make heads or tails of the program, its curriculum, or what my role will be.
I feel small and inconsequential. I feel lost.
There is a piece of ancient rabbinic wisdom that I came across several years ago: “All beginnings are difficult.” Simple and obvious, but true.
Moving to a new place, starting a new ministry, getting to know a new community are never easy for me. Moving to Belize is no different, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
Whether I am constantly having to ask where something is in my new community, navigating the immigration system, or puzzling over the bewildering new setting at the prison, I have no shortage of reminders that I am new.
Being new feels like having the safety net ripped out from under me: gone is the familiarity of culture, people, places, and things; gone is the comfort and security I felt in my old community and mission. Fear rumbles in my gut. The question “what am I doing here?” is the first of many:
What do I do when I cannot grab hold of the comforts I am used to?
Who am I really? Will I measure up?
What can I hold onto, especially when everything feels so unfamiliar and new?
I know how I’ve handled most beginnings in the past: with reticence, reservation, and a tendency to look back with longing at what has been. Beginnings are to be endured.
Now, as in past beginnings, I clench my fists and try to endure this beginning, as quickly as possible, and find some stability.
During the first few weeks at the prison, I feel timid and adrift.
I’m a random stranger mingling among the interns. I sit in on classes, which are often difficult to understand due to my unfamiliarity with the Belizean Kriol English that almost all of the men speak. The classrooms lack good circulation; the air is humid and heavy and my eyelids droop. I lament my inexperience with the 12 Steps of AA upon which the classes and the program are based. When an instructor asks me to introduce myself, I say I’m there to listen and help with spiritual matters. Even as I say it, I feel nervous, unsure of myself.
Despite having one or two good one-on-one conversations with guys most days, I leave at day’s end fixated on the lack of direction I feel. I blame the director; I blame the dysfunction of the prison; I blame myself for not being bold enough. I yearn for more structure, something I can point to and say: this is what I do.
I begin to recognize that underneath this yearning for clarity, I want to belong, to have a purpose, to feel relevant, to have control. And I begin to notice how much I am focused on ME.
In prayer one morning, I am consumed with the frustrations I feel at the prison. I watch Jesus as he calls Matthew and then attends dinner at his house. Sinners abound. In the silence of my heart, the One who tells the Pharisees that the sick, not the well, need a physician walks over and quietly tells me: keep your focus on the men at the prison and come, be a healer of souls with me.
My frustrations dissipate. I feel an invitation to loosen my grip on all I am clinging to for stability and to look for Jesus at the prison.
A couple days later, I open my desk drawer and pull out a letter that I’ve kept for nearly 15 years. It is from a beloved professor of mine from college. I start to read…
May this letter find you in a moment of heightened attention and receptivity…
(My heart stills and I am quiet.)
As I’m sure you know only too well, we often find ourselves falling into patterns of thought and behavior that, while frequently leading to very good things, tend to obscure the untamed mystery of the Spirit…
Allow yourself to become ‘lost’ again. Allow yourself to risk letting go of all conceptions of your ‘self,’ whether these are conceptions you cherish or despise… Return to that Silence which alone allows you to begin again, and begin again, and begin again.
Always begin again.
My professor’s words cut straight through me.
Yes, I realize, it is much easier to cling to what has brought comfort, stability, affirmation. And I know that I could do so, because I have before and the world has not come crashing down.
Yet the Spirit, who has brought me to Belize, is inviting me beyond what I know and who I think I am; beyond what is comfortable or secure and into something fresh and new and unknown.
Here and now, this Spirit is inviting me to begin again and become lost. With Jesus.
Little by little, I become lost at the prison.
I continue to meet one-on-one with a handful of guys; they are rich and powerful experiences. And Jesus is undeniably there.
But I begin winding up in the in-between, uncomfortable places and I find Jesus there too.
One afternoon, I am praying an Examen and worrying a bit about what the last couple of hours will entail, since I have nothing planned. I feel a tug within to let the Spirit lead me. Within minutes, I am embroiled in an intense chess match with Larry, whom I’d gotten to know a couple weeks prior when he was in an isolation cell for acting out. He crushes me. Twice. At the end, I sit back and behold Larry as he quietly smiles at me. I see his determination, his intelligence, his quiet confidence. I am in awe.
During rec time one day, Ronald approaches me and talks at me about the Bible. This goes on for over an hour and I begin to grow a bit numb. I zone in and out. I wonder how I might extract myself from the situation. All of a sudden, the monologue about the Bible stops and Ronald tells me that he has been in and out of prison since he was 12. He is now 49 years old. It dawns on me that for Ronald, the Bible is a source of identity and stability in a harsh, violent world. I catch a glimpse of his undeniable humanity and my heart turns from stone to flesh.
Another day, I go outside for fresh air. A group of guys are hanging out in the shade and call me over. I’m a bit apprehensive; I don’t know them and they don’t know me. After an hour, I am laughing so hard that I am tearing up because one of the guys is ripping wickedly funny jokes. As I am recovering, Brandon, one of the group members, gets serious and starts talking about faith and his struggles with it. And then he looks at me and says: “In the Gospels, Jesus came to be with people like us; if he were to come now I wonder who he’d be with, if it would be with me?”
I am stunned. I tell him: “Yes, I think so. I think he’s already here.”
All beginnings are indeed difficult. And yes, newness brings vulnerability, uncertainty and discomfort. But newness also renders the world strange, wondrous, and fresh. To become lost in this world is to risk security for an encounter with the untamed mystery of God.
Always begin again.
It is impossible to read The Diary of Jesus Christ by Bill Cain, SJ and not reflect on your own life. Here is the genius of the author and the invitation to all of us. Why not write a diary of your own, now? No matter if you doubt anyone would read it. Is that not how diaries normally work, more for the writer than for any reader?
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites us to pray on the hidden life of Jesus. Bill Cain has turned that prayer into a form that can be shared, and an intimate form at that: a diary. To be honest, I have almost always associated diaries with grade school girls — pink, fuzzy notebooks complete with a lock. Bill Cain, SJ begins with a Jesus of just nine years, a young Jew who wants to be a rabbi, but there is a catch. No one likes the current rabbi.
So what does Jesus want to be as a child? A baker. Why? Because he comes to know one who is happy. How? Because he is well liked, works hard, and makes people laugh.
Would this aspiring baker have kept a diary? I have never daydreamed about Jesus having one. How hard it is to set aside our 21st century, American minds, as if they were blended concoctions or smoothies, and try on 1st century, Palestinian minds. Bill Cain does something in between, I think, lest we be completely lost — culturally, linguistically, religiously. I suppose none of us can completely rid ourselves of whatever smoothie we were born with, and into, and have been surrounded in from the beginning.
Remember, Jesus was human.
What Bill Cain offers is something that goes down so easy, that is so rich, that it is difficult to put down, like a smoothie on a hot day, or better yet, a cold beer, which, by the way, also makes an appearance in Jesus’s diary. So does his broken arm as a youngster. You will never guess how it happened. So does an instance or two of reparative justice. So does that first miracle and its drunken effects, beneficial though they may be. So does a talk with John the Baptist about sex. So does a man who confronts Jesus about the lack of inclusivity in his preaching, a man who would play a role later on in Jesus’s life, and death. So do women who are offended that they were not invited to join Jesus, too, like the apostles.
Before I was half way done with Jesus’s diary, I felt myself growing closer to Him, not because of footnotes, but because of a familiarity of and with Jesus that the diary cannot help but cultivate.
Read the diary for yourself, and as you go, begin writing your own. Bill Cain gives us quite an example to follow, combining scripture, prayer, and our otherwise hidden stories. The question is, do you know your own story? Afterall, ‘All God asks is that we become ourselves fearlessly,’ something that we are sometimes hesitant to do and something that is always punished by those who have not. Read The Diary of Jesus Christ and come to know, in a new way, that Christ is not so much about rules as he is about relationship, or even better, relationships.
The Diary of Jesus Christ is available from Orbis Books.
Do we recognize the crucified Christ in our midst? How do we respond? Br. Sullivan McCormick, SJ, reflects on recognizing Christ in those suffering in our midst. Based on the readings for Sunday, October 17, 2021.
Where is the crucified Christ in our midst?
Hi, I’m Br. Sullivan McCormick and this is my One-Minute Reflection.
After the murder of George Floyd, an act of solidarity and remembrance arose in the form of kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. After reflecting on that act of solidarity and his death, I was struck by how his death bore the traces of Christ’s Passion, a Passion prophesied by the first reading in Isaiah. Here were two men both mocked, tortured, and murdered by state violence.
So how do we respond? St. Ignatius offers a spiritual response rooted in praying with Christ’s Passion. When we see Christ crucified in our midst we can ask for the grace to feel anguish, sorrow, tears, and grief. This gives us heart knowledge instead of just relying on our intellect. This is the interior feeling Ignatius talks about which can lead us to conversion, so that when we see Christ crucified in our midst we can say, “I am responsible, I am my brother’s keeper.”
The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into Ignatian Contemplation. To learn more about this form of prayer, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Ignatian Contemplation, Encountering God Through Our Imagination.”
As a high school theology teacher, I am constantly wrestling with the question: how can I communicate to my students why they should commit themselves to pursuing God?This “how” question, however, begs justification, Why do I think it is good to try to convince my students to seek God?
The best way I can answer this is through a story.
The year had reached its (literal) darkest day on Christmas a few weeks prior. From then on, the days would become progressively filled with more light.
I was in Guelph, Canada. Snow covered the ground and temperatures reached below freezing for the majority of the time I was there praying through the Spiritual Exercises. The snow made the world more still. Cold, deep silence impregnated the air throughout the month with an otherworldly spiritual atmosphere.
I usually prayed in the large chapel with a Seiza bench in front of a tabernacle, lit by a small, glass-blown oil lamp. But one day, I decided to pray in a smaller chapel on the other end of the retreat center. The room was a carpeted square, with a tabernacle set near two gently-colored windows, which allowed in some sunlight.
I was near the end of the retreat, and in this time of prayer I was making an Ignatian “colloquy”, which is an imagined conversation with Christ where one speaks with Christ “as one friend speaks to another.”
I had prayed many of these colloquies over the retreat and had come to gain a “sense” of what it was like to sit with Jesus, in the same way that a person has a “sense” of what it is like to be with a close friend or family member. At first, imagining a conversation with Jesus like this was weird, and of course, I worried that I was just making things up. However, over the course of the retreat, lacking a better way of saying it, I simply found myself not speaking to myself, but being spoken to by Christ.
Usually, my imagination worked less on the visual level and more on the affective level, meaning I didn’t so much imagine what Christ looked like as I prayed, but what it felt like to be with him. This day however, there was a change. I settled into prayer, kneeling on the Seiza bench, and allowed my mind and heart to enter the colloquy. The image that came to me this time was radically different. I was in an undefined space, kneeling the same as I was there in the chapel, but with Christ present a few feet in front of me, facing me. Then for no apparent reason, my vision was drawn to his hands, his right hand in particular, and more specifically to the wound on his hand from the crucifixion.
My vision magnified to see his right hand with its wound more closely. I was uncertain. I didn’t know why I was looking at this, especially because my sight was strangely attracted by some kind of unseeable force to this hand with its wound. I hadn’t ever prayed like this before.
I gazed for a time, wondering. Then I was moved back to facing Jesus’ full person again. We were now facing each other. Unexpectedly, Jesus reached out both of his hands, and I was moved to reach out my own hands to him to hold them.
Next, without warning, awareness of my brokenness, sinfulness, and pain – which I had prayed with over the course of the retreat – welled to the fore of my consciousness. It was so intensely present that I felt it physically, like something coursing through my veins like blood, pumping to the rhythm of my heartbeat.
I then immediately felt a pull, like a magnetism, from the hands of Christ I was holding. The closest thing I can compare it to is a moment when you are in pain and you hug someone and feel like all you’ve held inside is in some way being given over to the other person. Or like someone sucking venom out of your hand after being bitten by a snake.
I felt my pain, like venom, being drawn out of my body by Christ through his wounds. It was physical, psychological, and spiritual all at the same time and it was overwhelmingly strong and intense. It was completely understandable, but almost indescribable. Tears of relief poured out of my eyes. Goosebumps rippled through my body. I felt love in every way I knew I desired it: as a force for healing, satiation, unburdening, quickening, joy, etc. I was being evacuated, somehow I knew it, of all my fears and darkness.
Thoughts entered this affective orchestra; I was convinced in a way that had previously evaded my assent that all of the built up baggage now being evacuated was ultimately and completely conquered, overcome by, and made powerless in the face of Christ now present to me through his resurrection wounds. The victory over all the darkness within me I had consistently longed for in the back of my mind was made viscerally real and believable.
To put it most simply, everything I wanted, had ever wanted, or could imagine wanting was happening to me through Jesus right there in holding his wounded hands. Redemption, salvation, glorification, union, love, compassion, energy; it was all there. I now understood what these too-often abstract words meant for me personally. I knew I was existentially okay, safe, and taken care of. There was no fear, no separation from the love of God. Christ drew out the poison, the venom of sin in its fullest sense.
Soon the prayer drifted toward a natural conclusion. The intensity of Christ, his wounds, and the experienced grace of consolation subsided and I remained in an afterglow of joyful peace.
This time of prayer comes back to me now and then. It is a touchstone, a divining rod, as if its message has been laced through my spiritual skeleton, so to speak. It provides an “answer” to new times of desolation, confusion, or uncertainty. It’s certainly not magic, and not like any other kind of memory, but it is real, and it does speak to me. I know it is true, even if I don’t live out of that truth all the time.
This is the best explanation of why I want to communicate to my students that they should seek God with their whole hearts. I want them to receive what I have received. I want them to know the God I have come to know: the God whom I follow imperfectly, but with hope, and who communicates in an inexplicably real and powerful way his love, mercy, and healing grace. The God who, when sought, we find to already be seeking us.
“Who am I?” I have heard that question repeatedly since I started working with high school students. Looking back, there was a time when I struggled with that question myself. I, too, experienced an identity crisis. Especially during my college years.
At first, it began simply as a sense of confusion with the questions popping up in my mind like “who am I?” “why am I here?” “what is the purpose of my life?” When answers didn’t become immediately apparent, I felt unfulfilled, anxious, and depressed. All this instilled in me a profound sense of insecurity. I tried to resolve that insecurity with every exciting thing that I could find to distract myself. Yet, the more I tried to run from it, the more frequent it followed me. Slowly, in this exhausting attempt to escape, everything became meaningless to me. One of the characters from the Book of Chuang Tzu helped me realize what I needed to do to end this futile attempt of escape.
Chuang Tzu tells the story of a man who was scared to see his shadow. He tries to run from it but realizes wherever he runs, his shadow always follows him. I was that man, trying to run away from my shadow of insecurity.
This commenced a struggle to get out of that darkness. I decided to face my insecurity by letting go of my control. When the crisis and its accompanying questions entered my thoughts, I’d sit down and invite them in instead of fighting against them. It’s like when you are in a room, and suddenly somebody turns off the light, everything goes dark and you can’t see a thing. But when you close your eyes and calm yourself, your eye adapts and is able to see from very little light. At that moment when I let go of control, I began to see. The answer was there, a distant light helping me see in the darkness—a memory from my adolescent years back in Vietnam.
When I was in middle school, I didn’t consider myself the brightest kid. All that I could see in me was a sense of inadequacy. I often thought, “I’m not worthy,” “I’m not good enough,” and “I don’t really matter.” I felt this way until I met a math teacher who saw something in me I couldn’t see myself. This teacher helped me realize my potential to think logically by giving me the skills necessary to solve complex math problems. I remember one time when I’d found the solution to a challenging math problem, he told my fellow classmates, “An is one of the best students I’ve ever had, and you should learn from him.” What he said changed my life forever.
This teacher simply told me something about myself that I had never heard before, and it made an impact on my life. By reminding me that I can be more than my own perceived limitations, he gave me a new identity and made me a new person. He told me who I am.
The answer to the question of “who I am” is not simply a fixed quality that I have, but the potential to become what I can. Therefore, by myself, I can never find the answer to the question, “who am I?” Yet, what I can do is to find those who can tell me who I am, not just simply in words but in their genuine appreciation of me as a person. That’s something we all need.
This memory helped me recognize that Christians have that “other” who reveals our identity to us. That person, too, is a teacher. He knows me and has been following me, like a shadow, since I came to this world. He is always there, behind me, before me, around me. He knows me better than I know myself, and he cares for me better than I care for myself. He is my mentor, brother, my companion, and my dear friend. His name is Jesus.
The man in Chuang Tzu’s story realizes that if he stands in the shadow of something else bigger than him, then he would not need to run away anymore. As for me, I now choose to stand in the shadow of the One for whom “darkness is not dark…and the night shines as the day.” 1
The weather’s getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, and it’s finally time for one of my favorite things in the world of sports: playoff baseball. The MLB playoffs started last week after a drama-filled last day of the regular season that saw four teams competing for the AL’s two wild card spots. Now it’s the race to 11 victories (or 12 for our wild card teams) across three different series. And in the uncertainty of playoff baseball, each of these ballclubs has a reason to hope.
None of these teams is here by fluke. Over the course of a 162 game season, the best teams rise to the occasion in their divisions. And sometimes, like with the 106-win Dodgers, there’s a team just a little bit better than you.1
While it’s true that every team is mathematically alive on MLB Opening Day, there are teams that realistically have no chance of winning the World Series in April. But the teams that make it to the playoffs always have a chance to win it all. For some, it’s more of a stretch, but every playoff team this year had at least 88 wins. They were all more or less dominant against their competition.
Take a moment to look at some teams that lived up to that hope. Coming into September, the St. Louis Cardinals were 2.5 games out of the playoff race, trailing three other teams for the second wild card spot. They then won 17 games in a row and won the second wild card by 7 games. Or consider the Chicago White Sox. They were without their two young outfield stars (Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez) for most of the season, and lost starting catcher Yasmani Grandal for most of July and August. They could have fallen apart, and yet they won the AL Central handily and finally appear to have their roster at full strength coming into the playoffs. And while the Cardinals were eliminated in their Wild Card game, who’s to say the White Sox can’t keep winning?
I’m not going to try and make predictions about the playoffs here. For one, I’m far too biased. I’m a White Sox fan through and through. And baseball has so many variables that go into making a winning team for me to do anything but guess hopefully. That’s especially true for the pitching staffs. There’s an old saying in baseball that “momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.” The next guy in the rotation has nothing to do with the previous game, and you never know what kind of stuff he’ll have.
Some team’s dream is going to come true, and none of us knows for sure which team will emerge from each league. And that’s the fun of it all. For the 26 players on the eventual winning roster, they get to live out a childhood dream, whether it’s their first time winning it all or their fifth.
And, of course, for most of the players and organizations, the season will end with a loss. It can be frustrating, especially when high expectations aren’t met, like this year’s Yankees who came into the season as favorites to win the AL pennant.2 For many, they have the hope that they can dust themselves off and try again the next year, though for some this is their last hurrah.
In our own lives, we also face a great deal of uncertainty. And yet we always have that option to hope for something good. We all have our big dreams that might just come true with the right combination of hard work, luck, and circumstances.
But if we focus only on the goals and miss the journey and the relationships that brought us to this point, we lose a major insight that sports teaches us: we cannot do it alone. No single player can win a baseball game entirely by himself, let alone a World Series title.
And so it’s true for us; we all have people that we can work with to help us in each facet of our lives: work, faith, family, or whatever. But, much like baseball, life is unpredictable. Sometimes, an error on our part or on another’s will derail what we hoped would be the case. And we get back up, usually with help from someone else, ready to try again.
No matter what plays out this October, I’ll be watching as many games as I can. And I’ll be hoping for a little postseason magic from my White Sox.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Sometimes we might ask such questions hoping to check off the boxes, but Jesus reveals that the Kingdom of God is about more. Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ, reflects on Jesus’ call to the rich young man in this week’s gospel. Based on the readings for Sunday, October 10, 2021.
Sunday Pop quiz for the Kingdom of God.
Hi, my name is Patrick Saint-Jean. This is my one-minute reflection.
“Teacher, what must I do to go to heaven:” The man asks Jesus, and he replied, “No killing, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, no defraud, Obey your father and mother.”
When I was a kid, I used to hear this gospel with pride, because I could easily check those boxes and pass the quiz. Is that really what the kingdom of God is about?
Today, Mark invites us to meet Jesus who encounters a man like me, who easily checks the boxes, he easily passes the quiz for the Kingdom. Yet, Jesus invites not only to focus on completing the list, but rather, have freedom to follow him.
Our Sunday quiz for today, the Kingdom is not only about checking the boxes, but is about a deep spiritual freedom and commitment to follow Jesus.
Are you ready?
I drew my first portrait of Jesus when I was in eighth grade in the way that many artists begin: copying from a reference I found online. In my life now as a Jesuit, I have enjoyed drawing from my imagination as a form of prayer and have learned much more about drawing, about myself, and about the original Creator.
One of my Jesuit brothers quipped that this form of prayer was connected with Fr. Dave Fleming’s appropriately titled version of the Spiritual Exercises: Draw Me into Your Friendship. He was right. I found that as I was drawing Jesus into my sketchbook, he was drawing me deeper into his life. These images capture some of those moments.
In my first year as a Jesuit, I drew every day. Sometimes the act of drawing functioned as a visual Examen, appreciating objects as mundane as the prayer chair and blanket in my room. In this way, my understanding of drawing began to deepen in gratitude for the world around me.
During my Long Retreat, when I spent thirty days in silent prayer, drawing became a much different expression of praying with my imagination. Toward the beginning of the retreat, I saw myself as a street artist, proclaiming: “Christ is King. Christ is risen,” as I offered my drawings on the sidewalk in exchange for donations. After the gratitude with which I received the world around me, I felt moved to offer something back, and my drawings became an expression of that response.
A few days later, I prayed with the meditation on Christ the King, where St. Ignatius asks people to imagine a ruler capable of shaping the world for the better. The implicit question becomes, “who wouldn’t want to follow this type of leader, even if it were difficult?” In my imagination, in addition to a regal ruler with a cape and sword, I saw Jesus wearing a simple robe and being led by a child, plodding along in front of him. It was this pair of images that moved me: Jesus as a powerful ruler trying to redeem the world, and Jesus as a patient companion to the child-like.
Throughout the rest of my retreat, I got to know this side of Jesus who welcomes the child-like and takes joy in their imagination. I imagined the way he would draw people into his presence, with a trust that children recognize easily. In this image, I recognized the one who drew me into the retreat and took joy in my own imagination, as I was learning how to draw him more into my life.
How might you use creativity to deepen your imaginative prayer and allow yourself to be drawn into that friendship with Jesus?
All images courtesy of the author.
This is the second installment of A Deacon’s Diary. The first installment described life as an “almost deacon.”
On the Thursday night after ordination, I met up with a very good friend. We were seated outside, on the patio of a bar. In the middle of our usual catch up, he said, interrupting himself:
What did your ordination feel like?
My friend, also a Jesuit, had been there, in Saint Ignatius, Chestnut Hill the morning I became a deacon.
I was silent for a few moments. My friend looked at me intently. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
The night before my ordination to the (transitional) diaconate, I split a pizza with two of my Jesuit friends, Guz and Grant. They’d traveled for the occasion, as had Greg. We were in their AirBnB, which Guz began referring to as an “Air B” (since there was no breakfast).
We sat around and watched Chapelwaite. It was an ordinary Friday night for me—usually in my house, we’d gather for pizza with Jesuits from other houses, and then watch a horror movie.
Maybe the difference was that on that particular Friday evening, I wanted a quiet night. So we chatted about priesthood and ministry while comparing notes on pizzerias and Stephen King adaptations. I went back to my house early, just after 9 pm. I had ironing to do and wanted to make sure everything was in order.
I starched and ironed an amice, a garment that covers a clerical collar underneath an alb. It’s a large, rectangular piece of linen with long, unwieldy ties that crisscross one’s torso.
I ironed my alb, the white robe that would go over my clothes, but under the other vestments I would receive in the morning.
I ironed two clerical shirts. One for Saturday. And one for “first” Masses at Boston University’s Catholic Chaplaincy on Sunday.
I thought about a short story I’d remembered from a literature class (‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olsen) about a woman who tells her story and troubles while ironing clothes. I wondered if I should be more stressed about the ordination, and if I had been, maybe the ironing would’ve been more therapeutic.
Every morning that week, I woke up and thought it was Saturday and I’d rush to start getting ready. And then realize it wasn’t yet Saturday. And in the week and a half since ordination, I still wake up most mornings and think it’s ordination morning. It’s a strange time loop of not-yet and already.
The ironing was calming, and I managed not to scorch anything that was white or linen.
Everything was hung up and arranged so I couldn’t forget things in the morning. Six o’clock came early and I got ready and drove to the church with a brother.
I vested almost immediately and then sat in the lower church for some silence. But I was waiting for a few people, to make sure they arrived—my mom, my aunt, a friend who traveled with them, a few other friends. A Benedictine monk. A neuroscientist from Harvard. A college friend I hadn’t seen in more than fifteen years. A newly-vowed Jesuit whose spiritual director I had once been.
I would pray for a while and then drift up to the upper church to see if people had arrived.
Eventually, I found myself among the crowd of concelebrants—deacons and priests who had vested to process with us and join in the liturgy. I chatted with my older brother-types in religious life–Guz, Grant, and Greg.
I teased our ordaining bishop, Mark, that I’d never seen him so formal. He got me back a bit and roasted me by name during the homily, commenting that we shouldn’t just import our late-night insights while reading Karl Rahner into our homilies.
I was reminded that it’s dangerous to be friends with bishops.
Then it was time for the procession. As we stood outside, one classmate remarked in mock-shock that he’d never seen me in shoes before. Another joked that he had an Uber waiting, in case of any last-minute changes of heart. It was joyous, but nerves were showing a little bit.
My ribs hurt. After making a series of promises to be obedient, and celibate, and to conform our lives to Christ, the twelve of us lay on the floor of the aisle of the church. We’d practiced everything for a few hours the Thursday prior—kneeling and standing and prostrating.
But my ribs hurt. The floor was hard and made of terrazzo. I was overwhelmed. Lying face down, I began to sing along with the congregation. They asked the saints and angels to pray with us. We asked God to bless us and be merciful.
Earlier in the week, my confessor had said to me: When you lay down on the floor and get up again on Saturday, you’ll carry all the same people, all the same things as you approach the altar. The question is: ‘how do you carry them?’
I got up and knelt before the bishop. He laid hands on my head, an ancient sign used by the early Church.
My friends, my brothers–Guz, Grant, and Greg–vested me in the deacon’s diagonal stole and dalmatic—a kind of tunic. Vesting priests at ordination are important relationships, often mentors. In my case, older brothers who’d seen me through a lot. Earlier, they’d laughed loudly as the bishop roasted me. Now, they were both serious about what they were doing and teasing all at the same time.
Here, put this on. But kiss it first. One said, as he held the stole for me to kiss and then put it on me.
Which way does it go? I asked. From left to right. He explained.
The other two, entrusted with the dalmatic, joshed: We thought about putting it on you backwards.
One directed: Hold out your arms. I held them out in a cross-shape. And he checked that all of the layers of cloth were arranged well.
They each embraced me. And I thanked them. For vesting me. But more for our brotherhood and their company.
One of my teachers, Cathy, who had proclaimed one of the readings, happened to be sitting in the front row and we shook hands—the kind of two-handed handshake that’s joyful and robust.
The rest of the liturgy proceeded more or less as usual. There was a celebratory luncheon after and various people from different parts of my life mixed and mingled. I appreciated all of them being there, but couldn’t spend enough time with every person. That would be hours of conversation with each of them. Slowly, the afternoon passed and people trickled home.
The other Jesuits in my house graciously cooked dinner for my family and a few guests. And we had a relaxed dinner. I’ve enjoyed and valued occasions when my mom and aunt can meet other Jesuits and see what our life is like. My aunt always introduces herself as my “favorite aunt.”
All throughout people asked me if I felt different. I’d quip when people asked about “ontological change.” I thought I was theologically clever when I replied that I understood that the action of the ordination on Saturday was part of an entire movement that would culminate on Sunday, when I assisted with the liturgy and the proclaiming of the gospel. It was a very theological way of saying: I’m not sure.
My friend looked intently. He was still waiting for an answer, sitting quietly after he’d interrupted himself and stopped telling his story. The music from the bar was enough to dampen the silence.
He looked tired—exhausted, in fact. It had been a long week. Stifling a yawn, he waited. The question hung between us:
What did your ordination feel like?
I’m not sure. I said. I felt a lot of things. And I was overwhelmed. I sang as I lay on the floor for the prostration during the Litany of the Saints. I was surprised.
My friend had been there on Sunday morning for the first Mass at Boston University. He walked in a bit into the homily, as the T had been delayed that morning on account of construction. He was a good and persistent friend.
Not sure why, but interiorly, I felt the same way as when I was back and forth checking if family had arrived on Saturday morning. I settled down once I saw him sit down in a pew, mid-way down BU’s Marsh Chapel.
On the altar, I tried to remember everything from my rites course the spring before—I’d been rereading parts of the missal that morning.
We didn’t get everything right at the first Mass. The second time around, I think we did everything correctly. I needed more practice. Neither Fr. Kevin—BU’s Catholic Chaplain—nor I were used to my being a deacon.
He said, Did you feel anything when the bishop put his hands on your head? Or when he passed you the book of the gospels?
I don’t think so, I said. Nothing very strong. Those were key moments, but they were just woven into a whole for me. The whole of it was an experience that flowed, full of overwhelm and feelings everywhere. All of it felt like something sacred. But I’m not sure what it felt like. And that continued on Sunday.
I wondered if he thought I looked different as I was in the sanctuary at Marsh. Eventually, I thought I felt ever so slightly different. But I’m still not sure what it was. I’m grateful for friends who ask. And listen patiently, intently as I grapple to describe it all, a reality hiding underneath my elegant-sounding theologies.
What would it be like to encounter Jesus face to face?
To witness the moment of his birth?
To hear his voice as he calls Peter?
To feel the joy of Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection?
Ignatian contemplation is a method of prayer that involves using our imagination to bring scripture to life. St. Ignatius promotes and instructs retreatants how to engage in this form of prayer in his Spiritual Exercises. You may have seen the term “contemplation” used in a variety of different ways, but in the Ignatian tradition, it specifically refers to this method of imaginative prayer. Ignatian contemplation allows us to see stories that we may have heard countless times with new eyes. We might notice different details, ask new questions, and find ways that God is speaking directly to us.
I’ve always had an active imagination, so this form of prayer was right up my alley when it was first introduced to me. I had pictured scenes from scripture before, as I’m sure many of us have, but it was rarely the focal point of my prayer experiences. Ignatian contemplation puts the action front and center. I fell in love with this form of prayer during my own experience of the 30-day version of the Spiritual Exercises. Now when I reflect on certain stories in scripture, I have very specific memories of them, almost as if I have witnessed them for myself. The greatest gift is the opportunity to grow closer to Jesus. Through imaginative prayer, you have the opportunity to notice how Jesus treats those that he ministers to, how he interacts with his family and friends, and ultimately, to speak with him yourself.
Imaginative Prayer in Catholic Tradition
St. Ignatius didn’t invent imaginative prayer, though you could say that he reinvigorated the practice and popularized it through the Spiritual Exercises. Before Ignatius, St. Bonaventure’s Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ led to a promotion of imaginative prayer by the Franciscans in the fourteenth century. In this work, Bonaventure promotes engaging with scripture through the imagination and presents several meditations from his own imagination for others to pray with.
In one of his meditations, Bonaventure has the reader pray with an extended account of the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, a story that occupies only a few lines in the Bible. The reader is invited to join the Holy Family on their journey and attend to the child Jesus. “Take then the child Jesus…and in your imagination place him devoutly on the ass, conduct him carefully, and when he is inclined to dismount, receive him joyfully in your arms, and tenderly cherish him.” 1 Although this is a simple story, through imaginative prayer a person can take into consideration the hardships of this journey and actually spend time with the child Jesus.
Carthusian Ludolf of Saxony similarly produced a work of imaginative reflections on the life of Christ, which is most likely the version that Ignatius read at Castle Loyola during his recovery and conversion. A major difference between Ignatius and these writers is that they would provide the imaginative experience for prayer, but Ignatius preferred to set the stage and leave the imaginative work to God and the retreatant. This was so important to Ignatius that he gives special instructions in the Exercises for the retreat director to give appropriate instruction, but not to interfere: “leave the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” 2 Experiences of Ignatian contemplation are truly unique to the person in prayer and God can use them to speak directly to the individual.
Contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises
Ignatius gives instructions for contemplations at the beginning of the second “week” of the Spiritual Exercises, which focuses on the life of Jesus Christ. Ignatian contemplation could work well with any scriptural narrative, but Ignatius primarily focuses the practice on the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus found in the gospels. The first exercises that Ignatius labels as contemplations are on the Incarnation and the Nativity. William Peters, S.J., who wrote a commentary on the Spiritual Exercises, proposes that these represent two different ways of making a contemplation. 3
Observing a scene – Contemplation on the Incarnation
The contemplation on the Incarnation has the retreatant imagine the Trinity looking down upon the earth and seeing all of humanity, ultimately deciding that the Second Person will become Incarnate for the sake of the salvation of the human race. The Trinity then sends Gabriel to Mary and the retreatant watches her response to the Annunciation. This first contemplation is massive in scale and the retreatant is meant to observe and soak it all in. What suffering does God see? How does God react? The goal is to try to gain some insight into the mind and heart of God while also paying attention to your own reactions to what you see.
Entering the Story – Contemplation on the Nativity
The second contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises focuses on the Nativity of Jesus Christ. This type of contemplation narrows the scale to a single event so that we can observe every minute detail. We are to picture the road, the journey, the cave/stable, and the stark reality of the environment in which Jesus is born. Ignatius also includes instructions to insert oneself into the story as a person serving Mary and Joseph. When we enter a scene through contemplation, we have the opportunity to see things from our own point of view, interact with the characters, and observe the small details that aren’t available in scripture. This helps to “incarnate” the scenes for us so that we may enter more fully into the mystery. What would it be like to hold the baby Jesus?
Application of the Senses
Another method of engaging in contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises is called the “application of the senses.” As the name suggests, this is when we imaginatively use our senses to explore a scene from scripture. This could involve paying more attention to details such as what people look like, the sound of the voice of Jesus, the feel of the wood of the manger or cross, the smell of the air off the Sea of Galilee and the taste of the bread at the Last Supper. The exercise is formally introduced as a way of repeating the contemplations of the Incarnation and the Nativity, so that one might continue to go deeper into a particular scene. The application of the senses has the potential to be the most immersive of the imaginative experiences, as well as the most creative since sensory details are largely lacking in scriptural accounts. This can also be a great way to engage with a story that has otherwise been difficult to pray with.
Steps to Ignatian Contemplation
While the experience of Ignatian contemplation is ultimately between the person praying and God, Ignatius does give some helpful steps to enter into the prayer. Here are some of those steps with some of my own tips as well.
- Preparations for prayer: Spend a little time in advance (perhaps the night before) deciding when and where you will pray, as well as what passage you want to focus on. That way you don’t spend your prayer time trying to decide.
- Entering into prayer:
- Pray for guidance: Pray that all of your thoughts and actions be directed by God. This experience is more than a thought experiment and this prayer helps to remind us that we are seeking greater knowledge and closeness to God.
- Review the narrative: Slowly read the passage once or twice so that you can remember the events that take place. Afterward, you might put the text away so that you can stay in your imagination.
- Composition of place: Take some time to set the stage and picture the environment in which the story takes place. Immerse yourself in the scene and look around for a moment.
- Ask for the grace you hope to receive: What do you hope to gain from this time of prayer? Ask God for that grace. A grace that Ignatius suggests in the second week of the Exercises could be helpful in most prayer periods: “I ask for the grace to know Jesus intimately, to love him more intensely, and so to follow him more closely.” 4
- Pray through the story: You have already set the stage, so let the narrative begin to play out. Imagine the people and their words and actions. Pay attention to the details as they are helpful for appreciating the story.
- Application of senses: Although this could be a prayer experience in itself, use your senses to interact with the scene, the environment, and the people. What do you see, hear, taste, smell and touch?
- If you feel stuck at all, here are some questions that might help you engage imaginatively with the passage:
- What do the people look like? What are they wearing?
- What kinds of sounds would you expect to hear in this environment?
- How does Jesus talk to and treat those he encounters?
- How do people react to Jesus’ words and actions?
- Do you recognize any of the people, places, or objects?
- Are you in this scene? Where are you? What are you doing?
- Colloquy: Toward the end of the prayer experience, Ignatius encourages the person to spend some time in conversation with Jesus “as one friend speaks to another.” 5 You might also feel called to have a conversation with someone else from your time of prayer, such as Mary. Picture them present before you, ask them questions or say whatever you need to say to them, then take some time to listen for their response. Even if they don’t say a thing, just take some time to be in their presence.
- Review of prayer: Time sometime after your prayer to reflect on what stood out to you the most from your prayer.
- How did you feel during this time of prayer?
- What struck you the most?
- What was the most consoling moment of your prayer? The most challenging?
- When did I feel closest to God?
Even if you don’t think you have a very active imagination, I encourage you to give it a try and see what stands out to you in prayer. You may not always be able to clearly see all of the parts of a story in your imagination. Just stick with what you are able to imagine and reflect on what those elements can tell you about God.
When praying over the Call of Simon in the Gospel of Luke, which includes the catch of the multitude of fish, one woman told me that she had a lot of trouble picturing the scene, but there was one detail that she remembered vividly. As Simon and the other fishermen dropped their nets into the deep because of Jesus’ instructions, she saw that Jesus had a smirk on his face. She said it was because he knew what was about to happen. While that is a small detail, it is a special moment that she noticed that added to the story and her own relationship with Jesus. That moment will now be with her every time she reads or hears that passage.
Through Ignatian contemplation, we all have the opportunity to have these small moments with Jesus and other people from scripture. Like a good friend, you will share a smirk with Jesus, you’ll learn the sound of his laughter, and the feeling of his arms embracing you when you need it the most. These are the small moments that loving relationships are built upon. That is the ultimate goal and gift of Ignatian contemplation: greater friendship with Jesus Christ.
If you’d like some help entering into Ignatian contemplation, I’ve developed a podcast through America Media called Imagine: A Guide to Jesuit Prayer. Episodes help to guide you through stories from scripture using prompts and questions to focus your imagination. Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Jesus gives some challenging teachings in today’s gospel and also challenges us on how to listen. Fr. Eric Sundrup, SJ, reflects on what it means to receive the Kingdom like a child. Based on the readings for Sunday, October 3, 2021
Context really matters…
Hi, I’m Father Eric Sundrup and this is my One-Minute Homily.
Today’s readings could be hard to hear for anyone who has suffered through the pain of a divorce.
Anytime I preach on this, I remind everyone how much context matters. That’s why I prefer the longer version of today’s gospel. In the longer version, this passage ends with Jesus placing a child in their midst.
Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.
So, what is Jesus doing here? First, Jesus blows up the expected power structures of a highly patriarchal society. Second, Jesus refocuses us on the sacramental nature of marriage… the two become one flesh. It’s a lot and it requires context to apply and understand…
So how does Jesus do that? He puts someone powerless, who has no ability to order people around and says: apply it like this, receive it like this.
So what can I tell you in a one-minute homily about this gospel? NOT enough.
Go read some solid commentaries, reflect on this and remember… be open like that child.
I have faith that God will work with us all.
I am not a Trekkie, but recently, I stumbled across an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that speaks to me as I confront the death of of my friend, brother, and mentor, Father Michael Christiana. In the episode, Data, the android, asks Captain Picard a question that haunts my own heart: What is death?
Data is not human, and so he asks this question without the burden of sorrow and dread most of us carry when we encounter death. A couple of weeks ago, when I received the text that announced Fr.Christiana’s death, my reaction was all too human. I was terrified. Fr.Christiana had struggled with leukemia for a long time, but my heart was still not prepared for his death. The news shook me to my core, and I found myself asking the same question Data asked: What is death?
With this big question in mind, now, I would invite you to imagine yourself vacationing on a peaceful Caribbean coast, happy and complacent with your life. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a hurricane ravages the roof of your vacation home. Shaking with fear, you hide in the basement. When you emerge, everything is different. The beautiful home is gone, blown away. You realize that everything is temporary. You understand that ultimately you cannot control the destruction that is part of life. The news of Fr.Christiana’s death had the same effect on me. It forced me to confront my own vulnerability. I had to acknowledge that I, like all people, must also face death.
Fr.Christiana always encouraged me to encounter the love of Jesus on a more profound level. On a long road trip from Los Altos, California, to Chicago, Illinois, our conversation deepened my belief in the Creator God. Our frequent late-night sharing helped me see that while we human beings are fragile and fallible, we’re also capable of overcoming sinful inclinations. When I was in anguish after facing racial discrimination from some of my fellow Jesuits, Fr.Christiana reminded me of the true meaning of Ignatian spirituality. “A Jesuit is a man of possibility,” he said, “God will not let you down, so you need never give up on hope.” Fr.Christiana’s mentorship, prayers, and support kept me grounded–he is one of the reasons I’m still a Jesuit today.
Now, as I face the painful reality of Fr.Christiana’s death, , I realize he has one more lesson to teach me: through his own dying, he reveals the meaning of death. He helps me face that question Data asked Captain Picard.
The Captain responds to Data’s question with the comment that some people believe death is a “blinking into nonexistence.” When Data questions him as to his own belief, however, the Captain affirms that he believes “our existence is part of a reality beyond what we now understand as reality.” Fr.Christiana shared this belief. He was a mystic, grounded in the realm of the spirit even as he lived the life of an active college chaplain.
An avid reader of Meister Eckhart, Fr. Michael Christiana believed that “God alone must work in us . . . to bring to perfection God’s likeness in us.” From Eckhart, Fr.Christiana learned that death has a spiritual meaning that goes far deeper than the mere physical event of the perishing body. As Eckhart would say, “The soul must abandon her own being. This is where the death that is spiritual begins. If the soul is to undergo this death, then she must take leave of herself and all things, holding herself and all things to be as insignificant.” Having learned this lesson, Fr.Christiana could face physical death without fear. He could affirm with Eckhart, “Nothing was ever my own as much as God will be mine, together with all that he is and all that he can do.” In other words, my vacation home may be blown away by a hurricane and the things I thought of as my possessions may be scattered by the wind, but Fr.Christiana’s life and death assure me that my true security in Christ cannot be shaken.
Fr.Christiana was a man who always gave of himself, and even in dying, he continues to give to me. His death teaches me that I too can face the impermanence of this world without fear. Like Star Trek’s Data, I can interrogate the meaning of death without sorrow or dread but rather with holy curiosity. As much as I am sad to lose Fr.Christiana’s physical presence, somehow I feel even closer to him now, for there are no goodbyes in the spiritual realm. As the great Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. For those who love with heart and soul, there is no such thing as separation.”
This world is finite—but in Christ, I find permanence. Fr.Christiana’s death challenges me to look past this question: What is death? to the still deeper question: How do I die to myself so that Christ can bring me fully to life?
Pope Francis has sometimes sparred with heads of state. He has implied some are not Christian while others have called him names. Recently, though, Francis has come under fire with a new accusation: neglecting a head of state.
This past week, Pope Francis paid a visit to Hungary to mark the end of the 2021 International Eucharistic Congress. It was a short visit, lasting only about seven hours, after which Francis proceeded to neighboring Slovakia for a full state visit of four days.
Despite its short duration, the visit managed to spark controversy. Actually, the short length of the stay was in itself a large part of the issue.
Typically, when the pope visits a country, he meets with national leaders, holds public liturgies, and visits all manner of local clergy and lay people over the span of several days. Indeed, the pope’s visit to Slovakia followed this pattern: he visited four cities over three days, presiding at several public Masses, meeting both Catholics and non-Catholics, and defending the Roma people during a visit to the largest Roma ghetto in Europe. Even with COVID-19 raging in Iraq this past March, Francis spent three days traveling around the country.
In the lead-up to Francis’ visit, the lopsided duration of his time in Hungary compared to his visit to Slovakia immediately led to charges that he was snubbing Hungary.
If the pope did want to send a message by keeping his visit short, it would not be hard to deduce why: he and Prime Minister Viktor Orban do not see eye-to-eye, especially on the subject of immigration. Francis has consistently called on Western leaders to welcome migrants and refugees; his first trip outside Rome was to Lampedusa, to see where many migrants from North Africa arrive first on Italian soil, and he memorably brought a group of Muslim Syrian refugees back to the Vatican with him after a visit to Greece. On the other hand, Orban has been a leader in opposing immigration, painting his stance as a defense of a Christian Europe under attack from Islam.
Francis raised eyebrows when he admitted in an interview he did not know if he would even meet Orban while he was in Hungary.
As it happened, the two did meet for about forty minutes. While it does not seem that migrants came up between the two, Francis did make a point of calling on Hungary to be more welcoming of needy outsiders in remarks he made after Mass.
The Hungary incident was not the first time Francis has found diplomacy awkward in his eight-year papacy. He has had a rocky relationship with the political leadership of his native Argentina, especially former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Francis criticized Fernandez and her husband and fellow former president Nestor Kirchner of enacting policies that favored the rich and neglected the poor. He has visited much of Latin America but has yet to visit Argentina, leading commentators to believe he is snubbing his home country, perhaps over continuing political disagreements.
Francis has also spent little time in Western Europe, in marked contrast to his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI, for whom the “New Evangelization” to bring Christian Europe back to its roots was a major priority. In eight years as pope, Francis has not visited Spain or Germany, and his sole visit to France, for an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, lasted only a few hours. The fact that Francis has not visited these bedrock lands of Catholic Europe could suggest there is something about Europe he may want to keep at arm’s length.
However, the places Francis chooses to give his time (and his physical presence) may simply reflect a shift in priorities on the part of the first-ever Latin American pope. Francis clearly likes to provide a “shot in the arm” to countries with small Catholic minorities, places like the Central African Republic and Myanmar which face domestic strife, and countries on the frontier of Muslim-Christian relations like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.
It may be a temptation to read too much into Francis’ travel schedule. After all, Hungarian and Vatican officials both stressed that the pope’s visit to Hungary was so short because that’s all he was invited to do.
One pope can only have so many priorities, and Francis has clearly used his travel schedule in different ways than his predecessors did. Any pope has a great deal of diplomatic relationships to juggle – maybe we should resist finding drama where there is none.
Photo from Catholic News Service: Pope Francis greets Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
When Jesus’ disciples try to stop others from doing ministry in his name, Jesus tells them “whoever is not against us is for us.” Doug Jones, SJ, reflects on this message and the challenge to foster unity instead of division. Based on the readings for Sunday, September 26, 2021.
“If you’re not with us, you’re against us!” Or is it the other way around…?
Hi, I’m Doug Jones, and this is my One Minute Reflection.
In our readings today, both Moses and Jesus face a challenge: unauthorized helpers. Their followers are offended on their behalf: how dare these renegades go off brand without permission!
As we see, though, both Moses and Jesus surprisingly embrace these renegades. After all, they’re speaking true prophecy and casting out demons.
We all have ideas about what the Church should look like, and woe to those who have another view! But maybe we should pause when we encounter these frictions. If someone is causing sin, confusion, or disruption, then we definitely have a problem. On the other hand, if they’re preaching the Gospel with success, if the words brings joy to people’s hearts, then it may be that they’re simply bringing different gifts to the same work.
The harvest needs workers, and God calls all sorts of people to that work.
Dear President Biden,
As a young Jesuit, I write to you gravely troubled by the way your administration is treating asylum seekers. As the Church celebrates this National Migration Week, my heart is weighed down by the many families waiting in a perilous limbo on our nation’s southern border. Like the Holy Family, they fled their homes in need hoping for a foreign nation’s hospitality. Your administration has fought to exclude them and other asylum seekers, using public health law Title 42 to expel migrants and deny them even the chance to make their case. This week, the nation watched DHS brutally use the law to round up and expel thousands of Haitian migrants from our border. Like many families I know, they never had the chance to exercise a basic right we promised them: the right to ask for asylum.
From summary expulsions to the lethal environment it creates, Title 42 is personal for me and my Jesuit brothers. Our faith moves us to walk with migrants and refugees as humanitarian workers, pastors of immigrant parishes, and scholars. Our horror grows daily as we witness the suffering caused by this brutal and baseless policy. Many of us tuned in for your message celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Jesuit Refugee Service last fall. Your remarks resonated with us, especially your understanding of how “JRS believes that in the stranger we actually meet our neighbor.” My brothers and I felt confirmed by your conviction “that every society is ultimately judged by how we treat those most in need.”
As we look towards our border today and the state of asylum access for those who need it most, that standard of judgment echoes in our ears and in our hearts. We can only conclude that as a country, we are failing, shamefully and gravely, with deadly consequences for those most in need. Title 42 has prolonged and exacerbated a humanitarian disaster at our southern border, keeping those fleeing for their lives in a dangerous limbo between the violence they fled at home and our country’s broken promise of asylum.
Although your government initially fought some of the policies that kept these families in peril, that fight has come to a grinding halt. Instead, your administration has ramped up efforts in courts and on the border to use Title 42 to expel asylum seekers. You have said that those fleeing their countries should wait at home, applying for asylum from their own countries. For those running for their lives, this is almost never an option. From the Israelites who were told to eat the Passover meal with staff in hand, to St. Joseph’s dream telling him to flee into Egypt, our faith tradition recognizes the immediacy of that need to escape.
I have seen this urgency in action all year. Just a few weeks ago, a young mother on the Arizona border told me how the mafia had come for them, brutally beating her as she fought to protect her little girl from traffickers. They escaped to another part of Mexico. Hundreds of miles away, they received death threats indicating that their persecutors trailed them. They fled again straight for the American border and the hope of asylum it offered. Now they wait in fear, praying that America will relent before they are found. They could not wait and apply for asylum from home without facing abduction and death.
Just after Title 42 was extended this summer allegedly to protect public health, a young mother and father broke into tears as they told me about their sick little girl. She had been perfectly healthy when they tried to ask for asylum in Texas. Instead of listening, Border Patrol used Title 42 to imprison them and over a thousand other migrants under a bridge for 5 days. They were forced to sleep in the dust, causing the mother to cough up blood. When the child ran a fever, officers told her mother that there was no medical care available. As DHS flew them to Arizona to expel them, both mother and daughter were sick with illnesses that they contracted while detained in the United States. The public health excuses used to justify Title 42 fail in practice and in theory.
As you wrote in Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan’s collection of testimonies from Central American migrant children, politics is personal. We invite and challenge you, Vice President Harris, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to join us in forming those personal relationships. Come visit us on the border, meet the families this policy hurts, and listen to their stories. We and the migrants we accompany would love to receive you.
Today, the Jesuit-sponsored Kino Border Initiative and their allies in the Save Asylum campaign act in the tradition of the holy prophets to remind us who we are and who we must be. Asylum seekers and their supporters, humanitarian workers, and my brother Jesuits will gather on both sides of the border and in cities around the country to demand protections for asylum seekers. They join the whole Church, on the eve of this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, in calling for the rights and dignity of the holy families of our time.
Alongside those on the border, whose hope in God has led them to hope in our country, we call on you to restore the right to asylum. This requires an immediate end to Title 42. As Jesuits, we remind you of the mission we share and the commitments to migrants that you and our nation have made. We pray that your administration, with the grace of God as your aid, will live up to them.
Michael Petro, SJ
The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the Spiritual Exercises. Be sure to check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The Spiritual Exercises, the Heart of the Jesuits.”
At a critical moment in the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola imagines Christ as King. A king leads by example and responds to the needs of his people. This mystical image of Christ changed the life of Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, a Mexican Jesuit Catholic priest who was martyred in 1927. Today, he is most remembered for his famous last words, “Viva Cristo Rey!” What did it mean for Miguel Pro to follow Christ as King?
Known for his profound piety, charity, and joy, Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro, served the Catholic Church during a time in Mexico when Catholics were persecuted. In 1917, the Mexican Constitution added new provisions that placed severe restrictions on the Catholic Church: religious schools were closed, monastic orders were suppressed, property was confiscated, and priests were not allowed to wear clerical attire and were stripped of their right to vote.
Raised in a devout Mexican-Catholic family, Miguel began to learn the importance of prayer, education, and charity from his parents. Miguel’s mother modeled the humble and meek heart of Jesus for her children and instilled within them a great love for the poor. While still young, he assisted his mother in establishing a small Catholic hospital that provided free services to those most in need.
At the age of 20, Miguel entered the Society of Jesus after coming to know some Jesuit priests who embodied the spirit and ideals of its founder, St. Ignatius. Early on in Miguel’s Jesuit formation, his life was powerfully marked by the Spiritual Exercises. The Spiritual Exercises are meditations and contemplative practices on the life of Christ, usually done over 30-days in solitude and silence in order to deepen one’s relationship with God and His Church. These Exercises are intended to penetrate our hearts, leaving us with a strong desire to imitate and follow Christ. Changed by this experience, Miguel wished to incarnate and live out many of these meditations as he progressed in his vocation.
“The Call of the King” is a key meditation in the Spiritual Exercises and one that resonates with the life of Miguel Pro. In the text, St. Ignatius instructs retreatants to seek specific graces when they pray. In this particular meditation, the desired grace is to be attentive to Christ’s call, “ready and diligent to fulfill his most holy will.” Miguel took these words to heart and wished to serve Christ the King through countless spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Privately, he had a deep commitment to prayer, spent much time before the Blessed Sacrament, and continuously worked on the development of his interior life. Miguel had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an image that portrays God’s long-suffering compassion and love for humanity. Inspired by this image and seeing the selfless love of Christ, he would have desired to bring this same passionate love to his ministry. Through these spiritual practices Miguel received the necessary grace and spiritual capital to endure and succeed in his mission.
The first point of the “The Call of the King” meditation requires the retreatant to imagine Christ the King before him or her, listening to the ways in which Christ is speaking and labors for the salvation of all people. Miguel cared for all, sharing his joy and offering words of encouragement when needed. He became a beloved catechist among the poor and children. People were attracted to his jovial disposition and his teaching methods because he knew “how to keep people in good humor.” Looking to imitate Christ and encounter those on the margins, he took a special interest in caring for poverty-stricken workers. Another Jesuit said of Miguel “people can go to him without embarrassment to ask for help.” 1
After his ordination in Belgium in 1925, Miguel returned to Mexico where the anti-Catholic persecution continued. The words of Christ in “The Call of the King” meditation would be put to the test: “whoever would like to come with me is to labor with me, that following me in the pain, [he or she] may also follow me in the glory.” Regularly changing his clothing in order to avoid arrest, he went from home to home celebrating Mass, administering communion, hearing confession, visiting those who were sick, and caring for the poor. Oftentimes feeling fatigued and overwhelmed, he found strength in Christ to persevere through many sufferings. Because of the persecution, priests were highly sought after, and if caught, were imprisoned, killed, or forced out of the country. Miguel had many close encounters with the police, but always managed to find a way to avoid capture up until November 1927. That month there was an assassination attempt on presidential candidate Alvaro Obregón.
President Calles, looking for ways to blame the assassination attempt on the Pro family, had Miguel imprisoned. Without giving Miguel a proper trial in order to prove his innocence, President Calles ordered that he be killed before a firing squad. On November 23, 1927, Miguel approached the firing squad, knelt, and prayed for the last time. When he had finished praying, he stood up holding a rosary with one hand and a small cross with the other, made the form of a cross with his body and spoke his last words, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”)
Miguel Pro’s life was a model response to Christ’s call and exemplified to many the power of grace, transforming tragedy into a victory for the heavenly kingdom. We too can draw strength from this meditation and the life of this Jesuit. It might first be helpful to reflect on our own personal experiences, becoming aware of how God has shared in our joys and pains. Where have we encountered Christ’s tender love? Perhaps through a close friend, a parent, a community, or creation itself? This love and mercy ought to ruminate in our hearts, increasing our desire to serve Christ wholeheartedly.
Christ the King invites us all to pursue holiness and sanctity; to live a life “worthy of the call [we] have received.” 2 Drawing inspiration from the saints and seeing how they have responded to God’s love, we too can begin to consider how we will respond. Are we willing to put aside our carnal and worldly comforts in order to labor with Christ for the benefit of our neighbor? Knowing that Christ the King desires to console those in distress and despair, are we willing to serve alongside him even amidst the challenges that will arise from this virtuous endeavor? When facing the firing squad, would you call out to Christ the King?
Where am I looking? What am I focusing on? These are important questions. Ones I need to ask myself often. I need to learn how to look because my perspective, that is, where I look and how I look and what I focus on, can change the reality of what I see. Sometimes the difference between seeing sunshine and seeing darkness is simply looking the other way.
That’s why the sunflower is my favorite flower. It’s an odd choice for favorite, I’ll admit. It certainly isn’t the prettiest flower. Seeing cherry blossoms or jacarandas bloom makes the sunflower with its long spindly stem look plain, almost ugly. The sunflower certainly isn’t the most fragrant flower. Having grown up in the self-appointed lilac capital of the United States, I’ve certainly smelled better. The sunflower is my favorite flower, not for what it is, but for what it does— it moves.
The miracle of the sunflower is its movement. The movement is unnoticeable over short periods of time. But, over longer periods, the sunflower follows the light and the movement is discernible. Moving—facing the other direction— when I feel shrouded in darkness can seem like a herculean task. But it is the nature of every journey, transition and transformation to begin with the smallest of movements. Recognizing that I am in darkness can be the first step towards moving into the light. The entire about face may seem impossible before I have begun. But small steps, small shifts in vision, can be the change from darkness to light. And it is the miracle of progress that a little, makes a little more, a little easier.
Pope Francis told the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, “We can always improve in praying consistently for consolation…to practice and teach this prayer of asking and begging for consolation is our main service of joy.”1 Like the sunflower seeking the sun, Francis encourages us to look for God in the world, reminding us that the first step to finding God, is searching for God. The sunflower reminds me to search, especially in the course of this ongoing pandemic.
At this point, I feel like the pandemic will never end. I feel like I’ve been stuck inside for an eternity. Progress comes and then, once again, seems to slip away, returning us to preventative quarantines for sniffles and coughs and plans canceled to protect others. I am grateful (when I remember to be) that I am fortunate enough to be able to take days off work, staying home without having to worry about putting food on the table. Many of my neighbors aren’t so lucky. But when plans get canceled again and again, it’s easy for me to lose hope. The sunflower reminds me that where I look is important.
“Go to gratitude” is the faithful motto of one of my favorite Jesuits. It’s his advice for many of life’s problems. The simple suggestion, “remember what you’re grateful for,” frustrates me sometimes. When I hear it, it can feel like a dismissal, as if my problems, those seemingly insurmountable obstacles, are being minimized and treated as unimportant. But really, it’s a reminder that perspective is key. Gratitude, like progress, has a strange way of growing: a little gratitude makes a little more, a little easier. When I can find one small thing I’m grateful for, the gratitude grows, and my problems seem to take up a little less space. That’s why I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal. Every evening before I go to bed I try to write down ten things that I’m grateful for. The list often looks the same from day to day: shelter, food, friends, family. But the act of remembering that I have much to be grateful for seems to help me maintain perspective. It’s the sunflower inspired about face that I need.
It’s easy to focus on what’s going wrong: canceled plans, another quarantine, fires, hurricanes, floods, kidnappings, violence. Focusing on what I’m grateful for—that I’m blessed and privileged to be able to stay home and protect myself and others, that I have a home, that I and my family are healthy, and that I have a strong and supportive community around me– keeps me noticing the miracles in my life. The sunflower reminds me that I can choose to look in a different direction and sometimes looking to the light is as simple as looking the other way.
Francis and the sunflower encourage me to search for what I want, to look for what I need. If I need light in my life, I should look for it, opening my eyes to the blessings and miracles all around me. For, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It may appear that we are stuck in darkness, but sometimes a change of perspective, a little about face, is all we need to see that the smallest light can illuminate even the darkest of spaces. So, where’s your light?
I’ve only been in L.A. for a couple of weeks, if I’m being honest, I’m already numb to the tents and RVs that some Angelinos call home. It’s a hot day as I drive with Fr. Mike Kennedy, SJ to South Gate, a small city in Los Angeles County, California. As we drive from the Jesuit community at Loyola Marymount University, we pass homeless encampments that have sprung up in parks and under freeway overpasses all throughout L.A. This morning, I ignore what’s happening outside the car because I’m too wrapped up in trying to get the cold air flowing in our standard-issue Jesuit Toyota.
After what seems like hours in morning traffic, we arrive at the offices of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI), where I’m spending the summer on assignment. JRJI was founded by Fr. Mike to bring Ignatian spirituality to men behind bars. My job this summer is to read and respond to reflections written by Californians who are incarcerated.
The first letter I read is from a man named Tom who is in prison for killing his girlfriend. (Like the other names in this article, Tom’s is a pseudonym and the details of his crime have been altered so that he can’t be identified). As I begin to read the letter, my first reaction is judgment. How could this guy kill his girlfriend? Of course he’s in prison. That’s probably where he belongs.
Then, a few lines later, Tom responds to the jury that has taken up residence inside my head. In fact, he says exactly what I’m thinking. How could I kill my girlfriend? Of course I’m in prison. That’s where I belong. But Tom’s self-accusations don’t stop there. How can God ever forgive me for this? How can I ever forgive myself for this?
It’s his last question that stops me. His writing is full of the hard stuff of self-help work: pain, trauma, and remorse. But there’s something deeper going on. Bubbling up from beneath his writing is a desire for something more, for the forgiveness, healing, and transformation that we call God’s mercy.
The truth is that, despite my own self-involved and judgmental attitudes, reading the personal writing of incarcerated men is a privilege. In writing these reflections, these men give me access to the most intimate parts of their souls. Whether it’s Tom’s struggle to comprehend God’s unconditional love or Jack’s battle with the darkness of life behind bars, each of these men bares their soul. As the day goes on, the jury that’s in my head takes a recess. In its place is silence and a warm feeling of compassion.
Reading these letters is my window into God’s soul. If I’m so deeply moved by the lives and struggles in these letters, I can’t help imagining how much more God is moved. Recently a religious sister told me that God doesn’t judge people; God cares for people. That’s been my lesson at JRJI, what Fr. Mike calls “deep sea diving.” God invites us into encounters, sacred moments in which we can glimpse (through sin, division, and wounds) the sacred divinity that dwells in every person.
After a day of reading letters, I find myself leaving the JRJI office to drive back to the Jesuit Community with Fr. Mike. Once again, we drive past a seemingly endless parade of homeless encampments. I’m still hot, and the car’s air conditioning still seems to blow air that’s too warm. But after reading these letters all day, something in me has changed. When God draws us close, we stop judging and start caring.
Photo from Catholic News Service
Can Christians strive for greatness? Br. Sullivan McCormick, SJ, reflects on Jesus’ words about humility and what true greatness looks like. Based on the readings for Sunday, September 19, 2021.
Is it okay to strive for greatness as Christians?
Hi, I am Br. Sullivan McCormick and this is my One-Minute Reflection.
The drive to be great is a fundamental human drive. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to this drive as the “drum major instinct,” the desire to be out front and be recognized. The problem isn’t the desire, the problem is when that desire gets twisted and distorted. Jesus doesn’t say “don’t strive for greatness,” he instead says be great on my terms: be of service to others, embrace the least among us, the one society deems unworthy.
Take the example of Saint Ignatius. Here’s a man who refused to surrender at the battle of Pamplona, who wanted to outdo the saints before him, and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He doesn’t stop striving for greatness after his conversion, but he now does so on God’s terms, for the greater glory of God, not the greater glory of Ignatius. So by all means, be great, but do so on God’s terms.