Sunday, July 31, 2016

On the monastic character of Ignatian spirituality.

Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. I'm currently busy with many things, especially trying to get my master's thesis into shape and preparing to move back to the United States after four years in Toronto; given this, instead of attempting to produce a new post from scratch to mark the feast I think it would be better to share an old favorite, posted two years ago on this date and presented again below with minor revisions. Good wishes to all who celebrate this feast today.


Father Frans Jozef van Beeck, a Jesuit whom I've discussed here before, once began an autobiographical essay with the admission that "I am by no means the sole Jesuit for whom the Society of Jesus is in the first place and very palpably something international." This has certainly been true for me: as I have noted in the past, part of what drew me to the Society of Jesus was its cosmopolitan character – the sense in which, as Jerónimo Nadal put it, "the world is our house." I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to celebrate the feast of the Society's founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, in a number of different countries and in various circumstances, ranging from large public festivities to low-key community celebrations to virtually private observances (one year, for example, St. Ignatius' Day fell in the middle of my eight-day retreat, so I passed the feast in silence).

In whichever place and in whatever way I spend St. Ignatius' Day, this feast inevitably leads me to reflect upon the roots of my vocation. Some of the better things I've written on point are in posts produced in Innsbruck, in Philadelphia, and in Paris. In this post, I would like to share some excerpts from a 1937 essay by Karl Rahner entitled "The Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World," in which Rahner considers how one might reconcile the mystical and contemplative dimensions of Ignatian spirituality with the decidedly 'worldly' mission of the Society of Jesus. In explaining how the mystical and the worldly fit together in an Ignatian context, Rahner also shows how the Society of Jesus stands in essential continuity with the monastic tradition that came before it:
Ignatian piety is a piety of the Cross, like all Christian mystical piety before it. One would lay oneself open to the danger of completely misconstruing Ignatian piety, were one to overlook this first fundamental characteristic. We must take note of the fact that Ignatian piety is and intends to be primarily 'monastic' piety; 'monastic' not in a juridical sense, nor monastic in the external arrangement of the community life of his disciples, but 'monastic' in the theologico-metaphysical sense which constitutes the first and last meaning of this word. What we mean to say by that is that Ignatius in his life, in his piety, and in the spirit which he impresses upon his foundation is consciously and clearly taking over and continuing the ultimate direction of life by which the life of the Catholic Orders, the 'monazein,' was created and kept alive. Proof of this is the simple fact that he and his disciples take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And with them necessarily take over the attitude of the monachos, of one alone in God far from the world. Ignatius stands in the line of those men who existentially flee into the desert in a violent fuga saeculi, even though it may be the God-forsaken stony desert of a city, in order to seek God far from the world. It is nothing but superficiality if one allows the difference in external mode of life between Jesuit and monk to mask the deep and ultimate common character which dominates the ideal of every Catholic order.
At times, some Jesuits have tended to regard our particular charism in the light of rupture, insisting (sometimes a bit grumpily) that "we're not monks" and that St. Ignatius offered the Church something essentially discontinuous with the traditions of older religious orders. I've always been skeptical of that approach, partly because of my appreciation for the Benedictine tradition, but also on account of my awareness of Ignatius' debts to the writings of the Benedictine abbot Garcia de Cisneros and to the monks of the Abbey of Montserrat. I appreciate what Rahner has to say about the 'monastic' character of Ignatian piety because he helps to confirm certain intuitions I've always had about my Jesuit vocation. As Rahner emphasizes, the worldly dimension of the Ignatian charism must be seen in the context of an inward "flight into God," which is ultimately the same fuga saeculi that has always driven Christian monasticism: "Ignatius approaches the world from God. Not the other way about. Because he has delivered himself in the lowliness of an adoring self-surrender to the God beyond the whole world and to his will, for this reason and for this reason alone he is prepared to obey his word even when, out of the silent desert of his daring flight into God, he is, as it were, sent back into the world, which he had found the courage to abandon in the foolishness of the Cross." Rahner further suggests that the Ignatian vision of 'finding God in all things' presupposes a healthy indifference that allows us to find God wherever God wishes to be found: "Ignatius is concerned only with the God above the whole world, but he knows that this God, precisely because he is really above the whole world and not merely the dialectical antithesis to the whole world, is also to be found in the world, when his sovereign will bids us enter upon the way of the world." In other words, we seek God in the world because the One whom we seek in the desert of the heart has bidden us to seek him also in what Rahner calls "the stony desert of a city."

As I read Rahner's lines about seeking God in the urban desert, I am mindful of some of tensions inherent in our lives as Jesuits. The Society of Jesus is well known in the wider world for the adventurous missionaries and cosmopolitan nomads who have sojourned in our midst, even though just as many of us have, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, merely "watched the door" for "years and years . . . without event." Finding God in all things obliges us to work out our salvation in a variety of different circumstances, and sometimes to serve in ways very different from what we might have hoped for or imagined when we entered the Society of Jesus. The lifelong challenge for each of us is to nurture and cultivate the interior freedom and stillness, the spirit of fuga saeculi, that allows us to be what Jerónimo Nadal described as "contemplatives likewise in action." In the words of the current Superior General of the Society, Father Adolfo Nicolás, "every Jesuit should be able to live like a monk in the middle of the noise of the city... That means that our hearts are our monasteries and at the bottom of every activity, every reflection, every decision, there is silence, the kind of silence that one shares only with God."

On this Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I pray in gratitude for the gift of my vocation. I pray also for my brother Jesuits, that the Society of Jesus may be for all of us a help to salvation and a means of doing God's will. Finally, I pray for you who are reading this and for your intentions, and I ask also that you pray for me and for the members of the Society as we remember our founder. AMDG.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

«Pour lui, partir au moment où il célebrait la messe, c'est une forme de consécration...».

I awoke this morning to the horrific news of the attack in the French town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray by Islamist militants who invaded a Catholic church in the midst of daily Mass, taking the faithful hostage and murdering an eighty-five-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel. Though the Church has formal processes for declaring these things, I would not hesitate to say that Father Hamel died a martyr, killed as he celebrated Mass by attackers motivated by a hatred of the Catholic faith. In this context, I was particularly struck by these words spoken by a fellow priest who knew Father Hamel:
Malgré son âge avancé, il était toujours aussi investi dans la vie de la paroisse. On lui disait souvent, en rigolant «Jacques, tu en fais un peu trop, il serait temps de prendre ta retraite». Ce à quoi il répondait , en riant, «tu as déjà vu un curé à la retraite? Je travaillerai jusqu'à mon dernier soufflé». Pour lui, partir au moment où il célebrait la messe, c'est une forme de consécration, malgré les circonstances dramatiques.

(In spite of his advanced age, he was still deeply engaged in the life of the parish. People often said to him, jokingly, "Jacques, you're doing a bit too much. It's time for you to retire." To which he used to reply, laughing, "Have you ever seen a retired parish priest? I'll work until my final breath." For him, to die while celebrating Mass was a form of consecration, in spite of the dramatic circumstances.)
Though he surely did not expect to die as a martyr, there is a sense in which Father Hamel's tragic death represented the fulfillment of his priestly vocation; as he wished, he labored until his final breath in offering the sacraments. His death also offers a sobering lesson, as Father Ray Blake tersely stated today: "This is what the priesthood is about. This is what the Mass is about. This is what the Catholic Church is about."

We live in an age of Christian martyrs, with regular reports coming from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere of bishops, priests, religious, and laypeople murdered for their faith. I've written here before about the "ecumenism of blood," the sense in which the death of Christians in other parts of the world and of other Christian confessions should perhaps lead complacent Westerners to think more carefully about the meaning of Christian solidarity and about how they live out their faith. Picking up on this theme today, political scientist Bradley Jensen Murg asks whether the shocking death of Father Hamel might lead Christians in the West to think differently about their relationship with suffering Christians elsewhere:
Jewish institutions in Europe have regularly been targets of extreme violence, with the climate of anti-Semitism becoming so marked that the Jewish Agency has reported significant increases in the number of French Jews making aliyah to Israel. A direct attack on a Catholic church and Catholic clergy in Europe is a new and horrid addition to this history of religious violence. In high-income Western states we tend think of these things as "something that happens to other people" (or, to other people's priests). One hundred million Christians around the globe are recognized as living in a state of persecution for their faith – but we rarely experience it close to home.


If our response is to be constructive, it must begin with the understanding that "a church of martyrs" is the reality we confront today. And that reality is one that also provides a small sliver of consolation in that, as Pope Francis stated in his meeting with the Ethiopian Patriarch earlier this year: "The ecumenism of the martyrs is a summons to us, here and now, to advance on the path to ever greater unity." This attack on the Church in France can help to connect those of us in the West to the suffering of our co-religionists for whom these events are so horridly normal.
To read the rest, click here. As we seek a way forward in the wake of horror, let us seek the intercession of the martyr Father Jacques Hamel as we ask God for the prudence and wisdom we need to respond to attacks on our faith and on our very well-being. Let us also pray that the goodness and dedication which Father Hamel showed in his life of priestly service will not be forgotten in a time of fear and uncertainty, and that he will be remembered for the way he lived as well as the way he died. AMDG.