Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus and author of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a course of prayer that has been so formative for so many of us.

Ignatius was changed by an understanding of God’s continual working with creation and inviting each of us to labor with Jesus. His spirituality was based on deepening a personal relationship with God and coming to see ever more deeply how God loves and works in our lives. What Ignatius realized was that not only the intellect, but also the emotions and feelings help us to come to a knowledge of the action of God in our lives. And he understood that affective knowledge is the key to conversion. As I’ve expressed it in numerous talks and in my writing, Ignatius understood that conversion is an experience of the heart, not of the head.

Based on his experience, St. Igantius wrote the Spiritual Exercises. That is something worth underscoring because from the very beginning, Ignatius talked with people out of his own experience. At the time he launched the Spiritual Exercises, he was neither a preacher nor a priest, but a relatively uneducated layperson writing about his experience of God. Joseph Tetlow wrote that Ignatius “seemed to have hoped almost from the start that he would be able to lead others through what he had experienced while reading and meditating on…the life of Christ. He kept looking for men and women to guide through his Exercises.”

This is something I understand well – it was my own experience with God, especially during the time I did the Spiritual Exercises that led to my desire to train as a spiritual director and retreat leader – the desire the help others have the same experience that I did.

St. Ignatius, prayer for us. And for all of my Jesuit friends, Happy Feast Day!


Disposition, Reception and Going Forth

We attended Mass yesterday at Our Lady of Lourdes, since Elena was again singing there. Although I love my own parish, I enjoy masses at Lourdes, presided over by my friend Fr. Dan Griffith.

One of the points Dan made in his sermon had to do with the unity of the three fundamental aspects of the Mass: We listen to the Word of God, which creates in us a disposition of gratitude at God’s presence and work in the world. With that spirit of gratitude, we partake of the Eucharist, by which we are filled with the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus transformed, we go forth to bring God to those we encounter.

The relationship of those three elements is important for us to remember for at least two reasons. First, I have heard many people respond to criticisms of homilies at Catholic Masses by saying, “what’s important is the Eucharist, not the homily.” While we do speak of the Eucharist being “the sum and summit of our faith,” our disposition in receiving the Eucharist matters, which means the Liturgy of the Word is an essential element of the Mass. The breaking open of the Word in the homily is an important part of that.

Second, I’ve commented before about people departing Mass immediately after they receive the Euchrist. I understand that on occasion people are rushed and need to get out of Mass as quickly as possible. (I have left a couple of weekday Masses that were running late immediately after communion where I’ve had someplace I had to be immediately thereafter.) But some people make a habit of behaving as though Mass is over as soon as they receive. It is a bad habit; the sending forth that ends Mass reminds us that our experience of the sacrament is not over when we walk out of Church. Instead we are sent forth to “love and serve” the Lord, to be Christ to those we encounter.

Disposition, reception, and going forth. All are important aspects to our celebration of the Mass.

Who Gets Fed?

Today’s Gospel is St. John’s account of the feeding of the multitude, a familiar story to all Christians. In The Orthodox Heretic, Peter Rollins offers a parable that puts a twist on the familiar story. He calls is a “first-world translation.” Here it is:

Jesus withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place, but the crowds continued to follow him. Evening was now approaching and the people, many of whom had traveled a great distance, were growing hungry.

Seeing this, Jesus sent his disciples out to gather food, but all they could find were five loaves of bread and two fishes. Then Jesus asked that they go out again and gather up the provisions that the crowds had brought to sustain them in their travels. Once this was accomplished, a vast mountain of fish and bread stood before Jesus. Upon seeing this he directed the people to sit down on the grass.

Standing before the food and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks to God and broke the bread. Then he passed the food among his twelve disciples. Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people. But what was truly amazing, what was miraculous abou this meal, was that when they had finished the massive banquet, there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a starving person’s hand.

Pretty shocking story! How could someone write something like that about Jesus?

Rollins reminds us in his commentary that we are the presence of Christ in the world today – the way people learn about Christ is through those who claim to live out the way of Christ. If that is the case, Rollins asks us to “ask ourselves whether the above tale reflects how Christ is presented to he world today, at least in the minds of those who witness the lifestyles of Christians in the West.”

Something to think about.

One Holy Catholic Church: Family or Foes

Someone for whom I have great respect, although I differ with him on a number of issues, wrote a post on Facebook yesterday morning triumphantly sharing the news of the appointment of the new Archbishop of San Francisco. He gleefully described the new archbishop as “the toughest hombre in the American episcopate” cheering that there “is a new sheriff comin’ to town.” Several other bloggers and commentators sounded similar themes. One described the appointment as an “ecclesiastical earthquake.”

I’ve lamented with some frequency the tone with which we speak to and about those who differ with us, criticizing those on the “left” as well as those on the “right,” “liberal” Catholics as well as “conservative.”

I realize that there are vast differences among members of this large tent that is the Catholic Church. And I appreciate that we get frustrated, and, at time, even angry at each other. And, when we do, we are injudicious in our speech.

But my primary reaction when I read these sorts of comments in reaction to the appointment of the new archbishop was sadness. The comments sound like they are directed at foes not at other members of the Church. People to be taken out or driven down, not people to be worked with. (This is not a one-sided lament. I have both in writing and orally spoken out to people across the spectrum when their comments convey disrespect and lack of love for those with whom the disagree.)

I can only pray that the new archbishop doesn’t come riding into town brandishing his sheriff’s badge and a six-shooter with the idea of taking out the opposition. That he remembers that the “progressive Catholics” (a term used as though it were a dirty word by one of the commentators I read) are part of his family, not his foe.

Humility and Mindfulness

I was looking for a link among my internet bookmarks and came across a blog I had once saved the link to but had not looked at in a while: Shirt of Flame. The post at the top was titled “The Litany of Humility.” The blog author, Heather King, shared how her life has ben transformed after “twenty-plus years of prayer, action, and inner work.” She writes

this is how my own world has transformed: I have a lot of opinions but I don’t ALWAYS have to air them. I’m still insanely triggered by petty slights, but I don’t ALWAYS have to let my hurt show. My likes often differ from yours, but I don’t ALWAYS have to point that out, thereby ruining or tainting your likes. I don’t ALWAYS have to be right, I don’t always have to have the last word, I don’t always need to over-apologize, over-thank, or over-explain. You can either find fault with every tiny thing–and trust me, I am a champion fault-finder, I am an expert fly-in-the-ointment seer–or you can say ‘God bless us all’ and move on.

I totally agree with King’s suggestion that behaving in this way requires humility,and she shares in the post a beautiful litany of humility that would be useful for all of us to pray each day.

But it also required mindfulness to refrain from airing opinions, letting the hurt show, pointing out the difference in likes and so on. This may be implicit in King’s description of her ability to do these thing as being a produce of her years of prayer and inner work, but it is worthwhile making the point explicitly.

Absent mindfulness, we rarely make a conscious choice to many of the behaviors she is now able to avoid. Absent mindfulness, we are habituated to air the opinions that pop into our mind, point out where we differ, feel we have to have the last word, etc. Humility is essential, but so is sufficient mindfulness that allows space between action and reaction, between stimulus and response.

Seeing People and Things As They Are

We use the term love in many different ways and have different definitions and understandings of what it means to love. I find a description of love given by Anthony de Mello to be one worth reflecting on.

In A Way to Love, de Mello writes that to love

means to see a person, a thing, a situation, as it really is and not as you imagine it to be, and to give it the response it deserves. You cannot love what you do not even see. … And what prevents you from seeing? Your concepts, your categories, your prejudices and projections, your needs and attachments, the labels you have drawn from your conditioning and from past experiences. Seeing is the most arduous thing that a human being can undertake. For it calls for a disciplined, alert mind, whereas most people would much rather lapse into mental laziness than take the trouble to see each person and thing anew in present-moment freshness.

Often what we say or think we love is our projection of someone or something, and not the person or the thing itself. But I think de Mello is right that, whatever else we can say about love, love is not possible unless we see clearly the object of our love, see the person thing as he/she/it really is.

And, as de Mello observes, seeing clearly takes effort and focus. It requires a mindfulness that allows us to be in the present moment when we encounter people and things.

Service Over Private Agenda

A friend of mine recently sent me the text of Sr. Joan Chittister’s address at Stanford University’s 2012 Baccalaureate Program. The address was titled A Call To Leadership.

Her talk included a story about a Buddhist monk who was determined to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese. I’ve actually read an adaptation of this story before, in Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic, which tells the story of a gifted woman who dedicates “her life to the task of translating the Word of God throughout her country.” The story teaches a wonderful lesson, whoever you put in the role of protagonist.

Here is the story as Joan Chittiester told it:

He spent years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. But just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he’d raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.

Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. This time, years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and fed the starving thousands instead.

Then, when the hungry had been fed, he began another decade’s work of collecting the money for the third time.

When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. But they tell you to this day in Japan that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures – the new houses and healthy people – were even more beautiful than the printed edition of the third.

Chittister framed the lesson of the story as a lesson of leadership, but it is a lesson for all of us: “no personal passion, no private agenda, no religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve.”

Three Assumptions to Promote Trust

At the suggestion of my friend George, I am reading Chade-Meng Tan’ Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success.

Meng is an engineer who works at Google. Having become interested in what mindfulness can bring to a work situation, he developed a course at Google called Search Inside Yourself, a course designed to help people develop their emotional intelligence with the goal of becoming happier and more successful.

There are a number of things I might quibble with Meng over. But, for the most part, I think he does a wonderful job of both helping people understand why mindfulness meditation is useful and providing clear instructions for a number of meditation techniques. Although my own meditation has the aim of deepening my relationship with God and my ability to live a life of Christian discipleship, I have always said that everyone can benefit from mindfulness meditation, regardless of their religious affiliation or, indeed, whether they are religious at all.

One of the things I particularly like about Meng’s approach is that he combines formal meditation practices with suggestions for how one can engage in informal practices that utilize the insights from the formal practices in day to day situations (something I try to do in my own forthcoming meditation book).

One of Meng’s subjects that has to do with our ability to work with others is the importance of establishing trust. Absent trust, people feel the need to protect themselves from each other and are unwilling to have productive debates because of a fear of conflict.

Meng uses a simple approach to promote a greater sense of trust. He writes that when he chairs a meeting, he invites everyone to make three assumptions about everyone else in the room:

1. Assume that everyone in this room is here to serve the greater good, until proven otherwise.
2. Given the above assumption, we therefore assume that none of us has any hidden agenda, until proven otherwise.
3. Given the above assumption, we therefore assume that we are all reasonable even when we disagree, until proven otherwise.

The value of his suggestions in a work situation is self-evident. But it also seems clear to me that this advice has value and application outside of business meetings.

Just think about what our political and public discourse might look like if we all approached each other with these assumptions. Why not give it a try?

Shepherding and Being Shepherded

In my blog post of yesterday, my focus with respect to yesterday’s Gospel from St. was on Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to come away and rest for a while. In the Mass I attended at Our Lady of Lourdes parish yesterday (where Elena was singing), my friend Fr. Dan Griffith focused on the shepherd imagery in the Gospel.

He talked about those who have positions of responsibility within the Church and was honest about our need to hold those who shepherd us in our faith accountable when they fall down in their duties. He also talked about the need for humility, and one of the things that struck me in his talk was the request with which he ended his sermon: that we pray for him in his role as shepherd of the Our Lady or Lourdes community – that he lead them with wisdom and compassion.

But he didn’t just focus on how we look at those who shepherd us. His sermons was a good reminder that we are both sheep and shepherds. And one of the things we all need to be conscious of is how well we are doing in shepherding others.

The reminder is a good one. We can’t just sit back and criticize those “in charge” for their failings. We have responsibilities toward each other as well – to shepherd each other in our faith. I fear that we all too easily overlook that responsibility, so am grateful that Dan’s sermon addressed it.

Rest a While

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark opens with the Apostles gathering with Jesus to report to him all they had done and taught. Doubtless Jesus is pleased at what they have done, but what he says to them is “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”

We have a tendency to move from activitiy to activity, trying to eke the most out of every day. There are many consequences of this – the rush to get each thing done, the lack of ability to savor any of it, the lack of reflectiveness about what we are doing, and so on.

But as Jesus’ words to his disciples makes clear, we need to nave time of rest. As Brother David Steindl-Rast writes:

When our purposeful work also is meaningful, we will have a good time in the midst of it. Then we will not be so eager to get it over with. If you spend only minutes a day getting this or that over with, you may be squandering days, weeks, years in the course of a lifetime. Meaningless work is a form of killing time. But leisure makes time come alive. The Chinese character for being busy is also made up of two elements: heart and killing. A timely warning. Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely.

The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.

Are you giving yourself the rest you need? Do you tak ethe time to come away and rest for a while?

Update: a good reflection on the priority of personal prayer here.