Ignatius and His Exercises

There are certain feast days in the calendar of the Catholic Church that are very special to me. Today is one of them: the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

One of the (if not the) most life-changing experiences of my life was doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

A description of the Exercises by Hans Urs von Balthasar describes perfectly what I experienced. von Balthasar write:

By their relentless practicality, the Exercises shove the searcher into the center of the Gospel and leave him alone there with Christ, with the triune God who speaks to him. In this way the book sweeps away the hundreds of pious “manuals for perfection” that abounded during the high and late Middle Ages. I used the word shove deliberately, for, in order to be sure to arrive at the center, one must first be stripped of his illusions about himself, his fantasies and sins, so that “naked he can follow the naked Christ,” so that God’s Word – Christ – can confront him personally, nose to nose. This happens not somewhere at the enges but int he center of his existence, so that the call becomes a turning point in his life.

The stripping away process is not easy. As I said to my director at the time, our illusions may be illusions, but they are our illusions and we grow accustomed and comfortable with them. Stripped bare was exactly how I felt as I was forced to confront various illusions about myself and the ways in which I am most vulnerable to attack by what Ignatius calls “the evil spirit.”

But the result of the process was profound. As von Balthasar says – the call becomes a turning point and I came away from the Exercises with the conviction that my life belongs to God and that I am called to labor with Christ.

I always tell people who ask me about the Spiritual Exercises: if you don’t want to change, stay far away from them, for they will change you. But if you are a regular pray-er open to a radical change, the Exercises may be something you want to consider.


Our Security is in God Alone

I’ve been reminded in ways small and large in recent days that we are not in total control. Things can happen that totally disrupt our lives and plans, that turn everything upside down. We don’t always recognize that, and spend much of our time living under the illusion that we are in control, that our security is in our own hands.

For me, the things that shatter that illusion are reminders that our security is in God, not in any of the things of this world. I know that if I can remember that God is all I need, I can live with whatever disruptions I have to face.

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius. His Suscipe reflects the mindset that ought to be our aspiration.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Anger Doesn’t Have to Be a Problem

In the current issue of Shambhala Sun, which I referenced in yesterday’s post, there is a short piece by Sylvia Boorstein which reports something the Dalai Lama said.

Asked once “Do you ever get angry? the Dalai Lama laughed, saying, “Of course! Things happen. They aren’t what you wanted. Anger arises. But it doesn’t have to be a problem.”

A simple but very important point. We can’t stop anger from rising, any more than we can stop other feelings from rising. We have no choice about that.

What we do have a choice about is what to do when anger arises. It is our choice whether to grasp onto that anger and act out of it, or to let it go, responding with wisdom and compassion.

Mindfulness helps tremendously in this. If I am aware of the anger at the moment it arises, I can recognize it for what it is and remind myself that I need not follow it.

Boorstein, commenting on what the Dalai Lama said observes, “the momentary constriction that blurs the mind when anger arises is quickly eased by the wisdom that anger is a normal neuronal reaction to displeasure, and not a mandate for any response other than clarity and kindness.”

We have no choice about what feelings arise. We do have a choice how we respond.

Original Goodness

I’ve made the point a number of times in talks I’ve given that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. A column in the current issue of Shambhala Sun (which contains my review of Brad Warner’s There is No God and He is Always With You) expounds nicely on that same theme.

We are a mixture of wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both an awakened and a confused aspect.

So, we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more original, as it were, the sin or the goodness?

How we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people – whether we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it.

What the author of the column describes as the Buddhist path to becoming a better person proceeds from the notion that it is the goodness that is more original. “The Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are.”

Although not a Buddhist, I proceed from the same premise. If I take seriously the idea of being created in the image and likeness of God, and believe that God looked on his creation and judged it “very good,” than it is the goodness that is more original.

That means that our task is not struggling against our basic nature, but uncovering what Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and others term our “true self.” Our task is to peel away the false layers of ourselves so that we can be who we really are.

Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches the crowds via a parable that likens the kingdom of eaven to a man who sowed good seed. After sowing his seed, the man discovers that his enemy has sowed weeds all through the wheat. As a result, when the crop grew and bore fruit, weeds grew along with the wheat. When his servants ask if they should cut down the weeds, he says no: pulling up the weeds might uproot the good wheat along with the bad. Thus he instructs them to wait for the harvest and collect it all, burning the weeds and gathering the wheat in his barn.

How do we read that?

One interpretation is: Don’t worry, at the end of the day the bad guys will get their due. They will get pulled out and burned as they ought.

Another lesson may be that while they are growing, we don’t always do a good job identifying the wheat from the weeds. We often draw conclusions about people based on our observations, which are partial at best and which don’t afford us the opportunity to see into another’s mind and soul. So perhaps we ought let God take care of sorting things out at the end of the day…especially since unlike a weed, which will always be a weed, people grow and change and can be pruned by God (directly and through others) to bear beautiful fruit.

There is also, though, a broader promise in the parable. A promise that there will come a time when evil will be defeated. However strong the effects of evil look in the world today, there will be a day when evil is completely destroyed.

Practicing Generosity

Last night I participated in “an evening of interfaith conversation” at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul. Although the conversation formed part of a summer course for MAT students on World Spiritualities, the evening was open to others and we had quite a large turnout.

There were three of us speaking: me, Buddhist teacher Joen Snyder O’Neal and Rabbi Barry Cytron. Each of us spoke about our own spiritual practices in addition to commenting on some specific questions put to us by Prof. Bill McDonough, the organizer of the discussion.

I always benefit from these discussions and there was much in the remarkes by both Joen and Barry I found illuminating. But I was particularly struck by a couple of things Joen said as part of her discussion of the Buddhist practice of generosity, a practice important to all faith traditions.

First, she said that while it is valuable to give “things” to other people, the practice of generosity should include giving others non-fear. She spoke of living our lives in a way that others experience non-fear. That asks more of us than simply sharing with others the “things” that we have. It invites a way of being that gives something very precious to another.

Second, she observed that we usually have five or six thoughts of giving every day and we dismiss them. E.g., “I should call X who is sick.” The generous thoughts arise, but we don’t act on them. Her advice to her students, she said, is to, at least once each day, act on one of those impulses. Don’t dismiss it. It may seem small, but you can imagine what an effect it would have – on us and others – if we all took that advice.

Feast of St. James

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of St. James, said to be the first of the apostles to be martyred.

In the Gospel for today’s feast day, the mother of James and John asks Jesus to “command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” Jesus responds by asking the sons if they can “drink the chalice that I am going to drink.”

As I sat with that passage this morning, I was amazed at the alacrity which which James and his brother respond to Jesus. I’m not sure I could have answered so quickly. Were there really sure of their strength? Or were they just anxious to secure a promise to sit at the head of the class, first in line, at the right hand of Jesus?

As I put it that way to myself, I realized what a misconception of Jesus’ Kingdom the mother’s question and the sons’ ambition reveals.

It is a very human way of thinking of things to envision some people getting to stand closer to Jesus and others (the less important, less holy, less whatever folks) being pushed to the back. James and John want to make sure they get the good seats. But I think when fully realize Kingdom, there is no line, no hierarchy of closeness, no back of the bus. We all get to be fully with Jesus.

Apart from today’s Gospel, I mark this holiday for another reason. Tradition holds that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain and he is especially honored at Compostela in Spain – the end point of the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James).

Four or five years ago on this feast, I wrote that it was one of my great desires to walk the Camino and that I planned to do so at some future point. As regular readers know, that point has come and I am only two months away from beginning my Camino.

And so I pray to St. James as I prepare for my pilgrimage to the place at which he is so honored.

The Bible as Subversive Text

I’m very tired after our flight back last night. (People always say the jet lag is not so bad flying in this direction, but you can’t tell by me – exhausted and up at 3:55am local MSP time.)

I had planned to write a bit this morning about Richard Rohr’s latest book, which I finished reading before my flight back. That will have to wait a day or so. For today, let me simply share some thoughts about the bible from a daily meditation by Rohr adapted from his book A Lever and a Place to Stand:The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer.

Rohr writes:

One of the few subversive texts in history, believe it or not, is the Bible. The Bible is a most extraordinary text because again and again it legitimates not the people on the top, but invariably the people on the bottom or those who move toward those on the bottom—from Abraham to Moses to Jeremiah to Job to John the Baptist to Jesus. It has taken an amazing degree of denial and selective attention to miss this quite obvious alternative pattern.

After a while you might get tired of the rejected son, the younger son, the barren woman, the sinner, the outsider always being the chosen one of God! It is the Biblical pattern—which we prefer not to see. It takes away our power to exclude “the least of the brothers and sisters” because that is precisely where Jesus says he is to be found (Matthew 25:40)! If indeed women, blacks, other religions, gays, and other “outsiders” are “least” in our definition, it seems that gives them in fact a privileged and revelatory position! They are not to be excluded, but honored. Jesus takes away from us any possibility of creating any class system or any punitive notion from religion. Unfortunately, thus far, it has not worked very well.

Something to think about people play constant games of “gotcha” with the Bible, selecting individual quotes to support whatever position they happen to hold.

End Of Vacation

I am about to get on a plane for the return flight from Munich to the United States. It has been a great vacation, and we even got to spend Saturday afternoon with Elena in Salzburg.

The end of vacation is always difficult for me. I tend to start obsessing about all of the things I have to get done as soon as I get home. Apart from two weeks of mail and a ton of laundry, I know from my periodic e-mail checks that I need to promptly get back to several people with descriptions of upcoming talks and similar things.

I know I need to consciously remind myself to breathe, relax, and simply enjoy these last hours before vacation is over.

And to again give thanks for all of the great experiences of the last two weeks.


Donatello’s Mary Magdalene

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, the first person to see the resurrected Christ.

One of the first images that comes to my mind when I think of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s haunting sculpture of her, in Florence. The statue shows her during the 30-year period it is believed the saint spent fasting and repenting at the end fo her life. According to popular biographies of her, Mary Magdalene was said to have renounced material possessions and covered herself only with her long hair. One biographer wrote that she lived without food because she “knew that Jesus wished to sustain her with naught but heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.”

Whatever we do or don’t know about the historical Mary Magdalene herself, Donatello’s sculpture is (in the words of Martha Levine Dunkelman) “one of the most famous expressions of female emotion in the history of Western art. She has become an iconic image of a suffering woman….[and] an example of penitence.” At the same time, the figure shows strength and endurance.

Perhaps a good image for meditation on this feast of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene