Ignatius and His Exercises

Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint who has been very influential in my spiritual development.

I quipped not long ago to my spiritual director, after sharing some of the experiences of my most recent retreat, “Is there anyone who ever has a realization Ignatius didn’t already have?”  An exaggeration, perhaps, but the truth is that Ignatius really got it, and there is a reason his Exercises have flourished and survived for centuries.

To be sure, some of Ignatius’ imagery and ways of talking about certain issues can benefit from adaptation (he was, after all, a 16th Century former soldier) to our times.  (Although Ignatius himself recognized the need for those directing the Spiritual Exercises to adapt them to the needs and qualities of those making the retreat, the need for adaptation today is greater than he could have imagined.)  But the fundamental aspects of the Exercises – the Principle and Foundation, the Call of Christ, The Two Standards and so forth – are as meaningful today as they were when Ignatius wrote them.

On this feast day I say a prayer of thanksgiving for all Ignatius and his Exercises have meant for me and for countless others. And I pray especially for all of the members of the Jesuit family.


Pinkasova Synagogue

We spent several hours this morning visiting the Jewish Museum in Prague. The museum is comprised of several synagogues as well as the old Jewish cemetery.

From restrictions on trade in the thirteenth century to pograms in the eighteenth century to the experience under Nazism, the Jews in Prague (as in many other parts of Europe) suffered greatly.

I can’t say it was a fun morning, but it was a powerful one. For me the most difficult was the Pinkasova synagogue. In the 1950s, the names of the more than 80,000 Czech and Moravian men woman and children who died in the Holicaust were inscribed on the walls of the synagogue.  Wall after wall through several rooms covered with names, grouped by families. I could barely breathe and certainly could not speak as I walked through, eyes brimming over with tears.

If that were not enough, the upper floor houses an exhibition of drawings by Jewish children interned in Terezon, a holding camp for those destined for the death camps further east. Pictures of the transport, of life in the camp, of death, of a hoped for life after the camp. (The adults in the camp tried to make things as “normal” as possible for the children; encouraging the children to draw as a way to deal with difficult emotions was part of that.) Many of the pictures had the birth and death dates of the children who drew them. Dead at age 8 or 10 or 6. It was heartbreaking.

I would love to believe we have grown to the point where something like this horror could never happen again. But then I look at what is happening in our world and know it is naive to think it could not.

The names are not legible, but here is one of the walls of the synagogue.  

Francis and Clare

I have traveled so many places over the decades, and I have seen more wonderful sights than I would have imagined as a child growing up in Brooklyn. But one of my favorites places remains Assisi.

Perhaps it is because Francis was my one connection to Christ during my years as a Buddhist.  Or that Clare has worked her way into Elena’s heart.

Perhaps it is the way the streets wind, with a staircase here, a little passage there. Perhaps it is the beauty of the Giotto frescos in the Basilica, or the peace at Eremi. 

Whatever the reasons, it is a very special place.



It is All Good

We want our vacations to be constantly wonderful, unadulterated joy. We plan for them, anticipate them eagerly and expect that everything will be perfect.

This vacation has been a bit challenging thus far.  We have been this week in an area we picked so as to hike but the  extreme heat has made that not feasible. The maps of the area seem written for those who already know where they are going, so we get lost pretty much every time we take the car out. When I did go out for a long walk yesterday morning, I took a bad fall. (I won’t describe what my knee looks like.)

On the other hand, we had great visits to castles and caves and some wonderful meals. I got to see Elena perform in an opera. Most importantly, it is time with my husband and daughter.

And today we are off to Assisi, a place I love!

Not perfect, but it is all good.

Mary Magdalene: Fiercely Loyal Friend and Disciple

Today the Catholic Church celebrates one of the most maligned women in history: Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple of Jesus.  She was one of the people who followed Jesus wherever he went. One of the few who didn’t run away at the end, but who stayed at the foot the cross until he died. And she is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection – the appearance that we hear about in today’s Gospel.

It is a beautiful encounter.  In The Twelve Voices of Easter, Woodrow Kroll and Keity Ghormley have a chapter on Mary Magdalene, which among other things, describes that encounter in Mary’s voice.  I share here an excerpt, which you might use as a meditation for today’s Gospel.

…when we arrived at the tomb, we were shocked: The stone was not there, nor were any soldiers to be seen. The stone had been rolled away–taken right out of its trough and tipped over.

As we stood and wondered at what had happened to the stone, two men dressed in dazzling white robes suddenly appeared. These garments were not the togas of Roman soldiers, nor were they the long white robes of the Pharisees. These were not men at all, but angels of God.

We were overcome and we fell to the ground. But the angels reassured us. They reminded us how Jesus had said that He would rise again. One of the angels bid us to look inside the tomb and see for ourselves. I ran as fast as I could to tell Peter and John. When we returned, the other women were gone. We looked in the tomb. Empty. I was convinced that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. The linen garments Joseph had wrapped Him in were lying there, neatly folded in their places. But the tomb was empty.

Peter and John ran from the garden, but I remained. I had nowhere to go. What had happened to the Master? Could it be that He actually did rise from the dead, or had the soldiers taken His body away? My heart was overcome again with sorrow. I just stood there, weeping.

Then I heard a voice behind me ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I assumed it was the gardener. “Sir, what have you done with Him?” I asked, wiping my face.

It was fully light, but tears blurred my eyes. I turned, but could not see clearly. Then He called me by my name. “Mariam.” That was my Aramaic name, the name my parents and my friends called me. A gardener would not have spoken Aramaic to me. A Roman would not know my name. I knew that voice. I looked up. I saw Him. It was Jesus. I answered in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” I threw myself at His feet, weeping, laughing, not believing, believing. My Master, my Teacher, my Savior, my Lord. He was standing there alive….

He told me to go tell the others, and I did. Marvelous news. A wonder beyond all wonders. God has accomplished great things in our midst. Jesus is risen from the dead!

I Can Live Without Internet

Sorry for the relative silence. I am traveling with very limited (read: almost nonexistent) Internet. 

Apart from the difficulty of extremely high temperatures (and the already noted lack of Internet) all is well,

Sending prayers to all. I will post again as and when I am able.

PS: As my posting if this indicates, I can walk to a place with occasionally functional Internet. It is just hit or miss.

To Lose One’s Life

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading Gerhard Lohfink’s book Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was.  In the first of his chapters addressing the “Who He Was” part of the title, Lohfink addresses Jesus’ statement in Luke’s Gospel that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Lohfink makes the important point that this is not just, or even primarily, about the surrender of life in death.  Human beings, he writes

are also desperately engaged in “saving” their own desire and dreams, their own guiding images and plans for their lives.  But these very rescue actions cause them to lose their lives – namely, the true lives that existence under the rule of God would give them.  “To lose one’s life” therefore refers not only to martyrdom but in given circumstances to the surrender of one’s secure bourgeoise existence for the reign of God.

This is important because if we put the focus on martyrdom, it is easy to let ourselves off the hook – Oh, I’m not being called to lay down my (physical) life for God.  Even when we understand Jesus’ words more broadly, we want to resist them.  Lohfink continues

Such radicality for the sake of God’s project is not everyone’s thing.  Normally we want not “either-or” but”both-and.”  In particular, people familiar with the Gospel and desiring to serve God can be deeply conflicted here.  They want to be there for God, but they also want space for themselves.  They want to make a place for God in their lives, but they also want to have free segments in which they decide for themselves about their lives.  They want to do the will of God, but at the same time, they want to live out their dreams and longings.

That description pretty much sounds like many, if not most, of us.  And Jesus is clear in his reaction to that way of thinking: “No one can serve two masters.”  That is, Lohfink paraphrases, “when it is a question of God an the reign of God, there can be nothing  but undivided self-surrender.”  And that, suggests Lohfink, is a central part of Jesus’ message.

I can see the tagline of the commercial: Discipleship in Christ – It’s Not for the Faint of Heart!

God Calls Moses

One of the early meditations in Week Two of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the termed the Call of the King.  The meditation is presented in the form of a parable designed us to get in touch with Christ’s invitation that we labor with him to bring about God’s plan of the world.

God’s call is not a distinctively Christian phenomenon. God has been calling on humans to aid him in his plan for the world from the very beginning.  We hear one of those calls in today’s first Mass reading: God’s call to Moses.

God has heard the cry of his people languishing in slavery in Egypt. At the time Moses is off tending the flock of his father-in-law and as he comes to mount Horeb, he sees fire flaming out of a bush. And God says to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people….The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharoah to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

As I read the passage, I was struck with the ordinariness with which God makes this request, as though he were asking something on the order of, “run down to the corner store and pick me up a quart of milk.”  No big deal, Moses, just go and lead my people out of Egypt.

Moses’ first reaction is about what you’d expect: Are you serious? How in the world am I supposed to do this? Who am I to go to Pharoah and lead the people to freedom? And what is God’s response: I will be with you.

The conversation goes on after this, as God tells Moses how things will proceed, but Moses still says, “If you please, Lord, send someone else.”

But God will not be thwarted. God doesn’t say, OK, I’ll go ask someone else. Rather God persists, and throughout their conversation, in response to each of Moses’ objections, God promises the gift Moses needs to carry out this task.

And God persists with each of us.  Calling us over and over again for us to take part in God’s plan for the world.

Will you answer the call?

Baruch Atah Adonai

My dear friend Larry is spending time this summer in Israel studying Hebrew, as part of his journey into deeper practice of his Judaism.  To the great benefit of many of us, he has been blogging regularly while he is there.  (He talks about the path that led him to be in Jerusalem this summer here.)

Yesterday, Larry wrote a post about prayer.  He began by acknowledging that, like many of us, he sometimes loses his concentration during prayer.  His method for dealing with the distraction is to concentrate “on three little words” – the three words that begin every Jewish blessing: Baruch Atah Adonai.  Christians would say,  “Blessed are you Lord God”; Larry, as others of our Jewish bothers and sisters says, “Blessed are you, Ha’Shem.”

Whether Jewish of Christian, and by whatever name we refer to God, what Larry writes in his post can be helpful advice:

Baruch Atah Adonai. One doesn’t need to know another word of prayer. One doesn’t need another word of Hebrew. All one needs to attain true kavanah, true spirituality, true gratitude and appreciation of all that we have (“for he has made to me all that I need”) are these three little words. Blessed are you, Ha’Shem.

Repeat these words. Just these words. Repeat them when you want to pray but don’t know how. Repeat them when you see beauty. Repeat them when you are happy. Repeat them when you see misery and when you are sad — especially when you see misery and when you are sad, for you do not know and cannot know when misery becomes glory and sadness becomes joy. But you do know that without misery and sadness happiness and joy do not exist. And you do know – or I hope you do – that even in misery and sadness is the pure act of living, the pure appreciation of life that you would not know were it not for – Baruch Atah Adonai….

Baruch Atah Adonai.   Nowhere are these words more meaningful than when facing existential questions. Questions of reward and punishment, happiness and misery, joy and sorrow, life and death.  Why is one serene and one troubled, one healthy and one ill, one prosperous and one suffering? Why is there sorrow? Why is there evil?…

The answers are unimportant.  For what we do know is that we are alive. And to be alive is to experience the world, however we experience it. That, in itself, is a blessing. The greatest of all possible blessings.  And so, Baruch Atah Adonai. Three little words that are the essence of gratitude. Three little words that are the essence of prayer.

Prayer is not really all that complicated.  I was reminded by Larry’s post of Mary Oliver’s poem Praying, which includes the lines, “just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

Thank you, Larry, for this and all of your wonderful posts this summer.