I Will Pick You Up However Many Times You Fall

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat after dismissing the crowds he had been teaching. Later that evening, as they are being tossed around on the water in their boat, they see a figure coming toward them on the water. When they realize it is Jesus, impetuous Peter says to Jesus, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says “Come.”

I had a powerful experience praying with this passage during one of my early Ignatian retreats, at a time when I was still grappling with my level of trust – in God as well as in myself.

I was doing an Ignatian Contemplation with this scene – the method of praying with an episode of Jesus’ life where we put ourselves right into the scene. During my prayer, I was in the boat with the disciples. I heard Peter’s request and Jesus’ response. I then watched Peter take a few steps toward Jesus and then fall into the water. 

After Peter fells and got picked up, Jesus, somehow again across the water, looked at me from where he stood on the water, inviting me out of the boat. I stepped onto the water.  My eyes on Jesus, I took a step, but then, like Peter had, I started to fall.  In an instant, Jesus, from across the water was right at my side, lifting me up by the hand. 

At that moment it was as thought a record skipped (a description that requires one be old enough to remember LPs to understand), as over and over again I fell and Jesus picked me up.  I fell and Jesus picked me up. Over and over and over.  What I heard, reminiscent of the cell phone commercial that was common a few years ago (“Do you hear me yet?”), was: “Do you get it yet?  Do you get it yet?”  

I remember thinking, as I was both falling and being lifted up and watching this falling and lifting up taking place over and over again, “How long are we going to do this?  How many times are we going to do the same thing?”  To which the response was: “For as long as it takes.  We’ll do it as many times as it takes for you to get that I will not stop.  Over and over again. Until you understand that no matter how many times you fall, I will help you up.”  This experience did much to shore up my trust and faith in God. 

Jesus will always be there.

These Alone Are Enough

Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, about whom (and about whose Spiritual Exercises) I have been writing so much in recent weeks in connection with the Ignatian Year we are celebrating.

In honor of his feast, here is my favorite sung version of Ignatius’ Suscipe prayer:

The Ignatian Year XXI: A Dynamic Vision of My Place in God’s Plan

Many people engage the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius precisely to discern what God wants from them.  Others make the Exercises to confirm decisions about their vocation they have already prayerfully come to.

It is easy to say “I want to do what God wants me to do.”  But there are two different ways of looking at the idea of “God’s will.”

One is to think of God’s will for us as a predetermined blueprint, as though God has a file cabinet with folders for each of us.  People with that view look for the blueprint, thinking God’s will for them is set in stone.  They have an image of God having a complete plan worked out irrespective of any input on our part.

That is not very demanding, when you think about it. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”  As though we were foot soldiers simply following the instructions of a general with no input. 

Ignatius doesn’t view it that way.  Rather, he has a dynamic image of God and believes that at the deepest levels our desires and God’s desires for us coincide. That suggests an active process on our part in discerning God’s will for us.  If God’s will were a detailed plan for each person, discernment would not be an adult decision, but just an act of finding a pre-determined plan.  Instead Ignatius believes finding God’s will is making the best choices can in given set of circumstances – with who I am and the circumstances I am in right now.

That is both harder and, in a sense, consoling.

It is harder because I have to take an active part in the process of determining my part in God’s plan.  God and I together work out who I am to be. 

But it is also very consoling because it means God works with who I am at any given moment.  Think about it – if there were a pre-determined blueprint, what happens when we step off it (which invariably we will)?  Does God just throw up his hands and say, well that one’s all messed up? 

Under Ignatius’ dynamic model, God works with where we are.  So if I do discern incorrectly, and fail in a given situation to choose the option which gives the greatest glory to God – If I go left, so to speak, when I perhaps should have gone right – God and I can and will recalibrate (just like the GPS in your car.)

Note that this is a the twenty-first in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

The Ignatian Year XX: Giving Others the Benefit of the Doubt

In one of the Annotations (or Preliminary Observations) that open the Spiritual Exercises, in talking about the mutual respect that must exist between the person giving the Exercises and the retreatant, Ignatius makes an observation about what he suggests must be true of “every good Christian” – and that is that we always give others the benefit of the doubt.  In Ignatius’ words, one must “be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it.”  That if there is a way to do so, to adopt a positive way of reading what another says.

Ignatius is calling us to a generosity of spirit in how we deal with each other.  A willingness to try hard to see another’s giftedness at moments when these gifts seem hidden.  An effort to give another the benefit of the doubt, to try to see something someone has said in the best possible light rather than the worst.

If we are honest, we will admit we don’t always do that.  You see it in the news and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter – people always ascribing the worst motive to those they disagree with.  People giving the worst possible reading to a comment made by someone whose views they disagree with.

Ignatius’ advice seems especially important in these days of fractiousness. Think of how different our dialogue and our world could be if we adopted his approach as a normal way of behaving.

Note that this is a the twentieth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

Of Mustard Seeds and Yeast

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus uses two parables to help his followers understand the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field.  It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.

Louis Savary in his book The New Spiritual Exercises, encourages us to take time meditating on the parables of the kingdom like the two in today’s Gospel.  He suggests several assumptions to effectively doing so.

First, he says that “[w]henever Jesus is describing what he calls the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, it is more than a description of the afterlife or life in heaven.  In most kingdom parables there is always some activity, human responsibility, choices made, or a change of heart, all of which suggests that the kingdom is something happening here on Earth, a divine project that is in process here and now, something ongoing, something big.

Second, Savary suggests that Jesus uses “both/and” thinking in his descriptions of the kingdom of God.  He explains that for Jesus “the kingdom cannot be encapsulated in words – it is not this or that.  Rather, it is like a mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure, a merchant searching, a fishnet, a storehouse, etc. (things that, in fact, are not at all like each other).  No one of these images completely captures the nature of the kingdom; all of them and many more are needed to begin to comprehend” the kingdom.

That means we are not asking “Is the kingdom of God either this or that?  Seeds and yeast, for example, are very different.  So, either/or thinking would say that if the kingdom  is one it can’t be the other.  That is not a helpful way to proceed here.  The kingdom is not either this or that, rather it is like both this and that.  So Jesus uses different images, each of which highlights some aspect or quality of the kingdom of God.

How do today’s parables help you understand the qualities of the Kingdom of heaven?

The Ignatian Year XIX: Suffering with Consciousness and Love

In the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, we pray with the passion and death of Jesus. Having spend time in the Second Week walking with Jesus in his public ministry, we now walk with him to his death. What do we learn from doing so?

In his book The New Spiritual Exercises, Louis Savary suggests that praying with Jesus’ passion and death teaches us to how to suffer with consciousness and love. He writes

Humans are the bearers of consciousness and free choice.  Thus, we can endure unavoidable suffering with consciousness and hatred, or we can endure it with consciousness and love.  When you are conscious of your suffering, you can take the energy of your suffering and direct it either into anger and resentment, or into compassion and healing

What we learn from Jesus here is important. I think there is a tendency to think that our suffering removes choices from us and we can become completely overcome by circumstances.  Carried along without making mindful intentional choices.

Walking with Jesus, however, we see that even while he suffered excruciating pain, he had compassion for the thief, forgiveness of his enemies, care for his mother, and ultimate trust in his father. We experience by staying with him throughout his passion that it is possible to suffer with consciousness and love. And that is a lesson we all need, since suffering is an inevitable part of our lives.

St. Ignatius hopes that in making the Spiritual Exercises we will more and more be able to model our behavior and lives on that of Jesus.

Is it possible to follow that model in the face of unbearable suffering?

Viktor Frankl wrote the first edition of his book Man’s Search For Meaning during a nine-day period within a year after his liberation from three years spent in Nazi concentration camps.  Frankl makes the case in his book that life can have meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable. In part he conveys that message by recounting his concentration camp experiences.

Having experienced both brutality and kindness, and having watched the various responses of prisoners and captors to life in the camps, Frankl remained convinced that even in the most horrific suffering people have a choice of action.   He wrote, “There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”

Watching men who were able to go to their deaths comforting others, having watched people giving away their last bit of bread, provided for Frankl “sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Most of us will never undergo suffering at the level suffered by those in concentration camps, let alone that suffered by Jesus. But our own sufferings can sometimes seem overwhelming. Being with Jesus in the Third Week strengthens us to do so as he did.

Note that this is a the nineteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year

A Hundred or Sixty or Thirty Fold

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we listen to Jesus sharing the parable of the sower. It is a reading we have all heard many times – about the sower who sowed seeds on various types of soil, and the results of his sowing. Today’s reading ends with Jesus sharing that the seed that fell on rich soil “produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

Often, when we hear this parable, we put the focus on ourselves, wondering if we are good seed, or whether we are sometimes like the seed sown among thorns, hearing the word, but getting distracted by worldly anxieties and desires such that the seed bears no fruit, and so forth.  In other words, a focus on us and our reception of the Word. That may be helpful, but it is not the only way to read the parable.

I once heard a talk by Fr. Brian Massingale, which encouraged a different way of thinking about this parable. What follows are the notes I took during his talk.

In first century Palestine, sowers did not plow or prepare their ground before planting or sowing seeds. (They had no tractors, no hoes.)  They sowed seed expecting and knowing there would be a certain amount of waste, and that there would be obstacles to a good harvest.  (Birds, shallow ground, thorns, etc. – the things we hear about in the parable.) 

The people hearing Jesus tell this parable, familiar with this technique, would know exactly what to expect when the seed was sown, meaning that the details of the seed being sown on different types of grounds do not really add much to their knowledge.  The details about the seed’s growth or lack thereof, in a sense, are only the necessary set up to bring us to the conclusion.

The kicker, or the punch line, Fr. Massingale suggested, is the penultimate sentence of the passage that the seed that fell on rich soil, produced fruit, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

A hundred, or sixty or thirty fold.  In those days, do you have any guess what a typical good harvest would be?

Sevenfold is what you might reasonably expect given all the obstacles. 

A tenfold harvest would be an incredibly good harvest and cause for celebration.

Jesus’ parable, however, provides an amazing contrast – the contrast between present obstacles and awesome fulfillment.  An over-the-top harvest.  A harvest of 30 times would be amazing; 60 times, astounding; 100 times – breathtaking.  This is a statement about the harvest that would have astonished Jesus’ hearers.  Never would they even dream of such a result.  Jesus’ conclusion is so over top as to be outrageous, and therefore memorable. 

 The Kingdom of Heaven, God’s vision is like a sower who acts, knowing all the obstacles, yet confident and assured of its future realization.  And because of this confidence and assurance, the sower acts now to help realize its fulfillment.   The visions’ future realization grounds confident action in the present despite the knowledge of the very real obstacles that exist.

So the parable is a call to act now with assurance, to acknowledge the obstacles but to carry one with confidence.

The Ignatian year XVIII: Ignatius’ Ministry – One of Conversar

In his book What is Ignatian Spirituality?, David Fleming notes that Ignatius described his ministry with the Spanish word conversar.  In English we think of conversation simply as a talk with another person (which may or may not cover matters of significance), but as Fleming observes, the Spanish word has the broader meaning “‘to be conversant with’ something or someone – that is, to truly know them deeply.”

That is certainly how Ignatius understood the term.  Fleming writes:

Ignatius’ spiritual life developed around the idea of conversation.  It is based on conversation with God in prayer.  It is developed through conversation with others – spiritual directors, confessors, like-minded friends who share one’s ideals and way of life.  It is expressed in conversation as ministry – sharing the Gospel with others.  All three conversations are embodied in the Spiritual Exercises.  The retreatant is guided through the exercises by conversation with a spiritual director who cultivates the conversation with God.  The exercises nurture a conversation with God.  The goal of the Exercises is to help the person get involved in a more fruitful conversation with others in ministry.

Conversation as prayer.  Conversation as sharing the fruits of our prayer and our lives with our spiritual director (or the equivalent).  Conversation as ministry.

How do you see these understandings of conversation playing out in your own life?

Note that this is a the eighteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

Picking Grain (or Eating Pancakes) on the Sabbath

Today’s Gospel finds the Pharisees criticizing Jesus because his hungry disciples picked some heads of grain on the Sabbath and ate them. Jesus responds by referring to David and his companions eating the bread of offering in the temple when they were hungry, telling the Pharisees that he desires mercy, not sacrifice, and ending by reminding them that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Reflecting on this passage always brings to mind an incident I may have shared once before that occurred some years ago, when my daughter was about barely 10 and just starting to cook. One of her first specialties was pancakes – and she learned to make really good pancakes!

When I was a child we still had to fast at least three hours before receiving Eucharist, and so (old habits dying hard) I tended to take seriously the more current “rule” to fast at least one hour before receiving. On this particular morning, I was on the way out the door to a weekday mass and so had not eaten breakfast. As I was going out, Elena, who had just made pancakes proudly encouraged me to taste her product before I left. I declined, but as I passed her she held the fork to my mouth making it difficult for me to avoid taking a bite. I left the house with the intention of taking the food out of my mouth as soon as I got outside.

As I closed the door behind me and started to put my hand to my mouth, I stopped, struck by the absurdity of my intention. Could it really be that God was honored more by my spitting out a piece of pancake into the hedges than by my eating the bite of pancake my daughter prepared with her hands and delighted in having me taste? Asking the question was enough to answer it.

I am not suggesting there is no value to rules; rules have their place. But we ought to take seriously Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees. There clearly are situations where one has to question whether the rule in a particular situation really works to the greater glory of God. No work on the Sabbath is surely a good rule as a general matter, but to have the rule prevent hungry disciples from eating is no act of reverence toward God. Likewise with fasting before communion.

Of course, this is not always an easy thing for people to see. We know that admonitions such as that given by Jesus to the Pharisees contributed to people wanting to put him to death. While no one is threatening to put most of us to death, we also know that there are some people so adamant about the specifics of a rule that they forget who it is that is Lord of the Sabbath

The Ignatian Year XVII: Opposing Force Fields

I’ve been re-reading Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, which I first read shortly after it was published.  There is much in the book that I continue to appreciate greatly.

One of the many things that I have always found helpful is Brackley’s way of describing the pill of God and that of what we sometimes label as the enemy spirit.  He writes:

Like the writers of the New Testament, Ignatius presupposes that we live in a kind of double force-field.  Human beings, their relationships, and their institutions exhibit two kinds of tendencies: movement toward light (truth), freedom, love and life, and movement in the opposite direction toward darkness (lies), slavery, egoism and death….Just how we label the power of evil is less important than recognizing it in operation.

While Ignatius speaks in his Spiritual Exercises of Satan and his demons as pulling us in the direction of darkness , one need not share his personification of evil to intuitively understand the pull of that force.  To know that even when we are well-intentioned and want to be our best selves, that the pull in the direction of darkness can be a strong one.  As Brackley writes

We may consider the ancients primitive dupes for personifying evil.  That is not the most serious issue.  It is far more dangerous to miss what the ancients understood: that our minds and moral resources are no match for the “mystery of iniquity.”

Note that this is a the seventeenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.