Wanna Survive the Storm? Brush Up Your Jesuit

December 3, 2018

On December 1, 2018, the Christian liturgical calendar entered the season of Advent, a four-week period of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The Advent season is filled with readings, music, and images centering on themes of justice, peace, and the possibility of a new kind of world. It provides an opportunity for an annual renewal of the Christian community’s capacity to live comfortably and actively in the liminal, incomplete place of hope, anticipation, and longing. From a liturgical standpoint, the first Sunday of Advent, not the first day of January, is the beginning of the Christian year. Christians get to start over once a year and to renew their commitment to co-create a new world with the Creator that they believe set the process of creation in motion. It is a time to replenishing many things, perhaps imagination most of all.

People of the Christian faith have always had a desperate need for this season. Over the centuries, they learned (usually the hard way) that the most difficult part of re-making the world is that it doesn’t seem to want to get re-made. Christians have also learned that the biggest obstacle to creating a more just and humane world is often other Christians. As generation after generation has tackled this seemingly insurmountable hill, some of our wisest ancestors realized that a new earth will not come about primarily through changing public policies and institutions, but re-fashioning the human heart and mind from the “inside out.” If you want to change the environment around you, you have to begin by changing your own heart and mind. The process of inner renewal is never completed. It needs constant replenishment of hope to overcome the disappointments, discouragements, defeats and the incompleteness of every effort to improve the world.

A perfect example is the mid-term election. American politics is finding a new power equilibrium with a Democratic-held House. Although political forces are realigning, it is questionable whether the United States will have a substantive change in the magnitude of our nation’s rancorous polarization. Rather, history would suggest that we are more likely to experience an increase in levels of division, distrust, anger, and hatred across the political divide and between people who think and live differently from one another. If you track closely the news and trending social media posts on the web, you can already see the clouds forming on the horizon.

When the human race gets caught in this kind of storm of negativity, history suggests, the pathway out of the storm is usually violence, civil or regional wars, and twice in the past century escalating into global hostilities, resulting in the death of 15-19 million in World War I and 50-80 million in World War II. Perhaps the saddest lesson of our history is the human habit of exhausting our distrust, anger, and hatred for each other through destruction, and when this destruction becomes horrifying in its cumulative effect, only then can we reset our emotional and social thermometers for a period of limited peace. It is actually no coincidence that the religious resources of Advent – the texts, music, images, and symbols – grew out of the swirls of such violence and destruction that people of faith witnessed through the centuries. Advent has endured as a liturgical season because once a year Christian people have the opportunity to imagine a different scenario for the inherent conflicts of the human condition. They can believe again in hope; they can dare to hunger again for a different kind of world.

At this time of Advent, my hope is that more of us will tire of division, distrust, anger, and hatred and will try another path. Perhaps one inspiration for finding new paths is Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, or as they are more commonly known – the Jesuits.

Ignatius, a privileged kid of the late 15th century, is an unlikely candidate to offer the world an exit lane on its self-destructive patterns. In his early years, he was more interested in good times and glory on the battlefield than inner renewal. But, during a six-month recovery from a war wound, he had a spiritual experience so profound that it reshaped the direction of his life. While recuperating, he read two books, one about the life of Christ and the other a compilation of the stories of the lives of the saints. His reflection on the books precipitated a spiritual experience that eventually sent him back to school as an older man, motivated him to find new friends (or companions as he liked to call them), and drove him into a period of intense personal reflection. This reflection produced the Spiritual Exercises, one of the most sophisticated integrations of spirituality and “psychology” (although that field of study would not get invented formally until the late 19th century).

The Exercises provided strategies for awakening the imagination with the intent of guiding a retreatant to personal liberation and transformation through a growing sensitivity to inner attractions (consolations) and negative reactions (desolations). One of the goals of the Spiritual Exercises, unlike many contemporary programs for inner growth, is not self-serving. It is to empower the individual to become an agent of transformation in the world, awakening the desire and commitment to authentically put one’s personality and gifts in service to refashion the world.

In recent years, there has been a lot of people who have talked about the unhealthy attitudes that are born of dogmatic religious belief systems. While owning much of the assumptive religious world of his time, Ignatius also broke free. He believed in the power of the human soul to change the environment around it. He believed in the potential to break old patterns of relating, and in the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the potential to grow in wisdom, and replenish the hope and anticipation for the future that is the essence of the Advent season.

As a child of the Italian Renaissance, Ignatius considered religious education important to the reshaping and remolding of the inner person for a life of service, but he also believed in the importance of all kinds of other forms of education, especially the humanities and the arts. He believed God wanted us to cultivate wildly curious minds because such minds unleashed the secret weapon for changing the world – the human imagination. In this process of inquiry and experimentation in doing good with all the gifts at one’s disposal and one’s community, Ignatius believed a woman or man could demonstrate the true “glory of God” by evolving into a human “fully alive” (using the famous words of St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop).

The Jesuits now operate more than 600 educational institutions worldwide, including more than 200 colleges and universities. Many consider their educational network the largest private system in the world. Ironically, Ignatius and his companions did not start out with a commitment to education – they “discerned” their way into it. A Jesuit friend of mine, Gerald Fagin, SJ, and an Ignatian scholar, once wrote an article he originally entitled “Plan B.” Jerry’s thesis was a bit surprising for some. He contended that Ignatius is the Rhodes Scholar of discernment in the Catholic Church, the Yoda of spiritually-informed decision-making who devised one of the world’s most complicated and intricate (and at the same time simple) processes for making choices in life. Yet, often after all of his careful discernment, virtually every one of the original plans of Ignatius did not work out. He always had to resort to “Plan B.” The discernment process itself led Ignatius not only to the formulation of this second plan but also to the flexibility to live in life’s messiness, heartache and disillusionment with hope, longing and anticipating good things to come – a world of less suffering, more joy and peace, and more freedom to be who God originally intended, as individuals and as communities.

Ignatius had an indomitable spirit, and these are the kinds that change the world. His legacy has taken lots of twists and turns, and those touched deeply by the Ignatian spiritual tradition share some of this hearty sense of hopeful rebounding no matter what we experience. In 2002, Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi tried to capture the mystery of this spiritual orientation in their book, Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. They interviewed 430 Jesuits and former Jesuits, in search of distinctive, shared qualities. They found many: they are blunt; in a world of absolutes, they are nuanced; they manage to live in the tensions between the prophetic and the pragmatic, the intellectually demanding and the emotionally stirring; they also have a commitment to the larger Catholic institutional structures, while finding its thinking exasperating due to a deep identification and solidarity with those with whom they minister and share life. And, they keep producing – books, articles, projects, homilies, social justice initiatives, the launching and restructuring of institutions. The Jesuits are Advent people, as are most of the people who work in their institutions, approaching life, mission and a desire for a more just and humane world with passion, even when there are a blinding array of uncertainties swirling around them.

Ignatius and the Jesuits are not the only people schooled deeply in an Advent spirituality. Elaine Pagels describes her own journey to hope in the midst of forces seeking to squelch every ounce of it, in Why Religion?: A Personal Story. Pagels is one of the most recognized religious historians in the world, known especially for her groundbreaking research in the so-called “gnostic” texts discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, a region of upper Egypt. Pagels books have reshaped modern scholarship about biblical texts, particularly her 1979 best-selling text, The Gnostic Gospels, and her popular 2004 book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Pagels has been accused of New Age thinking, destroying the foundation of Christianity by allowing so-called gnostic writing to raise questions about the Christian biblical canon, undermining religious traditions with her strong feminist agenda, and much more. In her memoir, however, she describes a serious seeker, with enormous curiosity and emotional attentiveness on a complex and convoluted journey of faith that keeps resurrecting in hope from the challenges and crushing disappointments of life. It all sounds terribly “Jesuitity.”

Pagels book documents her religiously neutral, if not hostile, a family of origin, her dramatic evangelical conversion at a Billy Graham Crusade as a 15-year-old girl, the loss of her first boyfriend, Paul, in a tragic automobile accident, and her eventual rejection of simplistic evangelical responses to pain and tragedy. She shares her experiences of sexual assault and gender bias as a graduate student, falling in love with her husband, Heinz, and their devastating loss of their first born child at six years of age to a congenital heart condition followed a year later by the death of Heinz in a climbing accident. Throughout the experiences, she uses her scholarship, openness to religious experience, and reflection on those experiences as vehicles for climbing slowly back to joy, meaning, and purpose. As a good Jesuit, she keeps producing, keeps trying to change the world, one step at a time, passionate, even in her uncertainties.

Toward the end of her book, Pagels provides a poem from an anonymous writer that was found in the Nag Hammadi text. It provides, she says “a feminine voice to the primordial, life-giving energy that brings forth all things.” The Nag Hammadi poet imagines:

   I am the thought that lives in the light.

   I live in everyone and I delve into them all …

   I move in every creature …

   I am the invisible one in all beings …

   I am a voice speaking softly …

   I am the real voice … the voice from the invisible thought …

   It is a mystery .. I cry out in everyone …

   I hid myself in everyone, and revealed myself within them,

   and every mind seeking me longs for me …

   I am she who gradually brought forth everything …

   I am the image of the invisible spirit …

   The mother, the light … the virgin .. the womb, and the voice …

   I put breath within all beings.

The poem resonates with the commitment to the resurrection of hope that it at the heart of the Advent season, the belief that there is something in all of us that can stir us to co-creating a different kind of world. Its’ feminine imagery is also significant. The season’s primary focus is the pregnant teenage girl, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many of the symbols are often feminine. Advent believes that we can birth hope in the world, despite the appearance of things. It celebrates our unquenchable thirst for a better world, our refusal to believe that it will be forever denied, and our willingness to overcome all hurdles that get in the way of its realization.

The world needs an Advent as much as Christians do. Wanna survive the storm? You might want to brush up your Jesuit.

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