Praying our way through the Paschal mystery

In the Spiritual Exercises, the grace of the Third Week is ‘sorrow with Christ in sorrow; a broken spirit with Christ so broken; tears; and interior suffering because of the great suffering which Christ endured for me.’ [203]

The invitation is to be with Christ in his pain: To stay awake and pay attention to the tremendous suffering. In the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises we explore the idea of being a companion of Jesus. Following him as he goes about his public ministry, and talking to him on the way. Here in the Third Week, we enter into a new kind of companionship. Companionship when the chips are down.

All too often we can trip over ourselves and miss an important aspect of the Passion. If we focus too much on beating our own breasts because we have been so sinful, we fail to pay attention to Jesus in his suffering. The point is to be with him, to accompany him in these dark days. To feel the sense of loss at his death, precisely because we have lost a precious companion.

But the death of Jesus is followed by his resurrection. The grace of the Fourth Week is to experience joy with Christ in joy. That resurrection joy is the joy of redemption and transformation. It is inextricably linked to the pain of the Passion.

A spiritual director of mine once said, we can cry our way through the Passion because we have all known pain, but we cannot create the resurrection joy for ourselves. In other words we can fake the emotions of the Passion, but we cannot fake the joy of redemption.

The invitation then, is to be with Jesus through the mystery of Easter. To pray for the grace to be present to whole movement from Holy Thursday through to Easter Sunday. In the Roman Catholic church, the Easter Triduum is a single liturgy with three parts – starting with the commemoration of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, through the reading of the Passion on Good Friday culminating in the celebration of the Easter Vigil. There is an entrance hymn for Holy Thursday and recessional for the Vigil, but no entrance and exit music in between to show this linking of services.

Be present this Easter to the movements as they happen. Notice where you are, pay attention to what the disciples would have been doing, and follow Jesus. Dare to engage with Passion and to encounter the possibility of redemption.

Entering Holy Week

I find Lent difficult. It coincides with my heaviest teaching period along with an increase in church related activity. As a result I feel like I don’t ‘do’ Lent terribly well. The grand notions of preparations for the great feast of Easter quickly devolve into survival mode. Keeping my head down and looking forward to the end of the relentless pace. This year I have definitely bitten off more than I can chew adding editing of a book I am working on into the mix.

And so I sit here considering the start of Holy Week. Wondering how I can make the most of it. What does it mean to celebrate Easter? Why do we commemorate this feast every year? Would we take it a little more seriously if we celebrated it less frequently? Would I prioritise my Lenten preparation a little better if it wasn’t an annual occurrence? Maybe, but I am not sure that that is the point.

Perhaps the real gift of my inadequate Lenten disciplines is that I discover that I am inadequate. I am not up to the task of saving my own soul. The annual reminder that Jesus offers the extraordinary gift of redemption to me just as I am is the good news of the gospel. I can never prepare sufficiently to receive that gift. I will never be a worthy recipient.

This isn’t false humility, or attention seeking. I am not looking for reassurance that actually I do really well. The point is that I do disappoint myself, I do fall short of my own expectations. I know that I am able to give a lot as well, and I am extremely grateful for my gifts and talents. Nevertheless, I enter Holy Week in the knowledge that I am not in the least deserving of the tremendous mystery we are to celebrate.

I am grateful that I am reminded of this each year. Because it means that I am reminded of the unfathomable generosity of God at least once a year.

Trusting the discernment of others

The life of faith requires not only that I am attentive to my own process of discernment, but that I trust that others are similarly attentive. The election of Pope Francis has been a real surprise and delight to me. The word which is repeated over and over again in news reports is humble. He began with asking for the prayers of the crowd who gathered to greet him.

I confess, that the fact he is Jesuit makes a substantial difference to me. This is because I trust in his willingness to pray and to discern. I am sure that he will make decisions that I  will disagree with, or find incomprehensible. But because I trust that he is a man of prayer and discernment, I trust that the Holy Spirit will be operating. This is not to say that he will not make poor decisions occasionally, rather that I trust in the power of redemption. By this I mean that everything can be used for the greater glory of God, through the grace of God.

It isn’t a simple thing to trust in another person’s discernment, and to trust that all will be well. I have certainly only recognised that challenge fairly recently. And it was only revealed because someone I deeply respect as person of prayer and discernment made a choice that surprised me. If I had had to make the same choice I would have chosen differently. In this particular case, there wasn’t a clear right or wrong, it was a choice between two objectively good options.

The tough choices, the choices which require discernment are always those kind of choices – which is the better of two good options. It is this, that most choices will be made between two good options, I will need to hold onto as I watch the unfolding of the new papacy. I am sure that sooner or later I will find myself disappointed. At those time, I need to hold onto the sense that I have that he is a man of prayer, discernment and integrity. I need to trust that, regardless of how I feel, that the grace of God will continue to operate in and through the Church. This is not to say that I will simply swallow all that is proclaimed and decided. No, I need to pay attention to the movements within myself, to continue to be discerning and to make my own choices on the basis of prayer and discernment.

This will require a generosity of spirit which fails me far too often!

Commit wholeheartedly but be willing to let go

There is an extraordinary idea at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. It is a particular kind of freedom with respect to all things in life. It is the capacity to commit wholeheartedly to a particular task and, at the same time, be willing to let go of it. This is precisely because the ultimate purpose is deepening relationship with God. Asking questions such as ‘where is God in this?’ or ‘what is for the greater glory of God?’ becomes the guiding light, rather than ‘am I happy?’ or ‘am I making a success?’

For a Jesuit this is usually manifest in the way in which their life is lead – they are given a job for six years and then they are moved to a new job, which frequently requires a relocation to new city as well. To invest fully in the development of something to the best of one’s ability and then being willing to let go and let the next person take over is not something that many of us are terribly good at. It is not simple.

As I am slowly building my own career, slowly developing a reputation for myself, I am grateful for the opportunity to be brought back to the realisation of the importance of that strange balance. The willingness to give myself wholeheartedly to the things I believe I need to develop and yet, not to invest my ego in their success. It is so easy to get distracted by trying to build my academic career, as though that were the ultimate goal.

The truth of the matter is that right now I do believe that I am in the right place doing the right thing. But I have to be open to the possibility that there may come a time when that is no longer true. And I don’t mean that simply in terms of the university that I work at, but being an academic at all. Nevertheless, even with that consideration, I need to continue to invest in my academic career in this place wholeheartedly.

Indifference requires an ongoing commitment to discernment. A willingness to revisit the question of whether I am in the right place periodically. This is not motivated by insecurity, but by a recognition that things change over time, and what is clearly right today, may not be so forever. This is not to say that there will not be grief when the time for change comes.

Indifference requires that I invest wholeheartedly in a project, but that I hold it with open hands. Indifference requires willing to let go when the time is right in the knowledge that God and I will go on.

I write this post in gratitude for the existence of Loyola Hall, deeply saddened at the announcement of its closure in April 2014, but in full awareness of the necessity of the decision. I pray for all who have passed through its doors over the years, and for all who will be directly affected by the closure.

Finding my place in the world

Herbert Alphonso SJ wrote a book entitled ‘Discovering your personal vocation’. The book is really best for those who are familiar with Ignatian spirituality and have made the Spiritual Exercises, but the idea of the personal vocation is immensely powerful.

I had the dubious privilege this last week of being invited to talk to a group of teens about vocation. I was one of a panel of four people – each of us represented one of the four ways of living one’s vocation recognised the Roman Catholic church – the priesthood, religious life, married life and single life. (No prizes for guessing which category I represented!!)  In preparing for the encounter I found myself, once again, deeply frustrated by this approach to the idea of vocation. It is so easy to miss the real question from this angle. I know this is not the intent, but it seems almost to reduce one’s vocation to a matter of how one chooses to use one’s sexual energy.

So what is ‘personal vocation’ as Alphonso articulates it, and why is that more appealing? Personal vocation is not just about what one does, it is what is unique and unrepeatable about one. It is the discovery of who I am and who I am becoming. If we can discover the essence of our being, then where I need to be, what I need to be doing, and who will form my community follow.

If I am able to pay attention to the inner stirrings as I make choices about which career to follow, or which relationships to pursue, or which kinds of activities I participate in, I will begin to notice that some things really resonate and some fall a bit flat. If I continue to choose the things that really resonate, and leave aside those which don’t, I begin to find the way of being in world which most supports my being.

Over time, those little choices begin to take a shape, and the way it will become clear that a particular lifestyle will most support my way of being in the world. For most that will be marriage, but for some the other vocations will begin to crystallise.

The important thing to recognise is that it is a process of discovery that may take years. The goal is to find the way of living which most supports the flourishing of my being. Of course, the journey doesn’t end with the taking of vows or making of promises, it is a continual daily choice.

Most importantly though, it means that I am never too young or too old to consider my vocation. Even when I have made a commitment to a particular way of life, I can choose to nurture my being by paying attention, or to let it wither. Seeking my personal vocation is a daily choice and daily task. Teaching teenagers to pay attention to what brings them to life and what drains them seems like the best place to start the conversation.

To my friends

I have not always been particularly good at friendship. The combination of being a strong introvert and taking pride in being self-sufficient is not a terribly good foundation for strong friendships. I have l always had friends, and I have managed to make new friends as I move around from one school to another, from one university to another, and to various countries, but has taken me a good while to discover the real treasure of friendship.

In my years as a teenager and a young adult, I made friends with those in my immediate environment. Overlapping living space and a shared interest in one or two things slowly evolved into good companionship. I have good memories of conversations and laughter, and some of my companions from those years are still a part of my circle.

Then something shifted, I moved to a new country. I made friends with two extraordinary women who I met through my job, but because we lived in three different places in the country, we had to make an effort to get together. It was no longer a happy accident or a casual catch up. The gatherings had to be more intentional. In my friendship with them I began to glimpse the truth that there are some people who actually really value my presence. Why else would such an effort be made?

That understanding made my re-entry into Cape Town substantially easier. I intentionally began spending time with various people. Seeking each one out and making the effort to spend time with them. And I grew in my confidence that perhaps my presence was actually valued by more people. Still though, whenever I struggled with anything I would withdraw and hibernate for while, as I sorted myself out, before reengaging.

It was only a couple of years ago when I was going through a particular rough patch, as wave after wave of chaos erupted around me in a relatively short time period, that I risked talking to a few very close friends about the fact that I wasn’t okay. It was only a little while later that I began to recognise the significance of the shift. I had shown my friends my weakness and my brokenness and they had stepped up. I could now trust my friends to hold me even when I wasn’t fine. They were willing to stick around even when I was unable to give much.

It has been a long journey, and I am grateful to those who were my companions in the early days – I don’t think I was a particularly good friend back then. As I write this, I know that there is a clear correlation between the slow growth out of my own insecurity in this area, and my capacity to engage. But all of that has happened because I had companions along the way who were willing to stick with me even as I struggled, before I realised the real gift in friendship. I am deeply grateful to all who taught me so much along the way.