Reflections by Bryce Deline, S.J.
A Reflection on the Spiritual Exercises
A couple of years ago I did something of an experiment, putting together a group of men who would move through the Spiritual Exercises together in an intimate and ongoing "faith-sharing" setting. I had already done it once before, and it had worked out well enough, so why not try it again? At our first meeting, I floated the question: Do you want to be converted? I think it caught the exercitants-to-be off guard; this was not what they were expecting. The group members' subsequent responses revealed their reluctance, skepticism, and confusion: "What do you mean?" "I don't know..." "I don't think I need that" and, of course, "I'm already Catholic!" What I heard from the group overall, loud and clear, was "I'm comfortable with where I am, and I'm not very interested in having things shaken up, putting in any more work, or going through any more hard stuff, but I'd love to sit and passively learn more about these Exercises; thank you."
This Fall, a new cohort of retreatants is embarking on the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life (19th Annotation Retreat) here at LIS, and I share this story with the hope of it being helpful for those about to begin, as well as for those still on the fence about whether or not to participate. Though it is easy for us to overlook, forget, or deny that further radical conversion is always possible, the good news is that God seems to constantly be asking us: "Will you turn again to me?" "Will you learn again just how much you are loved?" "Are you willing to see again the way I am calling you to be in the world?" "Will you see all anew again?" The difficult news? It's not easy. In fact it may only increase in difficulty as we go along, as we find God desiring more and more of us, calling us to places we do not immediately wish to go, stretching us in ways inconceivable. And this is part of why Ignatius asks generosity of us in Annotation 5:
"The persons who make the exercises will benefit greatly by entering upon them with great spirit and generosity toward their Creator, and by offering all their desires and freedom to Him so that His Divine Majesty can make use of their persons and of all they possess in whatsoever way is in accord with his most holy will."
By the end of our nearly year-long experiment, when we looked back on our time together, the men discovered something I don't think they expected at the outset: they did want further conversion. What's more, they had been converted, and it had been happening for them all along. This is where it gets easier. While we may find that God asks increasingly more of us as we progress, we might also find that we grow in faith, alacrity, and generosity, that we have an easier time responding to God's invitations with affirmation, and, looking back, that we can draw on past consolations which can help to reconfirm our trajectory and propel us forward. Don't get me wrong, the Exercises are profoundly demanding, but the irony is this: by the end, we find ourselves wanting more. If we are faithful in our practice of the Exercises, we may just find ourselves wanting to do what is most difficult, wanting to be stretched in those previously inconceivable ways, wanting to be free to go where God calls us, wherever that may be -- to bear our crosses and share in the resurrection, again and again and again. So don't worry; it gets easier...and harder!
I have many times heard people ask questions like "how am I going to forgive...?" or "how am I going to do...?" or "how am I to bear...?"
These kinds of questions are very difficult to engage with, in large part because it is unclear exactly what the person asking wants to hear as a response - or even if what they need is to hear a response at all.
Some years ago, I worked doing various kinds of manual labor. I was responsible for a small crew, and we would go out and do jobs - small building projects, setting things up, etc. Some of these jobs could be very complicated, and could be made even more complicated by the area in which the job needed to be done (maybe there wasn't enough space, or what was to be built had to be placed precariously on the edge of a cliff, for example). Sometimes, multiple crews would have to work together. When faced with one of these difficult tasks, my approach was to stop and think it out; I wanted to have a plan to follow before I started. The majority of my co-workers, however, saw things differently. They would just start working. They would improvise without much planning or forethought, they would correct along the way, and they would eventually finish. It never became clear to me if one approach to these tasks was better than the other, but it was a valuable lesson for me in a way I didn't expect it to be at the time.
Those kinds of questions that people ask that I noted above - all those "how" questions - many times can't very well be answered by sitting down and planning out a set of steps. Many times, the problem is not that the individual is unaware of what the steps need to be. Sometimes, even, there's really only one "step" (what are the "steps" or the "plan" for forgiving someone?), and the problem is not about lacking an understanding of what's to be done, it's that what's to be done is profoundly difficult in a different sense (it's difficult to forgive or apologize). Many times, as we contemplate making these difficult steps, we also feel isolated, and this only seems to compound that difficulty.
Next week we will move into reflecting on Jesus' passion and death on the cross. We will see Jesus himself contemplating such a difficult endeavor alone in the garden of Gethsemane - how is he going to endure the pain and humiliation of the way of the cross? That anyone could do something like this, make a conscious decision to undergo such an ordeal, is incredible to me. But my amazement does not end with Jesus' decision to suffer for his friends and his ministry. It extends to all those stories I have heard from people about forgiveness, about bearing emotions that threaten to consume them, about doing those things that seem impossible not because they are unknown, but because they seem to require something that we do not believe we are able to do. These stories amaze me not just because they are possible, but because they seem to be so common (maybe it's just a benefit of being in my particular line of work, but I seem to hear such stories all the time, everyone seems to have one!)
And so, my response to the questions I noted at the outset has come to be something like this: I don't know how you will... but I believe you can. In fact I've seen people do it, over and over, and it is a mystery to me how they are able to do such things. It seems to me that it is in these times that our faith is "proven." It is demonstrated and made known when we come to do something that we do not believe ourselves capable of doing: forgiving those that have hurt us, loving our enemies, bearing the weight of our crosses.
The Golden Rule
There once was a grandpa who lived with his family. As grandpa grew older, he began to slobber and spill his food. So the family had him eat alone. When he dropped his bowl and broke it, they scolded him and got him a cheap wooden bowl. Grandpa was so unhappy. One day the young grandson was working with wood. "What are you doing?" his mom and dad asked. "I'm making a wooden bowl," he said, "for when you two get old and must eat alone." Mom and Dad then looked sad and realized how they were mistreating Grandpa. So they decided to keep quiet when he spills his food and to let him eat with the family.
A young woman got married and moved in with her husband's family, which included his mother. His mother was obnoxious and treated the young woman terribly. One day, having had enough of this treatment, the young woman decided to kill her mother-in-law. She went to a doctor she knew to get some slow-acting poison. The doctor said, "Just so that people don't suspect you, treat your mother-in-law very nice, as you'd like to be treated." So the woman was nice to her mother-in-law as she slipped a little poison into her food each day. Now a funny thing happened: the two started getting along much better and became best friends. So the young woman went back to the doctor and said, "I now love my mother-in-law and don't want to kill her; please give me something to counteract the poison." The doctor replied, "I gave you ordinary vitamins; the only poison was in your attitude."
These stories are used to teach and encourage people to practice the Golden Rule by showing the potential benefits of loving others as self (or even just treating others well), but they stand in stark contrast to the difficult reality with which those trying to practice it can be faced: loving others as ourselves does not guarantee results of the kind presented above. In fact, we may face harsh treatment even despite our efforts. It is not inconceivable, for example, to imagine a scenario in which the young woman and her mother-in-law develop no relationship at all, and the young woman only grows to resent her even more; not just because she is still alive and obnoxious, but because she remains unmoved after being shown undeserved kindness. Or another, in which the grandpa has grown so resentful of his family that, going forward, he intentionally makes meal times unpleasant for all because of his vindictiveness. This is definitely not to say that the practice of the Golden Rule cannot have a positive impact, but it is to say that we may be dis-served to make our desire to practice it dependent upon the expectation of such good results. The decision to practice the Golden Rule is even further complicated when we realize that it can even have negative consequences on the individual practicing it: to expand one's categories to include every person in need as neighbor could be considered impractical or imprudent; to speak truth to power is a quick way to merit sanction or punishment; and to love one's enemy can easily be judged as folly or weakness.
While the above stories may fail in a certain regard, namely in that they seem to guarantee a positive external outcome, they succeed in others: the first reminds us that we do well to recognize ourselves in the other, as the parents realize one day they too may find themselves in the same situation as the grandpa; and the second reminds us that we can be the source of the kind of poison that leads us to ultimately reject others, though there is no reason we must.
Last week's election and the ensuing and continued fallout reveal to us that we live in a time when following the Golden Rule is of the utmost importance. We may be misguided to believe that things will change any time soon for the better in terms of the division that we are experiencing, but that does not mean that we should cease our efforts to care for those around us and our country. We, as Christians, cannot allow the current popular sentiment to dissuade us from following Jesus' injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves -- and we certainly should not use it to justify forsaking His call and resorting to hatred or dismissal of those around us. Looking forward, continuing to live a life in which we freely share the gifts of love and grace that have been imparted upon us by God may be a painful proposition for an indeterminate period of time, but we do well to remember the foundation of our faith: that this same free gift of love was given to us by Jesus as he hung on the cross. St. Ignatius Loyola encourages us to respond in kind, to give that same love that we have been given by God to others. It may be painful to do this, but now is a time when it is most especially needed. This, succinctly, is the difficulty of the challenge: "freely you have received; freely give" (Matt 10:8).