Reflections by Sr. Jeanne Fallon, C.S.J.
Taught by God
My first experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius was in May-June 1980 at the Jesuit Retreat House in Guelph, Canada. During the "Forty-day Spiritual Exercises Institute" a large group made the Exercises followed by a ten-day institute with John English, SJ. We observed the dynamic of the Exercises, studied the discernment of spirits, and appropriated the graces received during the retreat. At that time, I was a missionary in Papua New Guinea and I had been longing for an extended time of prayer focused on Jesus Christ, a "school of prayer." During the retreat I received an outpouring of abundant blessings, more than I could have imagined. After the retreat I returned to Papua New Guinea for another ten years, changed by the movements of grace during those forty days.
During the reflection days after retreat, I remember being struck by the words of the 15th Annotation: "during these Spiritual Exercises, it is more opportune and much better that in the search for the divine will the Creator and Lord communicate himself to the faithful soul, inflaming that soul in his love and praise, and disposing her towards the way in which she will be better able to serve him in the future. Hence the giver of the Exercises should... leave theCreator to deal with the creature, and the creature with the Creator and Lord."
The context of this annotation is election and the dispositions of the director. What spoke to me thirty years ago during those reflection days was the way Ignatius directs the giver of the exercises to foster the direct action of God in the person making the exercises and not to interfere with the way God wants to deal with the person. The stance of the director is to be one of reverence for God who is laboring within the person making the retreat and a caution to the director not to intrude. Gradually in the 1980's, I began to do some spiritual direction and this directive guided me. It brought me comfort to know that spiritual direction was God's work and I was only providing a space where God's work of art could flourish. A favorite scripture passage that connected with this annotation is John 6:45: "They will all be taught by God."
St. Ignatius' words, "leave the Creator to deal with the creature...," illustrate Ignatius' manner of encouraging intimate conversation with God and fostering deep friendship with Christ. This is seen in the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises: "Love consists in mutual communication." This practice brought misunderstanding of the Exercises and strife to Ignatius in his lifetime from the inquisitors, yet this dynamic is key to the Exercises and a precious gift to all who learn from Ignatius' school of prayer.
Later I had the chance to study the Autobiography of St. Ignatius translated by Joseph Tylenda. I had the opportunity to learn how the Spiritual Exercises came about. Ignatius did not compose the Exercises all at one time, but "perceiving certain things happening in his soul, and finding them helpful, he thought they might also be helpful to others, and so he set them down in writing..." I savored sections of Ignatius' autobiography where he describes his experience at Manresa. While he was staying at the Dominican monastery, he was tormented by scruples. At one point he was wrestling with the need to confess the sins of his past life again when, in his own words, "there came upon him a loathing for the life he was then living, and he had a strong temptation to give it up. In this manner the Lord chose to awaken him as from a dream." This section describes how he had an experience of the different spirits and that God was teaching him lessons. "During this period God was dealing with him in the same way a schoolteacher deals with a child while instructing him."
Ignatius describes how God dealt with him by giving him five special graces. The examples were mystical graces that were given directly to Ignatius and remained with him until he died. From his autobiography it is clear that Ignatius was taught by God. His rich experience was the foundation of the Exercises, and the Fifteenth Annotation exemplifies the importance for the director to leave the space for God to freely work in the person on retreat.
I remember what happened in my youth when I read the Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. At the tender age of ten, living in the remote part of northern California, I was drawn to give my life to God as a Carmelite. The call came through Thérèse's description of her 'little way'. I was convinced, "I can do that." I did not believe that I could become a teacher or a nurse like the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught us, although I loved them and was attracted to them. As a young teen I wrote to a Carmel in the east and asked what I needed to do to enter Carmel. Before I embarked on this journey, a Sister of St. Joseph wisely suggested that I visit Orange for a year to finish high school. It was there I learned that my calling was to this congregation. I saw novices who were so full of joy that my desire for monastic life in Carmel shifted and I began to imagine that I was called to be a Sister of St. Joseph. I gradually I learned that God teaches us in the depths of our being. Just as God inflamed the soul of Ignatius when he was reading the lives of the saints in Loyola, God dealt with me in the way I could respond wholeheartedly.
It is evident in her manuscripts that St. Thérèse was taught by God in a most tender way. From heaven this Doctor of the Church partners with God so that others may learn from her school of prayer. I would like to end these reflections with a section of a letter from a directee:
Since I won't be seeing you for a while, I wanted to let you know (briefly) how things are going for me in prayer. The main thing I want you to know is that I am more and more convinced that Therese of Lisieux is teaching me. In prayer, after spending time with her writings, I could be honest with myself that I don't know God very well, and I don't pray very effectively, but Therese does, and so she will have to support me, or do it for me, or something. I then remembered that when Therese' mother died, Celine flung herself into Marie's arms, saying "now you'll have to be my mother." Therese did the same with Pauline, and then I (to my surprise) said the same thing to Therese! I kept thinking of Celine and Therese being instructed by their older sisters prior to their first communion, and I thought, there's no reason I can't climb on Therese' lap and get taught the same way, right?
Later I sat on my patio praying, and my attention went to the climbing roses on the patio cover, which had many shoots and stalks which needed pruning. I imagined how the pruned stalks would feel, and whether they'd accept their fate because it was for the good of the whole plant. I had a strong conviction that even if God chose me to be pruned in the same way, it would be ok, because God is the gardener and I want to serve Him in any way he chooses. Needless to say, that is a very uncharacteristic way for me to think, but it is absolutely something Therese might have thought, and I have no doubt that she put it into my imagination to teach me using the material she found at hand in my back yard.
How can I be anything but grateful for God's blessings that have come to us in these friends of God, Ignatius and Thérèse? Both have given us a school of prayer that places us in a sacred space where God deals with us in the intimacy of our deepest self.
Leaping from Heaven
While all the world,
lay wrapped in deepest silence,
and the night had reached
your all-powerful Word
leaped from heaven...
touching heaven while
standing on the earth.
As year by year the beauty of this night returns, let us awaken to you, Wisdom Word,
as you come anew --
breath stirring in the unknown circuits of our being,
winding its way to every cell;
energy pulsating in every fiber of our loving,
attuning us to your melody,
drawing us into your dance,
echoing, resounding throughout the universe.
Greetings of peace and joy as we celebrate the marvelous mystery of the Birth of Innocence! The words above, adapted from the Book of Wisdom, always move me because of the image of the Eternal Word leaping from heaven in the deep darkness of night, touching heaven while standing on earth. It's a cosmic happening that we cannot fathom.
With awe and reverence let us welcome Jesus Christ, our merciful savior, who comes to dwell within and among us to bring us all back into the loving embrace of our Creator and Lord.
Springing into Life
For weeks I have been listening to tiny birds singing in their nest tucked into the eves of our roof just above my window. From the middle of their nest-home I heard the pulsating heart of the universe - new life, vibrant energy, song and dance, melodies of praise - all filling the air with joyful waves of delight. How can five little birds fill the area with such happiness? Does their singing quell any fear as they make their first attempt to fly? Do they sing as they take their first leap into freedom, flapping their tiny wings like their mother?
This is spring. This is Eastertime. We celebrate the rising of Jesus Christ from the stillness of the tomb. We join the pulsating heart of the universe in joyful praise singing Alleluia to Jesus Christ, praising his love that permeates the cosmos with peace and gratefulness. Let us take a lesson from the birds outside my window and share our joy of being alive and born anew in Christ and his abundant love.
Jesus, how do you want to live your abundant love in me?
Is there a song of joy you want to sing in each of us, even in hard times?
May we Christians be radiant with your New Life!
A Summer Reflection
In these hot summer days, we try to take a breather from our daily work so we can move at a slower pace and get in touch with the beauty of the world around us. We try to leave the frenzy of our active lives and move into the realm of restful appreciation of our earthly home. It is a graced time when families make an attempt to spend time together, enjoying the simple pleasures of the beach or a hike in the woods or exploring the wonders in state parks or amazing desert canyons carved out by wind and water over time.
Taking a vacation or a time away or some days of spiritual retreat can offer us the pause that refreshes so we can contemplate the gift of our earthly home and our own way of being in this home. A chance to see the stars, away from glaring city lights, can remind a person of the vast universe in which we dwell and the presence of the Divine in the starry landscape not made by hands. Taking time for retreat can awaken our bodily senses so we can see with our own eyes, the hand of the Creator at work even now, laboring to bring creation to fulfillment. In such a setting, we can descend into ourselves and meet the Holy One at work within, tapping into the love of God flowing through us and throughout the entire universe. The Risen Christ is alive, pulsating with loving energy, bringing all creation into oneness, all creatures large and small. The heartbeat of God in Christ is reverberating in every part of the world – for those who have ears to hear we bow in wonder and reverence.
Yet our common home is in crisis, as Pope Francis has written in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si. Our Mother Earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22).” (2)
In a way, we have forgotten who we are, that we are made up of stardust and that we have an obligation to care for our common home, our beautiful blue planet. Pope Frances is challenging the whole human community to pull together to find ways to curb the destruction and to care for our common home. We are all called to begin a new dialogue about the environmental crisis. His plea is leading a worldwide ecological movement when he says, “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.” (14)
Perhaps a first step is to become aware of the ecological crisis by reading Pope Francis’ encyclical letter. In Chapter One he speaks of Pollution and Climate Change. In my 20 years as a missionary in the Bougainville Diocese of Papua New Guinea, we ministered on the far flung islands called Carterets. Now they are submerged by the rising waters and all the people had to migrate 90 miles south to the island of Bougainville. Their island home of their ancestors is no more. How many other Pacific islands or coastlines around the world are being taken by the rising waters?
May we pause to consider what is happening to our environment and work to find ways to help restore the beautiful home that earth is destined to become. When Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he “lived in harmony with creation, and others were amazed: ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’ (Mt 8:27)” (98) May we, as followers of Jesus and members of the human community, appreciate our common home and offer her the care and protection she deserves.
A Reflectionon Misericordiae Vultus: "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's Mercy"
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis desires that this "year be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone." (5)
In this document, Pope Francis invites the People of God to contemplate the face of mercy. "With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity" (8). This love of God made visible in Jesus enables us to be mercy for others. Paragraphs 8 and 9 offer many Gospel accounts of Jesus who is filled with nothing but mercy. Let us meditate on the Word so that mercy can become our way of being in this world.
I offer the following reflection to illustrate how Francis' words shed light on a visit to Tijuana my local community made on Christmas Day. Three of us had the opportunity to visit what Francis calls "the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates." (15)
Christmas night in Tijuana began as we crossed the border after sunset with a million lights on the vast hillsides as far as the eye could see. The lights were not in any order like street lights in any other city as you are landing in a plane. The TJ lights were in no pattern...tiny sparks of light from thousands of dwellings packed together tightly on to the hillsides. Some of the dwellings had no light. I imagined the families huddled together in a corner of their house as an arctic wind blew over the country-side.
After a rough ride on the muddy dirt roads, we arrived at Sr. Alicia's house at the top of her hill. Her house is made of cinder blocks and was very cold inside. She lit her gas heater in the main room and after a while some warmth began to seep into our bones. She gave us all extra blankets and we slept, except for hearing the howling dogs until 3 a.m. and the roosters' cry piercing the early morning darkness.
On Saturday, December 26, we went to Mass in the mission church, Rosarita (Our Lady of the Rosary), in part of her colonia called Maclovio Rojas. This colonia has between 4,000 and 5,000 families or 20,000 to 30,000 people. Every family is living in a small dwelling made from old garage doors tied together on a small slab of cement. The area is hilly and some roads are impassable. Garbage is strewn near the road and thin dogs, full of mange, forage for food scraps.
The mission church was decorated very simply and the people came in and sat down on the lovely pews that had been discarded and donated by a church in the U.S. The people welcomed us visitors, Sisters Sue, Karen and me, with warmth and tenderness. The Mass was celebrated in Spanish in honor of the Feast of the Holy Family, which was for the following day, Sunday, because there would be no Mass there on Sunday. Fr. Antonio welcomed us with open arms and made us feel very welcome. I noticed that his shoes were dusty and muddy and I was touched by his humble manner with the people of this mission church. I remembered Pope Francis who also had old worn-out shoes when he was a bishop working in Argentina. His priests bought him a new pair of black shoes as a gift when he went to Rome to elect the new Pope. Pope Francis would have been at home right here in this place among the poor of this colonia. Francis is not afraid to travel to "those living on the outermost fringes of society" as he says in his document Misericordiae Vultus, The Face of Mercy (15).
People on the fringes...Modern society creates these fringes, borders where the poor gather. Some have been in that colonia twenty or thirty years. How they must have suffered! Is their voice ever heard or is it muffled by our indifference?
May we be aware of this reality. May we be conscious of the missionaries who choose to dwell with those living on the fringes of society. Let us open our eyes and see the misery so close to us. They are our brothers and sisters, yet denied their dignity. May we reach out to them and support them. May their cry become our own in this special time of God's over-flowing mercy.