Reflections by Br. Charles Jackson, S.J.
Epiphany at 17th and Q
Jerónimo Nadal, a companion and close confidant of Ignatius Loyola, observed that Ignatius had been graced not only in being able to effortlessly rest in the contemplation of God in the quiet of his prayer, but also in being able to contemplate God's presence and action in every person, thing and situation in which he found himself.
He described Ignatius as "a contemplative even in the midst of action"--and added that Ignatius often said that God is to be found in everything. I suspect that the possibility of being a contemplative even in the midst of action and thus being able to find God in everything was so attractive to me, yet at the same time so elusive, that I have long pondered what this would actually mean and, more importantly, how a person might make this part of his or her life. Yet as I continued to ponder this, I realized that contemplation-in-action is not so much a form of prayer as it is a habitual disposition toward God. It is to see and feel and understand a person, thing, or situation as God might see and feel and understand it. It is to look upon it with an attitude of openness, acceptance, respect, and even reverence, and to see it without judgment or analysis in its entirety. And then, after perceiving it in this manner, it is to allow all the emotions associated with the experience to gradually rise within oneself and touch the depths of one's person. I also realized that although a person could actively foster such a disposition--and the Contemplation to Attain Divine Love certainly points in this direction--it is ultimately a gift of God.
In the mid-1990s, I lived in Washington, DC, while I was working at the Jesuit Conference, our national offices. I had taught high school for almost twenty years. It was a form of ministry I had loved from the first day. But as much as I loved teaching I had gradually begun to sense a desire for some other form of ministry, yet exactly what form of ministry I had no idea--and then the phone rang and my life changed. But the change that brought me to Washington, DC, affected not only my ministry and place of ministry; it affected me as well. I found that I had begun to look at my life through new eyes--reflecting on what once was for me and imagining what yet might be--and beginning to wonder to what God was inviting me.
Our small Jesuit community on New Hampshire Avenue was about a ten-minute walk from the Jesuit Conference office on 16th Street. One morning, as I was walking to work, I fell in behind a young woman walking with her daughter, who looked to be about three years of age. Both were attractively-dressed in wool coats against the morning cold. The little girl seemed remarkably self-possessed and was striding along resolutely next to her mother. Suddenly, as often happens to little children, her feet became tangled with one another, and she fell to the sidewalk. The resulting scene was brief, but it is one that I'll never forget. The mother, who had quickly dropped to one knee, was turning to embrace her daughter, while the little girl was turning toward her mother and beginning to cry. There was no noise, only a look of tears and of being embarrassed and of knowing that one is only three years old. But for me, the scene I witnessed that morning at the corner of 17th and Q was an image of God. With people passing me on every side, I stood there transfixed, tears streaming down my face, overwhelmed with the realization that this is how God loves each and every one of us: as a mother embraces her child.
Almost twenty years have elapsed since that moment, yet thoughts of it still bring tears to my eyes. I still reflect on what once was for me and imagine what yet might be, but God still surprises me every now and then and opens my eyes and mind and heart to the mystery of his love.
What a wonderful world! We walk along a street caught up in our thoughts and plans for the day, when--suddenly!--God's beauty and light and splendor and goodness erupt into our everyday lives and draw us into God's love. If only for a moment, we are contemplatives even in the midst of action.
The Road to Emmaus
"But we had hoped..."(Luke 24:21)
As I write this, I am still suffering from the shock and sadness I experienced upon learning of the crash between a large truck and a tour bus that killed five high school students and three chaperons on the bus as well as the drivers of both vehicles.The headline on the cover of Saturday morning's Los Angeles Times - "High hopes turn to horror" - expresses so much of the confusion and sadness I still feel. The students, all from the Los Angeles area, came from socially and economically underprivileged families, but they had applied themselves as students diligently and been accepted at Humboldt State University in Arcadia.Most would be the first in their family to attend college.
As I continue to ponder this terribly sad event, I am reminded of the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25).The two disciples had been with Jesus for months. They had heard him speak, witnessed the signs he had done, shared meals with him, and spoken with him. But during this past week, they had also witnessed his arrest and trial and crucifixion and death on Calvary. And now they found themselves confused and disheartened as they made their sad journey home to Emmaus. As they walked along, a stranger approached and joined them and began to speak with them. "What are you discussing?" he asked. The stranger's question seemed to open the floodgates, and they poured out their soul to him. With great emotion, they spoke of Jesus - "a prophet mighty in word and deed," they called him - and went on to speak of their experience of being with him and listening to him and of how he had touched each of them personally, but then they spoke of his arrest and conviction and crucifixion and death. At this they became silent, almost as if they were trying to collect their thoughts. But then the younger of the two, who seemed to be choking back tears as he spoke, added, "But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel."
When the three of them were later at supper in Emmaus, everything the stranger had been telling them suddenly came into focus, and the two disciples recognized him - but as they did so, he vanished from their sight. In each of the appearance stories, the Risen Jesus acted as the 'consoler' who strengthened, encouraged, comforted and brought joy. As he spoke to the two disciples on the road, he strengthened them, encouraged them, comforted them, and brought them joy ("Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way!")
"But we had hoped..." The words of the disciple on the road to Emmaus seem to express the sentiments which were in the minds and hearts of each and every person who was killed that tragic day on the road to Arcadia. "But we had hoped..." But suddenly those hopes had been dashed in a terrible accident.
We may never meet a survivor of that accident or a family member of one of those killed, but we don't need to so far afield. In our everyday lives we encounter people suffering some great loss in their lives: the death of spouse or loved one, the pain of a failed relationship, the loss of one's job. We might wish that the Risen Jesus were somehow there to strengthen, encourage, comfort and bring joy to the person, but Teresa of Avila reminds us that "Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world." Christ's mission is now our mission.
The Beautiful Bird
"Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge." (Matthew 10:29)
Several weeks ago I stepped out of the office in the early evening. I had been busily engaged in various projects that afternoon, would soon be meeting with someone seeking spiritual direction, and felt that I needed a brief break. I had hardly stepped onto the walkway outside our offices, however, when I saw a brightly colored bird lying dead on the edge of the walkway. I might have quickly forgotten about it if the bird had not been so beautiful. Never in my years in Orange County had I ever seen such a beautiful bird, certainly not in the wild, with its feathers of yellow, orange, red, and black. It was magnificent.
But how had this happened? I looked around, seeking a clue, and soon looked up into a large window. The drapes were open, and the lights in the room were on. Suddenly, I understood. The bird, seeing the well-lit scene, had delightedly flown toward it - unaware of the window's presence. The bird apparently had hit the window and was immediately killed. It was terribly sad, and doubly sad that such a beautiful creature had been killed.
As I continued to reflect on that tragic scene, I realized that my heart and mind had become beautiful by the sight of the bird. I wished that I had been able to see that magnificent creature while it was living and in flight, but I still rejoiced that I seen it even in death. Even in death, I realized that the magnificent bird radiated the beauty of the living world that never dies.
We mourn when those whom we love so very dearly die, especially when they are taken away from us suddenly or when they are still so very young and full of promise. I still mourn a 15-year-old boy who died in the spring of 1979 from pulmonary fibrosis while he was a student in my geometry class. I had never met a person of that age who so radiated God's light and love as he did. Yes, I mourn his death, yet I also rejoice that he had once lived and brightened our world. It seems that in God's unfathomable ways, God sends such people into our lives, just as he had sent that magnificent bird, to remind us that beyond this transitory world is a living world that never dies.
Reflection on a Life & Death
At about noon on Tuesday, August 12, I was saddened to learn that the multi-talented actor-comedian Robin Williams had died the day before of an apparent suicide at his home in Northern California. I had had little first-hand exposure to his work, yet I had long admired his versatility and brilliance, especially his facility at so quickly slipping into and out of so many character impersonations, each funnier than the last. Yet as I learned more about him as a person during the days that followed his death, I was greatly saddened to learn that his life was so very different from the one I had imagined. He had grown up in a family of considerable affluence and privilege, yet he was terribly lonely as a child and was only able to emerge from his shell of shyness through his involvement in dramatic productions during high school. Although he was later a hugely successful professional, he had waged long battles with depression and addiction to cocaine and alcohol. It seemed that the more I learned about him, the more I saw in him, not only qualities that drew him to greatness--qualities that seemed so utterly beyond me and my often timid aspirations--but also those occasional feelings of loneliness, frustration, uncertainty, disappointment, and failure that I saw in myself. Thus the sadness I had felt simply at the death of a great artist became the sadness at the death of someone who had become for me almost a soul-friend--and in this I was reminded of a similar, but fictional, person of whom the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson spoke:
Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,
we people on the pavement looked at him.
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
clean-favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
and he was always human when he talked.
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich -- yes, richer than a king --
and admirably schooled in every grace.
In fine, we thought that he was everything
to make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
and went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
and Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
went home and put a bullet through his head.
The tragic lives of both the fictional Richard Cory and the all-too-real Robin Williams affirm that no one gets a free ride in life. Each of us must contend with both graces and blessings in our lives as well as struggles and challenges. The lives of others may inspire us or challenge us, yet each of us is a unique individual created just as we are by God. Thus it is that one of the greatest gifts we can offer God is to thank God for making us just as God made us.
The Baptism of Jesus
"It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John" (Mark 1:9).
As Jesus was approaching thirty years of age, he began to hear people speak of the preaching of John the Baptist.
As he listened to them, he began to ask what John was saying. And as he heard their answers, he began to sense a certain resonance between what John was saying and all that he himself had been long pondering. We are not told why Jesus left Nazareth and made his way to the place where John was baptizing, but he did. And he sat there and listened to John. And after doing so, we are told that, along with many others, he made his way forward and was baptized by John. But why? Why did the Sinless One so humble himself and choose to be baptized by John? Was it simply to express his solidarity with those who recognized their sinfulness and sought God's forgiveness in a baptism of repentance? In effect, this is what he had done, but was this really what had motivated him? Could it have been out of a sense of his own humanness, his own need for God? When all is said and done, I believe that we have to wonder if Jesus really knew who he was. Did he know that he was God's Son, and did he understand all that that implied? And the answer is probably both yes and no. Yes, I suspect that Jesus did sense a special relationship with God, but not as we understand it today. This understanding would only unfold slowly over the course of his life. It is important to recognize that to the people of Nazareth with whom he had lived for almost thirty years, Jesus was ordinary in every way. When he later returned there and preached in the synagogue, the people were astonished. "Where did he get all this?" they asked one another. "What is this wisdom he has, and these wonders that are worked through him? ... Isn't this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mark 6:1-3). It is not unreasonable to imagine that Jesus thought of himself in these same terms - as an ordinary citizen of Nazareth.
And we are told that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. It is difficult, however, to piece together exactly what happened that day. The imagery of the heavens torn open, a dove descending, and a voice being heard projects a profound experience of God, yet it leaves much unsaid. At first glance, it seems to describe what may have been simply an affirmation of God's great love for Jesus. Yet it is important to recognize that within a brief moment of time the unassuming carpenter from Nazareth had begun to speak with authority and act with power, so we have to wonder: What really happened at the Jordan?
Perhaps it was that in choosing to be baptized by John, Jesus had made a radical self-offering to God - and in response to that offering, God had embraced Jesus as a father would embrace a son. For Jesus, it was a profound and even overwhelming experience of God, and of being loved by God, and what may have been a new understanding of himself as God's 'Beloved' and of God as his Father. The heavens in all their majesty had been revealed to him, and the Holy Spirit had descended upon him and entered into him, empowering him. But in the midst of all this Jesus had been brought to understand that God had chosen to make his decisive intervention in history at this very moment and that he was to be the means of bringing this about. It would not be unreasonable to say that Jesus was almost overwhelmed by all this. The verse which immediately follows this morning's Gospel only hints at what must have been the whirlwind of emotions and the inner turmoil that surged through Jesus that day: "and at once the Spirit drove him into the desert" (1:12).
"When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from the heavens a sound like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. There appeared among them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them." (Acts 2:1-4)
Luke is a majestic writer. The imagery he employs in this passage -- "a sound like a strong driving wind" and "tongues as of fire" -- conveys a sense of a profound encounter with God. Yet what he wished to highlight was not the pyrotechnics of theophany, but rather the spiritual transformation that took place in the hearts of the disciples because of it. Suddenly, men and women, who until that moment had been frightened and unsure of themselves, began to proclaim Jesus as Lord, and they did so with great power. I realize that such an experience might seem utterly beyond us, but that is really not the case. Each year I observe how men and women open themselves to God's transforming love during the course of making the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life, and I stand in awe of what God does in them.
There are many descriptions one could offer for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but at its most fundamental level it is "letting God come close" and, in doing so, realizing that one is truly and profoundly loved by God. The entire Spiritual Exercises are transformative, yet one of the greatest graces of the retreat occurs when a person is able to realize this. It is a life-changing experience to realize that one is profoundly loved by God, and that God is closer to oneself than one's own innermost being. Isn't this what we all desire? Isn't this what happened to the disciples at Pentecost?
A Christmas Reflection
by Brother Charles J. Jackson, S.J.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola begins the imaginative contemplations on the life, death, and risen life of Jesus with a contemplation on Jesus' incarnation. The contemplation begins with a vision of the Triune God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- looking upon the world and seeing there people of every age, race, and culture going about their everyday lives: the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad; so many aimless, hateful, and killing; so many undernourished, sick, and dying; so many struggling with life and blind to any meaning for their lives. It is a vision of human life in all its complexity and confusion. Yet as God ponders this, God realizes that the "fullness of time" has come, the time when the mystery of salvation, hidden from the beginning of the world, is to shine forth into human darkness and confusion. And thus it was that a child was born in Bethlehem and named Jesus. This is the good news that we celebrate at Christmas: God is with us.
It goes without saying, however, that we can pick up the morning newspaper or turn on the nightly news and feel that virtually nothing has changed from the aforementioned vision. There are so many people who are aimless, hateful, and killing; so many undernourished, sick, and dying; so many struggling with life and blind to any meaning for their lives. We may wonder if anything has changed. It is important to recognize, however, that God not only continues to look upon our world; God looks upon it with love. God did not become human in Jesus to give us a set of beliefs, but rather a way of living our lives. And this way of living is to love as generously and universally as Jesus loved. Our vocation as Christians is to love. Although Jesus of Nazareth no longer walks among us, he did not leave us orphans. The Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ remains with us and impels us: Stir into flame the grace of God that is yours in Christ Jesus.
Teresa of Avila reminds us: "Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good; yours are the hands by which he blesses the world. You are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours."
Arise My Beloved
"My lover speaks; he says to me, 'Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! Look, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its fruit, and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!'" (Song of Songs 2:10-13)
When I was a novice, I heard this passage read at Mass one morning. I recall hearing a few snickers from among my fellow novices - reactions, perhaps, to the unfettered passion of its language - but I was left utterly speechless, stunned by the power and the beauty of what I had just heard. Until that moment, I had never even heard of the Song of Songs, a book of the Old Testament. Although years would pass before I was finally able to read that magnificent work--in the pre-Vatican II Society of Jesus (this was in 1961) Jesuit novices had access only to the New Testament--that passage still beckons as it speaks so powerfully and movingly of the God who was seeking me long before I began to seek God.
I may have briefly wondered how a poem with such passionate vocabulary and with no explicit mention of God had ever found a place in the Bible, yet I would learn that the Song of Songs--the name meaning "the greatest of songs"--was not simply a love poem. It was also, and more importantly, a parable that employed the imagery of the lover and the beloved--now united, now divided, now sought, now found--to speak of God's great and passionate love for his people. But for an individual like myself reading it or hearing it being read, the message was profoundly personal. For me, that brief passage spoke so very powerfully and movingly of God's great and passionate love of me.
God calls, "Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!" Although we are stunned that God should address us as "my beloved" and "my beautiful one," we are equally stunned as God calls us to come out of ourselves--to put aside our fears, our insecurities, our hesitancies--and to embrace the new life God wishes to share with us. St. Augustine captured the sense of this when he observed: "I go astray and you beckon me. I resist you and you invite me. I am idle and you rouse me. I am sad and you cheer me. I open myself to you and you embrace me. I am ignorant and you instruct me. I fall and you lift me up. Indeed, when I look for you, you let me find you; and when I call, you open the door to me."
The passage invites us to envision God standing on the edge of a meadow, pointing with arms extended toward the eternal springtime that is now bursting upon the world: "Look!" he cries; "the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its fruit, and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance." Again, God beckons us: "Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!"
All Will Be Well, All Will Be Well
"All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well." (Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416)
Dame Julian of Norwich, one of the great Christian mystics, lived through a time that witnessed the assassination of a king and an archbishop, nation-wide rioting and harsh suppression of the Peasants' Rebellion, at least three sieges of the plague, the beginning of the Hundred Years' War, and the utter humiliation of the papacy in the Babylonian Captivity at Avignon. Yet time and again she repeated that all would be well. In saying this, she was not in any way suggesting that tomorrow would be better, but rather in that final Great Day, God's will would ultimately be worked in all of God's creation, and then -- almost as if she had forgotten to mention something -- she added, "even now, the sweet eye of pity and of love never departs from us, and the workings of mercy never ceases."
It need hardly be said that this past year, a year that included one of the most divisive elections in our history along with the rancor and accusations that have followed from it, has taken a terrible toll on all of us. Yet in times such as this, it is so very important never to lose sight of the fact that God is ever with us and loves us and will never abandon us. In times such as this, it is so very important to step back from all that troubles us -- if only for a moment -- to quiet ourselves, to attend to God who is ever present in the quiet of our hearts, and to remain there -- with God -- in serenity and peace.
In this moment, O God, we turn to you.
May the ebb and flow of our thinking settle into stillness.
May each burden we carry be released into your love.
May the cycles of our breathing restore a spaciousness within.
May we listen gently enough to touch the hem of your presence.