Monday, July 29, 2013

And One Was A Soldier

What does the word “Jesuit” mean to you? Growing up in the Church of Rome, a Jesuit was, for me, someone scary, intellectual, unforgiving and mysterious, certainly a far cry from our friendly parish priest. If I had ever met an actual Jesuit, I’m sure I would have quaked in my boots and not ventured a word or even a glance.  In later life, I kept a safe distance from anything Jesuitical.

Imagine, then, my great surprise when my own friendly, now Episcopal, parish priest suggested that I submit myself to the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. Saint Ignatius? Isn't he the enemy of all Protestants? Wouldn't he rather suffer the fires of hell than offer spiritual teaching to a Protestant? To a woman? Well, apparently not.

Ignatius was born Igῆio Lopez in the year 1491, in Loyola in the Basque region of northern Spain. A member of the provincial nobility, Igῆio was sent off to be a royal page at the age of 14. He served Don Juan Velasquez in the Court of the King until that gentleman’s fortunes were lost. He then served the Duke of Najera as a gentleman at arms defending his Lord’s lands and claims. It was in this role in a battle at Pamplona that a cannonball shattered his leg, ending Igῆio’s soldiering once and for all. Laid up at home, he had no entertainment but two books: a Life of Christ and a Life of the Saints. These he read assiduously and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over time, Igῆio changed from a romantic ladies man whose highest thoughts were of loyalty to his King to a romantic religious man whose highest thoughts were of utter devotion to Our Lord. Not so much of a change really, just a slight re-direction. He was still Igῆio the dreamer, Igῆio the lover, Igῆio the brave. But now he had a different object of his ardor.

And ardor it was. Just as he gave everything to his military service, so he gave everything to his pursuit of holiness and passion for Jesus. He was desperate to achieve holiness and to know and follow Jesus and knew he’d have to leave home, which he was finally mobile enough to do. He packed up what he needed, bid goodbye to his family and traveled to the Abbey of Montserat. Here he made a three-day confession of his sins, gave away all his clothing etc and took the rough robes of a beggar.

From the Abbey, Igῆio went to the town of Manresa where he lived for 11 months in a cave, praying, fasting, thinking and taking notes. Ah, those notes! This is where the spiritual exercises were born. Igῆio believed that others might profit from his own experiences and revelations. Meeting a stone wall from both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, Igῆio went to Paris, acquired some formal learning, changed his name to Ignatius and, at the ripe old age of 49, was ordained.

Two things are important about the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). One is the word “society” and the other is the word “Jesus”. Jesuits are a community. Ignatius blossomed most when he met like-minded people and formed his order. Jesuits are the most inter-active order, constantly engaging everyone through speaking, writing and works of mercy. But, above all, they are Jesus’ men. Their lives and work are based on an intimate knowledge of Jesus which is the primary object of the exercises.

Holed up in that cave in Manresa, when the towns people thought he was crazy and when he was attracting all the wrong kind of attention from the Church and even the Inquisition, Igῆio closed his eyes and imagined he was walking with Jesus through his life: there in the desert being tempted, there healing the lepers and driving out demons, there feeding the masses and pronouncing the Beatitudes, there on the cross and there as the risen Lord.
Do you know what job-shadowing is? As one who has worked for years in workforce development, I was immediately struck with the similarity of Ignatius’ path to Jesus and the path that many (mostly) young people take to employment: job shadowing … follow very closely every move of someone in order to learn exactly what they do and how and why they do it. The “shadow” gets to know the worker and the worker’s job very well. A bond develops, even after one day. Imagine Igῆio as Jesus’ job shadow for 11 months in Manresa. Imagine anyone’s devoted pursuit of Jesus over time. We think we know Jesus, that even the smallest child knows Jesus in some sense. For Ignatius, to know Jesus meant a profoundly shared understanding of his ministry, hurts, triumphs, gifts and suffering.

The Gospel of John says “”I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also.” 14:6

Igῆio found that when he put himself in Jesus’ path, sensed all the things that Jesus sensed, heard his words as a bystander, supplicant, sinner, friend, he actually began to truly know Jesus. This takes patience, concentration, brutal honesty and gut-wrenching courage. But Igῆio had nowhere else to go. He had thrown in his lot with Jesus just as he had done in his previous life with his king and lord. But now he had a better King and a better Lord. He knew that a long and concentrated attention to the life and work and sayings of Jesus would make his followers into new people. It is Jesus himself who compels our love. It is Jesus himself who teaches us. It is Jesus whom we come to know.

This is what this saint has given us, and gives us still today.

On July 31st, the feast day of Saint Ignatius, please spare a thought for that ardent soldier, lover and priest who faced great odds and endured pain and derision to leave the world with an order of priests who are at the forefront of every justice movement on earth but who follow Jesus daily…really follow Jesus.

Coming next week: Does God understand cause and effect? 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Feel Better Fast

When my sister was a very little girl, she had strep throat. Penicillin was not yet available so her illness was very serious indeed. Her throat was so swollen that only a tiny trickle of water could go down. My mother sat up with her that entire night making sure that there was always a small piece of ice melting on her tongue. And praying. By morning, my sister was much better. The swelling had gone down, her fever had broken and she was out of danger. This story is often told in my family with the following points being:

  •       Thank God we have penicillin now
  •       This is what parents do
  •        Pray. Always pray.

There is probably not a person living who can’t relate to this story - the devoted mother, the fervent prayers, the wonderful recovery. My sister grew up well, had a 52 year marriage, four children, five grandchildren and two great grand children. Good story. 

Stories like this one, nevertheless, tend to get under my skin. It seems when people of faith are confronted with a need for healing, faith suffers. When the stakes are high we get desperate and desperate people trip up. The stakes are never higher than when a loved one is ill. I am conflicted about prayers for the sick because our prayers can so easily become demands. Our faith can morph into entitlement, our petitions slide into a test of our own worthiness or of God’s love.

Have we not heard these statements?
  • If you pray, God will heal him
  • God will not take so innocent a child
  • If you have faith, God will spare her
  • He deserves to live and finish the work God has for him

Who deserves pain, injury, death? Who deserves healing? The answer to all these questions is no one. God does not arrange benefit or harm for us based on our goodness or on any logic that we can discern. We can’t make sense of it. We can’t predict the results of it, and we most definitely cannot control it, either by faith or prayer or promises.

For me, it is natural to sit up all night with a sick child and to pray for her recovery. I would do it and I bet you would, too. We hope that Jesus, who healed so many, will heal us. But here is where the problem arises. Although it is good and right to pray, we do not get to order God. This is where a line can be crossed. Here is where we begin to justify our wants, to bargain, to explain. And here is where we lay the burden of the healing on ourselves. Is our faith strong enough? Is our prayer relentless enough? Have we asked too much? Too little? Does God love us enough? 

It is easy, much too easy, to cross that line when we are desperate. Assuming onto oneself the burden of healing is not an act of faith. It’s not an act of love. It is an act of pride. It is pride to think that our own will can heal a loved one, prevent the death of a friend. Only God can do these things.

The Lord watches over the innocent
I was brought very low and he helped me  Psalm 116

God understands though. God knows our desperation, feels everything that we feel and more besides. He understands our grief when we lose someone and our joy when someone is restored. It is in these moments that God finds us and we find God. When we need God the most is when God is readiest to be there. It’s an opening, and no one can resist an opening. So let God in.  God bless.

Next from The Parishioner:  My friend Igῆio invites me into High Society.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Jesus Real?

“Is Jesus Real?” … Jake, 5 years old

Not long ago a friend overheard her five-year-old son asking this question of a playmate. It’s the sort of question only a child would dare ask and perhaps only of another child. Growing up in a strict Roman Catholic home, I know I would never have dared to ask such a question, even if it had occurred to me. We adults have Jesus pretty well figured out. He is the Son of God, or he is a famous teacher whose mystical understanding of the Divine still amazes us today, or he is a popular but unsubstantiated legend. In any case, we know what we think about Jesus. No searching questions needed.

I confess, though, that my answer to this question has changed in the past couple of years. Before then, I enjoyed (really truly enjoyed) a very literary view of Jesus. He was symbolic in the Godhead, representing hope and renewal. Ever young, ever forward-looking, Jesus expressed a needed human capacity for spiritual progress and ultimate unity with God. This view was a product of many years of thinking and reading and even regular church going, but, notably, not of praying.

I was proud of my conclusions and quite comfortable with them. I felt warm-hearted kindness toward people who claimed that Jesus saved them. I had only sweet thoughts for people who told me that Jesus died for our sins or that he changed the world. Did he love me? How can a symbol love me? Yes, he loved everyone, but in a sweepingly genera,l glowing way, but not specifically me…or you. If I sound as if I’m making fun of myself, I’m not. I’m trying to be kind to myself. I think many people hold these views of Jesus and they could do a whole lot worse.

But I changed my mind. Call it grace, call it old age, call it what you will, but I decided to revert to my old-time practice of saying my prayers - morning and evening. The Book of Common Prayer has a lovely form (two actually) for Morning and Evening Prayer and Forward Day by Day [] publishes a fine resource with reflections on the daily readings. Using all of this, after a few years, I started to think of God, myself and the Universe quite differently. I think it was the Psalms that did it. Lines like “Whom have I in heaven but you, and having you I desire nothing on earth” Ps 73 stunned me into something almost like belief.

Then, floundering around spiritually and on the advice of my priest, I undertook the Ignatian Exercises – about which more in a future blog entry. Thanks to this discipline I took a further mad leap and asked Jesus himself (no longer a symbol, by the way) to help me to know him and to love him.

You’d think that asking someone to help you love him would be insulting, but apparently Jesus expects this and is quite accommodating. In any case, it worked …  is working. I can now say that Jesus is real. Yes, the Son of God. Yes, changed the world. Yes, my savior.

Unlike little Jake and first Century CE followers of Jesus, I have 2,000 years of history, tradition, belief and practice to stand on. Those disciples traveling from town to town with Jesus must have been asking themselves Jake’s question all the time. The Gospel is full of incidents when the disciples doubted Jesus, misunderstood everything he said, erred grossly.

 Recall the raising of Lazarus. Recall how Jesus deliberately delayed going to Bethany. Recall the scene of desolation that he found there. The tears. The recriminations. Recall Martha – even Martha who boldly said “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is to com,” even this tower of faith yielded to a moment of unbelief when Jesus ordered the tomb opened. “Lord,” she says, ”already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” In other words “Are you real?”

In raising Lazarus in this way, Jesus lays his cards on the table. He shows his true self once and for all, as he says to the Father “so that they may believe that you sent me”. Martha’s words of belief are, after all, just words. We recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. More words. All the time, we find our belief changing growing, diminishing, deepening, fading, burning bright.

Faith is a contrary thing, filling us gladly one moment and then, moments later, deserting us when a tomb is about to be opened. It’s a full time job this discipleship business. Believing in the Son of God is not easy in our world. Is Jesus real? Ask him yourself.  God bless.

Coda:  I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”     C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Next from The Parishioner: Feel Better Fast

Monday, July 8, 2013

Between a Rock and a Rock Star

Previously from The Parishioner: I re-analyze the happenings in the Garden of Eden and turn Original Sin into Original Blessing…BOOM.

   “ ’Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes Lord you know that I love you.’ ” John 21:15

Peter is the fall guy, the one who gets it wrong again and again. Walking across the water he has second thoughts and starts to sink He’s embarrassed to have Jesus wash his feet. He can’t accept the coming of Calvary. He denies he ever knew Jesus – three times. And then there is that shocking faux pas at the Transfiguration. Did the Gospel writers set Peter up to show us how wrong yet redeemable it’s possible to be? Is the whole point of Peter for Sunday School kids to practice their eye rolling?

Jesus picked this very earth-bound disciple for a reason and it was clearly not for his mystical powers or his grasp of divine imperatives. He picked Peter because Peter had great love, love so large that he blundered into impetuous assertions and actions, the way that lovers do. A careful person like me marvels at such love. Even kneeling before Jesus, I wonder what is the received form of prayer, how is one expected to worship him, what should I be thinking/feeling?

So I have learned a thing or two from Peter. This mad, impetuous fool for Christ has taught me that I can be all in. that I can lavish my love on Jesus, that if I want to beg to understand something or be heard at all, I can beg; that if I want to love him with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul and all my strength, I can go right ahead and do it.

Because Jesus singled him out and because of his post-Pentecost work, Peter enjoys considerable standing in our faith today. I have stood in St Peter’s Square and nothing is quite so awesome. Peter is grand now. He stands at the gates of heaven welcoming the faithful. I want this to be more than an image, or a tradition though. I want it to be true. I want to see Peter noting each new arrival, looking them up in his book, sighing and mumbling, looking up over his glasses to make sure he has the right one.

When he sees me, he knows me. He understands my history and my extremes. It’s all in his book. He knows how close I came to deep sin and despair. He thinks I was lucky and he’s right. He understands my falseness when it was taken to be true and my truth when it was taken to be false. He knows he’s going to unlock the pearly gates for me but he wants to make me sweat a little first. He shows me my marks in his book, all my stupid stuff.

I try to get on his good side by mentioning all the holy people that I've known but he sees through that right away. I tell him how I've longed for God all my life, how I was picked to crown the Blessed Mother in the May Procession  in second grade, how I prayed for my enemies, tried not to hate, tried not to judge. I know that all he has to do is take up that huge key hanging from his belt and open the gates, but I am loving this moment, loving his undivided attention. This hero of mine. It’s a very human moment, a very earthly one. Who else but Peter could do this job so well?

Next time from The Parishioner...I match wits with a five year old.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man

Previously from The Parishioner: I confess to a pressing need to communicate my religious beliefs and experiences with others.

                                         “What is this that you have done?”   Genesis 3:13

It was a set up. Predictable. God put a forbidden tree in the middle of the Garden and Adam and Eve just happened to have a taste. No surprises. Like so many stories in the Bible, the outcome is perfectly obvious from the beginning. Jesus and Caesar’s coin, Isaac’s close call, Moses’ warning to Pharaoh, Esther’s take-down of Haman are just some examples of inevitability in Scripture.

Foreshadowing is a narrative tool designed to let the reader (or listener) anticipate the ending and revel throughout the telling in the moral of the tale. And, of course, these stories demonstrate that, just as our brother Martin told us, the moral arc always bends toward justice.

So what do we learn about God and humankind from the story of Adam and Eve?  Let’s start with the givens.
1)      God created the world out of his great love
2)      God created Adam and Eve in his image
3)      God was pleased with both and they with him and with all of creation
4)      It was all so perfect
But then what went wrong?
1)      The serpent’s craft
2)      Eve’s desire for knowledge
3)      Adam’s acquiescence

Suddenly, Adam and Eve are frightened and hide from God. They are ashamed. They mumble excuses for their disobedience. God and Adam and Eve hardly know what to say to each other. The perfect life is in ruins. Intimacy with God is lost. Now there will be work and desire and pain and weeds. But is this so bad? What seemed delightful in the Garden was actually very static. No change = no growth. No problems = no solutions. No pain = no healing. No sin = no forgiveness.

I believe (heresy though it may be) that we gained more than we lost when we were turned out of Eden. True we lost intimacy with God but we gained a profound and lasting desire for a return to that intimacy, and it is that desire which drives us to prayer, to church, to acts of kindness and to repentance. It is from God’s desire for us that we receive grace, and it is from our desire, our reaching for God, that all human goodness and greatness comes.

What we once took for granted, we now yearn for. In the static perfection of Eden, there was no desire because there was no lack. No problem needed solving, no yearning needed fulfillment. When we lost the intimate connection to God, we sold off our pensions and went to work. And God is the boss. We are now engaged in God’s work. Invent, search, solve, heal, comfort, care for, teach, love. This is what we have taken on. That first act of rebellion of our first parents set the world on its course of error, pain, confusion and cruelty. But …. it also opened the door for healing, enlightenment, and virtue. In church we learn that we are all sinners. Our sin, thankfully however, opens the door for God to work with us and for us to seek God. For as many villains as it has created, more and more have been made heroes.

God loves sinners. Just ask Cain, Moses, David, Peter. No matter how far they strayed, no matter how much they disappointed him, God worked with them. Peter, denier of Christ but true apostle; David murderer, adulterer but blessed king; Moses halting and weak but leader of Israel; Cain marked forever as a killer but protected from harm nevertheless. And, finally, ask our first parents. What did God do for them when he sent them from the Garden - these his first human creations who broke his heart? He made them clothes.

                                        “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them.” Genesis 3:21 So get to work and God bless.

Next time from The Parishioner: What did Jesus ever see in Simon (Peter)
and then a flight of fancy.