From The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything
Recently, I made my second thirty-day retreat at a Jesuit house in Los Angeles. It would be only the second (and maybe the final) time that I would make the full Spiritual Exercises. Even though I was guarding against too many expectations, I was still worried about “performing” and producing amazing results in prayer, placing upon myself expectations about what I needed to “do” in prayer, rather than leaving it up to God.
If you’re thinking to yourself, After twenty years, you should have known better, you’re right!
The Long Retreat was part of the final stage of Jesuit formation, coming almost twenty years after I first entered, and I would be making the retreat with some old friends from novitiate, philosophy, and theology studies.
It seemed easy to enter into the First Week of the Exercises, with its emphasis on being “loved sinners,” and more so into the Second Week, which focuses on the earthly ministry of Jesus. Since the Pacific Ocean was not far from the house, I took to running on the beach every other day. Entering into the Gospel passages where Jesus called his disciples by the seashore was a breeze: I had been there just a few hours earlier.
As I approached the Third Week and began to meditate on the last days of Jesus, prayer continued to go smoothly. Insights, memories, emotions, feelings, and desires came during each meditation.
Meditating on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, for example, opened up new insights about acceptance, obedience, and what types of temptations Jesus might have faced. When confronted with the possibility of rejection, Jesus may have felt the temptation not to offend anyone with his preaching and thereby avoid his fate. That is what you might call the temptation to accommodation. When faced with opposition, he may have experienced the temptation simply to wipe out his opponents – either through human means (like encouraging his disciples to rise up in furious rebellion) or through divine means (which may be what his followers expected): the temptation for annihilation. Finally Jesus may have felt tempted simply to leave his ministry behind and avoid the path that God was laying out, in favor of a more conventional life: the temptation for abandonment.
Accommodation, annihilation, and abandonment. How often are we tempted to avoid suffering like this? We can accommodate by not fully accepting the reality of suffering – for example, by not entering into the lives of loved ones in pain, but staying safely on the sidelines. We can annihilate by destroying the invitations into the suffering of friends and families – by casting out anyone from our lives who brings us face-to-face with pain. We can abandon by ignoring our responsibilities in the face of suffering.
Yet Jesus accepts the “reality of the situation.”
Finally I saw Jesus jailed in Pilate’s dank cell, weeping. In my imagination Jesus wept not simply for himself and his upcoming physical torment, but because of something else: the loss of his great project. How many times have you hoped for some great thing, dreamed wonderful dreams, or planned for something joyful, only to have those plans completely dashed?
In my prayer, Jesus remembered all the times he had preached, all the people he healed, all those who had gathered around him – ready to start something new, ready to make great changes, ready to bring joy to the world. As he sat in his cell, all that now seemed lost. His great work, on which he had spent years, seemed over. His friends, on whom he had lavished his love, had deserted him. His project had, seemingly, failed.
Jesus believed in his course and trusted in his Father, but how could he not be sad? Perhaps in his dark moments – or so I imagined in prayer – he may have wondered if it was all worth it. So Jesus wept.
For Christians, these are points of entry into the life of Jesus: in times of sadness and loneliness and dejection in your own life, you can connect with the human experience of Jesus and, perhaps more important, Jesus can connect with you.
Now let me share with you something quite personal, and quite explicit, as a way of illustrating what can sometimes happen in these Third Week meditations, while contemplating suffering.
Curiously, all the meditations I just mentioned came and went with little feeling. “Very unemotional,” I wrote in my journal. When I recounted this to my retreat director, an elderly Jesuit named Paul, it was also with scant feeling. Paul, an experienced spiritual director, listened intently. Then he said, “I think you’re blocking something.”
“I’m not blocking anything,” I told Paul. “I’ve told you everything I’ve experienced.”
Paul was surprised that so little feeling surrounded these meditations, and he encouraged me to return to Jesus’s Passion. This time, he said, sit in the tomb where Jesus has been laid. Ask for the grace to be free of anything that keeps you from being closer to God. Is there anything of you that needs to “die” in that tomb?
When I grudgingly returned to prayer the next day, something surprising happened. Imagining myself sitting in the tomb, I saw Mary, dressed from head to toe in black, sitting silently beside me. And I asked God to free me of whatever was burdening me.
All at once I was aware of the burdens in life that I wanted to set down in that tomb. All the things I had unconsciously kept bottled inside during the previous few weeks – things I didn’t want to examine since they might disturb the equanimity of the retreat, things I didn’t want to take out of the “box,” as David Donovan would say – poured out. Loneliness for one. Not the loneliness of being friendless, but the existential loneliness of religious life: the loneliness of chastity. (Single, divorced, and widowed men and women know this loneliness.) Tiredness for another. Not the tiredness of everyday life, but what seemed like the continuous stress of two, three, or even four jobs at a time. (Parents know this tiredness, too.)
So I told Jesus: “I am lonely and tired.” Expressing this brought forth what Ignatius called the “gift of tears.”
Immediately I saw myself at the foot of the cross in as vivid a prayer experience as I’ve ever had. Just that day I had finished a book called The Day Christ Died, by Jim Bishop. In it, Bishop notes that Roman crucifixes were probably elevated not far off the ground, and here in my mind’s eye was the base of the cross – squarish, boxy, rough. At eye level were Jesus’s feet nailed to the cross.
I imagined looking up at Jesus’s face. And he said deliberately, “This is your cross. Can you accept it?”
I knew what I was being asked to accept. Loneliness and tiredness are the lot of most people, not just Jesuits. But both are still “crosses.” Could I accept the “reality of the situation”? Could I surrender to the future that God had in store for me?
“Can you accept it?” I imagined Jesus saying.
I knew what the answer should be, but I wanted to be honest.
“I don’t know,” I said with many tears.
“Do you want to follow me?” he said.
“Yes, but show me the rest,” I said.
After the meditation ended, I was wrung out. Now, these kinds of intense prayer experiences are not so common to me. (Mostly, my prayer is calm and not quite so vivid. Like most everyone else’s, it is rich at times, dry at others.)
The next day I returned to the scene and asked Jesus once again to show me the rest: in other words, the Resurrection. And I realized sadly that I would have made a poor martyr – asking for evidence of “new life” before accepting my cross. Though I knew not to compare myself to the Jesuit martyrs, I seemed already to have failed. I felt cast down.
At noontime I walked into the dining room where someone had put on a CD from the movie Out of Africa. The music transported me back to my years in Kenya. An hour later in the chapel, I was awash in memories of my time in East Africa and pictured myself standing with Mary, still clad in black, on the grassy hillside I loved near the Jesuit Refugee Service office, the place where I had felt great consolation years ago, a place that still symbolized great freedom and joy for me.
Together Mary and I walked through the places where I had worked during my two years in Nairobi: through the little shop we had started for the refugees, through the dimly lit refugee houses, through the wide grassy paths that I would take returning from work, through the sprawling slums where the refugees lived. I saw their bright faces, I could hear their East African accents, and I could feel their warm affection.
This is a nice resurrection, I thought. But was this all there was? Was this enough for me?
Then, all at once, Jesus was standing beside me, radiant and joyful in his dazzling white robe. This was something I hadn’t needed to imagine: it simply appeared in my mind. Jesus reached out his hand and said, “Follow me!” The two of us returned to the same places, one by one, now with him holding my hand. It was a vivid reminder that he had been with me throughout my stay.
Jesus appeared in the place where I had felt the freest in my life. It was a surprising, personal, and intimate way to experience a resurrection. For, in a flash, it dawned on me that only by accepting the loneliness and tiredness was I able to experience what I had found in Kenya. God seemed to be saying, “Yes, you must accept the loneliness and the tiredness, but here is what awaits you when you do. Here is what happens when you say, yes. And you know this from experience. Here is the new life.”
This experience was a reminder of how helpful Ignatian prayer can be, offering a moment that is at once personal, meaningful, transformative, and even difficult to communicate to others. It was also a reminder of why spiritual direction is helpful – without Paul’s guidance I would have simply avoided entering into this passage.
Since that time I’ve not feared the loneliness or overwork as much. It is part of what I’m asked to accept about my life. But I also know that acceptance means that I can often see signs of new life. The cross leads to resurrection.
All this leads back to obedience. God sometimes asks each of us to accept certain things that seem at the time unacceptable. Unbearable. Even impossible. For me it was loneliness and tiredness. For another it might be terrible illness. For another, the loss of a job. For another, the death of a spouse. For another, a stressful family situation.
This doesn’t mean you court those things or that some things should not be changed. “Don’t work even longer hours because of your retreat!” said my friend Chris after the retreat. Rather, some struggles in life are unavoidable. And, at least in my own life, embracing them may sometimes lead to new ways of finding God.
This small insight may pale in the face of whatever suffering you are experiencing. But it has helped me in my life, and I wanted to share it with you, and I hope it might help you during tough times.
The insight goes by many names: accepting the “reality of the situation,” as Walter Ciszek would say; surrendering to “the future cross daily,” as Jesus would say. Acceptance. Abandonment. Humility. Poverty of spirit. Finding God in all things.
All of them are talking about the same thing, and all these words and phrases point to one word, a word that may have seemed so strange at the beginning of the chapter and yet which lies at the heart of this life-giving path: obedience.