Saturday, September 26, 2009

God as Irony

As most of you know, through a series of those ironical twists of life which I am coming to see as the places in which God dwells most deeply, a couple of Jesuits have played huge roles in my landing where I am now.

I did the graduate work necessary to retain my teaching license at the local Jesuit university. At first, my reasons had to do with convenience of location and ease of registration; later, they had to do with my pursuit of what I called my "stealth religious studies degree." Needing work in literature and history which I could justify to my licensing board, I took courses that met my real interests in the other arena of my life. Since I taught world history, it was easy to get approval for graduate work in Islamic history and philosophy, in Renaissance art, in medieval church history. Since I taught English, I managed the same for the courses I took in spirituality and autobiography and spirituality and literature.

And when the "official" requirements were behind me, I got started on a course in Ignatian spirituality, asked the professor to guide me through the Spiritual Exercises, and found myself applying to seminaries.

Two interesting pieces of writing have popped up on my computer in the past few days. One was a comment on an old post from someone who sees the Exercises as a one-way street toward a specific destination and urged me to avail myself of resources which, had he skimmed this blog, he would know that I have been immersed in for years. The
other led me to a reflection on Father Tom King, a Georgetown Jesuit who died a few months ago, written by another Jesuit who had first encountered him as a student. Here's the part that caught my attention:


"I asked him why he had focused so much of his career on the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - a Jesuit paleontologist, philosopher and theologian whose work had for a long time been considered suspect by the Vatican. I asked Father King if it made him nervous to be associated with someone who had for a while been silenced by the Church because of his work.

First, he gave me a long discourse on the nature of time. ...

Then he said something that was for a me a moment of grace, a signal moment in the gradual emergence of my own vocation. He laid out for me his understanding that in the Church, as in any organization, someone has to be willing to be ahead of the curve, even though that can be an uncomfortable and even treacherous place to be. If no one is willing to do that, he said, then progress will stall, growth will be stunted. That would be bad for the Church. Someone has to be willing to lean into the future, to take the risks associated with asking "What if?" That's why the Church has Jesuits, he said. "


I've had two Jesuit spiritual directors over the past now-going-on-five years. One of them helped me through the long process of discernment that led me to seminary and, although he himself is now elsewhere, has remained as an eloquently supportive presence in my life during this past horrific year since the death of our son. The other has seen me through the questioning and anguish that, while it changes, doesn't end, and has been a consistent presence, guide, companion, and friend through a time of relentless turmoil.

Neither of them has ever indicated any kind of idea that the Exercises or the prayer life that emerges out of them is limited to a particular kind of person or a rigid focus. The process is always one of growth in relationship with God through Jesus in their Spirit, but how that works itself out remains to be seen and lived, not controlled.

When I read the reflection about Tom King, and his insistence that someone has to be willing to ask, "What if?" I thought ~ that's it. That's what lies at the foundation of spiritual direction, at least as I have experienced it and now try to make it available to others: that willingness to ask, "What if?"

What if I help this woman who has wandered into my class make the Exercises ~ to what might that lead?

What if I accompany this woman through overwhelming and immobilizing grief ~ how might that reality be transformed into another?

I have thought for a long time now that the foundational attitude of an effective spiritual director is one of hope, and I am sure that I have challenged the hopes of both of these men. But "What if?" is a question of hope.

It remains a baffling irony to me that my journey has taken me from a teaching experience in an Orthodox Jewish school along the path of Ignatian spirituality and into a Presbyterian seminary education. (And that's only the last ten years!)

I am extremely grateful to have run into Jesuits who are willing to ask "What if?" and to lean into an indecipherable future.


Purple said...

What If...I will remember this.

Also...someone has to be willing to be ahead of the curve...thanks...I needed that.

Kathryn J said...

I might try this in my centering. Sitting quietly and thinking "What if" could be an interesting way to pray.

Stratoz said...

thank you so much... when my "what if" post emerges, please take some credit for giving it the shape it has been waiting for since my retreat in August.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I think "what if" could be the way to a tremendous opening from ruts in the thinking.

And I really love and relate to the post title: "God as irony." It names something I have experienced. Often.

Denise said...

"What if?" is indeed a key question to ask in order to move forward. I'm constantly amazed by the reach of Ignatian spirituality. Thank you for sharing your thinking today.