By Joseph Laughlin, SJ | Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
“Joe, we’re missioning you to Santo Domingo.”
These were the words of Fr. Drew Kirschman, SJ, my novice director, as he informed me that I would spend my long experiment at Colegio Loyola, a pre-K through 12th grade school in the Dominican Republic. My imagination started running as I pictured myself writing on a whiteboard and calling on students with raised hands.
Then, I had a Zoom meeting with a Jesuit at the school.
“We want you to do Ignatian Spirituality workshops with faculty and staff.”
Oh. Faculty and staff? That’s not what I was expecting! I went to the novitiate library, snatched seven Ignatian Spirituality books in Spanish, and loaded them all in my little red backpack.
When I got to the New Orleans airport, long security lines put me at risk of missing my flight. I checked my watch every twenty seconds as my bags went through screening. My gut wrenched as my little red backpack was pulled aside. I approached the TSA agent and said, “Please! I’m going to miss my flight! Can you check my bag quickly?”
I was met with a shrug.
“What happens if I leave the bag?”
Another apathetic shrug.
I said goodbye to my backpack and took off, arriving at the gate just as the doors were closing. As my panic waned, I took license to interpret losing the books as a sign from God about what my mission was at Colegio Loyola.
God had not asked me to teach Ignatian Spirituality from all the wisdom I could find in the library. “You’ve been living Ignatian Spirituality,” God seemed to be telling me, “Now go live it in Santo Domingo!”
The only book I had left was my prayer journal from my own 30-day Spiritual Exercises retreat, which was in my suitcase. The journal includes a scrapbook of photographs, drawings and other memorabilia that represent manifestations of God’s love for me over the course of my life. My experience of the Exercises was unique to me, which begged the question: Is my particular experience of Ignatian Spirituality even relevant to the school community of Santo Domingo?
The so-called “scandal of particularity” is that God chose to reveal God’s self to a particular people, Israel, in a particular time and place. Moreover, God became human in a particular family, and we call him by the particular name “Jesus.”
The irony about the scandal of particularity is that, in a sense, it is also universal: God meets each of us through particular people, communities, sacraments, experiences of prayer, hardship, beauty, etc.
While God was asking me to share my particular experience of the Exercises, God also invited me to witness an Ignatian charism alive at Colegio Loyola in its own particular ways. Every other week, students sit on meditation benches in imitation of the prayer posture Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, adopted in Japan as teachers lead them through an Ignatian Contemplation. High school seniors study the Autobiography of St. Ignatius and then prepare their own autobiographies to share with each other on a retreat.
The school takes seriously the call to accompany youth in the creation of a hope-filled future by empowering students to recognize and solve their own problems. When I first arrived, the administration noticed that students were leaving garbage around the school. Rather than merely chastise the students, the administration asked every classroom from pre-K through high school to come up with an initiative to help everyone form the habit of properly disposing of trash and recycling. Middle schoolers suggested putting reminders on the paper towel dispensers in the bathroom. The kindergarten decided to walk around with signs at recess and point out stray trash. (I was once confronted by a girl with furrowed brow who pointed out a bottlecap near my feet!) The whole pedagogical process prevented the students from being caught in a rebellious fight with administrators. Instead, the students were empowered to see the problem and to imagine solutions. The school was accompanying them as they used their own creativity to build a future full of hope.
Being in an unfamiliar place and culture came with its advantages: I got to see the Gospel and the Jesuit charism incarnated in a new way. It turns out I did not need seven books I had never read to communicate what I knew of Ignatian Spirituality. My own particular experiences of God met the particular experiences of my colleagues. Despite our different cultures, Ignatian Spirituality gave us a common language to speak about the things that matter most.