By Erik Oland, SJ
We live in very challenging times: the pandemic is still with us; in Canada we are in the middle of the crisis brought about by the discovery of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children; Haiti is a part of our Jesuit province and the situation there has recently worsened…. The list goes on and on of things that preoccupy our thoughts these days. It begs the question: Do we feel like celebrating? What do we have to celebrate today? Thankfully, we can take a lesson from the past: many throughout history who have found themselves in situations much worse than ours have always been able, with God’s help, to find their human resilience. This has included ritual and celebration as means of coming together to “share joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties,” to use the opening phrase of one of the central documents of Vatican II. To go back much further in time, the Psalms—lamentation, praise, and thanksgiving—were written to be part of communal celebrations! Thus, if these lessons of history have been forgotten, then we have also lost touch with the faith, hope, and love at the root of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
And so, of course, Let’s celebrate! Let’s celebrate this anniversary of the death of St. Ignatius Loyola, who, as a companion of Jesus, showed remarkable resilience, fortitude, trust in God, and the ability to seek and to find God in all things and in all situations, no matter how difficult or challenging!
The Jesuits began an “Ignatian year” last May, an anniversary that is not based so much on lighthearted celebrations because it is the commemoration of 500 years since Ignatius Loyola began his journey of conversion; a journey where he, a Spanish/Basque soldier and courtier, suffered a grievous wound and where during his long convalescence he learned to shift his priorities from “my plans and my successes” to “seeking to find God’s plans for me.” Through discernment and prayer he and his early companions founded an international religious order that in turn took up the banner of the cross to help others find a pathway to God through prayer and discernment; all the while understanding that conversion can be both a one-off and an ongoing challenge on life’s pilgrimage.
Conversion. I remember a US Jesuit, Larry Gillick, who would say during the conferences he gave in the novitiate, “Our need for conversion is so great, we should love it.” Is it such a stretch to say, “Our need for conversion is so great, we should celebrate it”? Indeed, when we celebrate, we put something front and centre and say “Look at this.” Isn’t that what we do all through the liturgical year and in the life of the sacraments? Christmas, with its focus on the Christ-child; Good Friday, with its focus on the suffering and death of Jesus; baptisms, weddings, funerals. That said, celebrating conversion may be accompanied by feelings of vulnerability because opening up to conversion takes us out of ourselves and puts the focus on God’s initiative and our resistances—the supreme example of which is Jesus’s journey through the pascal mystery, death to new life, and the call to his followers to imitate him.
Two phrases from the readings have been with me these past days as I reflected on what I wanted to share with you today: “The word of God is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may put it into practice” and “There was a great calm.”
At first I did not fully understand why these phrases, among others, stayed with me. Then, I remembered what I had been saying recently to others in the context of spiritual direction. In essence my counsel, to others and to myself hopefully, has been “If or when God is not at the centre of everything you do, you will not have the presence of mind to respond to the challenges facing our world today.”
To which I add, “When you find yourself faced with something that grabs your emotions, something that you feel is wrong or unjust, and you want to react in a unthinking way, ask yourself if God is present to that moment or if you are present to God, as you get in touch with your reaction. If not, before you do anything, take the time you need to remind yourself that God is always at the centre.”
“The word of God is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may put it into practice” and “There was a great calm.”
We are called to practice God’s calming presence from a deep knowledge of the One who dwells in our hearts, especially these days amid the storms that are all around us. This is the message that Jesus wants us to hear as we imagine ourselves in the boat with him, afraid for our very lives; to have the courage of our convictions… to have faith in the faith we possess… to dare to embrace the storm in the knowledge that with God, with Jesus, embracing the storm is, paradoxically, to calm the storm in the deep-felt knowledge that we are never alone, no matter what trials or challenges may come our way.
May the grace of conversion become part of our lives, of our daily Examen, so that the storms that bring about fear may be vanquished and so that we may continue to keep Ignatius’s dream alive in our hearts as companions on mission.
Thank you Jesus, thank you Ignatius. Let’s celebrate.