Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reflections on My Jesuit Cloud of Witnesses

Tomorrow I will continue with commentary on Decree 3 of GC 35. But for today, primarily because I just finished Ron Hansen's exceptional new novel, Exiles, on the death of the five Franciscan sisters who died in the wreck of the Deutschland and Hopkins' writing of that poem as it related to his life, I want to offer a brief personal reflection on those deceased Jesuits who have most influenced my life and thought.

Francis Xavier and John Gerard

Two who do not make my official list but who had an important influence on my life as a teenager are Francis Xavier in Louis de Wohl's novel Set All Afire and Br. John Gerard in his The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest. There is an especially poignant scene in de Wohl's novel where de Sales sucks the poison out of a boil on a sick person so as to overcome his feeling of nausea towards him. Such stories may seem disgusting to us, but many saints forced themselves to perform similar actions. That which is of the flesh does not easily put on the Spirit, and St. Francis of Assisi's embrace of the leper shows that often such symbolic and real acts of love are necessary. Dorothy Day is a good recent example of such powerful acts.

John Gerard's autobiography is wonderful and well written. There are many good reflections throughout, and his description of his escape from the Tower of London captivated me as a teenager. When I finally made it to England, that was the first place I wanted to go see.

Edmund Campion

I chose Edmund Campion as my confirmation saint after reading Evelyn Waugh's novel based on his life. It has been a while since I read that novel, but I still remember poignant descriptions of his training and formation as a Jesuit, his dedication to prayer, his courage in returning to England, and, most magnificently of all, Campion's Brag, which is a must read for anyone, Catholic or not, simply for its eloquence and power. He was the type of Christian soldier that I wanted to be.

Miguel Pro

Miguel Pro has held a similar captivation for me. A humorous person who excelled at mimicry, he returned to Mexico after his studies in Belgium as an undercover priest. Using different disguises, he was able to survive for quite a while until he was caught and killed with his brother before a firing squad. Several powerful or humorous scenes have stuck with me from his life. He had once just completed saying mass when Mexican soldiers stormed the house and found him inside. They demanded to know if there were any priests in the house, and so Miguel promptly led them around the house, opening hiding places and closets to help them look, and then led them out the door assuring them that he would stay on the look out. Another time in a packed Guadalupe basilica square he suddenly began crying out, "Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!" getting the entire square to join in until almost a million voices were chanting. This was when Catholicism was outlawed. Just before he died, he famously cried out, "Viva Cristo Rey!" I still cannot hear that cry in Mexico or anywhere else, whether at prayer meetings or at mass, without chills running down my spine.

I would recommend Ann Ball's biography, as well as collections of his letters. Also, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory offers a great painting of the life of an undercover priest in Mexico in the 1920's and was inspired by Miguel Pro.

Rutilio Grande

In February of 1977, just a month before he was shot to death while driving to mass, Rutilio proclaimed from the Church pulpit:
I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border. All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive—against sin, it is said. So that if Jesus crosses the border at Chalatenango, they will not allow him to enter. They would accuse him, the man-God ... of being an agitator, of being a Jewish foreigner, who confuses the people with exotic and foreign ideas, anti-democratic ideas, and i.e., against the minorities. Ideas against God, because this is a clan of Cain’s. Brothers, they would undoubtedly crucify him again. And they have said so.
He was right, and his life was demanded of him for his courage. The above sermon is astonishing from Rutilio, since for so long he was known for his timidity and fear while in formation. He had no self-confidence and would constantly second-guess himself. Yet, like St. Peter, when placed in the furnace, he came out pure as gold. Possibly for this reason Rutilio was important to me in the novitiate. I admired his turnaround and his courage. A close friend of Romero, who experienced a similar turnaround when made Bishop, he gave his life for his people.

I would recommend Bill O'Malley's Voices of Blood, which has several other wonderful stories in it. Also the movie Romero in which Rutilio plays a part. Ron Hansen's A Stay Against Confusion has a beautiful chapter entitled "Hearing the Cry of the Poor" that I would recommend to all.

Peter Canisius

The evangelizer of Germany, Peter Canisius made a special request once of his novice master to allow him to take a vow to always live in actual poverty, as Ignatius' recommends all Jesuits pray for during the Exercises, unless his Superiors prohibit him. Documented in James Broderick's brilliant biography, he has been a special source of inspiration for the living of my vow of poverty.

Pierre Favre

One of the three original members of the Society of Jesus, Favre was known for his sensitivity and discernment. William Bangert's To the Other Towns is a simple biography of Favre that alerts one to his unique capacity for spiritual conversation and ability to read souls. In his Spiritual Diary, Favre offers penetrating insights into the cross, spiritual warfare, chastity, evangelization, penance, prayer, and spiritual conversation. An untapped resource on spiritual warfare, Favre frequently reflects on the role of angels in the spiritual life, no doubt learned in part from the meditation on The Two Standards in the Exercises. His simple manner of speaking allowed him to be extremely successful in re-evangelizing Germany and preparing the way for Canisius. He was considered the best at directing the Exercises and for his spiritual intuitions into people's lives. He has offered me a lot of advice in regards to living the vow of chastity. I recommend to all who feel up to it his Spiritual Diary.

Pedro Arrupe

Pedro Arrupe was a Jesuit who I did not expect myself to be drawn to. I thought he had hurt the Society, allowed too much to happen during his time of governance, and was too weak. That early assessment was wrong. Like any person in a position of leadership, he made mistakes, but the gifts he offered to the Society far outweigh those mistakes. I first came to be challenged by him when I read Mission and Identity: Selected Letters and Addresses. The book is rich with reflections on the meaning of the life of poverty and what it means to live as a Jesuit without compromise. It is hard to find, but for those who can, I recommend it. Arrupe also offered to me rich meditations on the Sacred Heart, the Trinitarian charism of Ignatius, and many other beautiful aspects of Jesuit life. Several collections can be found of his writings, and I recommend them all. He challenged me, and ultimately it was in reading the text above that I decided to enter the Jesuits. I was at a discernment retreat and on reading on particular text on the call to discipleship and away from mediocrity and compromise, I was sold.

Henri de Lubac

Henri de Lubac is without a doubt the most influential theologian in my life and also one of the riches spiritual writers who I continue to read. I first picked him up in college to read The Drama of Atheist Humanism and continued to read him in the novitiate, scouring The Mystery of the Supernatural. It is his spiritual writings that I would like to highlight here though. One of the best works on the spiritual life that I have yet to find is a collection called Three Jesuits Speak in which de Lubac recovers the writings of three close friends of his killed at young ages in the resistance movement in France. Yves de Montcheuil, Charles Nicolet, and Jean Zupan never had an opportunity to put many of their reflections into writing. De Lubac offers a brilliant collection. I was blown out of the water in the novitiate when I read some of the meditations on friendship and love by Nicolet, and Montcheuil offers profoundly penetrating short reflections on living as a disciple in our times when God is, for all intensive purposes, dead. Read this book. Second, read his reflections on the Church in a small hard to find book entitled The Church: Mystery and Paradox. In the last chapter, de Lubac offers his analysis of what it means to be a Christian today, and particularly a saint. Read it. Finally, read de Lubac's diary At the Service of the Church. Few Jesuits were humiliated as he was by his own order and the theological world, and yet few have received his humiliation with more grace than he did, nor have they been vindicated by history and particularly by Vatican II as de Lubac was. He has offered to me a theology and a spirituality that I can aspire to live as a Jesuit, and he will be a lifelong friend.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

In his recent review in America magazine of Ron Hansen's new fictionalized account of Hopkins, Exiles, James T. Keane sums up much of Hopkins' career with his famous lines: "birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain,/ Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes." In many ways he was right. The Wreck of the Deutschland was only published posthumously. Yet I would prefer to describe Hopkins life from another poem, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez: "But be the war within, the brand we wield/ Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,/ Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray." This describes best his life, a life often of inner torment, but also of victory. Hansen's novel begins with a quotation from Milton's Samson Agonistes:

Retiring from the popular noise, I seek
This unfrequented place to find some ease,
Ease to the body some, none to the mind
From restless thoughts, that like a deadly swarm
Of Hornets arm'd, no sooner found alone,
But rushing upon me thronging, and present
Times past, what once I was, and what I am now.

Hopkins had ample time for such thoughts, of considering the kind of poet he could have been. And yet his obedience has offered to us not just a truly astounding collection of poems, but also a life-poem, rich for meditation. What could have been? Hansen asks that question near the end of the book, and offers some thoughts. Yet what was is who God created, and it is a beautiful vessel, sensitive, humorous, eccentric, but with its own haecceity, "thisness/" that can speak to us.

Hopkins will continue to enrichen my prayer and especially to challenge me in obedience. He never grumbled, never second guessed. Rather, more important than the poems on paper he could write was the poem of himself that he offered to God and to the Society. I will end this post with a beautiful reflection from his spiritual journal:
What is my wretched life? Five wasted years have almost passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise. And yet the Wise Man warns us against excusing ourselves in that fashion. I cannot then be excused; but what is life without aim, without spur, without help? All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death: yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no master of myself, and that is the worst failure of all. O my God, look down on me.

Markel, SJ

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