Collections of Spirituality Essays, accessible by links:
Winter 2013 Spring 2012 Summer 2012 Fall 2012
To read one of the following essays which have recently appeared in the "Features" section of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality's home page, click on its title.
Mothers’ Day - We learn from our experience that our love, like God’s, has to expand outward.
Sweet or Dry - When our experiences are sweet, they affirm and confirm our ways of thinking and acting.
Our Names - None of us are “no-name” persons to ourselves, to God, or to all those who know us in any way.
Non-Stop - We do not stop growing with physical death.
Squirrels - We not have either training or learning experiences for each and every hazard to our integrity that can suddenly confront us.
Transformers - The transforming power of prayer originates not in us, but in God.
Hope - Hope is where we find it, a lived experience that does not require definition or explanation.
Honesty - When we are honest with ourselves, we gain self-respect and confidence.
Jesuit Pope - Even a pope ordinarily has to obey a doctor or a police official.
Though there is a Fathers’ Day as well as a Mothers’ Day in the calendars, the commitment of mothers in carrying children to birth seems especially worthy of gracious recognition, not only for the sake of those who are mothers, but for all of us who were born. The fact of our birth is ordinary, but that each of us has come into life is uniquely extraordinary. We owe thanks to our mothers, but also to the God of all creation for our personal gift of being who we are. Although we have actively participated in our education, learning and growing, we neither gave ourselves birth nor arranged for a universe, world and humanity into which we would be born. All is gift, including our part in becoming who we are and will be.
On occasions of birthdays, anniversaries and similar events, we might want to “make someone’s day,” usually by conveying our care, respect or love for him or her. But if the occasion is sad or painful, such as sickness, death or other loss, we do our best to console and express our compassion, but we would rarely imagine that by so doing, we could “make someone’s day.” In his book, The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola proposes an imaginative exercise of the unique Mother’s Day of all time: Jesus, whose suffering and death by crucifixion were witnessed by his mother, rises from the dead, and appears to his mother as wholly and completely alive and glorious. What a loving way to make her day: visibly manifesting his total victory over suffering and death.
The connection between the consolation that Jesus provided for his mother and the very real effects of our caring presence to others in times of celebration or instances of compassion might not be immediately evident, but the intent is the same. When Jesus came to his mother, he did so primarily for her sake, not his own. Whenever we do anything for others, such as offering Mothers’ Day greetings, calling friends or relatives when one of them comes to mind, or spending time with someone who does not have many visitors, we, like Jesus, have their best interests at heart, not ours. In all these and similar situations, our love is the essential and invaluable gift that we bring to such encounters.
If we reflect on our seemingly ordinary thoughts and actions which manifest our kindness or any other aspect of love, we might recognize that more takes place than whatever we generate from within ourselves. Without any tangible contact, we might sense that God has been and is a partner with us, not an observer. Or we might notice that we first received personal movements within us of loving inspiration that in turn encouraged us to think and act graciously to others. We learn from our experience that our love, like God’s, has to expand outward, occasionally even to those we might never have considered as possible recipients.
In a larger perspective, all of us who have been loved by parents, mentors, teachers, friends, care-givers or others are, by that same expansive movement drawn into roles of caring for others. God “mothers” us as well as “fathers” us with love, and so we are empowered to do the same, no matter what our titles, positions, and careers might be.
We might not know whether or not we “make someone’s day,” but it is always within our potential to love, because we are loved.
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Sweet or Dry
Some wines are described as tasting sweet or dry, not sweet or sour. Sour wine is generally called vinegar. Sometimes our spiritual experiences might well be described as sweet or dry, since, as with wines, one is not good and the other bad, but they are different, and most of us have a preference for one rather than the other.
When we appreciate a beautiful scene, enjoy a meaningful conversation or have a moment of satisfying prayer, we might consider the experience to be “sweet,” even though we might not use that word if we were to tell anyone about these events. When an apparently beautiful view does not evoke any feeling, or we have no feelings connected with a conversation that is truly of significance or find no joy in prayer that is yet a real connection with God, “dry” is one way to describe such occurrences. But even if we prefer sweet feelings to dry or to no feelings at all, we often find it more difficult to speak with others about the spiritual experiences that are more pleasing to us than those that are less pleasant. Perhaps we are spontaneously shy of talking about the moments in our lives that are touched with transcendence, and find it easier to tell others about those that seem more commonplace.
Though we can look at scenery or listen to beautiful music, we cannot force ourselves to feel appreciative. Similarly, we cannot know for certain the feelings that will follow after a conversation, or subsequent to a period of prayer. We are free to decide what we will do, but we are not able to choose the effects that might follow. The first advantage for us of this truth is: we might recognize that a spiritual gift is involved when we experience “sweetness” of some kind. Since we do not cause such feelings, they must be a consequence of something more than us, perhaps even a gentle movement of Spirit.
The second advantage to us of being able to decide upon our thoughts, words, and deeds but not having the power to determine our felt responses is that when dryness is involved, it is neither a fault nor a failure on our part. Occasions of dryness provide opportunities to reflect on whether or not our decisions were in accord with what we believed to be the right or appropriate thing to do. When we have honestly acted according to our understanding of what is better, dryness does not indicate being at odds with “the cosmos” nor the disfavor of God, but a reminder that whenever they occur, joy, peace, reverence and awe are gifts.
When our experiences are sweet, they affirm and confirm our ways of thinking and acting, and can easily lead to gratitude not only for the feelings that make it easy for us to continue in the same direction, but for the personal care or presence of God that many of us perceive at such moments. Dryness does not appear at first to be supportive of our efforts, but such experiences provide us with some necessary opportunities to exercise trust in continuing to do whatever we believe to be right. We find out in practice that we are more interested in acting in accord with our minds and hearts than we are in the feelings that might or might not follow upon our actions. Accepting affective dryness is healthy, especially when compared with much of the physical, emotional and spiritual sickness in society that results when people try to take control of pleasurable feelings, by seeking “sweetness” in ways that are actually harmful.
Let the truly sweet experiences show us which way to proceed, not changing directions when later similar experiences seem dry. But in the dry times, remember the sweet, because those feelings, gifts of God, will again occur.
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When I was a child, I did not like my first name, because no one else at school, or any others I knew, had the same name. But when my mother found a small children’s book about a boy with the name Randall, I was satisfied. Many years later, someone showed me a meaning for my name, “confident counselor,” that seemed a surprisingly appropriate description. Perhaps there is more to our names than merely a handy means of differentiating one person from another.
Whether or not our personal name has a specific meaning that might describe one or other of our qualities at present or in the past, each of our names has a meaning that is unique in the entire world, past, present and to come. Even if someone in our family or among our closest associates or friends has the identical name, no one else has the same qualities and experiences as we do. When others, or even we ourselves, refer to us by our name, there is no confusion about our unique individual identity.
While parents often choose names for children before they are born, and while some people change their names or receive nicknames from others, God calls us into being, chooses us to become this person before even our conception, loving us as we are with our name. No matter how favored or deprived our earliest years might have been, God wanted us, and that is why we exist.
Though we are often identified by our name, we know ourselves and are known by many others as far more than merely an individual with this or that name. In our own inner dialog, we do not often use our names, just as we do not always mentally use a name for God when we pray, and as we do not speak their names every time we address others. But none of us are “no-name” persons to ourselves, to God, or to all those who know us in any way.
We all have experience of people using our names to refer to us with respect or care, and also those who speak our names disdainfully or without care. Some use our names to convey different meanings, such as to express approval or disapproval, or to command or to invite. And, just as people can take God’s name “in vain,” they can certainly misuse or abuse our names. But so can they, and we, attach praise or affection to a name.
God calls us by our name, but not from having learned it from our parents or other name-givers. In addressing us in our everyday experience, God does not often speak our name, and we do not usually hear a voice in our minds, much less our ears. But we have no doubt about who is receiving the personal contact, and we do not ever have the experience of being addressed with the equivalent of “hey, you,” which would evoke the opposite of the peace, healing or joy that is normally evoked in our hearts.
God calls us by name, but is no more limited in communicating with us than are our family and friends who use a variety of names and nicknames in addition to our given or legally recognized name. There could be a million persons with the same external name, but God knows and loves as we are, a forever person, with our name or names, and not merely as one member of a species. In our likeness to God, there is and can be no other “us” nor will there ever be.
Our names bear with us some of our eternal destiny.
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Airline flights between the Hawaiian Islands and the U.S. mainland are non-stop; there are no fueling places along the way, and the planes cannot land in the water. The Kolea, a golden plover, flies non-stop from Hawai’i to Alaska for the summer, and makes a return flight in the fall; a land-bird, it is incapable of resting on the ocean.
While we admire the feats of planes and birds that can travel thousands of miles without pause, we acknowledge that we are only capable of travelling short distances by foot, and for brief lengths of time. Most of us get up in the morning, and usually retire in the evening: a days’ rather brief journey in life. But we might want to reflect on another journey, the one we began at birth, which does not end.
Some of our present experiences have a never-ending aspect to them; some of what we do and what we learn is really about “always,” and not in a merely romantic or hyperbolic understanding of the word. Material things are not as important to us as people, nor are non-material “possessions” such as power, prestige and honors more important than honest, sincere relationships. More deeply, anything that we can keep and control is temporary, while all forms of positive relationships in which we participate change us irrevocably, and remain with us always. All the negative things of which we humans are capable are, like physical, material qualities, temporary. But our love continues through death, non-stop.
Some of our friends are life-long and other friendships do not continue to grow during our time on earth. But each and every relationship – comprised of those mysterious bonds of caring of which we are capable – does not stop, even with the death of someone. Once we have loved, in any way, the spiritual motion that we initiated moves on as an ever-living participation in the essence of God, who is Love. The love that we manifest in thoughts, words, decisions and deeds is expressed in momentary ways within our time-centered present perspective, but the movement within us is without end. Real love – not merely a feeling, but a decision - can only continue right on through death, for it is not just something we “do” but who we are as persons who are created in God’s image and likeness.
We do not stop growing with physical death; far from ceasing to grow, we will continue, but without the limitations of time and space. At present, we can be only partially in close contact with a small number of persons. But, every instance of our relatedness and orientation toward others will continue; our past and present instances of loving and relating will go unendingly forward with us.
If we reflect on our desires, we can recognize another non-stop aspect of our lives. We always want to do and to learn more. Our deepest desires reveal the kind of creatures we are – not just physical, but spiritual as well. Our desire for more keeps us going, and will continue to keep us going after we pass through death. We will always be interested in learning more, in doing more, for love is endlessly outreaching, and thereby endlessly fulfilling.
Love is the “fuel” for our truly non-stop journey.
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On a neighborhood street, when a car approaches, cats and dogs are quite adept at getting out of the way, but squirrels often seem to vacillate, heading in one direction, then the other, rather than going directly away.
All of us learned early in life about not stepping out into the path of oncoming cars, though present-day pedestrians with hand-held devices are at times so unaware of their environment that only careful drivers spare them from almost certain injury. We encounter other dangers in daily life that are interior threats to us rather than material or physical menaces. We have developed habits of dealing with some, such as consistently and readily refraining from taking something that does not belong to us or from doing violence to another person. But we might act more like squirrels in face of other decisions, especially those where we have conflicting feelings or values.
We not have either training or learning experiences for each and every hazard to our integrity that can suddenly confront us. But we can develop habits of mind and heart that will serve us quite well in all kinds of unforeseen challenges. We have been specifically educated by family members and teachers, for example, to be honest, and have probably learned through a variety of personal experiences that dishonesty is really not worth the interior consequences of knowingly living with lies. But we also have access to a Teacher who is always with us, and we can also learn from reflecting on experiences as to general ways of making decisions that will apply in most particular situations, including those that are new to us.
When we trust God to help us form practical and helpful habits of decision-making, we can grow beyond our squirrel-like hesitancy in circumstances that require us to make choices, even those never before encountered. We do not thereby avoid our personal responsibility, as if God would make decisions for us. Rather, we seek inspiration to recognize better options from those that are less good, based not only on our reasonable information-gathering but also on spontaneous interior movements of peace or disturbance that go beyond rational considerations. We can take these movements into consideration as gifts and graces or we can ignore them, but the decisions are ours alone.
A self-help book might list a number of rules for making decisions. But God acts, in those who wish, as a personal Guide who helps us develop sensitivity to our inner compass which always points toward the better option whenever our welfare or that of others is involved. When we reflect on our experiences of inspiration, and upon the consequences of following them (or not), we learn those patterns that help us move decisively to safety rather than in a direction opposed to our purpose in life.
God is always present to support the better options open to us at the time we must decide, with interior affirmations of peace, of trust, hope and love. But if we are pulled in opposite directions by conflicting feelings, we must first bring each of those feeling-thought combinations to prayer, to make a decision as to their relevance, whether they are connected directly with a truth that is affirmed by peace and interior consolation, or are aligned with disturbance, diminished trust, hope or love. Once we recognize where the feelings and their accompanying thoughts fit or do not fit, we are then ready to decide on the option under consideration.
For dealing with unforeseen dangers, the Spirit of God is our guide, not the example of squirrels.
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Fantasy “transformers” are usually robots or other creatures that make radical shape-changing and other drastic modifications from one form into another. The most common real-life transformers are those that take very high-voltage electricity and change it to the level that is usable in our homes and places of work. We are not likely to think much about electrical transformers because our interests are in the practical results that give us electricity for our many uses, not in the process that makes changes to electrical current so that it will serve our local needs. If the power goes off because of a faulty or damaged transformer, we might for a time be mindful of their importance, but our main interest is in their replacement, not their function.
There are other transformers in our lives that bring necessary power to us, that we might not ordinarily think about. Praying, for example, transforms the movements in our minds and hearts from being focused entirely on ourselves and on our needs and desires, to trust and also to love. We usually begin from our present felt concerns and, in whatever form of prayer we choose, we find ourselves moving on to a healing and helpful connection with God. We go from being alone in our needs, hurting perhaps, or angry, and are changed as we become aware that God is indeed with us in the midst of whatever we are experiencing. Or we have hearts filled with gratitude and joy that must be shared, and find that God is wholly present in our thoughts and feelings. Authentic prayer, which involves more than merely saying words, always transforms us from being only within ourselves to experiences of relationship with God.
The transforming power of prayer originates not in us, but in God. We can reflect on what that means, and so come to a deeper appreciation of our capacity to receive the equivalent of “higher voltage,” and more “power” than before. In prayer we can, with conscious thought, make our connection with the transformer, and ask that the source of all power, the very Spirit of God that cannot be contained, give us that level of power that matches the present needs of our weak and limited humanity. We want to engage the source of love so that our own small thoughts, words and deeds will flow with that share of the infinite supply that is appropriate for us.
When we ask the source of all power to share with us in some of our needs and concerns, whether great or small, many or few, we have reason to hope. We do not have to be careful in our requests and contacts, as if we could only make “three wishes.” The supply is unlimited. The only restriction is that we not relate with the power of Love as if we were “entitled” or were capable of transforming this power for our own purposes. We are not the source; we are on the receiving end of utterly free gifts.
God is love. Whenever we refer to this source, no matter what our initial movement, request, sharing, thought or feeling, we always receive love, completely adapted to our particular circumstances at each given moment. The more clear we are about the kind of power we ultimately seek in prayer, the better our connection and the more freely the current flows into us and through us to others.
Transformers and prayer: a metaphor.
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I find hope to be a more elusive experience to describe than either faith or love, but I have no doubts about the increase of hope that I have noted among others lately, and certainly within myself.
While each of us recognizes our own experiences of hope usually after we reflect on particular persons and events around us, many of us have simultaneously been affected by some of the recent public actions of Pope Francis. I thought at first that my own sense of hopefulness might have arisen from my agreement with what he has done. But there is much more to the sense of hope than that I approve of some particular actions.
Hope is not about our will being done, of people agreeing with our thoughts and opinions, but upon a spiritual quality that is independent of any particular way of proceeding. My hope does not have its roots in that Pope Frances does or does not follow one or other custom that has been in use for many years, but that a fellow human knows his mind and heart well enough to put inner convictions into action from a perspective that is not bound or constrained either by “it has always been done this way” or by “this is the right way and what was done in the past was wrong.”
One aspect of hope is recognizing that change is possible, encouraging us to act on our convictions without over-much attention to what went before, and at the same time without condemning or judging others’ decisions. Hope does not depend upon liberal or conservative perspectives, but arises wherever we see human beings fully alive, responsive to the Spirit as well as to knowledge of what has gone before. We are reminded that the motives from which we act are primary, and the various manifestations of those motives are variable.
Hope is where we find it, a lived experience that does not require definition or explanation. Hope is an authentic movement of the Spirit which cannot be imposed upon us, but must be accepted if it is to have any effects within us. Hope leads us closer to fulfilling the purpose of our existence, closer to God.
Though some of us take hope in the example of others, as with Pope Francis, we have reason to more deeply engage hope at this time, as we consider the celebrations of Christ’s Resurrection that take place all around the world. Here is a tradition of more than 2000 years that is as relevant now as it has always been, though the ways of remembering and celebrating vary through cultures and times. Our hope is always unique and personal, though we can offer greetings to one another and talk about the family, religious, and even secular customs, that accompany the annual feast day.
Hope will readily arise in our hearts if we take time to consider the meaning of Christ’s rising from the dead by his power as God and his promise to all who trust in him, that “you will be like me as I am.”
Celebrate the ultimate source of hope: Happy Easter.
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We can say of most of the people we know that they are honest. Depending upon the context, we expect that those we trust will say what they mean and will act justly. We value honesty in others. How important is honesty as a quality in our own lives, in its various meanings and levels?
We are familiar with one basic meaning of honesty: that of not lying or cheating, whether on taxes or on tests, in speaking or in text communications. We might be especially solicitous about honesty in financial matters as one level of honesty, but less so when telling stories about some of our experiences. Honesty has more than one narrow meaning, and is not, in our experience, an absolute. To deliberately fail in honesty is to be dishonest. But honesty is sometimes our primary focus and guide, and at other times not, as when love for another requires keeping silence rather than “being honest” in an uncaring fundamentalist manner.
No matter how much we value honesty, we do not share equally with everyone all of our internal matters of mind and heart. When we are honest with others about some of our thoughts and feelings, opinions, judgments and decisions, we choose carefully what we share with whom. Though we learn to deeply trust some people, God is usually the only one with whom we can become completely honest about our innermost thoughts and feelings, our desires and doubts, our beliefs, hopes and loves.
Complete honesty with God might seem quite reasonable, because God knows everything anyway. But most of us have to negotiate honesty with God as carefully as we do with others, because trusting is not automatic, and is not primarily a result of logical reasoning. No matter how much we trust, we take a risk whenever we freely open ourselves to anyone, even to God. We do not know what the consequences will be within ourselves once we freely bring into a relationship some of our innermost thoughts or feelings, decisions or impulses, fantasies or judgments.
Although being honest entails some risk, our growth as a person requires honesty as much as plants require water. When we are honest with ourselves, we gain self-respect and confidence; when we are honest with others, relationships of mutual respect and love become possible. When we choose to share appropriate personal beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and aspirations with God or with others, two things happen simultaneously: we become more deeply aware of those particular aspects of ourselves, and we give to those with whom we share, the gift of knowing us as we are. Even though God knows us entirely, and others might know us quite well, when we consciously open ourselves to them, we offer a priceless and unique free gift, one that cannot be coerced.
Fear of being misunderstood or misjudged, or of not having our truth accepted, presents an obstacle to any real relationship. But only in and with honesty can we relate positively with a friend, counselor, family member or God. We can overcome our fears when we focus not only on what we hope to achieve, such as closeness, acceptance or love, but on the movement in our spirit that lets us know – beyond mere reasons – when this is an occasion when we need to open ourselves. With the support of such God-given mini-inspirations, we are able to move through fear to occasions of letting ourselves be known.
Honesty is not entirely something we do, or even who we are, but an ongoing experience of God watering our spirit that we might grow.
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Many of us were surprised that the new pope would be a Jesuit. It is an amusing turn of history, since the Jesuits have a special vow to accept any assignment that the pope might give us. And now a Jesuit is pope.
Rather than speculate on what might transpire in the coming days and months with Pope Francis and the Jesuits, I wish to reflect on Ignatius’ insight in relation to the kind of obedience that any of us might experience in our lives, in situations that involve legitimate authority.
At the time that Ignatius and the early Jesuits made the decision to entrust their very lives to the decisions of the pope with regard to serving anywhere in the world he might choose to send them, the person who was pope at that time did not have a reputation for holiness. But he was the one person who held responsibility for the whole Church. Ignatius and those first Jesuits all trusted that God would work for their good and that of the People of God through whatever human being might be in charge of the Church, but also through the many people who exercise ordinary positions of authority that all of us encounter in our lives.
Ignatius wrote in the Jesuit Constitutions that all should obey the person legitimately in charge as though they were obeying God: a radical statement of trust that God would work in and through imperfect humans and human organizations. It might seem like an abdication of personal responsibility and a loss of freedom to obey another person whom we might consider as ill-fitted for his or her position. But, choosing to trust God to work in and through other humans, has some mature and freeing aspects for those who can see it.
Most of us can recall one or more examples from our lives where we spent a great amount of energy trying to either obtain or avoid a job or position, or to win or avoid someone’s attention. And in our striving, lots of anxious moments, fears about not being able to have things our way, and perhaps frustration at not having control. Contrast that kind of experience with another sort, when we trusted someone to make a decision that we would follow, whether it would be pleasant or not, believing that it would be the right thing to do. How little energy is wasted in negative feelings when we find it in ourselves to trust another person to “make the call” that we follow as best we can.
I learned the hard way, as many of us do, by anxiously, with stomach-churning thoughts, sought to bring, perhaps manipulate, other people to my way of thinking so that I could achieve my intentions. It was exhausting work, anything but spiritual, as I was only thinking about what I thought I needed in order to be happy. After failing, I had to either repeat the futile process, or explore another way of proceeding.
A fairly straightforward question occurred to me: Would God be with me and for me in meeting my real needs if I ceased to try to control everyone and everything? When I came to the gift of trust (for it was not of my creation), and could affirm that God indeed would work through “mere” humans other than myself (thereby relieving me of the formerly assumed role of being God), the rest was, if not easy, at least free of all the stress and strain of acting as though I somehow had to arrange all people and circumstances around me.
The Jesuit pope and I (with most people of faith) have this in common: we believe that God ordinarily works for our welfare through fallible human beings in legitimate positions of authority. Even a pope ordinarily has to obey a doctor or a police official. Any of us can obey out of fear, or out of trust – in God.
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