The National Catholic Review

These recent weeks I have been musing dreamlike over my seven Jesuit decades. Time and again I was struck by a line from that ever so popular hymn Amazing Grace. Eight monosyllables: ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far. Grace. Not some vague abstraction. Rather, God’s ceaseless presence in my life: inspiration for my mind, love for my heart, courage for my will. For all of this the proper response is the way the Preface of the Latin Mass begins: Vere dignum et iustum est.... It is utterly fitting and a matter of justice, O God, always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise. In thanksgiving and praise, let me touch on three areas where grace has enriched me beyond what I could have imagined. The three areas overlap, but they can be distinguished by their special emphases. One man’s experience, but I suspect it may find rich resonance in America’s readers.

First, my spiritual journey. Basically, Ignatian spirituality. Here, swiftly, three influences on my spirituality. First, Ignatius Loyola’s conviction that he had a direct encounter with God. Karl Rahner, S.J., (1904-84) has put these words on the lips of Ignatius:

I was convinced that first, tentatively, during my illness at Loyola, and decisively, during my time as a hermit in Manresa I had a direct encounter with God.... I am not talking about forms and visions, symbols, voices, the gift of tears. All I say is I knew God, nameless and unfathomable, silent and yet near, bestowing Himself upon me in His Trinity. I knew God beyond all concrete imaginings. I knew Him clearly in such nearness and grace as is impossible to confound or mistake.... I experienced God Himself, not human words describing Him.... This experience is grace indeed, and basically there is no one to whom it is refused. (Ignatius of Loyola, 1979, p. 11-13)

Grace indeed, and it has not been refused to me.

Second, Ignatius’ conviction in the closing contemplation of his Spiritual Exercises, How to Love Like God. God, specifically Christ, is present everywhere, working like a laborer for me in all creatures on the face of the earth. In startlingly concrete language, Ignatius compelled me to revamp a narrow theology that implies that when the risen Jesus rose to his Father, this earth somehow lost him, save for a vague something called sanctifying grace and a mysterious presence under the appearances of bread and wine. Ignatius forces us to surrender a spirituality that looks up to heaven for God’s grace. No, it is Christ who each moment gives being to 200 billion billion (yes, billion billion) stars; gives life to more than 4,000 varieties of roses; gives intelligence to a student shaping an idea, a surgeon transplanting a human heart, an architect sending a skyscraper soaring; gives love to a man and woman so as to live in steadfast oneness.

Third, a late realization: the Spiritual Exercises are not a head trip. My whole being should react to reality. Ignatius is not content to define sin: an offense against God. No, smell the stench of sin. Ignatius’ high purpose is to see us struck, surprised, stunned by what we experience, from the ecstasy of Eden unspoiled, through sin’s rape of the earth and earth’s dwellers, to the forsakenness of the crucified Christ and our rebirth in his rising from the rock.

I am convinced that Ignatius would resonate to the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan’s (1904-84) insistence that without feelings our knowing and deciding would be paper thin. Because of our feelings, our desires and our fears, our hope or despair, our enthusiasm and indignation, our esteem and contempt, our trust and distrust, our love and hatred, our tenderness and wrath, our admiration, veneration, reverence, our dread, horror, terror, we are oriented massively and dynamically in a world mediated by meaning (Method in Theology, 1972).

 

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Second, my intellectual journey. Basically, the world of ideas. I have described myself as a three-headed creatureperhaps more accurately, a Jesuit with three distinct but related graces. My Jesuit education fashioned a Scholastic, a traditional Thomist, essentially a knower. It was a way of thinking that, for all its disadvantages, revealed at its best two ways of desiring knowledge. One way is to desire it as a perfection of myself, and that is the way philosophers on the whole desire it. The other way is to desire knowledge not merely as a perfection of myself, but because through this knowledge what I love becomes present to meGod, people, thingsand that is the way saints desire it.

My Scholasticism was broadened by contemporary philosophers. Teilhard, Kierkegaard, Marcel, Buber, Whiteheadall expanded the width of my human experience. Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas (1933) told me that nothing can be omitted: experience drunk and sober, sleeping and waking, self-conscious and self-forgetful, intellectual and physical, religious and skeptical, anxious and carefree, happy and grieving, in the light and in the dark, normal and abnormal.

With all this, why did I go back 15 centuries and more to the Fathers of the church? Study of the Fathers served to bridge the gap that had been created between theology and spirituality. Theology was a search not only for the truth of God, but for God’s very self. And the search was carried on not by reason alone, not simply by that particular activity of intelligence whereby one can infer new propositions from previous propositions. The whole person comes into play, is put to work on God’s revelation, because it is the whole person that must respond to the revealing God. Not only does knowledge have love for its finality. Love deepens knowledge; and at their most profound, knowledge and love become one, because knowledge is union.

And very importantly, I shared the early Christians’ rich experience of the church as community. In Karl Delehaye’s striking phrase, The Church is the great We of the faithful. It was not something the Fathers simply believed; they preached it in season and out; they lived it.

 

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Third, my pastoral journey. Basically, the world of people. I had indeed been preaching since ordination in 1941. But five decades later, in 1991, my whole backgroundclassics and patristics, philosophy and theology, teaching and preaching, writing and editingcame to a focus: living and preaching the just word, proclaiming biblical justice. I mean fidelity to relationships that stem from our covenant with God cut in the blood of Christ. Love God above all earthly idols; love every human being, friend and enemy, as an image of God however flawed; touch all of God’s material creationearth and sky and seawith reverence, as a gift of God, a reflection of divinity.

Why so crucial? Because that’s where it’s at, all of it: relationships. Whether in the Blessed Trinity or in our wounded humanity, with millions in Washington, D.C., or with a handful of Survivors on a forsaken isle, life is relationships. A shivering, exhilarating awakening: not only survival but salvation takes place within a single, all-embracing community. Here is the heart of homiletics; this above ethics and law is what I must preach. In the crucifixion of Christ and his resurrection, that single community, the kingdom of God, is once again possible: God, men and women, nature in intimate communion. God’s dream, a single community, in which God and all creation live in a harmony that sin cannot substantially corrupt, an interdependence that is an essential facet of salvation’s story.

Have you wondered why the word priest has not entered into these memoirs? Because my whole journey since ordination in 1941 has been priestly. Decades ago, many identified their priesthood with functions, with rolesdefined ordained priests in terms of what they could do that a nonordained person could not do, functions that distinguished them from the laity. On reflection, such powers were significant but few: This is my body, I absolve you. It took so little of their time, so little of their life. The rest of their existencepreaching, teaching, building, organizing, counselingwas lived in the suspicion that some man or woman in the pews could do it better.

What I came to realize with progressive delight is that through sacramental ordination I was empowered, I had engaged myself, to shape my life to the needs of the gospel as the Church sees them at a given moment in history. Robert Drinan, S.J., in Congress, Msgr. George Higgins reconciling labor and management, George Coyne, S.J., directing the Vatican Observatory, Timothy Healy, S.J., overseeing the New York City Public Library system, the thousand-and-one priests teaching economics and chemistry, philosophy and psychology, trigonometry and Greek, even patristicshave they been on leave? No sir! Hyphenated priests? Not on your life! If it is the church that calls them to this specific activity, it is priestly, the work of the Gospel. Are there activities incompatible on principle with priesthood? I have discovered only two: unrepented sin and perhaps subpar golf.

Do you wonder that I am even more excited about preaching and teaching, lecturing and writing, about living and priesting in 2001 than I was in 1931? Especially when my entire Christian journey is embraced in the Eucharist, the fountain, declares Vatican II, from which all the church’s power proceeds (Constitution on the Liturgy, No. 10).

A final grace I pray, a grace still to come, this too borrowed from Amazing Grace: And grace will lead me home. Not too soon, I hope.

Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., author of 18 books and many articles, was the managing editor/editor in chief of Theological Studies for 44 years. He is currently senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, and

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