Inside-Out With Fr. Nicolas

Cambridge, MA. Many of the early accounts of our new Jesuit general superior, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, indicate the great influence of his many years in Asia on his understanding of Catholic and Jesuit life, and his strong belief that such rich cultures can and should deeply affect Christian intellectual and spiritual identity. He is quoted as referring favorably to the work of a Japanese Jesuit, Father Katoaki, who has recently translated and added comments on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, from a Japanese-Buddhist perspective, presumably both in fidelity to the Jesuit tradition and bringing a whole new dimension of the practice of the Exercises. According to reports we find on the Web, Father Nicolas admits that it is still an open question how the Exercises might be presented to people of Asia’s faith traditions, and to what effect. He is quoted as saying, "The question is how to give the Ignatian experience to a Buddhist, not maybe formulated in Christian terms, which is what Ignatius asked, but to go to the core of the experience. What happens to a person that goes through a number of exercises that really turn a person inside-out. This is still for us a big challenge." Fr. Nicolas’ insights bring to mind my own experience in Kathmandu in the mid-1970s, when I was teaching at St. Xavier’s High School, a boarding school in which almost all the students were Hindu and Buddhist. It was the custom, as in Jesuit schools here in the United States, for the senior students to go away on weekend retreats, and even when the students were not Christian, the Exercises were still at the core of reflections on the world, sin, our responsibilities, and the power of making a choice for God in human life. In the several opportunities I had for cooperating in leading such retreats, I found it worked well to draw on revered stories from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. I remember offering texts from the famous Bhagavad Gita, about how Arjuna, the warrior reduced to grief and paralysis by the fact of an oncoming civil war, finds in Krishna’s wise teaching a way to know himself, accept loss as well as gain as a part of life, and go back to work, doing his duty because in it he is with Krishna, doing what is needed and right, regardless of success or failure. I remember too lifting up the image of Gautama who, dissatisfied with his comfortable and secure life in the palace, finally allows his heart to be touched, rent, by the facts of suffering, age, and death; who dared to go forth, making an irreversible change in his life by living in accord with his deepest consolations; and who found, amidst the suffering of all beings, the consolation of finally knowing where he had to be, live, teach, heal. I recall too how my students, in so many ways the most normal and ordinary of teenagers, could easily turn to prayer, and with the words and rhythms of traditional devotional songs, praise God with a deep, heartfelt love that harmonizes very well with the best of art and music arising from the Ignatian insight. With my students, I found that in such stories lies a way to God, for God does not spurn the small openings that appear when we discover, in what we’ve long heard and seen, that God has already been with us. The Spiritual Exercises turned out to be a key to a rich range of spiritual exercises, the choice for Christ shedding light on the supreme value of giving God first place in one’s life and practice. I am sure that this kind of venture will be somewhat worrisome for some of us -- for is not companionship with Jesus, contemplation of his life and a choice for him, at the very core of the Exercises? Surely yes, and there is not much value in recasting them as a generic form of self-reflection. Nor does a new-found respect for God’s versatility in all spiritual exercises translate into a vague pluralism or banal maxim, "To each his own." Rather, awakened in Christ, there is nowhere where we cannot see Christ and help Christ be seen, whether he be named explicitly not. Yet it is also clear -- from my brief experience, but more importantly as validated in the ministry of Jesuits throughout Asia -- that the gift of the Exercises, like the gift of Jesus himself – can be given and received in multiple ways, with an abundance that cannot be restricted to the properly normative ways already well known in the Church and Society of Jesus. The gifts we’re received can be shared more widely still: learning to see ourselves in light of what God has already done in our lives; looking with spiritual sensitivity and growing delight on the ways in which God has become accessible to our senses and ordinary experience; reflecting on men and women who chose to live entirely for God, showing that spiritual desire can be the most practical guide to life; finding in utter self-surrender a way beyond loneliness, fear, and loss, to new life, received back from God -- these are gifts made so very clear in the Exercises that are not denied to those who love Krishna, or who live by the word and wisdom of the Buddha. Nothing is immediately proved, theologically or doctrinally, by the fact that God flourishes both in and beyond the ordinary practice of the Exercises; yet we do well to recognize where God is, and use our gifts to enable people to see God with their own eyes, by their own words; and then, surely, God will take care of the rest. Ignatian spirituality is not my expertise, but I’ve written an essay on the "Exercises in Asia" that might interest some readers. Yet what I have written here in this blog has arisen from my memories of some 35 years ago, awakened by the words of Fr. Nicolas. But for now, I conclude with a simpler link, a prayer that has come alive for me in light of the Exercises’ final great prayer, Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my intellect, and all my will--all that I have and possess. Thou gavest it to me: to Thee, Lord, I return it! All is Thine, dispose of it according to all Thy will. Give me Thy love and grace, for this is enough for me. (Elder Mullan, S.J., translation) Because of the Exercises, not despite them, I have learned to love this Hindu prayer of self-giving: I have been wandering about this world from time without beginning, doing what does not please You, my God. From this day forward, I must do what pleases You, and I must cease what displeases You. But my hands are empty, I cannot attain You, my God; I see that You alone are the means. You must be my means! Hereafter, in the removal of what is not desirable or in the attainment of what is desirable -- could anything be a burden to me?" (Nadadur Ammal) The Exercises open us into the love of Christ, in every dimension of our being; Fr. Nicolas and Fr. Katoaki remind us that this opening is ever larger than we’ve previously imagined. But as Fr. Nicolas also points out, all of this is still a challenge accompanied by incompletely answered questions; and to make progress, academic reflection has a contribution to make. I am teaching a seminar this semester on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classic (c. 5th century) synthesis of yoga’s way of understanding self and world; with the great yoga text, we are reading the Spiritual Exercises, to see what we learn about each tradition in light of the other. More on this after the semester ends. Note to readers: If you’ve read this far, I’d be interested in hearing from you what you’d like to hear about in these occasional blogs. I’m not a political and social commentator, and my reflections will rarely be about current events, but I do try to keep close to what I know as Jesuit, professor, and student of Hinduism. But let me know what you’d like to hear from me, by comments on this column, or by contacting me directly at Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
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