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Joe Hoover, S.J.December 08, 2020
A nun prays during Mass at Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria in Campitelli May 18, 2020. (CNS photo/Stefano Dal Pozzolo)

If you were to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, it would not be a huge surprise if, at the end of it all, of these 30 days spent praying several times a day—contemplating Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Zacheus, Peter, John, Lucifer; meditating on fish, lots of fish; undertaking hale theocratic invented meditations like the Two Standards, the Call of the King, the Trinity Looking Down on a Sinful World Throwing Itself Uproariously into Hell; sinking into Garden, Betrayal, Thorns, Nails, Deposition; the mind upbraided by tripwire thoughts in the thousands of ways the mind can get upbraided in long stretches of silence; breaking through to Resurrection, wounds in hands, more fish—it would not be a shock if afterward, all the gleanings of your intense prayer dwindled down into sayings you might find painted on a coffee mug; maxims etched into the cover of a leather day planner or inscribed on a sententious bookmark.

Stay in the present. Live in the moment. You are good. Trust. Live in the moment some more.

And what of it? Sometimes it is just that simple. Christ often comes in what is common, clothed in what makes sense; in wisdom trite, cliched and earth-shattering. “Just let go,”to name another one. And when we are asked to do a simple thing that makes sense, like letting things go during a ferocious pandemic, it might be God is preparing us to receive something profound in return.

Sometimes it is just that simple. Christ often comes in what is common, clothed in what makes sense; in wisdom trite, cliched and earth-shattering. 

I did the Spiritual Exercises as a novice almost two decades ago and again last summer. Their core philosophy comes early on, in a brief non-poetic manifesto called “Principle and Foundation”:

Human beings are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord and by means of doing this to save their souls. The other things on the face of the earth are created for the human beings, to help them in the pursuit of the end for which they were created. From this it follows that we ought to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.

St. Ignatius is not attempting to impress anyone with clever wordplay, fox them into practices that are not as good as they sound on paper. These are blueprints, creased maps; they point the way. At bottom: Free yourself from your attachments and find your way to God, by any means you can.

When we are asked to do a simple thing that makes sense, like letting things go during a ferocious pandemic, it might be God is prepping us to receive something profound in return.

Some of our cultural maxims that resonate with Christian wisdom, such as “let go,” arise out of Eastern spiritualities. The tectonics of Mahayana Buddhism and Ignatian spirituality, for instance, both glide along these principles of shedding, releasing, non-clinging. In the Middle-Length Discourses, the Buddha says, “With elimination of craving the suffering that originates from it will cease without remainder.” Detach from craving what is false and fleeting, from all things that keep us from truth, from reality. Reality being composed of Christ, or the reality that all is emptiness (which, just for the record, is not nihilistic but fairly sublime). We let go of the way we think the world is and live in the world as it actually is.

For Ignatius, when it comes to life decisions, we ought to choose only that which helps us praise, serve and reverence God. We cling neither to fame nor seclusion, riches nor poverty, health nor sickness. (Yes, some can cling tightly to their sickness.) Instead we choose whichever side draws us closer to our deeper life purpose. We let ourselves become a kind of pinwheel the Spirit will blow whichever way serves the God of many pinwheels.

And so on with all other choices. Free, detached, seeking Christ alone.

But praying to him is not enough. We can shut our eyes tight and pray fiercely to the Lord Jesus Christ for guidance and then open our eyes and go out and do what we had already decided to do anyway. We can convince ourselves that Jesus affirms what we already believed when in fact we may be called to test our hunches, consider the opposite, do coldly rational things like weigh costs and benefits or follow Jordan Peterson-type wisdom like “What advice would I give someone who worked for me?” The bet, offers Ignatius, is that God works in these ordinary practices, too.

Taking Communion on the hand could be a way to shed the usual contours of how we think we must receive God and let God in fact receive us.

For months our pandemic has prompted the letting go of a million things everywhere. As churches have opened up all over the country, there has been a particularly powerful and graced “letting go” available for some Catholics.

To keep the coronavirus from spreading, many dioceses have taken the most common sense of precautions by forbidding the dispensing and reception of Communion on the tongue. Everyone must receive Communion on the hand. For some Catholics, receiving on the hand is a challenging, even disturbing practice. It fails to give the body of Christ the reverence it is owed. It is a great sacrifice to receive on the hand. It can simply feel wrong.

And because it is a profound sacrifice, maybe it is a profound opportunity to serve the sacrificial lamb himself. Taking Communion on the hand could be a way to shed the usual contours of how we think we must receive God and let God in fact receive us. Receive us in our helplessness before this disease, our frailty, our sacrifice, our shedding of habits and customs we thought were non-negotiable; all for the common good, for preserving the life of the wider body of Christ.

Some priests, for whatever reasons, “go against orders” and dispense on the tongue to willing parishioners. It seems an opportunity is being missed to widen everyone’s view of the length and width and height and depth of Christ. We behold this wafer, startlingly in the palm, like a petal fallen from a white tree, one that gives itself to us again and again, in whatever way it chooses. Who are we to deny how God comes to us?

Letting go, whether of a liturgical practice or a way of life, can have consequences small and poignant or vivid and life-changing. The archetypal conversion moment for Ignatius the soldier came at the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, where he lay down his sword belt and rapier, gold sweepings around the handle, the wooden hilt covered in soft velvet, the steel inscribed with the mark of the Toledo Guild, the finest sword makers on earth. He shed his gilt weapon, his literal defenses, and made himself utterly available to the will of God. His life quickly became like dry wood kindled to set the world, so to speak, on fire. He did many good things. It seems Christ sometimes is just looking for an opening.

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