Tensions in Balance

Book cover
Contemplatives in Actionby By William A. Barry, S.J. and Robert G.Doherty, S.J.Paulist Press. 128p $11.95

By any yardstick, Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way surpasses all expectations. This book is a gem and is destined to be a classic introduction for all future reading about Jesuits and their way.

William A. Barry, S.J., and Robert G. Doherty, S.J., accomplish something rather remarkable in this book. They write for a general audiencecolleagues, benefactors, friends, graduates of Jesuit schools and co-workers in other Jesuit ministriesbut at the same time for Jesuits themselves, often a tough audience to please. They will find the book credible and probably challenging as well. The authors write with clarity, an impressive command of Jesuit history and an uncommon sensitivity to Jesuit spirituality that reflect many years spent in service to and with other Jesuits. Maybe most helpful of all, they respond to real questions on the minds of outsiders with candid and informed insider answers.


The book begins, appropriately enough, with St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. The authors identify in his life seeds of paradox: the soldier-saint, the contemplative-activist, the administrative genius-mystic. Permutations of these paradoxes become the genetic spiritual DNA pool inherited by his sons. Fathers Barry and Doherty dig beneath the surface of these paradoxes and examine seven pairs of tensions with their Jesuit particularities. These are tensions between trust in God and trust in one’s own talents, prayer and action, companionship and mission, obedience and learning from experience, the center and the periphery, poverty and use of the world’s goods and, finally, the tension between chastity and affective friendship.

None of these tensions is ever resolved or completely managed. Indeed, a Jesuit does not want to snuff out either side of the tension. Nor does he want to maintain static equilibrium between them. Instead, he hopes to live within the tensions in a way that is life-giving and creative. And while the ground between two poles shifts, he knows the only way to survive whole and without neuroses is by trusting the hand of God to guide the seesaw.

For each set of tensions the authors touch base with Ignatius and subsequent interpretations and modifications of foundational insights. They offer apposite and often intriguing stories, and illustrate the downside of collapsing the tension in favor of one side or another. So, for example, when they examine the tension between poverty and the use of money and material goodsone of my favorite chaptersBarry and Doherty recall for us Ignatius’ instruction that rules concerning poverty for Jesuits be adjusted only to make them stricter. By the same token, poverty is not to be regarded as an end in itself but is to be measured by the needs of the apostolate. Sometimes a more demanding form of poverty is called for, sometimes less.

The 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (1974-75) addressed this tension by proposing that the Jesuit community and the apostolic institution be separately incorporated. An institution could have endowments and receive income. By contrast, a Jesuit community is to have no stable revenues from invested capital and is required to distribute its surplus at the end of each fiscal year, with a cushion set aside for contingency purposes. The Congregation’s Decree 12 emphasized: Jesuits will be unable to hear the cry of the poor’ unless they have greater personal experience of the miseries and distress of the poor; and the standard of living in Jesuit houses should not be higher than that of a family of slender means whose providers must work hard for its support.

There’s not much wiggle room in these decrees. Furthermore, the blood of 40 Jesuits murdered in the last 30 yearsmen who lived in solidarity with the poor and in the spirit of the Gospel’s call for justicemakes it inexorably clear where the Society of Jesus wants to stand and with whom.

Although affection might not be the first word we associate with Jesuits, it seeps into several tensions as a soothing balm. Barry and Doherty acknowledge, for instance, that the regimented prayer formation of years ago made it seem for some that prayer was duty and obligation and not the place where an affective relationship with Christ was begun, nurtured and cherished. When prayer is experienced in less than positive terms, the necessary tension between prayer and action disintegrates in favor of sometimes frenetic, frequently soul-less work. The antidote is an attractive understanding of prayer, in the spirit of Ignatius, where Christ is met as friend and companion who accepts, loves, forgives, consoles and responds to the deepest desires of the human spirit. Action then flows from and is a complement to prayer, not an escape from it. And the creative tension holds.

The authors also remind us that Jesuits have been grappling with the rediscovery of community life, the need to know one another at more than a superficial level, to remember absent friends and to put the needs of others and the Society ahead of their own, because only when this kind of genuine affection is present can a Jesuit avoid being seduced, absorbed, identified and isolated in a private and cold, though possibly intellectually productive world. Apparently living in a Jesuit house, even when it is occupied by many other Jesuits, does not guarantee supportive friendship founded on a mutual commitment to Christ and service to others. When it does exist, the tension between community and mission is sustained.

But friendship is risky, especially for celibates who live the vow of chastity and at the same time welcome affective relationships. It is surely more difficult in cultures where promiscuous opposite-sex or same-sex genital expression is permitted, if not encouraged. Yet it is certainly in the spirit of Ignatius to keep both ends of the chastity-affective friendship tension alive. Ignatius himself had close friendships with women and men all his life and was willing to struggle with some of those friendships rather than give them up. It seems possible to live this tension with integrity and joy only if a Jesuit (or anyone else, for that matter) is mature enough to honor his commitment, humble enough to disclose his conflicted desires and wise enough to seek and embrace the grace of God that promises to satisfy usnot only ultimately, but in the here and now as well.

Early in their book, Barry and Doherty tell us that the call of God to each Jesuit is a call to love, to serve and to help souls. Without the slightest doubt, helpful guidance in exercising that call will most certainly be the legacy of this book.

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