More like being carried
Pray today's daily offering before beginning this reflection:
I grew up in a medical family: both my father and mother were GPs/family practitioners. From them I learnt about the ways in which a life of service of others can be simultaneously both exasperating and rewarding. We were also a not-untypical Catholic family, with on the one hand absolutely regular Sunday mass, and on the other occasional and short-lived excursions into regular family prayers together. So when I first arrived at a Jesuit day school in Liverpool at the age of seven, I was in some ways already set up for an Ignatian formation.
The lived example of others
What I recall from those first years is the impact of the teachers – Jesuit and others – in their commitment to and care for the boys in their charge: the lived example of others rather than anything that was taught more explicitly remained important throughout my schooldays and beyond. From day school in Liverpool I moved to boarding school at Stonyhurst, where daily mass and prayers were so much as a matter of course that, for some of us at least, they became ‘natural’ parts of the day.
Once again, it was the example of particular Jesuits which was formative for me, in what I now recognise as an Ignatian way. From Michael Ivens and Gerry W Hughes in particular I learnt something about how a life centred on prayer and the service of others could be fruitful and happy.
Learning to pray
I don’t recall much that was explicitly “Ignatian” in how I learned to pray at this time, but learn to pray I did: what comes to mind are long moments spent in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, and the faint beginnings of a reflective prayer of “finding God in all things” as a member of the Sodality. In retrospect these were first steps in Ignatian formation, and they came together for me on a school pilgrimage to Lourdes as a 16 or 17-year-old, where the combination of service of the sick during the day and quiet prayer at the Grotto at night was in its own way a powerful conversion experience. (Since this was Lourdes, and we were hard-working teenagers, there was also some serious partying – I was beginning to learn that the dedicated life includes celebration…)
“I think you’re thinking of becoming a Jesuit”
It was Gerry W Hughes who triggered the next step by saying to me “I think you’re thinking of becoming a Jesuit”, and so enabling me to speak for the first time of what had been developing in my heart. After A-levels, a year of voluntary service living in and working with a Jesuit community in what is now Zimbabwe taught me more about Jesuit life, and I can remember the evening when I thought: “I could fit in with these men and how they live”. This sense of feeling ‘at home’ in a working Jesuit community served me well through the subsequent experience of the ‘crypto-monastic’ and very formal novitiate of the late 60’s.
My first experience of explicitly Ignatian formation was the noviceship “Long Retreat”: the full Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, but in the form of 30 days each shaped by the assembled novices taking down sets of standard ‘points’ with which to begin and pattern the following prayer-time. Discernment, learning to recognise how I am responding to the promptings and movements of the Holy Spirit in my lived experience, effectively didn’t feature: copious note-taking got in the way of the freedom and space necessary to listen to God’s working in our hearts. It was only a few years later, in my first experience of an individually guided 8-day retreat as a young Jesuit in studies, that the gifts of the Exercises began to give shape to what had been up to then a sort of “Ignatian-formation-by-osmosis” rather than anything more reflective. Since I am by nature an intuitive rather than a ‘propositional’ thinker, this hadn’t been altogether “bad news”, but learning to articulate what is being worked in me by the Spirit is not only a necessary tool to help others in their Ignatian growth, but also a way of deepening my own Ignatian formation.
Discovering how God loves me in my own loving
Over the subsequent years of Jesuit living, most of them spent at Heythrop where I taught psychology of religion for 30 years, that process has continued to deepen. The second experience of the full Spiritual Exercises, in that final formal stage of Jesuit formation known as the Tertianship, was a significant moment of transition as I recognised just how powerfully and particularly God loves me. I spoke of it at the time as discovering how God loves me in my own loving. ‘God comes in us from inside outwards’, says the medieval Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, and for me that was and remains primarily a matter of the heart. Deep and long-lasting friendships with Jesuits and others have been shaped by living as best I can in an Ignatian response to the Gospel, and have further shaped and formed me in that continually-deepening journey.
Taking on more and more spiritual direction work, having the care of communities of Jesuits as the ‘local superior’, and in particular being appointed novice-master a few years ago, have been formative experiences as well as experiences of ministry. Helping others come to recognise and reflect on their encounters with grace, that is, with God-at-work in their lives, has also helped me to recognise and reflect on my encounters with grace: both how God works through me for others and how God works for me through others.
More like being carried
And as a somewhat over-active (maybe ‘workaholic’ is more truthful) Jesuit in his late 60’s, my recent experience of being diagnosed with cancer and going through (successful) major surgery and chemotherapy has also inevitably been part of my Ignatian formation. Ignatius continually points us back to God as the one who ‘labours on our behalf’ and who is the primary worker of good things in and through us, and equally continually reminds us of the primary importance of prayer. I found myself stopped in my (over-active) tracks by the original diagnosis, by the surgery, and by the (relatively mild) side-effects of the chemotherapy; I became more and more aware of God’s moment-by-moment loving and active commitment to me, (“presence” is too weak a term); I realised how many people were (and are) keeping me in their prayers and supporting me with their love.
“Soldier on”, said one of my correspondents last Christmas, and I found that my best response was to say: “It doesn’t feel so much like soldiering on, more like being carried”.
Brendan Callaghan SJ