Happy Feast Day, St. Ignatius

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, so a blessed feast day to all of my Jesuit friends and their collaborators. It’s so great to have been a part of “the family” for so many years, since my Fordham undergraduate days, through graduate school and beyond into other relationships.

One of the things I’ve admired about the Jesuits is their commitment to working with lay folk like myself. In fact, the first Ignatian retreat I went on I was invited to by a lay person. My resident director at the time was a guy named Steve DiSalvo. To brag slightly, Steve is now Dr. Steven DiSalvo and has become President of Marian University after a stint as the executive director of the Safe at Home foundation (better known as former Yankee Manager Joe Torre’s foundation to educate people about domestic violence).

I remember walking into McGinley Center at Fordham (the cafeteria and other central offices were here and still are) and finding Steve at a table that said “Peer Retreat” on it. He called me over when he saw me and said “You should go on this!” I looked at the date and it was the weekend of my 20th birthday.

“Um, you’ve got no shot in hell of me going that’s my birthday weekend!”

A lesser person than Steve would have given up right there. But instead he persisted confidently:

“Dude, you can go out to get drunk at Clarke’s anytime. Why don’t you take this weekend and look at what the last 20 years have been like and then think about what you hope the next 20 years will become?”

I looked at him and said, “You know, Steve….OK. I’m in!”

In fact the two guys behind me signed up as well. I invited them to celebrate my birthday with me away.

That weekend changed my life. It really beckoned me to ministry. The following year, Fr. John Mullin, SJ, came to Fordham and brought the Emmaus retreat program with him and it was a huge success with my generation of college students. He taught me how to lead retreats and encouraged my ministry even as a volunteer. Years later in my Ignatian Examen I noted that all of the things in my life that I was proud of has stemmed from these retreat experiences at Fordham with Steve and later with Padre John, as we called him.

But these men simply were being sons of Ignatius. They were true contemplatives in action both lay and ordained and led many into a stronger relationship with Jesus and with themselves. My friends from those retreats were among the best friends I had in college and I’m still very connected with many of them today nearly 20 years later. I’ve also developed retreats and led versions of the spiritual exercises and engaged with the exercises myself more deeply throughout these many years.

To think that it all started with the vision of Ignatius who simply wanted to go where people were. He went to the cities and wanted to be a resource for the spiritual experience of all people. He had a special love for the poor and through his experience of being in the world he led all of his followers into being sensitive to the needs of others.

And we are all better for his vision.

Do You Believe in the Devil?

Today’s NY Times reports on an Exorcism Conference which took place recently. A snip:

There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.

Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.

“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”

The book The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist, by Matt Baglio (Doubleday) is an excellent read on this subject. Every diocese has an exorcist. Something that the NY Times didn’t really point out. The book follows the training of the exorcist-priest of the Diocese of San Jose. It is a very unbiased book on the subject and I’ve talked with Fr. Gary Thomas and have heard him interviewed on the subject and he’s a very measured source on the subject.

But simply put the question on today’s blog post is appropriate. Do we believe that evil truly is a force in the world? I’ve become more comfortable with this notion recently during my 19th annotation retreat. As broken people we all have temptations and I truly believe that an evil force in the world tries to take advantage of that. So did St. Ignatius who called this “the enemy,” to use a phrase from his military background.

I keep coming back in prayer to the moment that my friend told me that his brother’s wife killed their two children. If a mother killing her own kids isn’t evidence of evil in the world, than I’m not sure what would be. But immediately, I lost a bit of faith in God. And I think that’s what the devil, or evil, or Ignatius’ enemy hopes for all of us.

What does it take for us to forget about God? To throw our belief in God away?

Evil is real. How we personify that might be up for debate, but evil certainly exists undoubtedly. I think even faithful people have something in their lives that brings fear and doubt into the forefront and lets faith take a backseat. It might be a particular sin that we choose constantly over God or maybe an incident of great tragedy pushes that boundary. Whatever it might be, it’s sometimes easy for us to default to letting evil win the day.

As God’s faithful people, we must cling to the belief that evil has no power over God. That even when horrible things happen, God redeems that evil in ways that we don’t always understand or see tangibly. Do we really believe that? In my friend’s case, I hope that his family can believe that God has taken those children into his care forever and that evil cannot ever touch them again. It doesn’t change what happened. It’s still horrific and we will deal with the damage that evil has been able to do to us, but we also have to have faith that it can’t be the final word.

Maybe exorcism reminds us that we too, have the power of faith on our side? We need a tangible reminder that evil can be defeated. Perhaps evil does get a hold of someone so intimately that they do literally possess them?

Some are skeptical, like my colleague, Fr Richard Vega, of the National Federation of Priests Councils who was quoted in the Times:

“People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”

I firmly and respectfully disagree. While I think exorcism should be rare and that leading people to solidify their faith and to turn away from the enemy is what most need, to deny that evil can possess a much greater force than we usually imagine on someone is quite arrogant. To deny that evil needs a tangible combatant and that the church should at minimum think about that is also haughty. There are certainly things that happen that we can’t explain. Things that mental health professionals can’t explain and that are doing harm to people. Does faith not have something to contribute here? While it might sound goofy on the surface, it also gives us an opportunity to talk about what we really believe about evil in the world.

Or do we just think that evil is a bunch of hooey?

“All that it takes for evil to triumph is that good men (and women) do nothing.” We’ve heard it time and time again. Perhaps getting more in touch with the darkness that exists in the world is exactly where the church needs to go? It’s where I think God and St. Ignatius is leading me this month as I go deeper in acknowledging my sin and weakness so I might better know how to defeat it.

So what do y’all think? Does evil exist? Are we in a battle against it, even within ourselves? How might we best battle the enemy? Or is the church making too much out of this?

You know my feelings on this. What are yours?

Today let us pray for those who face evil in their lives. Let us pray that evil does not gain any ground on us today and that God will deliver us from all evil and protect us from all anxiety, the fear that keeps us from believing that God is all powerful. Amen.

Ignatius and the World

I’ve been thinking much about how strange it must have been to be an early follower of St. Ignatius. Being a “contemplative” engaged with the needs of the world was a new mindset, different from old school monasticism which didn’t fiddle with the machinations of living and praying within monestary walls.

Much like ourselves, these folks found that the needs of the world left them little time for prayer, so Ignatius encouraged the use of his examen at least once per day. Seeing God in all things gets easier if you try to do that daily. The spiritual life is about mindfulness and seeing beyond sensory experience to find God lurking there.

This past week I had the pleasure if hearing the stories of several students during an imaginative prayer meditation and the deep sharing that followed. It gave me confidence that God indeed continues to lead me to places that I will find much fertile ground with which to serve.

At the same time the search for those who are healthy and who have much to give to leadership is taking precedence. I imagine Ignatius must have faced similar challenges but also saw similar rewards.

Today pray that good things continue to happen and that we can see God in all things.

Mobile Blogging from here.

Your Favorite Saint…

Since it is all Saints Day I started to reflect on my favorite saints today and Fran from the Parish Blog of St Edwards had asked the same question of people on facebook. Paul Snatchko made a good point about it’s like picking your favorite child–you just can’t do it.

But I’d like to focus on two…

St Ignatius of Loyola is certainly one saint who has been a great influence on my life, not only because of his great intellectual contribution to the church but because he wanted his followers to be “contemplatives in action.”

Ignatius, a gallant soldier who was wounded and who had a profound conversion while recovering wanted his followers to be “men for others (and today we would add women to that mix).” So instead of locking themselves away in a monastery and praying the liturgy of the hours for the world, Ignatius wanted to be different. He wanted to maintain that prayerfulness while having his followers interact with the world.

That’s the real part of Ignatian spirituality that is attractive to me–being in the world but yet being a person of prayer. As a spiritual director, I hope that I can help people see God working in their everyday life.

The Spiritual Exercises resulted from that initial experience of being in the world. In particular, the Examen of Consciousness, a daily review of our actions focused on grace and thankfulness to God, became a maxim for the Jesuits who found it too difficult to keep up with the monastic liturgy of the hours due to the demands of the world being so great. Ignatius bound them to do the Examen daily, especially if they had no prayed at all that day. It is something that I often do in my own life. I try daily, usually when walking the dog or late a night after my wife has retired before I join her in bed. But thanks to the good St Ignatius I have been educated and continue to connect with God in my daily life–a great reminder and a great gift for us all.

I have a superficial but yet profound reason for liking St Ignatius: he’s bald! Folks say I resemble him–but it’s when I pray that they mention this.

Because when I pray, I cry.

Tears flow easily when I pray. I can’t explain it and I no longer am embarrassed by them. The tears are signs of the spirit and that God and I are intimately connecting, most of the time through others but sometimes in quiet and stillness too. This is something that Ignatius was in touch with as well. He called it the gift of tears and in fact, he said we should pray to be so moved in prayer. I often would say that if it is a gift I’d like to give it back. But now, I would not exchange it for the world. Because it is an expression of my soul. Thank you, Father Ignatius.

The second is St Joseph–the foster father of Jesus. In many ways he is the saint of the short shrift. We don’t know much of Joseph. We know he was an artisan of some sort, a tradesman who worked with his hands. Traditionally we used the word carpenter to describe him but he held a more intricate position than that some scholars say.

He reminds me of my own father, an unskilled laborer who worked for a living in helping his family make ends meet. Often my dad didn’t get enough credit for all he did for us and as he has aged, I’m starting to appreciate that more and more.

It is no surprise that I have ended up at a parish named after St Joseph with an Ignatian college not far away as well. The best of both worlds as far as I can see. Our Pope Benedict is also a Joseph, his given name and his papacy thus far holds the same promise that I think Joseph must’ve felt at the prospect of fostering Jesus: a daunting responsibility but also an anticipation of the great prospect of what lies ahead. We also tried adopting at one point and while it didn’t quite work out the way I would’ve liked, I learned so much about my own gifts and responsibilities and got in deep touch with St Joseph’s experience.

Joseph for me is all about anticipation. And anticipation often means that we remain in the tension of not knowing what comes next. Joseph presumably died before he could see the promise of the resurrection–a common motif amongst prophets and other searchers. But the fact that Jesus and Mary lived a long time when both poverty as well as infant and child mortality was extremely high in their culture points towards Joseph’s care and contribution for his family. He is a saint that the working class should come to love and resonate with especially in today’s economic climate.

So today let us pray to our favorite saints for they hold something personal and special for us all.

Who’s your favorite saint? And how have you connected with him or her so intimately?

Thanks to Chantal Stain Glass patterns for the pic of St Joseph.

Praying for the Gift of Tears

Sometimes others know us better than we know ourselves and while this week, which is my last week at BustedHalo®, will recall much laughter and happiness in celebrating nine years, I know it will also bring many happy and sad tears.

I think that at least one of my friends sensed that and therefore, I received this note via facebook from one of my best friends from college, Joonmo which he received from his pastor.

Some months ago I had a conversation with a lady who was experiencing considerable distress and who was adding to her problems by expressing total frustration with her tears. I don’t know if she will see this. I came across it in a beautiful book by Fr. Edward Hays; a book on prayer which includes the following in a chapter called The Prayer of Tears.

“Our Eyes are not only the windows of the soul and organs of enjoyment, they are also the instruments of joy and sorrow. While we feel deeply, the pain of departure, or the intense experience of other emotions, these are not easily shown. Our eyes are sacraments for these beautiful and deeply felt feelings. Even our tears become a way for us to “pray all ways.”

“Tears and laughter are universal languages, for they are understood by people of every nation. Crying is part of our basic birth equipment and so is a gift from God. While it’s embarrassing, it is also an honest and an incarnational or bodily prayer that reaches the ear and heart of God.”

The Prayer of Tears
Lord, Beloved God
since all communion with You is prayer, may even my tears be
psalms of petition and canticles of praise to You.
This is a prayer that You value greatly: the prayer of my tears;
it is a prayer that you always hear, for, You are a compassionate and kind God.
And, Lord, I know you understand – that when I am overcome by
tears – unable to speak or form a prayer – that these very tears voice volumes of verses.
All truly great prayer – rises from deep inside and springs spontaneously to the surface.
It would then seem – that from among the many beautiful prayers,
the scared songs and canticles of praise, my tears my be the best worship of all.
Help me not to be ashamed of them; show me how I can let go of control and
let this prayer of my heart, my tears, flow naturally and freely to You
my Blessed Lord and Divine Lover. In times of joy and sorrow, blessed be my tears,
the Holy prayer of my heart. Amen.

These are thoughts for reflection.
“The heart is the happiest when it beats for others.”
“You can accomplish more in one hour with God than one lifetime without Him.”
“Jesus is a friend who walks in when the world has walked out.”

With love in Christ,
Father Paul J. Henry

Indeed this, as many of those close to me know, describes me and my prayer perfectly. When I am touched by the spirit, I begin to cry and I really don’t know why it happens but it does. As a man, it used to be somewhat embarrassing to me, but since I couldn’t help or control it, I didn’t quite know how to stop doing it–and moreover, didn’t know if I should try to stop doing it or hiding my tears.

Some people grew uncomfortable with my tears, shifting in their seats, looking away, or even laughing at bit. Most people though, grew more open-hearted. They seemed to resonate with me most when these genuine tears would flow in prayer or in sharing how God is alive in my life. I indeed noticed that when I just allowed myself to be touched by God’s spirit and even explained what was happening, people seemed to be comfortable with what was happening to me.

Besides these beautiful words given to us today by Joonmo’s pastor, St Ignatius talks about “the gift of tears.” In fact, Ignatius tells us that we should pray for this great gift, of having our hearts moved so much by God that we are moved to tears.

The great basketball coach, Jim Valvano, in his famous speech at the ESPY Awards in 1993 said there are three things we should all do each day, think, laugh and cry. His speech is always worth re-hearing and so, here it is. It’s about 10 minutes but it’s time well spent:

And pray each day to be as blessed as all of us who receive the gift of tears.