Born in Love: On Advent and Adoption

This post by Eric Immel, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

There’s a book for everything. Everyone Poops is a seminal tale that comforts children when they start to realize that their bodies produce smelly, tummy-turning gifts for their parents. Other books teach us where our belly buttons are, how bulldozers and cranes rest after long work days, what personified upright-hopping inchworms and lady foxes do for a living, and just how curious monkeys can be. In my case, they taught me about the thing I remember learning first in the world–that I am adopted.

I have never met my biological mother. I know her name–Nancy. She sent me a Chicago Cubs jersey in the mail once.  She might live in Chicago, where I am now. She is the reason I am here, not in Chicago, but in the world. A Jesuit, sitting in a library, avoiding the papers I have to write and the books I have to read, and thinking of her.

Until recently I took it that my adoption was relatively easy for all involved. My parents were looking to grow their family, and adoption was the way to do it. The arrangement was made before I was born, and on July 17th, 1982, while my dad was running some sort of road race, the call came in that I was on the way. Soon enough, I was nestled into a comfy crib at 2701 Lola Drive, out of the arms of the woman who bore me into the world, and into the home of my parents. I am their son now, the second of three adopted children, and their baby boy. Easy.

I grew in awareness of adoption and love while sitting in my parents’ laps and reading books.  The message was simple: you are loved because you are adopted, and because you are adopted, you are loved. I was proud of that. I felt unique. Love and adoption were inextricably linked. Once, in second grade, a class rival of mine called me an orphan–a clear attempt to shoot down my adoption pride–and while it hurt (I still remember it), it was easy to overcome. I am adopted, and I am loved.

***

During Advent of my first year as a Jesuit, a kind and thoughtful older priest gave us a three-day silent retreat. In his first talk, he posed a seemingly painless query: “Where did you come from?” Like a good little novice I settled in the dining room of our house to prayerfully ponder the question. Where I came from flooded my imagination as I retold my own story.

My life spread out before me. The cookie monster birthday cakes, the all-cousin wrestling matches in my grandmother’s basement at Christmas, the haunted house-inspired hand hold with my first ‘girlfriend’ in 6th grade (the zombies didn’t make my heart pound nearly as much as she did), the eighth grade and high school graduations (and piles of thank-you cards I never sent), the first 8-hour drive to St. Louis for college, the pain and joy of becoming an adult, the first real job, the bills and impending debt, the ashamed (and privileged) calls home for a little extra cash, and, of course, the discernment that led me to that table in that dining room in that novitiate on that day during Advent. That’s where I had come from.

But then, I opened the Bible, a different kind of book to be sure, but another one that I started exploring as a child. I read about a young woman named Mary. I suddenly realized–I always knew that I was adopted, but I had never really thought about the fact that I was born.

***

At some point, she figured out she was pregnant. I can’t ever know the true feeling of what that means, but here’s a reality: I was a mistake, the product of a love that didn’t last. At least, a love that wasn’t ready for me. I wasn’t expected or planned. I wasn’t wanted. There must have been fear, frustration, hurt, anger, and darkness. And yet, for nine months, she carried me, she fed me, she gave me herself and then she gave me away. I trust that the fear made way for faith. The frustration made way for conviction. The hurt made way for healing. The anger made way for love. The darkness made way for light.

When that angel showed up for Mary and told her, I imagine that her breath was taken away. She had been daydreaming about her betrothed, looking forward to a long life with him, raising children, working hard, enjoying his loving arms at night. In an instant, though, everything changed. Jesus was unexpected and, perhaps for a moment, unwanted. As the poet Denise Levertov writes, “This was the moment no one speaks of / when she could still refuse. / A breath unbreathed, Spirit, suspended, waiting.”

God waited and Mary responded in love. She remained in that love despite everything. She made Him possible. It is this that we celebrate, and this that we remember.

I am here because she loved me. She loves me because I am here. Jesus lived because she had faith. Jesus and I — just a couple of unwanted baby boys — born in darkness but adopted in love. If Nancy ever reads this I hope she knows that she is loved too. I hope she knows that she was brave and that I am grateful.


On Love and Dignity and Dying

This post by Jason Welle, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

Maybe by now you’ve heard the story of the California woman who shortly after her 29th birthday learned that she had brain cancer. About two months after her initial diagnosis, she learned that it was a very aggressive, incurable cancer and she was given six months to live. She and her new husband moved from their San Francisco home to Oregon, because Oregon allows terminally ill patients to end their own lives with the use of a physician-prescribed drug.

She is young. She loves her husband, he loves her. She has a pretty good idea of how the next months will play out. She wants her final months, and especially her death, to be dignified.

I understand all that. But I would like to tell you a brief story about another life. One that was also challenged by cancer, that was given a limited time, and that was also full of love and dignity.

Just over three years ago, my brother Tony was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma – a very rare cancer of the bile duct. He only knew at first that he was stricken with a vicious case of jaundice, but a quick-thinking physician sent him immediately for a CT scan. What they found was a massive lesion – 14cm – on his liver, and subsequent scans showed that it had already metastasized to the lymph nodes. There would be no cure, and his blood was so poisoned by jaundice that they couldn’t even start treating the cancer directly. That was in June, he was 45, and we would be lucky if he was still with us at Christmas. Tony, then, knew despair.

That summer we went as a family – Mom, Dad, Tony, and me – for one last trip to the Eastern Sierra, a wonderfully beautiful place crowded with so many happy memories; where we had spent dozens of summers together camping and hiking and fishing – being a family. One morning, Tony and I went for a slow, painful walk.

At one point on the walk, Tony looked at me through tear-soaked eyes and said,

“Do you really think God would hold it against me if I were to make my own decision about when to end it all?”

Or, in other words: Would it really be such a sin to stop the ordeal, the anguish, and the misery he knew he was facing?

“I don’t know,” I replied through tears of my own.

“But,” I went on to say, “what I do know is that we love you so much, and we want to be able to love you all the way through this; we would support you, and it would never be a burden on us to be with you and care for you even in your suffering. Tony, please, let us do that for you. Let us love you to the end, whenever that may be.”

But just after that, the biliary drainage catheter that the doctors had placed – the one that came out of his right side and connected to a bag that he wore strapped around his leg, the one that became a permanent part of his body – started to bring the jaundice under control. And once the jaundice came under control, his oncologist could start a chemotherapy regimen – smaller than recommended so Tony could handle it. Almost immediately, he started to make a turn for the better: he was in less pain, and the jaundice went away so he wasn’t always nauseous. His energy returned, and his spirits lifted.

Thanksgiving came – and oh what a Thanksgiving that was! And then Christmas came. The six months given to him when he was diagnosed came and passed. Tony once again felt strong, positive and happy. He was playing gigs with his band again, and he was going for hikes and soon enough short backpacking trips, and even going skiing. He fulfilled a dream of going to Italy, and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

All the while, the reality of his illness was always right in front of him: chemotherapy every two weeks, regular replacement of the catheter, sometimes on an emergency basis when it got misplaced, like it did when Tony and I went to Glacier National Park and I had to drive him three hours to the nearest hospital. But really, for two years, Tony’s life was… well, it was like a miracle. He had his dignity, and death no longer seemed imminent. And we thanked God. Despair had been replaced by courage.

Last year, Tony had a major setback. He suffered an aneurysm on an artery attached to the tumor. He spent most of the summer in the hospital while his doctors tried to figure out a way to stop the bleeding; they finally came across a similar situation in a medical journal, and found the successful treatment via an unconventional method. Tony finally came home from the hospital, but he never fully bounced back. That summer marked a turn for Tony, and he knew it, but he kept fighting. And as one chemotherapy regimen ceased being effective, the doctors cycled through the next combination, and when that stopped, so on through the next.

Last December, on top of Tony’s illness, our dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. It had already spread to the bones by the time it was caught. There would be no cure for him either. He advanced very rapidly, and very soon his pain became unmanageable without the help of hospice. Even though Tony had his own fight, he was there to help my mom care for my dad. It was not easy for him, but Dad had been there for him when he first got diagnosed, and now Tony was there for him. Who wouldn’t do that for someone they loved? Courage was magnified by heroism.

Dad died this past May, at home, quietly, under the care of my mom and my brother, with the support of hospice. And the three of us, my mom, Tony, and I, we mourned together.

Just after my dad died, Tony got the news that he had run out of treatment options. There was simply nothing left that medicine could do to stem the advance of his cancer. So Tony made the decision – on his own, in his own dignity – to stop medical care and transition onto hospice. This time, I could be there for him. Steadily he declined. With the help of hospice, we could manage his comfort medicines, which we tried to balance between pain relief and giving him the lucidity he wanted. His friends had time to come and say goodbye. Then there came a point when pain relief mattered more, and we had the ability to manage that, and keep Tony comfortable.

One Saturday night at the end of July, my friend Fr. John came to the house. We blessed Tony with the waters of Baptism, and we anointed his head and his hands with the Oil of the Sick. I held Tony’s head in my hands, and I kissed him, and Mom and I told him we loved him. This time, however, we told him it was ok to let go. He didn’t need to fight any more. Just a few hours later, Tony died.

In the end, we couldn’t take away Tony’s suffering, or my dad’s. The sadness and grief still weigh heavily on me and my mom. I’m not sure I can say that Tony’s suffering and death were beautiful. In fact, it was messy sometimes. Yes, there was pain; it was painful for him even though we did our best to manage it, and it was painful for us who loved him.

But his dying was never without dignity. I asked Tony to let us love him through his sufferings, and we were able to love him all the way through to the end. And in letting us do that, he showed us courage and heroism, and embodied real dignity. Tony’s journey through his own illness, suffering and death was nothing short of courageous; but that he did all this and cared for my dad in his illness and death is simply heroic. Courage and heroism aren’t born in complacency or contentment, nor are they the hallmarks of fearlessness and ordinary strength. They are created in response to trials and suffering, and they’re evidence of the triumph of hope over despair. Dignity too is made possible through courage and heroism, but love makes all of these possible; love in time of affliction is the condition that makes dignity a reality.

No, dignity isn’t opposed to suffering; sometimes in suffering dignity reveals its truest face.


Before You Know It: Learning to Love

This post by Brendan Busse, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

My memory stinks. It’s incredible how little content I actually remember from my own schooling. As a teacher this both frustrated me and liberated me from the ego-driven worry that my students would receive, savor, and treasure every last pearl that dropped from my mouth. Looking back at my own education I suppose one thing led to another and what I know now is simply the result of a long chain of ideas and inspirations that moved me into each consecutive moment. It seems now that learning (and teaching too) might have more to do with trajectory than content.

Of course content has its place — I want my doctors to know a bit of anatomy before they go at me with the scalpel. Still, the principle remains: in education, the question isn’t simply what does this person need to know but also what do they need to experience — hear, see, touch, taste, feel — in order to move from ignorance into insight, from inability into action. Education isn’t only concerned with what we know but also with who we become. Education is more than mere communication and it shouldn’t just fill us or occupy us. Education must move us.

***

What do I remember of my early schooling? Not much. I remember emotions and feelings vaguely — fear, excitement, boldness, awkwardness — but do I remember how I came to know that 2 + 2 = 4? Nope. The pedagogy? What color chalk? What principal theorem or rule was applied? Nope. Nope. Nope. Curiously, there is one memory that stays with me, a preschool memory; it’s one of my earliest and most vivid. I remember pouring beans.

I went to a Montessori pre-school where learning was tactile and progressive, linked to the student’s capacity and interest, and one lesson remains: Here’s a pitcher of beans. Here’s another pitcher. Your task? Pour the beans from one pitcher to the next. Repeat until you can do it consistently without spilling the beans (pun incomprehensible at that point). When you can do this you graduate to, wait for it…RICE! And after rice, sand. And after sand, water.

I remember this moment with startling clarity. I can see the room. I can feel the overwhelming weight of the pitcher, the texture of the fiberglass cafeteria trays we used to catch our mistakes. I also remember the nervousness I felt — before having mastered this delicate art — when pouring from a full gallon of milk. Let’s face it, when it’s full to the brim you have to be pretty confident to get that milk headed in the right direction. You have to be pretty strong to hold the whole gallon up without knocking over your glass. And you have to know when enough is enough and how to do the whole thing in reverse. Only the truly great (well…and most sober adults) can pour that first glass of milk from a new gallon jug without incident.

What did this lesson teach? Motor skills? Patience? Concentration? Who knows. Perhaps I learned these things but what intrigues me now is that I learned to do something before I knew what I was doing. Before I knew it (literally!) I was doing something I had been afraid to do and I was doing it like I was born to do it, with consistency and confidence. Before I knew it I had become Brendan Patrick Busse, pourer of beans and other things of varying complexity and substance.

Fortunately, pouring beans wasn’t my final triumph. I went off to college and before I knew it I was volunteering in schools helping other kids learn how to avoid spilling the beans. Before I knew I would be interested in spirituality and social justice I was praying at mass in a prison gym that smelled of sweat, disinfectant, and occasional clouds of pepper spray. Before I knew what was happening to me I was eating tacos on the streets of Tijuana and washing dishes with migrant men from places further south and with stories far beyond my own.

Before I knew it, I made a choice, an important choice, to listen to my heart a bit more than my head. I made a choice to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and I marked that choice with a Jesuitical tattoo (the IHS sunburst you’ll find on all things Jesuit). We’re skipping through my history pretty quickly here (and missing many important people) but the point is simply this: one day I was pouring beans and before I knew it, I was a Jesuit. Before I know it I’ll be pouring wine and water. Before I know it, I’ll be baptizing babies and burying the dead.

***

How do we come to know what we know? In many moments I knew something in my heart long before I knew it my head. At times we can know in our bodies what we can’t know otherwise. This is not a treatise against the intellect, against the great gift of the rational mind. This is just to say that we’re more than a mind and to know this is to know something very important. To trust this is to live with greater sensitivity. To believe this is to commit to a kind of universe on fire with mystery and revelation. To live in this way is to live in love with complexity and choice, with promise and possibility.

There is much we need to learn. It would be a great shame if one of those things was to stop listening to our bodies, to our hearts, and to the world around us. Learning ought to take full advantage of our humanity and our humanity stretches from our head to our toes and beyond. Aren’t there things we can only know together, things like love or justice? Aren’t there ways of knowing that demand a community, a shared memory, an ecology? Aren’t we both intellect and affect, head and heart, body and soul?

Before we know it we’ll be gone. But then again, before we knew it we had arrived. Before we knew it we were created and loved. There’s a mystery here. It was here before and it’ll be here long after we’ve departed. When it hurts cry. When it tickles laugh. When it thrills gasp. Do these things and before you know it you’ll be someone. Before you know it you’ll have learned to love.


If I Were A Boy: Beyonce, Jesus, and I

This post by Eric Immel, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

I recently stumbled upon the Beyoncélogues. These videos are the brainchild of actress Nina Millin and they deserve a million views on YouTube. Her idea is simple–strip away the all-powerful pop-goodness of Sasha Fierce’s best tracks and perform them as dramatic monologues.  As an aficionado of diva-pop, I’m no stranger to the recycled themes of the often saccharin-sweet songstresses: there’s the “you can do it,” the “I’ve lost you forever,” the “let’s go out and get cray-cray.”

The brilliance of Nina Millin’s Queen B reboots is how they let us hear, with depth and drama, the experience behind Beyoncé’s lyrics. Very often this experience is one of a scathing, concrete resolution that she will not and cannot be hurt any longer by a man who doesn’t do what she thinks he ought to do. Certainly she’s not the only one with man problems. All around the world men are uniquely responsible for suffering — particularly that of women and the poor — and the stories of the poor are full of men who hurt and men who hate.

***

My Jesuit brothers from other countries share stories of how the material poverty of women and children is worsened by men who drain resources and don’t stick around. A poor teacher in a rural village smiles when I ask about her husband; only later do I hear (from someone else) that after two daughters were born he decided he wanted out and hasn’t been back in ten years. A daughter is forced to drop out of school at age 10 because mom needs help caring for the younger children; dad is nowhere to be found. An elderly woman still mourns the loss of her husband and children because 30 years ago men with guns ravaged her home and tore her world apart. Masculinity may be changing all over the world, and yet the principal face of suffering is still a female one.

We all suffer. But it seems that women, children, and the elderly suffer most. Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, and mutilation of girls and women is still commonplace. There are perhaps 14,000,000 girls and women held in captivity worldwide. And if we thought that in the U.S. our gender problems were softer (‘little’ things like income inequality or discriminatory social norms, etc.) we were recently reminded that there is no ‘soft’ hate and that real violence exists here too as we watched an NFL player (dare I say, role model) dragging  the limp body of his (now) wife out of an elevator after having knocked her out cold.

In each of these stories one thing is clear: men do a lot of damage and this damage is most evident in places of poverty. I’m not a woman nor am I poor, but in my own way, I too have a man problem. Mostly, this problem manifests itself in daydreams about punching out assholes who treat women like dirt. I try to be nonviolent, and yet, these thoughts are pure violence.  My faith tradition compels me to forgive, but I’d rather fester in my grudges. I’d like to think that I’m different from these men, but I’ve been like them over and over again — through turbulent and sometimes hurtful personal relationships, by remaining concretely and comfortably socialized in a world of privilege and patriarchy, and perhaps most like them in my desire to solve my problems by punching them out, by imposing my will upon theirs with a fist to the face.

***

Beyoncé had her own elevator drama not long ago (with, I think, a better example of male restraint) and she knows something about being mistreated. So, what what would the Queen say? In one song she wonders out loud: “If I were a boy…” The implied question is a provocative one. It’s a question asked in many ways and in many circumstances by Jesus. It’s a question I’d like to ask about Jesus: “If Jesus were a woman…”

Jesus was a man — there’s a certain scandal about that particularity. He lived in a specific time and place, had a unique face and voice, and had friends that walked alongside him in the flesh. But what he did he do with that particularity? He confronted the particularity of ‘what is’ with the possibility of ‘what if’. What if he healed a woman who touched his cloak in secret, and celebrated her beauty?  What if he drank alone at the well with her? What if he prevented a mob of angry men from stoning her to death?  What if she were the only one to clean the sweat and dirt and blood from his face in his final hours? For Jesus, ‘what if’ becomes ‘what is’ and she becomes one of the most precious ones, worth saving and loving, worth listening to, and worth dying for.

Jesus was a man and he didn’t take his masculinity for granted. His particular identity, in relation to women, became a powerful witness, a catalyst for change. He spoke against men who had it all wrong.  He offered his contemporaries another path, a path to honor and care for women. He was seen as prophetic (or even blasphemous!) when he treated women with respect. He was able to teach men how to love in a different way.  He undoes the damage done, and in that, he invites us all–male and female alike–into new life.

When Beyoncé imagines life as a boy I’m sure many women, through all their struggles, can sympathize with her. They shouldn’t have to. They deserve happy memories of first and last kisses, the joy of pursuing beauty and earning fair wages for their work, of partnership and motherhood and peace.

And me?  I am just a boy, stupid and broken in a hundred ways. But I can wonder, “If I were a woman…” I can listen and remember. I can empathize and let tears fall. I can accompany. I can pray. This is a way out of violence and hate. This is how I can live in greater love. This is how I can be the kind of man she would want me to be.


Fidelity, Friendship, and Frozen

This post by Billy Biegler, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

Mid-sip of a cup of coffee, on an outing with an old high school friend, I heard the beginning of a terrifying sentence; “Remember the time in high school when….” Immediately, possibilities ran through my head–most of them embarrassing: Do I remember the Junior year belly flop contest? The angst ridden livejournal entries? My colorful tongue, Italian temper, liberally bumper-stickered Volvo or large collection of novelty sweatshirts? Sadly, I remember all of that.

And then I wonder, “Why is this person still friends with me?” Sometimes, fidelity in friendship is mind boggling. Are people gluttons for punishment, enduring the obvious imperfections of their fellows? Or are they blind to the issues and insufficiencies of their closest friends?

Recently, speaking at the University of New Hampshire’s Commencement Exercises, Jennifer Lee, Creator/Writer of Frozen, assuages these more troubling questions. With clarity and vulnerability, Lee opens a door to the unique potential of our embarrassing or difficult human attributes: (Feel free to watch the entire video, but pay particular attention to 7:30)

 

 

That which Lee names is that which many actors recognize at some point in their careers: characters preoccupied with their inadequacies are boring. They are unable to move past personal obstacles because of self doubt. But equally as boring are perfect characters.  Characters without inadequacies are flat, lifeless, generic and two- dimensional.The ideal characters are imperfect and comfortable with their imperfections. These are characters that actors love–and love to play.

And so it might be with friends. Good friends–those who know us best, with whom we are our truest self–are not those who expect us to be perfect. Neither are they those who demand a constant state of remorse, guilt or shame for imperfections. Rather, close friends are those people who love us because of our imperfections–not in spite of them. They are those that understand that a good character, and the foundation of a good friendship, stems from imperfections. Yes, close friends are people who allow us to be ourselves and to love ourselves– not in denial of our flaws, but with an appreciation for them.

Perhaps Lee reflects the truth of many spiritual practices: Where we are weakest is where we are most loved. It is because of those more human characteristics, those frustrating personal tendencies, and even the embarrassing stories of the High School self that friends are afforded the opportunity to laugh, smile, reminisce and appreciate all that they share in a truly human relationship. It is in knowing the imperfection of the other that the friend is afforded the opportunity to love. And it is in being loved that the beloved friend can more fully appreciate her/himself. It is no shock, then, that fidelity is mind boggling. Because fidelity is the seat of a friendship rooted in love. And love is a mystery.

The final sip of my cup of coffee and one more high school memory brings the reunion to a close. “I’m sorry for all of these stories,” he says. “I am all over the place!” “You’ve always been a bit frenetic…” I respond. “And I love you for it.”


The Dirtiest Word in Jesuit Higher Education

This post by Brendan Busse, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

I’ve spent the past two years living and working in Jesuit higher education. In that time I’ve returned again and again to a simple question: What are we doing here, and why? I think it’s a question worth asking – in education and in life – and answering it frankly and honestly is important. As Jesuits we need safe spaces to ask such questions because, ironically, we can’t be safe in the commitments our answers suggest. We have to risk everything on our answers. We have to be true – to ourselves, to others, and to the god we choose to worship. So what exactly are we doing in higher education, and why?

I have a one word answer. The word has baggage but I think we ought to say it: Conversion. We’re in the business of conversion. I’m not talking about baptizing pagan babies (those days are behind us) but rather the conversion of hearts and minds toward the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Our education seeks to convert people to a life of empathy and understanding through the insights of the creative imagination and profound intellectual inquiry. This is not negotiable. The world needs change and we all need conversion. Our commitment is a Christian one and our purpose is radically transformative. If you graduate from one of our schools unconverted we have failed you.

The dirty words here begin to multiply. Why conversion? Well, because that’s the heart of the gospel and our schools hope to serve the kingdom of God and to aid in its construction. Wait a minute. Gospel? God? Don’t worry; it gets worse. We do this as Jesuits, as members of the Society of Jesus. That’s right. Our schools exist because of our relationship with Jesus. Crazy enough for you yet? Let’s make it more so. Jesus Christ! We seek to introduce you to Christ. I know, that sounds off, imposing, just a bit ‘Jesus-freak’ weird, but bear with me. We have a strategy. It was the strategy of Jesus himself. It has something to do with love. All you need is love, right? I heard that once.

Our way is a way to know God – particularly the God of love who finds a home in our humanity, the god we call Christ. Parts of the strategy you already know: social justice and dialogue, immersion and encounter, insight and understanding. These words aren’t so scary, are they? Well, maybe that’s what’s wrong with them. They don’t ask you to change. They might make you feel better about who you are and what you do but, frankly, that’s not enough. We seek conversion because ours is a pedagogy of love and love changes things; love makes a difference.

Karl Rahner said it pretty well: “Only in love can I find you, my God.” Justice is not enough. Service is not enough. Academic excellence is not enough. Only in love will we discover the God worthy of worship and avoid the idolatry of our false gods of pride and prestige. Only in love does our work make any sense. Only in love will we be transformed. Only in love can we find a place of both acceptance and conversion, personal growth and generous self-gift. Only in love will our education be complete.

Love reorders everything. Love converts us. If you aren’t transformed then love has had no effect in your life. And we want love to have an effect in your life. That’s why, in Jesuit education, we speak always about the faith that does justice. It’s your faith we’re talking about. It’s about what you believe and what you care about; it’s about the sacrifices you’re willing to make; it’s about why you think your life is worth living.

But it’s also about our faith in Jesus. And Jesus had a strategy: Sell everything. Give it to the poor. Follow. Now keep reading before you get that AMDG tattoo, start pasting up your garage sale signs, or closing your bank accounts. More than a simple rebellious act or a hasty adoption of a religious creed, this is a guiding principle, an orientation, a standard by which to live and to learn. What you have is not yours – at least it hasn’t always been yours. You were given everything and now you are asked to give it all away. That’s it. Accept the privilege you’ve been given. Give it away. And follow.

Look to the poor and vulnerable – make their needs and priorities your own; look to them as you make decisions about how to live. Be a teacher, a lawyer, a chemist, a filmmaker, whatever, but look to the poor to understand what you should do as a teacher, a lawyer, a chemist, a filmmaker, etc. Let the outcast tell you what works and doesn’t work about this world. Look for God in the marginal places. Discover Christ in poverty (yours, theirs, and his) and follow. Accept. Give. Follow.

This strategy of conversion involves a strange kind of excellence (i.e. vulnerability) and following is certainly a strange kind of leadership, but it’s the way of Christ and it’s the way of love. Any Jesuit education worthy of the title should afford you the kind of self-possession that prepares you for ultimate (and absolute) self-donation. We want you to know yourself well enough to realize that you’re life is a gift, unearned and freely given. If you understand this then you’ll realize that the only way to live your life fully is to give it away unconditionally to the under-served and the un-deserving. Truly accept the gift of your life and you will understand how the way to fulfillment is generosity. To know this is to follow the way of Christ. To live this is to have experienced the conversion we seek.

***

Perhaps we don’t talk about conversion because conversion acknowledges need and vulnerability. Conversion moments aren’t moments of personal triumph as often as they are moments of personal weakness. But we need conversion moments. When I was an undergrad it seemed as if the suffering of the world was piling up around me and I was drowning in it. I felt a great need, a need that seemed to be satisfied in service. I began visiting a juvenile detention facility as a volunteer because I wanted to be helpful. In that jail my thoughts on helpfulness changed as I encountered my uselessness. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I came to realize that the only way to stop drowning was to walk on water, that is, to risk the very thing I feared. Powerlessness.

In a strange way I felt happiest in that place not because I was being helpful but because it was a place where it made sense to feel powerless. And I needed to know powerlessness because powerlessness was true to my experience. People I loved were dying. Friends I cared about were suffering. Coping with pain drove my own addictions and compulsions to unmanageable extremes. Life was noticeably far beyond my control. The popular expectation that I couldn’t feel vulnerable, even when I was vulnerable, was smothering. Liberation came not in strength but in weakness. Freedom was found not in satisfaction but in a fundamental conversion – a kind of failure called surrender. Something happened to me and everything changed. It felt like falling in love – attractive, unsettling, and deeply consequential.

***

So this is the conversion strategy. Fall in love. Move to the lowly place, be with the lowly people, and discover humanity in those places – yours and theirs. In this place love is real. In this place you discover the only answer worth discovering. You discover your profound need of reconciliation. You discover your need of love. You discover the many ways love is abused or misused in this world. You awaken deep desires to make things more like the way they ought to be. You develop a distaste for the cynicism that insists that things continue the way they’ve always been.

More than this, you make a sacrifice. You burn your best things and in the smoke you smell an answer, a reminder of the dust. You remember that dead flesh spoils so why not live, better yet, why not burn it all and have a BBQ. You find yourself ignited. You finally come to understand the meaning of all those cathedral candles, funeral pyres, smoke-filled temples, and incensed altars. Your heart burns within you as you come to know that what is true of fire is also true of love–it changes things.

Education is not a nice thing we do. This is a strategy for conversion. This is a plan for redemption. This is a way to cash in on the gift of your life. This is a way to spend your time and energy. This is a call to prayer, to worship the only things worthy of worship – joy and justice, right-relationship and peace. This is real work. This is a call to love. This is, unapologetically, about coming to know God. This is about the gift of creation and the audacity of fidelity to that gift. Don’t let the gift expire. Don’t let the flesh rot. Burn it all. Spend it extravagantly. Be converted. Your life is a gift. Hurry up and get to the giving.


Silent in the City: A Retreat in the Midst of Chaos

This post by Eric Immel, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

A man pulls down his pants and takes a leak on the beach near Fullerton and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He has streaks of pink running through his matted dark hair, black tattoos twisting around his arms, and a midriff-baring New York Yankees t-shirt. The beach is full of Saturday sunbathers, and more than a few folks are vocally opposed to his exposure.  He responds by yelling, “The Cubs suck!”, takes a bow, and continues strolling nonchalantly down the beach.

Smaller, subtler havoc is wreaked along this beach for the proceeding hour that I sit there.

A very tan, very fit man running with his shirt off trips and falls right in front of a gaggle of bikini-clad coeds.  Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps not,  but he ends up staying down a while, chatting and sharing a discreetly poured contraband beer. A woman on foot cuts suddenly across the narrow running path and gets slammed by a cyclist. Neither the cyclist nor the woman were cued in to the busy-ness around them. He swears at her, she swears at him. His chain has fallen off and he fiddles for a minute or two while she proceeds to the beach and tends to the fresh scrape on her knee, crimson bright against hot white sand.

A toddler drops a snow-cone and wails in agony.  A dog jumps up, startling an elderly woman.  A cop rides past on horseback. An animated group speaking Spanish. Another, French.  Another, Japanese. This is the mess of the world at work.

***

I observed all of this in the midst of my annual eight-day silent retreat. Our retreat master said over and over that our goal in prayer for these quiet days was to “listen for the whispers of God.”   After a year of stumbling along in philosophy studies, acquainting myself to a new city, new university, new community, new friends, with a summer in India on the horizon, and with the perpetuity of being in between all things and never fully settled I wanted silence, time to listen.

Normally, our retreats are made in environments conducive to silence, long meandering nature paths to walk, a multitude of nooks and crannies to nestle oneself in for prayer. Comfort food, daily naps, early bedtimes. My retreats have always drawn out of me reflections on the chaos of the past year by allowing me to be in a quiet place for processing the madness of it all, my life.  Setting off little explosions within myself, a battlefield in private, a containment of chaos from the outside world so that when I emerge, I’m all the stronger, all the wiser, all the more ready to serve. It is safer in the quiet. Things don’t fall apart around us, only within.

But this retreat was different. The city — with its cacophony of car horns, bars and bright lights, youth out and about, alive and free, the hustle, bustle, and rustle of life as it flies past my window — is unavoidable and loud. Colum McCann says in his book, Let the Great World Spin, “It is necessary to love silence.  But before you could love silence, you had to have noise.”  It is necessary to love peace, but before peace, chaos.  Silence and peace are altogether different when the outside world forces its way in.

***

The chapel at the retreat center is almost perfectly quiet, except for the gentle, pleasant hum of the building’s insides. It is almost perfectly symmetrical as well — a welcome repose from the mess of Chicago just outside the doors. The lighting fixtures on the ceiling line up front to back and side to side, the sanctuary backdrop sweeping equally on both sides, the statues and stations perfectly placed across from one another on the side walls, decorative columns of windows lined up, eight on each side, the candles flanking the altar burned to equal lengths, and the crucifix, with Christ’s arms wide, two halves of a broken body, and at the center a sacred heart.

The symmetry is offset only by the stained glass windows. They are loud, colorful, vibrant, irregular, unorganized; they offer no recognizable image. They are utter chaos. The order of the chapel architecture makes way for a deepened sense of the beauty of this chaos. The space creates and contains both order and disarray–the symmetrical frame encircles the chaotic and each give form and substance to the other.

So often, we choose certain ways of moving along–ways of stable predictability–to keep ourselves safe amidst the chaos of the world.  A comfortable home with a privacy fence, a regular spot for coffee, a new pair of running shoes every six months, a routine before bed. I’m coming to realize more and more that my order, my quiet, my desire for security ought not to shelter me from the world, but rather, free me to more deeply embrace the chaos of life. On this retreat — in the city and in that chapel — it became clear to me that God labors in the messiness of life because that’s where God is (and where we are to be found!); God is holding us in tension, wrapping us in goodness, and leading us lovingly into the chaos that surrounds.