Scenes from the first day in Sydney

Scenes from the first day in Sydney
D, the Opera House, and the Bridge

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Self-Care for Caregivers

Self-Care for Caregivers… What? Why? How?

By Rev. David C. McCallum, S.J.

Based on the work of Grissel Hernandez, MPH, BSN, RN, HN-BC, CCE (2009) The Art of self-C.A.R.I.N.G. on ADVANCE for Nurses and the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

We begin with what it is we desire to become…


“How do I become a more mindful, compassionate presence in the world?”

· I cannot give what I do not have
· Love is a renewable resource
· God is the source of Love and our lives are a response to Love

So, we develop practices to help us connect more consciously to God, the Source of caring and compassion.

C.A.R.I.N.G.—5 Interconnected Practices



What is it? Compassion is the willingness to feel with and for another, even to the point of suffering. It is a form of love that is based on a relational sense of being interconnected, and it can be a powerful motive for action on behalf of others.

Why is it important for us? Compassion helps us to be kind, tender, and forgiving toward ourselves, which in turn helps us be kind, tender, and forgiving toward others. It helps us be patient with our own weaknesses and shortcomings, tolerant of imperfections, and willing to accept ourselves as we are.

How do we practice it? Once a day, we might simply take some time to pay attention to ourselves in Three Dimensions (3D) of our experience: body (How are we feeling physically?); mind (What thoughts are occupying our attention?); spirit (How are we feeling emotionally?). In paying attention to ourselves in this way, we want to maintain an attitude of compassionate self-regard. Another way is to do a visualization exercise, seeing ourselves the way that God sees us, allowing God’s love to flow into and through us toward others.


What is it? Awareness is a state of being conscious of both our internal state of mind and heart as well as of what is going on around us.

Why is it important? It allows us to be fully present to our moment to moment experience, as well as to give others our full attention. Awareness is the means through which we center ourselves emotionally, and through which we ground ourselves in our sense of purpose and value.

How do we practice it? Conscious attention to our breath is a helpful anchor for our mindful awareness in the present moment. We can cultivate this attention to our breath by spending 15 – 20 minutes each day doing Mindfulness Meditation, and by bringing our attention back to our breath whenever we feel our attention fragmented by anxiety or distraction. This breathing awareness brings balance and groundedness to our thinking, feeling, and doing.


What is it? Reflection is simply thinking about our experience with a spirit of inquiry and openness to insights and learning from that experience.

Why is it important? Through reflection on our daily experience, we develop a sense of what is important to us, and an “inner compass” that helps us make decisions in our life. Furthermore, with reflection, we learn from our mistakes and develop our intuition, and practical wisdom.

How do we practice it? Through our use of mindfulness meditation, and a daily exercise like the Ignatian Examen of Consciousness, we nurture this capacity to pay attention to our experience. In the Examen, inquire into what we are thinking, feeling, and doing. We explore our motivations, our patterns of behaviour, our attachments and addictions.


What is it? Intentionality is the mindful focus of our energy on the achievement of a goal or the pursuit of a purpose.

Why is it important? By consciously setting an intention, we put forth a purpose or end toward which we strive, and by which we align our energy (thoughts/attitudes, behaviours, evaluation of the outcomes). The higher our intention, the more likely we are to discover meaning and value in life, including the challenges and set-backs. When we pursue a sacred intention, as Jesus did, we are better prepared for the inevitable sacrifices that we must make along the way.

How do we practice it? Every day, upon waking, we might begin the day by setting our intention and asking God to help us to fulfill our purpose. Examples include St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace,” or St. Ignatius of Loyola’s prayer, “Lord, I pray that all my thoughts, feelings, and actions are in harmony with your most holy will.”


What is it? Nonjudgmental attachment is a form of loving acceptance of reality as it is. Acceptance means being aware of your experience without either clinging to it or resisting it. Instead, it is to accept your reality in the moment with a peaceful composure.

Why is it important? Despite the way we might want to attach ourselves to things and people we are attracted to, or resist and push away things that repulse us, or change things that do not conform to our desires, reality will often resist us unless we come from a peaceful, detached place in ourselves. Reality is a powerful teacher in that it seldom conforms to our ego’s preferences. So, developing a grounded and emotionally centered detachment helps us better assess situations before we act.

How do we practice it? Rather than reacting to circumstances and being compelled by the emotions stirred up, I become a detached observer of my experience. This practice of observing myself can help me develop a sense of patient calmness and help me to make decisions with greater clarity. It is also helpful to return to the present moment when our attention drifts to what has just happened, or to what may happen.


What is it? It is both a feeling of appreciation and an attitude of thankfulness.

Why is it important? Our attention is naturally attracted to the negative experiences in our lives, but we have to practice paying attention to the positive. Gratitude fosters a sense of joy, security, and abundance. It connects us to God, the giver of all gifts, and inspires our generosity. It also helps us keep perspective when we tend to be “givers,” reminding us of the importance of receiving graciously from others.

How do we practice it? One of the easiest ways of cultivating gratitude is to use the Ignatian Examen of Consciousness on a daily basis, rummaging and combing through our day for all the events, relationships, and feelings that we have been privileged to experience. Teilhard de Chardin once suggested that we are not human beings who have spiritual experiences, but spiritual beings having human experiences.

And another thing…

While each of these five practices is an asset for becoming a more self-caring care-giver, one more is indispensible for keeping our perspective, being grounded, and most importantly, for remembering that we are human beings, not God. When we are able to laugh at ourselves and see the humor, irony, and at times even the absurdity of life, we can avoid becoming cynical or giving up. So for all the seriousness of these ideas and the importance of these practices of self-care, perhaps most importantly—laugh often!

One last word: “No”
The intention behind all of these practices is not to turn us into superwomen and men, but rather, to be more fully human in our way of living and loving. We may occasionally fall into the temptation to try to do more Jesus himself did in the service of others, but part of being human is knowing and respecting our limits. This means that we must be kind enough to ourselves to discern where, when, and how to use the “n” word… “no.” Sometimes we must grow into the freedom to say “no” appropriately. This requires the self-knowledge and freedom from fear… freedom from the need to please; freedom from the need to be perfect; freedom from the need to help everyone; freedom for the need to always have our acts together. It is a kind of spiritual hubris to think that we can do otherwise.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Road Trip!

So, it looks like you'll get a rest from this particular blogger for the next five weeks or so, until the end of July. I'll be taking to the road giving parish missions/retreats in South Australia, and I'm more than a little doubtful that I'll have wireless in the "bush" as they say here in Oz. So, peace and all good things! See you at the end of July.

Some Thoughts about the Spirit With Which We Serve Others

By Rev. David C. McCallum, S.J.

How can we stay “out of the way” and allow God to be the agent of grace and healing through us? Jesus provides the example.

➢ Ego driven service relies exclusively on my human effort, whereas Jesus’ service flows out of a relationship with God. I need to listen to the promptings of God and lean on God’s strength to accomplish the task. Can I appreciate the difference? What happens when I try to do everything myself? Or, on the other hand, when I have no confidence in my abilities? What is different about my experience of service when I am depending on God, when I act as a channel, allowing God to be the source of my love, my patience?

➢ Ego driven service is impressed with the “show” whereas Jesus’ service is contented in hiddenness, in the intrinsic worth of what he does for others. Here I might recall all the times when Jesus tells people to keep quiet about what he has done for them. I might try to avoid doing things for others as a means of getting applause or reward, relying instead on God’s affirmation. Am I free enough from my own interior needs that I can serve others without expectations of reward, or even gratitude? What sorts of feelings and thoughts come up for me as I ponder this? At the same time, if I am afraid of being in the spotlight at all, how might I learn to be gracious in receiving recognition, or expressions of gratitude?

➢ Ego driven service is calculated, and concerned with results, whereas Jesus’ service surrenders the outcomes in a disposition of faith. I need to let go of my expectations and not be disappointed when my service seems ineffective. In every so-called failure there is instruction and even grace. Am I overly goal oriented, so much so that I am frustrated when I do not achieve what I set out to do and unable to appreciate what actually happens? What might I need to let go of here? I might consider the events of the passion, and how this seemed to be a total defeat for Jesus. What advantage is there in working hard and at the same time, surrendering the outcomes? At the same time, if I find it hard to believe in myself and my own plans or designs, how can I grow in a realistic belief in my ability to follow through with my goals?

➢ Ego driven service picks and chooses whom to serve, whereas Jesus modeled a radical availability to any persons who present their needs. It is so easy to favor those who are rich and powerful, those who can repay me with advantages and benefits. It is so hard to make a preferential option for those who are poor and weak. How do I feel about giving of myself to people who might not be able to benefit me in a way that the world would judge valuable? On the other hand, what blessings have I received from my interactions with those who are weak, poor, and seemingly unable to help themselves? Sometimes our solidarity with the poor comes with the price of feeling animosity toward those of means. Is it possible to pray for a compassionate heart for both the weak and the wealthy?

➢ Ego driven service is subject to the vicissitudes of my feelings and moods. Jesus seems to be profoundly sensitive to others and aware of his own feelings, manifesting every emotion we might expect. At the same time, his loving service does not seem to depend on his like or dislike for people, nor on his own mood. In fact, he is able to keep his focus on others even when he is suffering himself. What would allow me to find joy even when there is no cause for happiness? Can I be in touch with my feelings without my attitude, choices, and actions being entirely dictated by them? What resources or practices provide me objectivity about my own experience? Or perhaps I have never been able to trust in my own instincts and feelings, and it is time to believe in the authority of my own experience?

➢ Ego driven service is inconstant and a matter of our convenience. Service inspired by Jesus’ example is an ongoing commitment, a way of life. What is my attitude toward time, and my willingness to put others before my schedule, my plans, my timeline? Are there ways that I need to become more flexible and generous? At the same time, If I am always over extended, are there ways I need to be more careful about respecting my limits? Personal balance is very important to my capacity to serve others over the long-term, as much as I want to be generous on any given day. Do I struggle with a compulsive need to be needed? Where does this stem from?

➢ Ego driven service is driven by what I think is best for others. True service involves such sensitivity that I allow others to tell me what they need. Can I allow others to take the lead without sacrificing important boundaries? To what extent do I need to trust God and others? Do I have a strong need for control? Where does this come from? At the same time, there are times when I must trust my instincts, and intervene on behalf of those who cannot help themselves. Do I trust too much or too little in my own inner voice?

➢ Ego driven service enforces a separation between me and the people I serve. Jesus’ example of service builds community and helps us discover that in relation to others, there are more similarities between us than differences. Am I open to being in relationship with the people I serve, or do I use my role as a means of maintaining “safe distance” from others? Is there a way of being with people that also allows me to do my job? Is there a way of maintaining my integrity while at the same time being appropriately vulnerable with others? Or perhaps I find that I do not have very good boundaries, and am easily exploited by other people’s needs, or that I get overly caught up in other people’s problems in ways that are not healthy. How might I work on drawing more healthy boundaries and set appropriate limits in other people’s expectations of me?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Making a Difference in the World

Over the past few days, I've had the privilege of being a sounding board for two friends, each of them considering ways that they'd like to make a real qualitative difference in the world. One of them is hoping to develop and test a model for societal level change in a small, war-ravaged developing country. The other is developing a model for a training program that aims at helping leaders lead from a much more spiritual, purpose-led place, with the hope that this program might eventually spread internationally. I am grateful to be able to listen to them as they explore the intersections between their passions, priorities, and the needs of the world as they see them.

Listening to the two of them prompts me to think of many things... the matter of how people discover their vocations; the ways in which we are prompted to make a difference in the world; the motives which drive us; and the challenge of finding a sustainable if simple livelihood in meaningful and service oriented work.

For my own part, I have seen how challenging it is to untangle my ego from my desires to influence the world in a positive manner, though each day I do try to keep an eye on my shadow, and stay out of God's way to the best of my abilities. I feel committed to this practice because I see how we tend to work, unwittingly, at cross purposes with our intentions. Consider, for example, how the intention of so many modern conveniences is to save us time so that we can spend more time at leisure activities. Does anyone see any evidence that the use of technology has brought us more time, or leisure, let alone happiness? Most people would say that we're working harder and longer hours than ever. Or the defense industry... some people rationalize that the purpose of the arms industry is to make us safer (whoever "us" is!); but the reality is that we've rarely been more insecure, despite the trillions we spend on "defense." Do you get my drift? Who profits from these myths?

So often, in an effort to solve problems we use the very same kind of logic/thinking that created them in the first place... leading to even more complex issues. And for the most part, this logic/way of thinking is largely ego driven, even very subtly. By this I mean that we are constantly using our individual and collective resources to compete with others, to establish and maintain our reputations, to defend ourselves against attacks, to accrue more material security, to pursue status and celebrity... or am I deluded? As a result, we continue to reproduce a sort of insanity... in our consumerism, in our obsession with national security, in keeping outsiders at a distance.

I must say, as I reflect on these matters, I cannot help but think we are desperate for a widespread spiritual awakening... not in the sense that we need to all suddenly "get religion," but rather, we need to wake up from the insanity that is currently driving the way the world works (and some of that insanity is religious in nature, is it not?).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunday Adventure: Watson's Bay to Bondi Beach

Despite the rain yesterday, Bruno (a Jesuit from the Swiss Province) and I walked six miles from Watson's Bay to Bondi Beach. As the Irish say, "it was a soft day." Above is one the many lighthouses along the way, much needed because of the number of storms that have wrecked ships off the coast over the years.

Bruno and me at the beach. Isn't it strange how small the sailboat looks out there? The perspective doesn't seem quite right.

This is a close up of one of the beautiful larikeets enjoying the nectar of the local flora.

In between the raindrops, a scene of the coastline.

This is Sydney Harbour, the city, and the harbor bridge in the distance from a park near Bondi. Tomorrow, some reflections on a meeting I had with a friend who does organizational development work here and internationally.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Body and Blood of Christ

Today is the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, formerly known as Corpus Christi Sunday. Below is more or less the homily I preach for the community here at Canisius College.

To begin with, I invite you to have in mind the string of a musical instrument, especially the way that it requires being held in tension in order to produce a rich, resonant, and beautiful sound. Without this tension, the tune is lost and the string produces no music. This past week in our tertian studies, we reflected on how the life of a Christian is to live in creative tensions, for instance:

between contemplation & action

between being People of the world/citizens of nations & People of the Gospel

between Body & Spirit

between being simultaneously Sinners & Beloved by God

Why do I mention this? Because our Celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ calls for us to hold such tensions if we are to deepen our appreciation for the gift God gives to us in the Eucharist, in which God communicates his very self to us.

One side of the tension is that which is described in the reading from Exodus, where God establishes a covenant with Moses, the covenant of the law. The law is a gift to the Israelites intended to save them from the chaos of sin, and to establish them as a special people. The law was intended, not as a burden, but as a blessing.

The Eucharist does not negate this first covenant… it includes it. In the Eucharistic prayer, wherever we hear the mention of sacrifice, and the offering of Jesus’ life as a means of saving us from sin, this first covenant is referenced… the covenant that Moses celebrated by showering the people with the blood of the sacrificial offerings… the blood a symbol of life.

But there is also a second covenant that includes and transcends the first… because even though the law was a blessing and marked the Israelites as a people special to God, God was not content living at a distance from people’s hearts, from the human experience. In this second covenany we discover that God desires not sacrifice, but justice and right relationship with our brothers and sisters; God does not desire us to live in fear of him so much as God desires us to live with a passionate and felt sense of God’s affection for us.

The second covenant, the one that Jesus establishes as the new Moses, is intended to liberate us from the fear of God, and to draw us into an intimate and loving relationship… God is Abba, Father… or even better, Dad… and we are the beloved children who share the inheritance that Jesus promises, the Kingdom.

So, the Eucharist includes within it two covenants… one about the law, and the other, a relationship of love.

That’s one of the creative tensions.

Can you handle another?

The second tension involves a little imagination on our part… I want to invite you to remember for a few moments a memorable meal… and as Ignatius recommends in his instructions on prayer… to use our interior senses to really savor the whole experience… Recall a memorable meal.

Was any body alone, raise your hand? I didn't think so. (Believe it or not, but evolutionary biologists have discovered that we're predisposed to enjoy a meal more in the company of others.)

The reason we recall these memorable meals was about more than the most sumptuous feast. While we might have paid plenty of attention to the delectable food, we probably spent our time in conversation… For my part, I remembered a meal when I was in Mildura on my last assignment giving the Retreat in Daily Life. It will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences I have here in Australia. I was visiting with the families of two Italian women, sisters who made the retreat. We spent hours cooking together… an amazing meal! And then as you might imagine, there was laughter, and there were tears, and the sense of fullness was not only that of our bellies, but also out hearts…

In such a meal, there is an amazing chemistry that happens where nothing is missing, and the least thing taken away makes a difference… a single person missing would change everything. It is a chemistry that makes the ordinary into the extraordinary, that makes the mundane into the memorable.

So the other tension is this… Like the memorable meal, the Eucharist is not just the food that only God can provide, the Living Bread and the Saving Cup… is also an action and a matter of relationships.

The Real Presence, the Sacrament of our Incarnate God calls our attention likewise to the sacredness of the person sitting beside us, or the person huddled under a bridge for shelter, or the person sitting alone with no one to visit them, or to the Aboriginal child sitting in despair in a rural camp.

It is a mysterious and transforming chemistry of relationships… the Holy Trinity and each of us, the world of spirit and the world of matter, all made holy.

This bread that only God can give… Jesus Christ, who is taken, blessed, broken, and given for us and the life of the world—transforms us when we receive it and live in relationship with him and the world made new.

St. Augustine once wrote:

"I thought I heard your voice from on high: 'I am the food of grown men and women; grow then, and you will feed on me. Nor will you, as with bodily food, change me into yourself, but you will be changed into me.'"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Our Saturday Adventures

This has been a long week, with conferences on our most recent General Congregation 35, and then several sessions on Jesuit history. It has all been interesting enough, but generally has felt a bit like being back in school. So today, after three and a half hours of review and evaluation, five of us took off for a picnic and hike in the gorgeous Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, a treasure just 20 minutes from our house in Pymble. For most of the day I was asking myself, why am I only discovering this place now?!

We drove to West Head Lookout, one of the most scenic spots in the north of Sydney. Above, Gilbert (California Province), Peter, and Simon (British Province).

This is the view from the West Head Lookout toward the west, with Lion Island in the bay.

Bill (New England Province) and Simon standing under a rock overhang that has provided shelter to Aboriginal peoples for somewhere around 30,000 years... amazing.

Above are handprints in ochre, done in the style common to the Aborigines.

The Lighthouse on Barrenjoey Headland, just as the sun is setting. It was a great day for a hike-- cool, no flies, just the right amount of sun. And then we finished the evening off at a local Tuscan Trattoria... a great Saturday!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Velveteen Rabbit

Illustration by William Nicholson for Margery William's Velveteen Rabbit.

I must say that I haven't thought of the Velveteen Rabbit for years, not since I tried to read it in Spanish while in Ecuador teaching grade school kids. Obviously, it's a classic, and like many classics, has a message that transcends age or generation. Simon, one of the two British tertians, used it in our morning prayer today and I thought it was worth reprinting here. Make of it what you will...

The skin horse had lived longer in the nursery than any other toy. He was so old that his brown coat was bare in places showing the seams underneath and most of his hair in his tail had been pulled out.

He was wise for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger but, in time, their main springs broke and they passed away. He knew that they were only toys and would never turn into anything else.

Nursery magic is a very strange and wonderful thing and only those playthings that become old and experienced, and therefore wise, understood all about it.
“What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day when they were lying side by side, before the Nanny come to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things buzz inside you or a stick-out-handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made or what you like,” said the Skin Horse. “It is a thing that happens to you when a child loves you, not just to play with, but really loves you. Then you become REAL.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, “but when you are REAL, you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?” asked the Rabbit.

“It doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a long time, that’s why it doesn’t happen often to toys who break easily or have sharp edges or must be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are REAL, you can look very shabby: most of your hair has been loved off; your eyes drop out or your joints become loose. But these things don’t matter at all because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly, except to those who don’t understand.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ignatian Prayer Practices Part II

A picture of a roo in mid-hop taken at the Mungo World Heritage Sight (Wilandra Lakes).

This blog picks up where we left off yesterday-- introducing this powerful method of Ignatian Contemplation using Imagination and Scripture. Below is a passage from the gospel of Luke and step by step instruction in how to use your imagination in prayer.

Passage for Contemplation --Luke 5:17-26

One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.

Just then people came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up to the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.

When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”

Then the scribed and Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘stand up and walk’? But so that you know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”

Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God.

Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying “we have seen strange things today!”

The Contemplation Step by Step

Step 1.

Pay attention to choosing a prayerful posture, relaxing, closing your eyes, entering into the presence of God which is always around us… like the air we breath. Be attentive to feelings as you begin this encounter with God.

Step 2.

Conscious that you are in God’s presence, and the Spirit of God within us expresses even without words what we need and desire from God, spend some time identifying the particular grace you want from God right now. It may be a sense of peace, or a healing of an inner wound, or a deeper sense of gratitude, or a sense of direction and purpose. Or perhaps you might pray simple to know, love, and follow Christ.

Step 3.

Read the passage again, so that you have a feel for the situation, the setting, the characters.

Step 4.

Use your imagination to compose the scene before entering into it. What does the village look like? How big is this house? Imagine the crowds of people there… who are they? What have they come seeking? How are the scribes and Pharisees different from everyone else? Picture Jesus there inside the house, teaching the people, and reaching out to heal the people placed before him. Notice outside the group of people carrying their beloved friend on the mat, and the expression on their face as they try to get through the crowds and into the house. What are they feeling? What is the person on the mat feeling?

Step 5.

Enter into the scene, allowing the Holy Spirit to choose a character involved in the scene for you to become. Who is it? One of the bystanders? One of the disciples? One of the friends or perhaps the person on the mat? Or perhaps one of the religious authorities?
Allow the scene to unfold and notice your thoughts and feeling as you interact. Don’t worry about how you’re doing, just let yourself go and be with them. Allow yourself to be drawn into the situation, and spend the next several minutes with this.

Step 6.

As the scene has unfolded, you have spent this very privileged time with Jesus. Freeze the action going on around you so that it is just the two of you now, and share with Jesus as you would with a close friend. What has this time meant to you? What are you feeling? Express your gratitude to Jesus, and receive his response. Then take your leave of him and we will begin to return to this place together.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ignatian Prayer Practices

It's not that there's nothing going on in my life these days, nor that I have no thoughts on current events, but I'm going to spend a few blogs sharing some methods of prayer with you based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. These methods were developed when Ignatius was a lay person, and they are intended to help us become "contemplatives in action."


John 14:25-31

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.


In the prayer tradition of the "religions of the book," Scripture has a privileged place. It is one of the places where we believe we may encounter the Word of God spoken to us through the stories, poems, histories and prayers of our ancestors in faith. And it is the place where we have the best and fullest accounts of this man called Jesus of Nazareth, the one the Gospel of John calls “the Word Made Flesh.”

Where many of the scriptures were important as a source of more or less historical record, or a source of liturgical norms, moral codes, or wisdom teaching, there has always been a very central role for the scriptures in the lives of the communities who received them.

From the time of their earliest compositions, beginning in the Jewish traditions, the scriptures have been the basis of prayer… both for individuals and communities. The Psalms would be a good example, because they were recited every day by observant Jews, including Jesus, and subsequently by the Christian church in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours, the universal prayer of the Church.

So, scriptures have always been recited, reflected upon, and been the focus of meditation from the beginning. But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century when one particular Christian began to share a very innovative way of praying with Scripture, using the imagination.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, certainly wasn’t the first person ever to imagination while reading the Gospels, but he was the first to popularize a method of prayer that could be shared with others. And in fact, over the centuries, people who have learned this method of prayer have expressed how profoundly it has changed their lives. I don’t say that lightly either.

How can Ignatian Contemplative prayer change a person’s life? Most of us live a second hand faith, meaning that what we believe about Jesus, and in turn, the way we express our faith through devotional practices, and liturgy… all these things have been handed on to us by others. That’s why tradition plays such a crucial role in Catholicism.

But second hand faith, as important as it is, does not guarantee a first hand, person to person encounter with the Word Made Flesh, with Jesus. Now, evangelical Christians have their own take on what it means to have such an encounter with Jesus, where we make a fundamental option for Christ and through this, are “born again.”

When I talk about this person to person encounter with Jesus, I am talking about how we are invited to enter into the scriptures to meet Jesus there, and allow him to affect us by his presence. The vehicle for this encounter is the Holy Spirit, working through the medium of our imaginations. So, I am talking about a method of prayer that takes the Holy Spirit seriously, based on the belief that the Spirit always works in a mediated way through our human ways of knowing and feeling. Just as the Holy Spirit inspires us, fills us with energy, or courage, or enthusiasm, or peace… so the Spirit moves our imaginations.

“Imagination…” the problem with this word is that in our modern, scientific and very pragmatic world, “imagination” has connotations of unreality or fantasy. Like “myth” or “story,” imagination is a tricky sort of thing, because we tend to think of it as less true than hard facts. This is a problem if we’re trying to make sense out of an encounter we have with Jesus in this type of prayer, because we might be tempted to downplay its significance. We say, “Oh, it was only my mind playing tricks on me that Jesus spoke to me like that, or reached out to hold my hand.”

But for us as Christians, imagination has always had a very important role, and not only in the creative exercise of art, music, literature, or drama. Imagination is fundamental to all human activity. It remembers the past, projects possibilities for the future, shapes human desire, and without it, there can be no action.

Imagination helps to make possible the most incredible human endeavors… the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, the technology necessary to reach the moon, the prophetic non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi… all of it began in the imagination.

There is a dark side to it, as there always is with things of the spirit…the possibility for infantile regression, delusion, prejudice, greed, grandiosity… and so we must acknowledge the need to discern the things we imagine. But let’s leave discernment for later at the moment. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Awakening to Joy

The picture is entitled "Joyful Awakening" by Kazuya Akimoto.

I think that after the past several posts, it might be time for a little light. I’d like to speak to you about JOY.

Just yesterday, I got a phone call from someone I’ve been working with over the past year. I asked if I could eventually share with people what he told me, so I have his permission.

This man is pretty young, a little older than me, with two beautiful little girls and a loving wife. He’s been struggling a long time to be at peace inside himself, to relax and simply be happy. His childhood had been tough… his dad had walked out on the family when he was three, and his mom was an alcoholic.

So, you get the idea that maybe simply being happy for this guy isn’t so simple. And he has really tried, maybe too hard.

But yesterday, he called to describe this experience he had Friday morning. His daughter’s school was having a “visiting dad’s day” and he had taken the morning off from work to come to kindergarten with her.

He told me that he spent the morning doing arts and crafts, making messes with paint and glue, and reading to a small group of his daughter’s classmates. It was almost like a confession when he said to me, “I can’t believe it, but I spent the morning playing...” He whispered this last word, as if that was something forbidden for a 41 year old man.

Then after the morning activities, and a trip to a park, he was walking the kids back across the street when something happened.

He watched as these little kids, holding on to a rope as they crossed the street, said and did all their cute little kid things. And he looked across the street to see where a long procession of black limos was just beginning to pull out of a funeral home, following a hearse.

And he looked up to see the blue sky, and heard the birds chirping, and he knew in that moment that everything was right with the world. There was living and dying going on, people at play, and people in mourning. Everything was in motion, and changing. And he was a part of it all.

He had been seized by a moment of joy.

It was one of the first times he could remember feeling like that, and even a day later, the feeling remained.

Now, I hope that we have all had moments like that, no matter how old we are, or what our physical condition is… moments when joy just sneaks up on us, and fills us with a sense of everything being right with the world, no matter what.

I’ve been thinking about what he told me these last few days. There are so many things to be learned from it.

It struck me that that joyful moment was not about achieving some great success at work. It wasn’t about winning the lottery and making it big. It wasn’t a public moment where everyone was telling him how much they loved him and approved of him.

Sure, these are the ways most of us seek for joy, but it wasn’t like that.

Rather than being something planned, it took him completely by surprise. It was more like receiving a gift that he never expected. And the feeling didn’t fade, like the passing excitement of a new purchase.

In fact, the crazy thing was just how simple it was; all he had to do was look, and see, to be awake, and to receive, to peacefully accept the way everything around him is in motion and changing, and himself with it.

How many times have I heard people tell me how unhappy they are, only to understand that they refuse to be happy until certain conditions are met?

We all do this-- we postpone our moment of joy until we’re financially secure, or we have risen to a certain position at work, or we are surrounded by adoring family members who love us without any tension or conflict.

How many times do I hear people tell me how they refuse to be happy until someone apologizes for something they said a month, a year, or ten years ago? Or people who are so wracked with guilt over something they did, that now they cannot find any real peace and contentment.

And then there are all those folks who are anxious about what happens tomorrow.

I think the point about my friend’s story is that those moments of joy that we long for are available to us right now. They’re under our noses, so to speak. They involve being awake, and aware, and open. They can’t really be earned, but we can be ready at a moment’s notice if we’re fully present.

And then I think about how many times Jesus said just that about the Kingdom… that it’s right here amongst us, and that we must stay awake, and be ready.

Happiness, the peaceful joy that we seek…it’s not far off. And while we can’t earn it or make it happen, we can practice for it and be ready, like being ready to catch a ball.

How can we practice?

We need to find time in our lives to play, to be like children again. We may not be able to recover our innocence, but we can set some time aside each day to do something we love, something that makes us feel alive, something that totally engages us in a moment of creativity, or fun. How do you like that, a priest telling you to have fun!

It also demands that we be fully present, and that means not dwelling in the past, or fretting about the future. Joy happens right now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. An 18th century Jesuit named Jean de Caussade called this experience the sacrament of the present moment.

It is a simple thing. After living in various poor countries, it struck me that the problem with being rich is that it seems to take more and more money to make people happy, if that can ever be the way to true happiness in the first place.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people take ridiculous satisfaction in the simple things, catching a fish, building a wooden box, cooking a meal, or picking ripe vegetables from a garden.

Finally, it seems to me that the secret to joy is a peaceful acceptance of that cosmic motion and change happening all around us.

There are some things we can hold on to, and yet most things are beyond our grasp. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, even Jesus, the Son of God, did not think that equality with God was something to be grasped at. Jesus, more than any of us, knew what to hold on to, and when to let go. It takes wisdom to know what we can hold on to, and when we need to let go.
I humbly submit, herein lies one of the deep secrets to the joy we seek.

I want to close with a quote from St. Theresa of Avila, a woman renowned for her sense of humor and her deep joy.

“From somber, serious, sullen saints, save us, O Lord!”

Monday, June 8, 2009

Finding Resonance Across Religious Traditions

A brief post- just got back from dinner with Venerable Robina Courtin, the Aussie Tibetan Buddhist nun I know through my friend Aliki in NYC. Remember that we had run into each other serendipitously on the same flight to Melbourne about a month ago. Robina has been fundraising for the many projects that she is supporting these days, in particular, a prison ministry to the incarcerated. We met up down at Manly Beach near Sydney for another deep chat about issues and themes of mutual interest... just a delight. It is wonderful and remarkable to me how people who deeply rooted in their religious traditions yet on a similar wavelength of mind and heart can have so much more in common rather than less. It gives me hope that despite the obvious tensions that arise between people of different faiths, that when we stay close to our experience and put our energies into practical affairs oriented toward the common good, we can collaborate for the benefit and wellbeing of human society.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trinity Sunday: A Communion of Love

Just got back from the weekend in Canberra, the capital of Australia, where Dan White, a tertian from the Missouri Province and I enjoyed the hospitality of the Jesuit Community there and spent a few days exploring the museums. I forget how nice it is to take a weekend away every once in a while... (I know, these eight months here in Australia aren't exactly heavy lifting).

Today as the Catholic Church celebrates Trinity Sunday, I am reminded of the great mystery we contemplate in the triune nature of God. Karl Rahner S.J., perhaps the most important Catholic theologian of the 20th Century reputedly said that if we try to make the mystery of the Trinity too clear and concrete, we commit heresy, and if we make the mystery so unintelligible and remote, this is a heresy too. So what can we say?

I am very moved by the depiction of the Trinity by the Russian icon painter, Andrei Rubliev, which portrays the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the three angels who come to Abraham and his wife Sarah, announcing that they will have a son in their old age and become the progenitors of a new people (see the Book of Genesis). In the way they are depicted, the angels leave a space at the table and seem to be inviting the person contemplating the icon to join them. I have the sense that there is a profound insight in the artist's depiction... that the loving communion-community of the Trinity is not exclusive, but radically inclusive, and that each of us are invited to participate in that community through our own life of love/love of life. In fact, I believe that when we express love in and through our relationships, commitments, creativity, and service, it is the living and dynamic energy of God that is being manifest in us.

The Greek Orthodox tradition describes the relationship between the three Divine persons as the perichoresis, the dance, and suggests that as we are drawn into closer communion with God through contemplation, worship, and loving action, we join the dance as well. I hope that each of us in our own way experience the joy of this dance!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Talking About Faith 3

A friend commented that he was interested in my own experience of faith and wondered whether I am writing to express my own experience in these last two posts. I'd have to say that even though I grew up in a family practicing Catholicism, was baptised as a baby, received Communion, went to a Catholic grade school and all that, I feel a deep affinity with people who live from a less formally religious, more intuitive sense of faith. It is hard to explain, but there is something about the rawness and authenticity of such expressions of faith that resonates with me.

A friend once told me about his experiences in Vietnam, for instance. He said that while he grew up Catholic, he never took God seriously until he found himself crying out in desperation at a particularly dark point, "Are you there?" "Please, help me." He shared this with me as if to suggest that in foxholes, people who previously have never given God a second thought suddenly pray as if their lives depend on it. This may be true, but I would never judge a person for reaching out beyond themselves in a moment of absolute crisis. In fact, the word "precarious" means something along the lines of being brought to such a limit/edge that they begin to pray. It is natural that when we are functioning fine under our own steam, that we might neglect to take God into account. But when we are brought to our knees and our poor egos have nowhere else to turn, that we lose our illusion of self-sufficiency and discover our contingency on something/someone greater.

I know, all this is pretty heavy and you might be looking for pictures of cute koalas and kangaroos, but for some reason I feel compelled to be sharing these things these days. I know many people who are living at their limits these days, and feeling the vulnerability of their own fragile lives, or of the fragile lives of loved ones. And I want them to know that it is just fine to be turning to God in these times, if even for the first time in their lives. And that there is a sustaining power in patience and holding steady, in reaching out for help, in letting the tears flow with trust and confidence that LIFE flows on.

On a hopefully uplifting note, a poem by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Mary Oliver, Thirst

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Talking About Faith 2

In the first post on faith, I was reflecting on the act of faith as distinct from the content of beliefs that we tend to associate with religion. One element that I neglected to include is the kind of existential openness that we might call awe, reverence, or sense of the sublime nature of existence. If I am not mistaken, this capacity for standing in relationship to mystery is a dimension of our naturally spiritual human experience. Even those who do not espouse belief in God (though I would ask, what God people are rejecting?) will admit to feeling a sort of wonder when they hold a newborn, or when they experience the breathtaking beauty of the Grand Canyon, or Uluru, or the Milky Way. I worry though, about people who consider themselves devoutly religious, yet do not leave room for such feeling -- those whose religions are about answers rather than questions, and certitude rather than faith.

Our Tertian director, Fr. Adrian Lyons, S.J. wrote a book called Imagine Believing, wherein he says "faith, at its best, is a way of knowing, a way of being in the world and a way of acknowledging that we human persons are not alone. Indeed, we never were. To be human is to be in dialogue."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Talking about Faith

During the next three weeks, we are exploring a number of themes and issues in our morning conferences, including faith, social justice, and the history of the Jesuits. Yesterday, we began the conversation about faith with some thought provoking reflections, some of which I will share here. As you can imagine, sitting around with a bunch of Jesuit discussing a topic like faith is not exactly entertaining, but I hope that it might at least interesting. The views I present here are not intended to represent the perspectives of others let alone any consensus of the group (you probably know the that where two or three Jesuits gather, there are bound to be more than two or three often conflicting views).

First of all, what is faith? While many people tend to think immediately of religious beliefs, I tend to agree with those who make a distinction between faith and the content of what we believe. I tend to see faith as a quality of what it means to be human, that it is a self-transcending openness and desire for something/someone ultimate in our lives... a sort of tacit assumption in the trustworthy goodness of reality, and a willingness to be in relationship, even to depend on or be interdependent on an other. In a sense, when I say I have faith, I am saying that I believe in something or someone. I am saying I can imagine a future in which things unfold on behalf of our highest benefit (even if this involves temporary suffering), and that there is a potential in a person, an organization, in human society itself-- that will emerge when the conditions are right.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons I begin with this more fundamental assumption of faith as a dimension of our being human is that people who are not religious believers can and do join in the conversation on these terms. These days, the willingness to share experience at this very basic level seems more relevant as many people do not consider themselves religious in the formal sense; yet, we all must find ways of working together for our common future.

Contemporary challenges from the global economic collapse to climate change demand that we engage together on behalf of our world... tapping into a hopeful and constructive imagination of a more peaceful, just, and sustainable human society. Such a society requires people working together across religious and secular boundaries. If I am not mistaken, such collective labor for the common good requires tapping into this essential human quality, and a felt sense of good will. Does this make sense? Perhaps I am being to idealistic?

Tomorrow I will continue on this topic, so feel free to leave a comment and weigh in.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Our Day in Sydney Harbour on the Sailboat "Love and War"

Despite threat of rain squalls all day, and more than a few showers, our tertian class enjoyed a day in Sydney Harbour on a famous sailboat, Love and War, three time winner of the Sydney/Hobart Classic ('74,'78, 2006). She was built for a man named Peter Kurts, whose brother Philip was an Aussie Jesuit. For the last several years, Philip's nephew has invited the tertians to come out for a spin the habour, and this year we couldn't let a little rain hold us back.

The story of the 2006 victory in the Hobart Classic is fairly famous due to the age of this boat ('73), relative to the rest of the competition. For the full story, check out the coverage at:

A little crazy, but they let me take the wheel. Behind me is Lindsay May, the captain of the 2006 team.

With such a capable crew, the tertians knew they could relax and enjoy the scenery!

I don't know if you can see it in the background over the city, but there is a trace of one of the many rainbows we saw that day. A real treat!