Week of Gratitude

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today. Take a few moments before the feast to contemplate the true gifts we’re celebrating this day. Be inspired by some of the words shared during the Week of Gratitude, hosted by Paul Brian Campbell, SJ, at his blog, People for Others.

For the old, creaky wood floors and the chipped paint; for the plaster falling from the ceiling and the hissing radiators; for the neighbors who never smile and the ones that always do; for the many flights of stairs and the warm light from thrift-store lamps …I’m grateful for an apartment that feels like home.

Kerry Weber

I’m grateful for less, however little of less I’ve achieved. After years of contemplative prayer, I can’t tell if I’ve made any “progress.” I notice, however, that I’m saying a bit less these days, especially when I’m tempted to impress someone with a witty remark, light teasing, or something else that might be seen as impressive. I hold my tongue and almost immediately I realize that my remark would have just complicated the situation, leading to more chatter and useless agitation that the world really doesn’t need.

Richard Cole

I continue to find new things along the Ignatian path. This year it was the writing of St. Peter Faber. He wrote, “Everywhere there is good to be done, everywhere there is something to be planted and harvested. For we are indebted to all men in every condition and in every place.”

Jim Manney

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November 27, 2014

This close to Thanksgiving, the word “pilgrim” has one meaning for Americans. But we’re all pilgrims in life, as St. Ignatius knew. In this video, Fr. John Murphy, SJ, articulates our pilgrim goal: “The goal is happiness. The goal is knowledge of Jesus. The goal is knowledge of the self.”

If you’re receiving this via e-mail, click through to watch the video Pilgrims.

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November 26, 2014

Arts & Faith: Advent - Exploring sacred art during a season of hopeEach week of Advent, we’ll provide an Ignatian prayer for you, inspired by a video from Arts & Faith: Advent.

The video and prayer for the First Week of Advent, Cycle B, is based on Mark 13:33–37.

“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.”

—Mark 13:35

Preparation

As we begin this time of quiet prayer, I invite you to find a comfortable place to sit with your back straight and your legs planted on the ground. Allow yourself to notice your breathing as you breathe normally. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Take a few moments and close your eyes, preparing yourself to listen to what God may be saying to you during this prayer. As you sit with your eyes closed, use these or similar words: “Here I am, Lord. Here I am.” When you are ready, open your eyes and pray.

Inviting in the Visitor

Imagine you are sitting in a small room in a house that is surrounded by farmland and woods. You have come here to seek the quiet and calm. The busy life of work, family, and the city have made you feel anxious and unfocused. You know you need something; you need some time to let your mind be quiet and your heart open. Quiet and open—those words sound so peaceful and desirable but unreachable. The room is simple: a bed, a desk, and a wooden chair. The walls are bare. You’ve brought books to read and a journal to write in, but you can’t seem to do anything but sit on the chair and absorb the silence, even as you feel restless.

As you sit in the silence, you hear a faint sound like a knock on the door. Your heart races, Who knows I’m here? I need to be alone, you think. The knocking becomes louder. As much as you want to stay in the room, something moves you to go to the door. The knock comes again, but it’s a soft knock. As you approach the door, you see a light streaming under it. “Hello. Can I help you?” you say without opening the door. A soft voice says, “It’s me. I’ve been looking for you.” Something deep inside you stirs, but you are confused. “Who are you? Do I know you?” you say. “Yes. But we have not talked in a long time. I’ve missed you,” he says. You open the door.

Standing there is Jesus. His eyes look at you with such tenderness. He carries a small lantern that gives off a bright, warm light. You stand there, unable to speak at first, allowing yourself to take in his presence and his light. You speak to Jesus. What do you say to him? How does Jesus respond to you? You invite Jesus into the house. You sit and tell him of the restlessness you feel. As you talk to Jesus, a wave of peace and calm washes over you like the warm light streaming from his lantern. “Rest. Be still. You opened the door. Now let me take care of you,” Jesus says. You close your eyes and let his words embrace you. Your heart is at peace, and your mind is still. When you open your eyes, Jesus is gone. Sitting beside the chair where he sat is the lantern, still emitting that bright, warm light. You smile and rest in the glow of the light.

Concluding Prayer

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Amen.

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November 25, 2014

stones

I have a little bag of pebbles. They’re so attractive that I use them as visual aids for retreats and workshops.

One day during a retreat in Ireland, I spread out the stones on a table. To my delight, one morning I find two of the participants poring over them, handling them as if they were diamonds, and marveling to one another.

When I express my surprise, they explain that they have been missionaries in Zimbabwe, and that many of these pebbles come from that part of the world. They tell me how they used to collect them from ancient riverbeds. They know every one of them by name and can tell me all about it.

Just a bag of pebbles to me. But to them, each one has a name and a story.

Just like people. We see the anonymous crowds, but they are made up of unique individuals, beloved and beautiful, each carrying a sacred story.

—Excerpted from Compass Points by Margaret Silf.

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November 24, 2014

On a recent Monday morning I climbed up the sun-drenched stairs to my office, my bag slung over my shoulder, my lunch balanced precariously on a stack of papers and books, the last notes of sung Morning Prayer dancing through my head. And then I saw it—a manila envelope peeking out of the bin by my door—and sun and song vanished with a small pop.

A manila envelope that someone has taken the effort to leave outside my door, rather than consign to the plodding pace of campus mail, is a portent of trouble, and complicated troubles at that. I left it in the bin while I bustled about putting away my papers and books and lunch. When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I grabbed it, emptied the contents onto my desk—and blinked.

manila envelope

A stack of index cards, each with a message in bright marker, tumbled out. “I love your class!” “You make chemistry interesting and fun.” “Thanks for the cookies. :)”

Thank you, each of them said, not with a dashed “thx,” but with wonderfully wrought expressions of gratitude for the routine things I do. Preparing lectures and having office hours. And a few for untangling the difficulties that hide in manila envelopes.

One of the gifts of the Examen in my life has been the way in which it makes gratitude more of a habit, opening my eyes to see the graces in my morning cup of tea or reminding me to look up at the sky and to thank God for the routine miracles of caffeine and sunrises. Yet this manila envelope of gratitude made me wonder if I’ve been avoiding peering deeply inside of the difficult moments, to remember with gratitude that God is equally present there. Do I respond with a rushed eyes-squinted-shut-thanks-for-that, or can I unhesitatingly open my eyes to what is hidden inside the events of my life, even the events that open into swirling chaos and pain, and be grateful for the specific graces inevitably entangled within them?

Last week, my youngest brother’s wife was rushed to the hospital, critically ill. That night, I sent him a short message, ending with a blessing drawn from St. Patrick’s Lorica, “May you know that Christ is with you both, under your feet, behind you and beside you.” He said in response that he had been clinging to that prayer throughout the long and terrible day, asking for the grace to look for God’s presence in the terror and grief, to be grateful for what he could see in each moment. I was, and remain, humbled by his willingness to open his eyes and look for God in the midst of such terrible times.

There have been miracles over the last two days, for which I am indescribably grateful. But I am immeasurably grateful, too, for the lessons which open my eyes to the terrible beauty of God at work.

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November 21, 2014

child grateful for gift

Gratitude is not optional in the faith journey. It is central.

Gratitude is not simply remembering to say “Thank you.” There is a difference between the child who is taught to say “Thank you,” and the child who is truly grateful. The words are not necessary when we see the joy and appreciation of child engaged with something that has been a gift. All children really need to do to show gratitude is to include us in their expressions of enthusiasm.

Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying “Thank you.” Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.

It is only in the last few years that I have become more acutely aware of the centrality of gratitude. I think in some ways it can be used as a hallmark for some degree of spiritual maturity. It’s the move away from the self-centered adolescent, “Thanks so much!” followed swiftly by, “But what I’d really like is…” to the more mature, “I have done nothing to deserve these riches.”

There is a difference between the person who is unsatisfied because he desires a greater sense of connection with God and the person who knows that there is far more to the spiritual journey than she currently experiences but is content to let God lead the way. The latter is a position of gratitude, an acknowledgement that God has led one thus far and will lead one on in God’s good time. Both may experience the desire for more, but the former can only see what he lacks, while the latter focuses on what she has.

In a society which is focused on the next goal, the next success, the next whatever, gratitude is countercultural. In truth, gratitude is the first step on the pathway to true freedom in God.

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November 20, 2014

Vinita Hampton Wright shares this imaginative prayer exercise with us, based on Luke 24: 13–35, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Listen to an audio version of this guided reflection here.

Supper at Emmaus by Matthias Stom [public domain]

It’s a long walk home from Jerusalem, but you’re glad for the exertion. The physical work of walking might ease, just slightly, the harder work that’s going on inside you today.

It is the work of grief. You lost a friend just a few days ago. Not only a friend, but your leader, your beloved teacher. And he didn’t simply die; he was executed in the most torturous, shameful way. You’ve seen a lot in your lifetime, but the memories of Jesus’ ordeal are forever branded into your memory. You close your eyes and see blood; you go to sleep but dream about someone suspended, gasping for air.

At least your friend is with you—both of you followed the teacher, with equal conviction and enthusiasm. So you bear your grief together now. As you walk and walk through the long, rainy afternoon, you encourage better memories—of all that the teacher said, of the people you know whom Jesus healed. You can’t seem to stop talking, although several times one or both of you must stop talking because you must cry for a while.

The stranger joins you while you are still several miles from home. Within moments, it’s clear that this person has no idea what has been going on in Jerusalem. With great heaviness and some annoyance, you fill in the barest details for him. All you have to say is “crucifixion” and anyone in Roman territories knows exactly what you’re talking about.

But the stranger engages in the conversation with great energy. He must be some kind of teacher, because he launches into an explanation of how Jesus’ fate is actually a good thing and the proper fulfillment of what was predicted long ago. This is fascinating—you and your friend are all ears. Before you know it, you’ve arrived at your home and it’s getting dark.

You invite the stranger to have supper with you and spend the night, rather than risk injury or other misfortune while on the road at night alone. Also you want to hear more of what he has to say. He graciously accepts your offer.

The first thing you do upon entering the house is prepare the evening meal. The three of you sit down to eat. Then the stranger takes the bread and blesses it. You feel a strange energy move through you and hover in the room.

Where have you heard this sort of blessing before?

The stranger hands each of you a piece of the bread. You take it, and memory washes over you—of a hillside with thousands of hungry people. Of a few loaves and fishes being transformed in an instant to miraculous abundance.

Suddenly, it is clear who this man is, eating at your table. You look into his face.

What do you see? What is his expression? What do you feel? What do you know in the truth of your heart?

Your friend has barely gotten the words out—“Why, it’s the Lord!”—when the stranger vanishes.

The room still feels strangely warm, and there are waves of that energy, like lightning sparking all over the room. You and your friend stare at one another, and finally you say, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he explained the Scriptures? Didn’t we know something even then—we just couldn’t identify it?”

You finish your meal—what a healing pleasure to eat the bread blessed by those hands! But then you look at each other and know what you must do. You head back to Jerusalem. You have to tell Jesus’ other followers who are still there in the city.

What is your conversation like on the way back?

You are traveling at night—something you never do, for safety’s sake. What does it feel like to be on the road at such a strange hour?

What thoughts keep running through your mind on this journey?

How has your perspective changed, now that you have met the resurrected Jesus?

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November 19, 2014

man in silhouette after bad day

My husband has a habit that I find both irritating and wise all at once. When I come home after a really bad day at work, the first thing he asks me is, “What are you thankful for today?” While he knows that he’ll be greeted with my pithy retort of, “I’m thankful it’s over,” he also knows that in that one quick exchange he has refocused me. That question forces me away from my bleak and self-pitying outlook on the day and reminds me that I ought to be thankful that I had the day to begin with.

Gratitude is quite possibly the greatest weapon God gives us against despair. When we take the time to be grateful, it diverts our gaze toward the light rather than the darkness. This theme of gratitude in the bleakest moments is all over the Bible. As they began their ministry, the apostles were persecuted, flogged, and threatened. Their response to this, though, was to rejoice that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of God. They saw the light in the midst of darkness, and it gave them what they needed to keep on with their ministry. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is described as “anxious” to eat the Passover meal with the apostles, and he gives thanks during that meal. He knew it was his last, he knew one of his apostles would betray him, and yet he found a little bit of light in that dark day.

St. Ignatius clearly recognized the power of gratitude. He suggested gratitude as a central part of the Examen, ensuring that retreatants, the Jesuits, and all whom they guide and teach come into the practice of seeing the good that God grants them each day of their lives. It’s perfect training for those periods of desolation—a light toward consolation.

I challenge you, the next time life seems to push you down at every turn or you’re just having a lousy day, to take some time to consider the question that irritates me: What are you thankful for today? It might seem like an insurmountable challenge in some circumstances. If that’s the case, Padre Pio offers you this ounce of hope, “The most beautiful act of faith is the one made in darkness, in sacrifice, and with extreme effort.”

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November 18, 2014

I’ve recently pondered how the theme of God’s justice fits into the Spiritual Exercises. Our traditional understanding of justice is getting what one deserves. God’s justice, however, is more about a desire for us to be whole, based in love and compassion.

God’s justice is about a desire for us to be whole. - scales of justice

St. Ignatius was a Castilian military man, part of a justice system of fighting, capturing, and revenge. After the Castilians captured and occupied the land of Navarre, the citizens tried to drive them out and in the battle they besieged Ignatius’s family castle. In Ignatius’s autobiography he tells how he considered taking revenge on a traveler who spoke ill of the Blessed Mother. Ignatius’s view of justice was very different from God’s justice.

The transformation of Ignatius’s understanding of justice appears in the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, when a retreatant spends time recounting his or her personal sin. After a feeling of self-loathing for one’s sin, the retreatant discovers that God has remained faithful and loving, and that the saints continue to pray for him or her.

The Second Week opens up the reflection to social sin as well. We witness how Jesus revealed the reality of systemic sin and corrupt systems of justice in his day. Jesus’ justice was about calling people like the Pharisees or the adulterous woman to greater wholeness. His justice was not about condemnation, but about compassionate love.

In the Third Week of the Exercises, God’s justice plays out on the cross, not condemning the world for their sin but taking it upon himself. On the cross Christ forgives his killers. It’s a kind of justice that’s foreign to human nature.

Finally, the Fourth Week reveals God’s justice through the gift of love that pours out upon us, bringing us healing and wholeness. The Exercises describe “justice, goodness, mercy, etc., descend[ing] from above as the rays of light descend from the sun, and as the waters flow from their fountains, etc.” (SE 237)

How do we live out God’s justice in our lives? We can learn from the Spiritual Exercises and the example of Jesus. God remains faithful, forgives, calls everyone to greater wholeness, never condemns, and pours out love and mercy. Instead of taking revenge or trying to ensure perfect fairness, we can approach all (including ourselves) with compassion and a desire to make whole. This is true justice.

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November 17, 2014

man showing burnout, anguish, and pain - hands over face

Ever have a gut-wrenching day? Not just a hard day, but a day when you felt like there was nothing left inside of you but ache? Maybe it was the day your teenager screamed at you for the umpteenth time and slammed the door in your face. Maybe it was the day you had to put your beloved pet to sleep, or the day you had to walk away from an unhealthy relationship. I had one of those days. And as I sobbed through my prayer, the Voice I could hear in my heart just repeated, “But you did the right thing.” That was my only consolation.

So often in Ignatian spirituality we practice finding God by taking time out to see the beauty of this world. Our consolations are found in the warmth of a morning cup of coffee tasted in the stillness of a sunrise. Or in the laughter of the grandchild with spaghetti on her face. Or in the affirmation of success, a friend’s call, or an invitation accepted. Consolation becomes synonymous with happiness and joy, and at times it is.

But other times it isn’t. Consolation isn’t always easy.

Ignatian spirituality is about transformation, moving ourselves closer to the persons God calls us to be. Transformation is hard. It can hurt. It can mean at times you have to leave behind all you were raised with and told to be true for that which your heart now can’t deny. It can lead you to a point of wondering, “Why would God ask this of me?” and wanting to say, “No, this is too hard. I can’t do it.” It can break your heart. But you know it is the right thing to do.

Consolation doesn’t have to be about ethics or compliance, but knowing in your gut to take the courageous next step. You may not feel joy about it. You certainly may not be happy. It may ache for a while. But somewhere in that ache, you will feel an arm around you and rest your head on the shoulder of Christ, exhausted, knowing you are one step closer to being the person you were created to be.

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November 14, 2014