Two nights ago I witnessed an annual event which has become one of my favorite events of the entire year: the Christmas pageant at my daughters’ school. We have the best music teacher ever there, and what she gets the children to do is magnificent. Last year, it was drumming modeled after the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics; this year it was a walk through salvation history with song and dance. (My 4th grader was positively outstanding in the dance–no bias though– and my 1st grader belted out a perfect innkeeper line in the nativity story. Wow.)
John O’Malley, SJ, the distinguished historian of the early Jesuits describes the early Jesuit schools and their emphasis on theater, among other things. He describes the way that this emphasis reflected a distinctive Jesuit mode of learning. The Spiritual Exercises invites retreatants to use their imagination and to apply their senses in prayer: see the holy family traveling to Bethlehem; smell the dust and the donkey on which Mary rides; taste the grit from the road in your mouth; feel the sweat and the heat and the flies; hear the frustrated mumblings of Joseph as he gets another “no” at the door of the inn. What strikes me about our Christmas pageant is that it reflects this approach to prayer, allowing the children to dwell for a time in the story of God’s creative and redemptive work in creation.
Now, much as I’m an idealist most of the time, I try not to soar too far above gritty reality. I know most of the kids in the girls’ classes, and I know that they, like us, sometimes aim slightly lower than the bull’s eye. (The occasional shrieks and crashes during play dates reminds me that these cherubs aren’t always perfect.) But what absolutely bowled me over during the pageant was the orchestration of these young people–the concerted effort to direct their individual free wills toward something beautiful. Dostoyevsky (in The Idiot) suggested that the world will be saved by beauty; I was reminded of this line while watching (especially) the fourth graders’ balletic dancing to the words “For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits…truly my hope is in you.”
One of the enigmatic elements of the Spiritual Exercises is Ignatius’ insistence that we must think with the Church (Exx. 352 ff). I take this to mean that we must learn when to relinquish our notions of the good we must do, in order to be part of God’s orchestration of our lives and the lives of others. “Thy will be done,” because alone our lives are not as beautiful as that great good to which God calls us in the upbuilding of the kingdom. I’m sure Mary had ideas of how to live well which were abolished with her fiat, her “let it be done.” I too have hope that God will show me what role I am to play. For now, I am happy to have been reminded of this hope in the pageant.