Week Eternity: Abide in Me
I invite you to pray with the first few verses of chapter fifteen from the Gospel of St. John. Take as many minutes, hours or days as you wish to pray with St. John. There is no hurry.
The Ignatian Examen that inspires Sacred Story prayer became an active part of my Jesuit life in 1994. Having entered the Society of Jesus in 1973, I had already lived for twenty years as a Jesuit—eight of those years as a priest. My practice of this prayer was inconstant for many years. By most measures, one could say that I had a Christian vocation. I mean this in much the same way that one looking at a Catholic married couple with children or a single person doing service work would agree that each of these persons have a Christian vocation.
A life of prayer and daily Mass, a yearly eight-day retreat, and a fair amount of theological living (faith-oriented reading plus lots of God/Church conversations) made me feel I had a real religious life. And I did. The question for me had become instead: was I fully living a Christian vocation? The answer to that is much more complex. For simplicity’s sake, let me say that I have learned more clearly that a Christian vocation is not equivalent to simply belonging to a religious order. To use an analogy, a Christian marriage is different from being Catholic and married with children.
My Christian vocation requires that I daily open myself to Jesus and allow my actions, emotions, desires, loves, hurts, fears, and plans (especially my precious plans), to be shared with and shaped by Jesus’ influence. Sharing means that I submit myself to Jesus and let Him have a say in what I am doing and who I am daily becoming, what I hold on to and what I relinquish. Acting in a Christian way means that I no longer belong to myself. Rather, I belong to Christ.
Some good friends of mine who have been married for several years recently shared with me one of the biggest adjustments they have had to make as a result of being married. They can no longer make plans in blissful isolation but have to consult with each other about practically every aspect of their lives. This consultative sharing can be both a joy and an annoyance. Each one is called out of the prison of their own ego and invited to love, sacrifice, and make adjustments so that the other can grow and flourish. We really grow when we are called out of ourselves. But there is joy in sharing intimately in the life of the Beloved. We are created for the joy of sharing intimately in the life of the other. We are made in the image and likeness of God who is relationship .
A Christian vocation requires an intimate relationship with Christ. It requires making this relationship a priority on a daily basis. Sacred Story prayer, more than any other spiritual discipline I have encountered in my forty years in religious life, brings me face-to-face with Christ in a relationship that calls me out of myself. It is the most effective path that has enabled me to be true to the man and priest that God desires me to be. It is not always easy and I do not want to minimize the challenge it has been in terms of my honesty and openness. It is a joy and an annoyance for exactly the same reasons as any serious relational commitment. I have had moments of aggravation and difficulty in praying Sacred Story. I have also experienced times when I did not want to pray because I knew I would be confronted with things I would prefer to ignore.
Here is a typical example. Some time ago, I was struggling internally with someone who, I judged, had wronged me. I was hurt, frustrated, and upset from what I perceived to be an injustice against myself. I discovered I was not at all upset when this person experienced misfortunes, for I felt this person deserved it. In prayer, I was not speaking with Jesus about this person. Instead I found myself rehearsing conversations in my head about how I had been wronged. My focus was on myself.
One day I was awakened to my lack of Christian charity. Instinctively I understood that I needed to bring my feelings about this person to Jesus and yet, I resisted. A part of my heart wanted to simply rehearse my justified hurts. It took several Sacred Story prayer periods for me to begin to speak from my heart to Christ about what I was feeling. The insight that I needed to reach out and forgive this person came in a split-second. I was also able to accept some of the fault lines in my own personality which may have contributed to the initial difficulties. It is amazing how that clarity comes with honesty. This was a graced experience!
However, upon leaving the time of Sacred Story prayer, a new inspiration took hold. Perhaps it is unwise to forgive? I could lose ground. The re-emerging frustration and darkened spirit—the counter-inspiration—accompanying this new inspiration was in marked contrast to the peacefulness I had experienced previously in the time of Sacred Story prayer. In testing the spiritual inspirations, it was clear which inspiration was from the Divine-Inspirer and which inspiration was from the counter-inspirer. Honestly, I was strongly tempted to ignore the truth of my spiritual discernment and go with the refusal to forgive. But I was being invited by God to disarm. I was invited to be vulnerable. It was an invitation to greater spiritual freedom, the freedom that Ignatius calls detachment. Freedom sounds good, but it is not something we always really want.
This event was a wake-up call because it clearly presented the difficult choice of forgiveness. It may sound odd but it gave me the conviction that Jesus is interested in everything I am doing. Every thought, word and deed I have is important to Christ. He wants to be part of everything I experience. Sacred Story, prayed faithfully, has made me aware of what being in relationship with Jesus means. I feel the effects of the surrender that is necessary for a real relationship with Jesus, and I feel it in a particularly powerful way twice a day. I have chosen to make spiritual surrender the center of my Jesuit life. And praying Sacred Story prayer has revealed how many areas of my daily life I keep off-limits from Christ.
A strong intellectual tradition is a characteristic of the Society of Jesus; it is a good in and of itself. But there is something that Ignatius wanted Jesuits to value above learning: virtue, the spiritual life, and the surrender of our will and our hearts to Christ. The human gifts we cultivate only reach their fruitfulness in light of a well-grounded spiritual life. In Section Ten of the Jesuit Constitutions, entitled “How the Whole Body of the Society is to be Preserved and Increased in its Well-being,” Ignatius says:
This advice is written for Jesuits, and for the care and growth of the Society of Jesus. Yet it offers good pragmatic Ignatian wisdom that is applicable to any vocation or situation in the Church. Human gifts and qualities reach their perfection and the height of their potency when the bearer of those gifts and/or qualities is grafted to the vine of Christ—when they surrender to Christ. This holds true for the talents of the athlete, the intellectual acumen of the college student, the artistic skills of the singer or architect, the healing gifts of the doctor or nurse, the ministry of religious and priests, the leadership skills of the politician and the professional business person, and the love of husband and wife for each other and their children.
The personal decision I face daily—twice daily—is how much of my life will I allow to be grafted onto the vine of Christ? How much will I allow myself to abide in His Love? Jesus must have been looking at grapevines when He spoke this passage from John’s Gospel. The vine or stalk is the source of all nutrients. Only shoots which grow directly from it, or have been grafted onto it, bear fruit. As I look back over my life, I can see that I have produced all sorts of fruit by my own effort. What has become a much more important question at this point is: how much of what I produce is the fruit of my relationship with Jesus? In other words, have I allowed myself to become a “daily disciple” of Jesus by being in relationship with Him? Am I grafted onto the vine of Christ?
The bottom line of my experience of Sacred Story is that I am being challenged to open all of my heart and my life to God’s grace. While the commitment to the Jesuits and the priesthood always felt full-time and lifelong, the relationship with Jesus seemed to have an on-again, off-again feel to it. Quite frankly, I was more in control than Christ. Now I feel that I have truly begun to commit to Jesus. Twice daily I need to come to Him with my ups and downs, my joys and angers, my loves and victories, my failures and grief, and my constant need.
My constant need: what does that mean? It means that Sacred Story prayer makes me more aware of my weakness, my failures, and my need for redemption. I have been graced with the eyes to see the reason for Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, more clearly than ever before. It is a sacrifice and grace I cannot live without. Perhaps it is the same discovery of the alcoholic or drug addict. One day, the addict finally wakes up and realizes that the life they thought they controlled is actually out of control.
The only way to salvation is to surrender to love’s sobriety and embrace. The alcoholic genuinely in touch with the truth of her/his life knows they are always recovering and are never fully recovered. One must live constantly with the knowledge of her/his vulnerability and turn to God for help and aid. It is a life of submission, humility, and holy dependence.
Is the invitation to submission, humility and holy dependence the best way for me to convince you to stay committed to Sacred Story prayer? Is this good marketing? Perhaps not, but I am convinced that while your issues may be different from mine, your experience will pull you into the same position of humility, submission, and dependency on God when confronted with the truth of your weakness and need.
What could possibly be attractive about living this way? Praying and living Sacred Story enables a person to be vulnerable, humbly submissive and dependent on God. I can rely on Jesus, who has promised to give me what I need: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.” (Jn 15: 7)
These words utterly change a person and their world view. Jesus offers this relationship so that my joy “may be full.” How so? Because I experience that even in the weakest and most vulnerable condition of my life, Love does not walk away from me. Love has irrevocably committed Himself to me. He sacrificed for me so that I could be whole, and He wants the knowledge of this great love to be known by me on the most intimate level. He has also promised that this life of discipleship gives great glory to the Father in heaven. Allowing oneself to abide in His love will bear fruit that will give glory to the Father of Jesus Christ. What an awesome reality!
At the beginning of a retreat or in my daily Sacred Story prayer, I try to commit to this relationship. The renewal of my vocational commitment to Christ in the daily engagement with Sacred Story prayer is a means to deepen the knowledge of my radical dependence on God. It fosters the joy of a personal relationship with Christ Jesus that grounds me and opens me up to the deepest yearnings of my heart.
The more I open my heart to a serious relationship with Christ, the more I come to understand the joy for which I have been created. You also have been created for this joy. That is why I am confident you will remain in the embrace of Sacred Story and the Lord Jesus who loves you beyond all reckoning. The Love that grounds the universe holds you in His Heart.
1 Thomas M. King, SJ, Teilhard’s Mass: Approaches to The Mass on the World (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2005) 120