One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Thursday, April 15, 2021

Goa, Saint Francis and Me

McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, India
April 7, 2014

Part of this article was written for the publication of "Spiritual Journeys" by a group of former Jesuits.



One Sunday this past February, my partner and I went to the English mass at the Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa. We were initially directed towards that queue, but after some negotiation, we found our way into a back pew in the main church. During mass people venerating Saint Francis Xavier wind through the courtyard of the Jesuit residence and pass his shrine, a small Baroque style altar where what’s left of his body is encased in glass.

I began to feel at home with the familiarity of the Jesuit ceremony, and was able to pay more attention. The priest’s sermon was not easy to follow. He struggled to connect Xavier’s religious enthusiasm to martyrdom, comparing the Saint’s remarkable life with the current situation of Christians in India. But Xavier died a natural death and, though they might feel persecuted, Christians in India are generally very well accepted. In fact in Goa, they pretty much control everything. I gave up on following the Jesuit’s exhortations, and drifted off, studying the congregation, mostly Indians, and certainly, as English speakers, well educated. They were not paying much attention to the sermon either, women looking after crying children, men closing their eyes and nodding, in many ways similar to the Irish American parish of my childhood.

The sermon and the ceremony were also disconnected from what was happening at the side altar where men, women, and children, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, pushed their way forward towards the barely visible body of the saint. We’d seen almost identical scenes at the many temples, mosques, shrines, gurdwaras we’ve visited across India, people seeking healing, relief from suffering, forgiveness for a personal transgression, blessings for a new marriage, a prayer for a child’s good fortune, or perhaps even a superstitious belief that touching his statue would produce a child. To be honest it felt disconnected from the Catholic, Jesuit saint I thought I knew, but it was real.

I turned my attention back to the altar and suddenly felt deep compassion, even kinship with the Indian Jesuit. He was obviously a competent, educated, thoughtful, even a devout, spiritual man who was sincerely trying to connect our messy lives with another dimension. With any luck, I might have turned out like him, but in that same moment, I also realized why I’d left the Society.

After I graduated from Dartmouth in 1966, over the objections of my parents, I entered the Jesuits, and stayed for more than a decade. When time came for me to be ordained, I took a leave of absence and extended it for 2 years before I asked to be relieved of religious vows. During that exclaustration, I realized that I had to confront, and deal with coming out as a gay man, my addictive personality, and, at the time, I thought that the most effective path was psychological work rather than prayer or meditation.

I had of course done the spiritual exercises of Father Ignatius many times. The experience was rich. When I was trying to decide whether to leave or stick it out, I undertook them again as well as trying to recreate some of that experience through a study of the enneagram, and beginning Buddhist meditation practice. Then for more than three decades, I either wore the designation “ex-Jesuit” as a badge of honor, and disavowed any value in my religious training except on the rare occasion when I ran into someone from that era.

Twenty-five years ago a chance meeting with a Zen priest who was starting a hospice for people with AIDS turned my attention back to meditation practice. It also allowed me to carefully trace the roots of suffering through a spiritual practice that is agnostic with regard to any particular religious system of beliefs.

Today my experience in the Society of Jesus grows dim, like a series of events in a very distant land, but what remains is a sense of intimacy that feels indelible and timeless. Most of the struggles of my youth, coming out in an unaccepting culture, finding a spiritual expression that suited me, have faded into the background. I no longer seek the kind of answers that I demanded years ago.

I regard spirituality as reflecting on the questions that life presents squarely, and I value seeing things through to the end, even things that did not turn out well. Most of the ordinary language of spiritual conversation feels inadequate. If I describe my particular path as a series of transitions, I feel I’m being melodramatic. Speaking of a path or a journey sounds like I just bought some nifty running shoes to train for a marathon at my unlikely age.

That morning in Goa, I didn’t feel distant or unconnected, but rather like I’d just grown up and realized that even if my life amounted to only a brief second, in that time I could leave things better than I found them, that I was not alone, and that the universe is vast and awe-inspiring.

__________________


The Experience of the Spiritual Exercises is indelible.

I entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, on August 15th 1966 at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Massachusetts. After a few months to acclimate to the schedule of getting up at 5:25 and bed at 9:30, the first year novices were guided through the Spiritual Exercises. For a full month, the whole community was totally focused on the discipline of the Exercises, as strict as the discipline of any Zen hall--total silence, 7 hours of contemplation very day, an unwavering methodical sequence of meditations, invocations and most importantly, in retrospect, the Examen.

The bell that alerted us to prayer, or mass, or spiritual reading, or the daily conferences with the Master of novices, was not a beautiful, clear temple bell. Rather it had the urgency of the alarm that gets firemen out of bed in the middle of the night. We were not to be monks dedicated to a life of prayer within exclusionary monastic walls. We were being trained to pray hard and work hard for the Kingdom of God.

After we took religious vows, every year we dedicated 8 days to the exercises. These were the heady days that followed Vatican II, so the strict retreat format, the fire and brimstone of the 1st week, for example, had fallen into disfavor.

Now more than 50 years later it is hard to believe that the Exercises had such a visceral effect, creating an opening for an experience of the Transcendent in the way that they did. I remember as a teenager reading Joyce’s description of the preacher's sermon on Hell in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. My Novice Master, Fr. T. J. C. O'Callaghan may have lacked the dramatic flair of Joyce’s retreat master, but he followed the same script to create a picture of the fiery world of the unforgivable. That, combined with a retreat environment created by the 80 men who shared the life of the novitiate, the silence, the liturgies, the homilies, the food, and the penances, our lives were geared to the meditations of 4 weeks of the Exercises.

I remained in the Society until 1976. But 5 years before I left, I began to realize that traditional rigidity of religious life was not going to be a happy fit for me. Leaving the Jesuits was a difficult choice. I had been very happy studying theology and exploring religious practice, and I wanted to show the same respect for my choice to abandon the Society as my choice to take religious vows. And so I undertook the Exercises again in a form called the 19th annotation. In place of 30 days of seclusion and intense prayer, I dedicated an hour every day for almost a year and, with a director, followed the order of prayer and meditation that Ignatius set within the four weeks. I was already practicing both zazen and vipassana meditation by then, and though I didn’t consciously try to blend the two practices, that is in fact exactly what I was doing.

I cannot cut myself off from the life-giving roots in the Exercises. For most successful Jesuits, the Exercises have been grafted into their bones. I was not immune—it can even happen in 10 years. I have discovered several links between meditation practice and Ignatian discipline. I have written about two aspects, the Examen and the Discernment of Spirits. If you want to read further, follow the links on the Page “Writings about Father Ignatius.”



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