In the footsteps of St Ignatius

I spent some time during my summer break walking through the countryside of Spain, taking in the land that held so much for St Ignatius as he journeyed to Montserrat and Manresa. I planned the pilgrimage as a holiday (and a nice segue into Arrupe Month, a formation programme for us that was to begin in Manresa) that included prayer and time for reflection but didn’t quite expect the depths that the experience brought me to. There’s a difference between a long multi-day hike, spiritual tourism and a pilgrimage. The first is a physical endeavour meant to challenge the person mainly on the physical level. Success is usually predicated on completing the journey comfortably within a reasonable period of time. The next is tourism that brings one to places of spiritual interest. One visits such places, prays and then moves on to the next. There can be deep spiritual insights and experiences from the trips but these can also be disparate and diffused. A pilgrimage infuses the physical with the spiritual, but instead of merely spiritualising the physical task of walking, it creates a new spirituality of the journey. We’re reminded while we’re on pilgrimage how we’re all pilgrims on a journey and how the Lord journeys with us all the time. We’re brought into an intimate confrontation of the reality of the world around us, allowing a glimpse into the world where God labours and how we’re invited to labour in the same world. What began as a long walk that included some spiritual bits quickly turned into a deeply felt pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Ignatius.

The pilgrimage in question was a fairly short one – the last 6 days of the Camino Ignaciana (Ignatian Way), a fairly new route that brings pilgrims from Loyola to Manresa, following the probable course that St Ignatius took, almost 500 years ago following his conversion. My intention was to walk the Catalonian section that ends in Manresa, arriving there just in time for the start of Arrupe Month. There was an intentional symbolism to that which deepened as the pilgrimage progressed. I was joined by György, a Hungarian scholastic from my community who shared in this desire to walk the way of Ignatius as a preparation for our Arrupe Month. The walk took us from Lleida, a town on the western end of Catalonia, through the agricultural plains of the state, past Verdu, the birthplace of St Peter Claver and then up to Montserrat before ending in Manresa.

Much can be written about the journey, about the ups and downs that were both literal and spiritual, about the raw natural beauty of the Catalonian countryside, about the wonderful people we met along the way. Suffice to say that the way, though only lasting six days, felt long at times. Greek poet Constantine Cavafy exhorted in Ithaka, a poem on the journey of Odysseus, to ‘pray the way be long’ and ‘don’t hurry the journey’ for one would be wealthy with what gains along the way. On pilgrimage, one gains wealth in insights and self-knowledge, in spiritual depth and consolation and a closeness to the Lord who journeys with us. Two aspects of being a pilgrim touched me greatly – that of vulnerability and the visceral experience of being on the road. These shall be the focus for the rest of this reflection.

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The pilgrims, with the sun before and behind them. Still on the journey without and within.

Being a pilgrim on foot, one quickly realises that one is the smallest and often most insignificant thing on the road. Apart from most animals which would stay away from the roads and trails anyway, humans on foot lie right at the bottom of the pecking order of humans in transit. We have to give way to everything and almost everything else has greater power. While drivers we met on the road were largely very friendly and very careful of us, the feeling of being quite weak and vulnerable in the face of everything else on the road enforces a sense of humility. Being out in the open for a large part of the day also opens one to the elements and everything that the sun, wind and rain can throw at one. The fierce midday sun and the occasional thunderstorms remind one how vulnerable we are to the elements and how small we can be in the grand scheme of things. Even the search for a suitable tree to offer some respite from the sun in the afternoons reminds one that we’re completely dependent on things around us. This vulnerability makes one more open and cognisant of one’s own frailty, weakness and even sins. I had a very intense recognition of my own humanity as the body sometimes just didn’t quite want to do what I wanted it to. Even getting a good night’s sleep after a long day couldn’t be taken for granted and one realises that even a good rest is a grace that we receive all the time but don’t quite appreciate. Despite our frailty, we managed. I saw myself putting the daily journeys more and more into the hands of the Lord and trusting that all things would be well as I knew and trusted that it was the Lord who journeyed beside us. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we were sometimes obtuse to the voice of the Lord but he continues to be with us, giving life and sharing love.

The other aspect that touched me during the journey was the visceral feeling of touching, feeling and being with the land that walking brings. One feels the elements but also a certain connectedness to the land. We arrive in the afternoons in the towns along the way covered in dust, thirsting for water and hungering for what food can be found. While we did not live off the land in a literal way, the simple act of tasting the local produce and drinking the water connected us with the places we journeyed through. This had a very concrete expression through the kindness of a farmer who led us to his orchard and picked a bagful of choice pears which sustained us for a few days. The immediacy of the experiences we felt made the journey all the richer. As a pilgrim, one is ever so reliant on the kindness of the people whom we meet along the way and this allowed us an insight not just into the lives of the people but the beauty that can happen as lives intersect in strange and wonderful ways on the journey. One also becomes more aware of the connection between the physical and spiritual during a journey like this one. Prayer becomes more raw, more emotive and more real as one leaves everything behind and connects with the divine without inhibition. I remember the deep consolation at the Basilica of Montserrat upon our arrival as the prayer then seemed deeper as it was just me and the Lord, having left practically everything else on the difficult climb up the mountain. The reality of the land and the people around us allowed us to see the reality of our own relationship with the Lord during the journey.

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Montserrat in the background with the ubiquitous signs that showed us the way.

 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have walked this way and hope that others would take the plunge to do the same. The Camino Ignaciana is the much newer and less well-known cousin of the Camino de Santiago and part of the charm was the great silence and solitude that one feels while on the road. It was particularly moving to walk this route as Jesuits as one felt the physical connection with St Ignatius, walking the exact same route that he did almost 500 years ago. Words and descriptions from his Autobiography came to life as one tries to follow in his footsteps, both physically as well as spiritually. Arriving at Manresa after following in those footsteps lent a greater significance to being in Manresa, having truly experienced the land, met the people and journeyed with the Lord along the path of our founder.

Thoughts penned along the way…
Arise, O pilgrim, and know this as you take your first step,
these steps on the well-trodden path are new but to you,
many have gone before you and many indeed will follow.
You may walk in the footsteps of giants and saints,
but you walk you own path, new steps that lead
you to the journeys end, new steps deep into your heart.

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The Pope and TED

The Pope gave a TED talk! It took a while for me to wrap my head around that as the two seemed worlds apart. What’s the spiritual leader of almost a quarter of the world’s population doing speaking to a popular technology and design conference? Would the people at the conference accept a message from a religious figure? A quick online search later, I found that the Dalai Lama spoke at a previous TED conference so Pope Francis was not the first religious leader to speak and neither will he be the last. But his presence, albeit via a recorded video clip, spoke volumes about how he truly seeks to bring the Lord’s light to all the world.

He spoke on three broad themes: the need to recognise that we are relational beings who rely on each other; the need for us to balance technological advancement with care for each other; and the need for tenderness and humility in all that we do. Simple messages spoken in a very simple manner but having a depth that, I hope, would cut many to the heart. His very presence in the TED talk showed his humility. It is consoling to see that he took the time and trouble to speak to this very secular but very popular conference, demonstrating also the wisdom of using such a platform to reach people whom he might otherwise not reach. That he addressed the science and technology community directly and called for more care from them was also a sign of his recognition of their importance and his willingness to be present to them.

I will let the message speak for itself – it was moving in many ways for me. But I was moved not just by the message but by the messenger too. He spoke with a vitality and energy that captivated; his talk was very simple yet very effective in its ability to cut right to the heart. He spoke with the full power of the Christian message, using examples from Scripture and the Christian life, bringing the true light of the Lord to a world badly in need of it. The simplicity of his language (simple enough for me to understand almost all of it without subtitles – yay!) gives a stark contrast with the technological bells and whistles that are usually found at TED. It was truly a message sorely needed, one that brings not just hope but the possibility of admitting that we aren’t as smart or strong as we think we are. Pope Francis ended with the need for tenderness – perhaps it’s also a call for us to be tender with ourselves too. To be gentle with our weaknesses, hoping that others too will be gentle with ours.

A better world has been painted. Dare we step into this new possibility?

Click on the ‘CC’ button on the bottom right to enable subtitles.

Lent V – Feeling

There’s much to be said about empathy, about feeling for others and being able to be with others in their times of need. Empathy is not just commiserating or trying to feel bad when others suffer – empathy is all about accompaniment. One shouldn’t force oneself to feel the same as others as that does no good to either person, comforter and sufferer. What one should do is to open oneself to the feelings of others which would allow for greater understanding and a willingness to share in whatever the emotions and lives. If we are open to others, we don’t change ourselves more than change our way of being with others – deepening our relationships and our connectedness as children of God.

Our senses connect us with our emotions. Opening to both allows us to open to God.

One thing that struck me about the Sunday gospel this week were the range of emotions that occurred during the episode of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45). The grief of Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha was quite evident as the latter even gently chided Jesus from taking a while to arrive. Jesus himself showed emotion when he wept at the death of Lazarus. This is significant because this late in his ministry, Jesus would be very well aware of his ability to work miracles but he still showed his emotional reaction to the death of his good friend. Even one who can overcome death is himself overcome by the emotions that are related with it. Our human condition is such that no matter how we try to remain stoic and unmoved, our relationships with others, especially if they are close, can reveal deep emotions within us.

We come to these emotions through our senses – we hear and see things going around us and allow ourselves to react. Jesus did the same – he heard the news and then wept. It’s interesting that in Italian, the same word sentire is used both to feel and to hear. There’s a very close relationship between our senses and our ability to feel (emotionally) and perhaps that’s the other thing that we’d want to be open to. Allowing ourselves to be more connected to the people and other things around us will in turn open us to a fuller range of emotions.

That’s where Lent seems to be bringing us – to be more aware of our own emotions through our own openness to the world around. By being more open to the world, we become more open to God. As we approach Holy Week and enter more deeply into the paschal mystery, we try to open ourselves to others so that we can be more open to our own feelings and what and where we feel God to be.

Lent IV – Liminality

Things take time. One of the older priests in our community had an operation some weeks back and returned feeling a little weak but on the mend. Just a few days ago he shared how he noticed himself healing slowly to the point where he now feels almost back to normal. ‘It’s amazing’, he said, ‘How the body heals itself slowly. We just have to give it time.’ Very wise words from a man whose spirituality and prayerfulness I am in awe of. Wise words for us too, especially during this difficult time in the middle of Lent. Things take time, we need time. We need to allow ourselves time to breath, to heal and to live.

There’s a certain beauty in waiting, just allowing for time to pass and time to heal as where we need it to. [Image link]


I remember a sharing that I did some time back with a group of young adults where I mentioned the concept of liminal space. A liminal space is a time of waiting and a time that’s in between two significant events or periods. It’s time where things are not quite certain and also a time of transition or change. It’s often a space where we try to rush through, wanting to get to the main event as quickly as we can because the in-between is rather uncomfortable. In Lent, we have a mandatory 40 days of liminal space, to prepare ourselves for Easter and to live and wait in this liminal space, uncomfortable as it may be.

It is within this space that we’re called to stay, but not to make ourselves feel miserable – far from that – but to make ourselves feel the little changes that happen within us, like the priest who felt his healing, and to realise that these changes happen not because of us but because of God who gives us life. I imagine that it is somewhat similar even the blind man in the gospel for this weekend (John 9:1-41). He was healed from blindness but not only had to learn to use his eyes again as he was blind from birth (we all know how disorientating it can be to suddenly go from darkness to light) but had to deal with unwanted attention from the religious authorities as well. His physical healing was quick but his reintegration into society and learning to use his newfound sight would definitely take time.

Time heals, life reveals. The number of ‘instant’ products around us is staggering and that just reminds us how waiting and patience are not quite the virtues they used to be. I feel that we’re invited to wait and allow ourselves to be healed by God in whatever ways that we need to be. We’re invited to wait and enter more deeply into life with God, to unite us more deeply with God. That’s all – wait, pray and listen.

Lent III – Conversation

The Gospel this Sunday (John 4:1-42) was all about a conversation – one that might have seemed very odd to many at the time but it was a conversation nonetheless. I was struck by the conversational intimacy that quickly developed between Jesus and the Samaritan woman – that the apparent distance in culture and gender quickly melted away when things of importance were brought up. The excitement with which she went back to tell the rest of the town was palpable towards the end of the passage, an excitement that came about because of the recognition of the new life that was offered to her and to everyone else.

When we converse, we exchange words and ideas but that’s not all that happens. Something deeper occurs between those in the conversation, a meeting of minds and hearts that often has the effect of bringing a person out of themselves. Without conversations, we can very easily sink into the swamps of our own thoughts, self-doubt and misery, not realising that there may be others who are in the same boat as us and some who can truly help us. Conversation opens up to possibilities beyond ourselves and more importantly, opens us to possibilities of reaching God.

I was shown this video clip several years ago and it still moves me. This very modern take on the woman at the well shows a woman struggling and hurting, speaking about all the things that have gone or are going wrong with her. The person of Jesus is visually absent but undeniably present as one hears the change in the tone and message of the woman as she slowly hears the voice of the Lord amidst her struggles. In the conversation that occurs unspoken, she feels like she is recognised as a person and loved solely because she is a person also. That was when the despair turned into hope.

‘To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.’ She repeats this so many times and in many ways, this phrase lies at the heart of why we make conversation, why we try to get to know each other. Because it allows us to be known to others and to be loved as a result. It allows us to know others whom we are called to love. The call to love others can be quite empty if we do not know who we are to love at all. During this time of Lent, I feel that we’re all called to reach out, to people whom we sort-of-know, to get to know them better so that we can truly love them as they deserve. To converse is to come to know, to come to know is to come to love. We see that in the Gospels, we can see that in our lives too. All we have to do is make it happen.

Lent II – Endurance

My legs are sore and I’m still feeling a little hungry after dinner. While this may sound like a common lament during Lent, I’ve a different reason for feeling so. Had the opportunity to participate in the Roma-Ostia half marathon this morning and slightly tired legs aside, it was a great experience. This is one of the oldest running races in Rome and the course takes one from near the middle of Rome to the ancient port city of Ostia, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. I also found it to be one of the best organised running races I’ve been to so far and though the course wasn’t quite so easy, I enjoyed myself and got to feel and see parts of the city that many would not. Running is a wonderful way of getting to know a place.

Got the t-shirt, got the medal. Have I got the endurance?

The last four kilometres of the run gave me much matter for reflection. Not having studied the route properly and probably having gone a little too fast in the beginning, the gentle slopes in that part of the route seemed less than gentle. As I struggled up what seemed to be never ending slops, I dawned upon me what one learns from distance running. Endurance is one. Endurance means to stay with something, no matter how unpleasant, knowing that there’s something better that will come out of it. In running, it means sticking with something, putting one foot in front of the other and dragging oneself to the end if necessary. The other is faith. Faith in oneself and faith in God who called us to whatever we’re to do, knowing that we’re always given the things and abilities necessary to achieve what we’re called to do.

Endurance is important in times like Lent. Things usually start well and we begin our journey with great fervour. After some time, the fervour wears out and the observances and practices become less interesting and seem burdensome even. We’re called to stick it out, to stay with what we committed to before, knowing that there’s something better to be gained at the end of all that we do. The other thing about endurance is that it builds on itself. The more we are able to endure situations, the better we’re able to do so in the future.

Endurance is not an end in itself. We work on it because we know it works on us. St Paul wrote that endurance builds character and character produces hope (Romans 5:4) which indicates that endurance is a key virtue in the life of humans. Endurance produces hope because through it, we’re not content with settling for situations that are sub-optimal. We see the possibility of something beyond the sufferings of the present but there’s things to be endured in the meantime. Hope bolsters the sense of endurance that we have, giving us the strength to be able to get to where we know we need to.

We endure because we have faith – in the one who gave us the ability to endure and also in the possible fruits of the endurance itself. Faith comes along with the hope that endurance produces. We don’t endure for no reason and it is through faith in the Lord that we can endure. It’s a difficult relationship sometimes – enduring difficult situations when we’ve yet to feel the sense of hope and faith can be disheartening and futile even. But we’re always sure of one thing – that if we’re doing what the Lord’s called us to do, then the hope will ultimately emerge. We just have to stay and wait for it. Endure again.

I’ve been participating in endurance events for a while and at first, it was just proving things to myself – that I could actually achieve things beyond what I (or even others) though were possible. But as one gets deeper into the ‘whys’ of doing endurance sports, a more transformative reason emerges. Beyond just proving things to oneself, there’s a sense of transformation, of sublimating that into a means of engaging with God through the enduring self and of growing in faith and hope as one grows in endurance. Running may not be for everyone but everyone is on their own journey towards the Lord. How are we enduring, staying with the Lord during this season of Lent?

Lent I – Humanification

It’s interesting how learning a new language opens up new horizons as words that one purports to be familiar with take on new meanings. We began the season of Lent a few days ago and there are calls for prayer, fasting and alms-giving – acts of mortification that would allow us to enter more deeply into this season. I know the roots of the word ‘mortification’ but learning (and struggling to speak) a new language puts things into greater perspective. Mortification comes from the Latin mortem (morte in Italian) and refers to the acts of self-denial and how one has to die to oneself in order to rise with the Lord. That’s all integral to the spiritual life and our progress in it but sometimes we can take ourselves too seriously and go overboard with the ‘dying’ component of the mortification (and Lenten observances) and forget the living bits.

Humanity – to reach that and to live the life that the Lord gives us. [Image source]

I’d like to propose a different way of seeing Lent. Instead of dying to ourselves, why not live more fully the life that the Lord gives us? Instead of mortification, why not try humanification instead? This is not a call for laxity or removal of our Lenten observances but to do the same with a different and possibly more expansive point of view. The image of dying to oneself in one’s pursuit of God has its merits but may not be as palatable to many in this day and age. Humanification or the recovering of our true essence as created beings of the Lord can be an easier entry-point to the penances and observances of Lent that more can adopt before deepening the process with the dying to the self. Allow me to explain this in the light of the three calls of Ash Wednesday to prayer, fasting and alms-giving.

We start with the self and our need for dependency for God. That’s what fasting does to us. As we are deprived of something that we normally have or are used to, we’re forced to recognise our human frailty and strengthen our faith and trust in God our creator. We’re humanified here because we embrace our fallen humanity even more closely in the recognition of our weakness and are more desirous of the conversion that only God can bring us. We put ourselves in a position to be healed as only humans need to be and that in turn brings us closer to God who reaches out to us always.

Next, we move out of the self to our relationship with others. That’s where alms-giving comes in. We do not operate as islands and alms-giving points us in the direction of the other. By not confining ourselves to our own selfish needs, our vision of creation expands as we are better able to love and serve others from our own weakness. This practice of love of others helps to fulfil the command of the Lord to love others but also spreads the goodness and the humanity that is inherent within us to all around.

Finally, we move from the created to the creator. That’s where prayer comes in. We are made more human as we humble ourselves to seek God our creator. There is a part of all of us that wants to seek God, to improve our relationship with God and to move towards all that is divine. That’s the human in us that also seeks God who became human for us. We often stop ourselves with distractions and other things that intervene. During Lent, a clear commitment to prayer can bring us out of that rut towards repairing or deepening that relationship that we seek.

Humanify our Lent – be more human so that we can be more holy. Whatever way we like to see Lent, we embrace it as a time of grace that allows us to purify and sanctify ourselves in preparation for the mystery that is the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord. How are we being more human this Lent?


about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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