A gracious parishioner was kind enough to give me a copy of a wonderful new book for the feast of St. Ignatius (July 31). In “Just Call Me López,” Ignatian spirituality expert Margaret Silf offers what I am already thinking of as an “Ignatian contemplation” based on the actual life of Ignatius itself (López was his middle name).
Without belaboring the details, let me just observe that the grace which prompted her to write this new book was, in a sense, “second hand.” By that, I mean simply that the idea for the book was not the author’s own. She explains: “When I was first invited to write this story, I refused, on the grounds that I have no experience in writing biography, let alone hagiography. The publishers were insistent. Over an extended breakfast, with a bottomless coffeepot and a visionary editor, in a backstreetChicagocafé, I was persuaded. Not to write a biography, but to tell a story.”
The “visionary editor,” Fr. Paul Campbell, S.J., writes in his turn that having had the germ of the idea, he became convinced that Ms. Silf was the ideal candidate actually to write “a short book about Ignatius that wouldn’t be simply another biography but would give a twenty-first-century reader insight into this man’s humanity.” He believes, as do I, that the result is “a telling of [Ignatius’] story that [will] help us better understand what Ignatius’ spiritual experiences offer us, even today.”
And there is more. Silf goes on to explain that as she wrote the book, she gradually discovered that “López had become as much a part of my own life as he had of the narrator’s,” and that she had never “been so deeply moved by any subject as I have been by this.” Her hope, as a result, “is that he will tell you, the reader, his story in ways that might be transformative for you also.” I can tell already that this will be the case for me, and I am only one chapter into the book. Check with me for details after my upcoming annual retreat (August 4-11)…
Anyway, all of the above got me to thinking about the hardy durability and the astonishing fertility of grace – which I understand as God’s love present and at work in the world. The main point of this column, sisters and brothers, is not to plug Silf’s new book, but to stress that while grace is many things, one thing it is NOT is “fragile.” In fact, it spreads and reinvents and recycles itself, given half a chance!
So, in the example given above: the inspired idea of imaginative contemplation of the Gospels was shown to Ignatius in his cave at Manresa; and he in turn has shared it with hundreds of thousands of others over the last four-and-a-half centuries through his “Spiritual Exercises.” The Jesuit editor, Paul Campbell – having been graced by his own experience of those “Exercises” – was given the further inspired idea of imaginatively retelling the life of Ignatius itself. He then persuaded Margaret Silf – also a graced veteran of the “Exercises” – to be the instrument of that telling. Along the way, it became a source of profound transformative grace in her own spiritual life. And now the result – “Just Call Me López” – becomes an instrument of actual grace to me and who knows how many others…
In my own thirty-six years of Jesuit life, I have any number of examples of these “recycled” graces. For instance, there are special moments from my 30-day retreat in the novitiate (January 1977!) to which I still return in times of need. And then, there are graces which have recurring power in my spiritual life which were originally given to friends in THEIR prayer; when they were kind enough to share them with me, they became “my own.”
One of those came from a former Jesuit friend. As he approached First Vows – which for Jesuits are perpetual – he was wrestling with his own worthiness. (Always a futile exercise – NONE of us is worthy!) Anyway, on retreat, he was praying with the parable of the wedding feast wherein all the invited guests make excuses about why they can’t attend. As a result, the angry king/host sends his servants out to the highways and byways to bring in anyone who will come. As my friend prayed, asking “Why me, unworthy as I am?” he felt consoled to experience Jesus saying, in effect: “Yes, maybe you aren’t the ‘ideal” choice; you were not on the ‘preferred’ guest list. But here’s the deal: the ‘ideal” choices are not listening to me – they are not available. So why you? You are ideal because you are WILLING to allow me to work in and through you…”
Another “second-hand grace” came to me courtesy of a lay friend. As she imagined herself walking with Jesus in the Gospels throughout her week-long Ignatian retreat, she found herself distressed and disturbed by the way Jesus presented himself in her imagination. In a word, he came across as a bit of a cut-up, almost a “class clown”! He kept grinning and cracking jokes – not anything like what she had anticipated. (This kind of surprise, by the way, is often how we know that real grace is at work…) Finally, near the end of her retreat, she imagined herself confronting him: “Isn’t anything sacred to you?!” In response – and I have remembered this and profited from it countless times – Jesus smiled lovingly at my friend and said: “Oh, yes; EVERYTHING is sacred. But VERY FEW things are ‘serious.’”
The obvious message to my friend – and to me, and now perhaps, to some of you – was not to confuse “sacred” with “serious” (in the sense of somber, heavy, devoid of joy and spontaneity). That is a wise and grace-filled insight! So open the eyes and ears of your mind and heart, sisters and brothers; and cherish and recycle those graces – your own, and those which come to you “second-hand” through the kindness of fellow pilgrims…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.