Monday, July 18, 2016

What The Jesuits Meant (and Mean) To Me, Part I

Monday, July 18, 2016

If your life has been touched by the life of a Jesuit your life will almost certainly never be the same.

It's a Monday in July and I find myself wondering where my life will take me next. I currently have job applications under consideration in a number of places in the world. Some of those places include the Pacific Basin, the West Coast and Washington, D.C. I actually interviewed for an opportunity last week which I did not even intend to be considered for. I believe it's important to be open to a variety of possibilities in life. I believe such openness is both a healthy inclination as well as an indication of trusting that our lives will ultimately unfold as they are meant to.

Almost exactly twenty years ago at this time I was about to embark on an adventure. In August, 1996 I joined the Society of Jesus, known more informally as the Jesuits. The Jesuits are a well known religious order of the Catholic Church; they have existed since the sixteenth century. My decision to apply to and later join the order was an immense act of faith. I was such a young man at the time. I turned twenty-three years old a few weeks after beginning my journey in the order on August 25, 1996.

Less than three years later, in May, 1999, I left the Jesuits. My time in the order had been profoundly formative and transformative. I completed the thirty day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in January, 1997. I was then sent on what the Jesuits call an 'experiment'. This rather clinical and medical sounding term is used to describe an experience a Jesuit novice undertakes to learn more about the Society, himself and, ideally, God. I was sent to live and work among the Lakota Sioux Native American people of South Dakota. I cannot imagine who I would be today if I had not made the journey to South Dakota.

Even now, twenty years later, certain aspects of my trip to reach South Dakota stand out in my mind. I recall having to virtually run across the Minneapolis, Minnesota airport to make my connecting flight. And I recall that connecting flight well. I made my way to the vast plains of South Dakota aboard a twin engine plane. All the while I marveled that something could take flight with such little power. I never imagined we would crash but I recall repeatedly being fascinated that we reached the altitude we did.

When I departed South Dakota approximately fourteen weeks later I departed as a very changed individual. It was my first opportunity to see much of American culture from outside of it while, seemingly ironically, living within the borders of the United States. I saw but one example of the countless realities of poverty that people live in each day. I lived and worked among a people whose ancestors had experienced an immense destruction of both their lives as well as their way of life. It was a learning experience I would never forget.

I later went on to collaborate in other ministries. In the autumn of 1997 I worked in what I would call a "ministry of presence". I visited women who were incarcerated in the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham, Massachusetts. The following spring I worked in education at Fairfield Preparatory School in Fairfield, Connecticut. After taking first vows in the Society in August, 1998 I departed New England to study at Loyola University Chicago. Less than a year would pass before I would find myself departing the Jesuit order to embark on a whole new life.

Though many years have passed since that formative period of my life I find I can still recall some details of it quite vividly. My memories of this powerful time in my life returned to me these last several days while making a retreat at the Demontreville Jesuit retreat house in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. When I arrived at the retreat center last Thursday I had a strong feeling that I might leave feeling quite differently by the time the retreat concluded on Sunday (yesterday). And I did feel quite differently indeed.

More details on that tomorrow.

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