Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When Jesuits Leave

The bonds that Jesuits form with one another are special relationships in which our shared life connects us to each other in a very unique way. We live together, labor together, and pray together. We are men rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in which our intimate experiences of Christ unite our hearts and minds together with the Lord. We share a life that appears quite foolish to the outside world yet makes sense to us as Jesuits only in light of our lives of faith.

When Jesuits decide to leave the Society, as a result, it can be an extremely jarring moment for us when we hear the news. This past year, we saw many men in our company who chose to leave their lives as Jesuits. We ask the question ‘why?’ and wonder what events transpired that led to such a decision. There is that feeling that a member of our spiritual family who has been with us for so much time has decided to leave us. These departures inevitably challenge the vocations of us who continue on with this life as we ask ourselves why we stay. This vocational challenge, however, is not necessarily a bad thing.

About a month ago, while I was taking my day off from my work in LA, I was relaxing at our LA villa house near Redondo Beach when I received a phone call. I was excited to see that it was from John and very much looked forward to sharing our summer experiences and how it was going so far. John first asked about how my summer was, and I shared a little bit about what I was doing at Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries. After I was done sharing, John went on to remark: “So Ryan, I’ve made my decision…”

I knew exactly what John meant when he said that, but I didn’t expect this phone call would be “that” time.

I remember feeling devastated back in January when John mentioned to me that he was thinking about leaving the Society. During my time at Ciszek Hall, he became one of my best friends in the house, and last year we became next door neighbors. John was one of the type of friends you would have who often poked fun at you, but deep down you knew he really valued and respected you (although he would never admit that easily). Not only could we have fun and joke with one another, but we could also vigorously argue about philosophical/theological viewpoints and eventually also discuss highly personal things. When he told me that his leaving was a possibility, I remember feeling myself enter a place of deep desolation and the need to talk to my superior and spiritual director about it. In those talks, I recognized a desire to want what was best for John—even if that meant that he would leave. I often prayed for Christ to lead him in his discernment and to follow where God was leading him at this time of his life.

Over the next few months, we would have a few conversations where I would ask him how things were going with the discernment. Sometimes, he didn’t want to talk about it, but I respected that. I only wanted him to talk to me about if he felt free to have the conversation and wanted to discuss it. In those conversations, it was apparent that John’s leaving was a possibility, but not necessarily a certainty. John spent quite a bit of time thinking about this because it was not clear to him during the semester what he would do.

So when John remarked that he made the decision, I became very aware that his subsequent words would be big ones for him to share with me. I did not have a clear sense in me what he had decided, so I awaited anxiously to hear what he would say. Finally, he said: “I’ve decided to leave the Society…”

Upon my arrival back to the Bronx, I have recognized a real sense of loss within me. When I walked past his door, I was deeply reminded about those words he shared with me a month ago. But, on the other hand, I carry with me a lot of gratitude for the friendship and brotherhood we developed over the past two years at Ciszek. I also carry with me a sense of peace, because I believe in this specific situation that John would not have left unless he felt that God was calling him into a different place. John was open with his superior, his spiritual director, and his formation assistant for quite some time, and so I trusted his discernment and those who were leading him at this time in his life.

Although men enter and leave the society for various reasons, I think John’s time in the Jesuits served as a special time for his own development and growth as a person. I had the opportunity to speak on John's behalf about two weeks ago, since he asked if I could be one of his references for a full-time youth minister position he is seeking. I remarked to the pastor that John's time with the Jesuits and being formed by Ignatian Spirituality was a major asset to this position that makes him quite unique among the pool of applicants. Although his decision to leave is difficult, I pray that John is able to flourish in this time of major transition and that he may always know and experience the love of God who constantly pours forth his grace.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Reflections: R&R and Personal Highlights of Province Days

Following my time in LA, the past two weeks or so have primarily been a time of R&R for me. I spent some time in Sacramento to be with the family, see some friends in Seattle, and also to indulge my own introvertedness by taking some personal time here and there to be by myself.

I am reminded during these past two weeks how blessed I am to have people in my life who are so generous to me. My siblings remark how my grandma pities my being "poor" ("he always wears the same clothes") and tells them to give me money. I chuckle to myself about that thought, since I am well taken care of and believe that oftentimes less is more (I read a bumper sticker in NY that read: "the more you know, the less you need"). I don't need a lot of things in my life to be happy--my happiness is not rooted in material wealth. I make sure, though, that I have the things I need to function. At the same time, I'm not going to say no to going out to yogurt or getting an Asian massage =)

The past few days or so I have been in Spokane. Because we didn't have ordinations this year, the Oregon province centered our province days around the First Vows of the novices. It is highly unusual to have the Vows in Spokane, as we usually have them in Portland where our novitiate is located. Spokane has the main perk of having Gonzaga University where many of our Jesuits in the province reside. Also, our retired men usually cannot come to the First Vows due to health reasons, so having them in Spokane allowed them to have the rare opportunity to participate in the festivities.

These events continue to remind me how much I love and admire my brother Jesuits here in the Northwest. I personally continue to find great consolation when we come together and to see so many of the men I am not able to see throughout the course of the year due to being on the East Coast.

A few moments were especially moving for me this year. First, I found our Vow Crucifix ceremony quite moving. It is the custom of the Vow men to choose from a number of crosses that were owned by previous Jesuits who have passed away over the years. During the ceremony, Jesuits are invited to share stories about the Jesuit who previously owned that cross. This year, however, one of the men chose a cross that came from an unknown Jesuit. What I found particularly moving was that we were invited to share stories about Jesuits who often go unnoticed and hidden--those men whom we often fail to recognize. Yet, often their work is a symbol of the hidden work of God in our lives. They labor without even a nod or a thank you, yet they continue to work out of a sense of love and service.

This theme carried into the following day where we were invited to share in small groups after a formal talk (our lay colleagues also participated) about three themes: the hidden work of God in our lives, our experiences of suffering, and finally our experiences of resurrection. David Murphy, a lay companion who works as the house manager of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University, talked about his own hidden work in the community. He first remarked how ironic it was that in a room full of intelligent Jesuits that he would be asked to speak. Yet, he did a magnificent job talking about his day-to-day work such as dealing with plumbing, mechanical problems, and the car issues that are bound to come up in a Jesuit community. He talked about his own romantic notions of what it would be like to work for a group of Jesuits, only to realize in his work how human the Jesuits actually are (as if we would be anything besides human. Sometimes it's good to remind people about that). Yet, once he got past that illusion and saw us in our fraility, he also talked about the great beauty of our lives. He talked about being moved by Ignatian Spirituality and how doing the Retreat in Everyday Life has been so important in his life. He was able to see in our humanness and weakness how God somehow finds a way to work even with us! My sense is that he loved his job and the men that he serves.

Gloria Rothrock, from Africa, talked about her battle with cancer and yet shared how blessed she feels in her life. In the midst of her own suffering, she still is able to find God active in her life blessing her with many gifts. It is quite amazing when you encounter people who have such faith and hope in their lives despite great trials.

Lorenzo Herman, a fellow Scholastic studying at St. Louis University, spoke about research he did about his family lineage in which he uncovered that he had English blood in him--blood of a slave owner who had two sets of kids, kids with his actual wife and kids with one of the slave women. Lorenzo is a by-product of his many-greats grandmother who was enslaved by a man with the last name Harvard. Yet, he spoke about how if that had never happened, he would not be here today. Perhaps one way to put it is "finding grace in the midst of shittyness." Jesuits speak about finding God in all things, and that includes finding God in the most difficult times. Such is our vocation. In the Oregon province, we are certainly called into that sentiment in the midst of our bankruptcy.

Pat Twohy, a Jesuit in our province who has worked with Native Americans for many years, read a letter he wrote to Father General who posed the question to the province: "why are you still working with them?" His letter was remarkable and moving as he described the history of the Jesuits with the Native peoples in the Northwest (we were actually invited by them) and the great pain and suffering he has witnessed in his ministry. Pat remarked that we stay with the Native people at this time not because we are not done with them, but because they are not yet done with us. In his eyes, he felt the province had a great deal to learn from them about how to carry pain and suffering as they have carried it for many generations. So many of them in our apostolates, despite what is happening in the province, support us in our work and continue to stand with us in this difficult time.

Finally, witnessing the Vows of Perry Petrich and Sean Towey, two grads from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, was quite moving. I had a great seat since I was conducting the Jesuit choir for the first time (I "conducted" last year from the piano, but actually conducting where you wave your hands and hope people follow is quite a different experience. I've always imagined an experience where I would tear up while conducting a choir and genuinely had that first-time experience). We are lucky to have these two young men enter more fully into the Society who beautifully professed their Vows before friends and family.

Well, I am now back in Seattle and will be returning back to the Bronx later this week. I look forward to to this upcoming school year with a lot of gratitude, strengthened by the many graces and consolations that I have received this past summer. AMDG