31 July 2013

The Joy of the Lord is your Strength (Feast of St Ignatius)

"I do live by the church." - Twelfth Night

Recently, I began the process of 'discernment' within the Church of England, to ascertain whether I may be being called to a vocation of ministry within the church. The process has been both challenging and illuminating - with reading assignments, homework, and of course, lengthy discussions. One surprising outcome of this process so far has been the firm reminders I have had of the centrality of Ignatian spirituality within my own faith practice.

I was asked to write the following piece as a part of the discernment process, and as it has ended up being so solidly Ignatian, I thought it appropriate to post it today, the Feast Day of St Ignatius of Loyola.

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” – Nehemiah 8:10

I am trying, now,
To tell you what it is like
but words can only
hint at this moment of
heart’s dance, the wonder
of wings, the folly of flight

- “Postcard from the Shore”, Luci Shaw (1985)

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel, and, if necessary, use words.”
       Francis of Assisi

I have enjoyed reading John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest immensely. Pritchard is a gifted writer, who communicates an incredibly thought-provoking message with ease, wisdom and good humour. I have chosen a selection of passages on which to respond. (There are in fact far too many from which to choose!!!)

“The priest is someone who has been dazzled by the beauty of God and longs to reveal that beauty in the world.” p. 6

Pritchard expresses this fundamental point so beautifully, so much so that I was stunned by its utter simplicity. The point does prompt the question: ‘What is it about God that I intend/hope/strive to reveal to others?’ This, I believe, is and should be the central question of ones vocation. I have taken this question to heart, and it is one that I have begun to contemplate and wish to explore more deeply.

To begin, it has led me to (re)consider how God (continually) reveals Himself to me, and what of God’s nature is being and has been revealed to me through and by others; and through and by whom?

As John Pritchard writes,

These special people, whether ordained or not, have a distinctive quality that we find hard to pin down. They tend to be kind, though not in a sentimental way; they tend to be selfless, though not with martyr-like complications; they tend to be strong characters, but they use their strength creatively for others. (1)

Pritchard himself poses another fundamental question indirectly by stating that in some measure, we each have a “modest hall of fame”, or as I would put it, a pantheon of heroes who have and continue to inspire and motivate our faith and spiritual development.

Following Pritchard’s imagery of a hall of fame of “affectionate portraits”, I allowed my mind to drift and shape a “Gallery of Faith” in an imaginary spiritual museum. Without a doubt, each of us could easily rattle off a laundry list of the saints and sages whose words and ways have stood as markers or guideposts in our spiritual journeys, e.g., Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Rosa Parks &etc. However, Pritchard challenges us to dig a bit deeper and look beyond that great, celestial cloud of witnesses, to try and identify individuals we have known personally and encountered in our daily lives that genuinely helped us to raise our spiritual game, and encouraged us be better believers.

I was surprised by how difficult creating such a list as this is, actually. After some time, one portrait surfaced quite clearly: Father Joe LaBran, SJ.

Father LaBran is the sort of person that causes you to smile, immediately, as soon as you think of them. Full of almost elven, Irish good humour, Father LaBran was already a firm fixture and longstanding legend by the time I arrived at Holy Cross College - a selective, liberal arts university in Worcester, Massachusetts, run by the Jesuits.  For me, and all who knew and loved him, the essence of Fr LaBran was “joy”. His familiar catchphrase was “The joy of the Lord!” and indeed, Fr LaBran embodied and lived that Joy, and it was his mission to share that joy with others.

One of the many things I admired most about Fr LaBran, was his zeal and common touch. He was always out and about on campus, with his grey Stetson firmly nestled on his white-haired head, and his ornately carved walking stick -- that legend had it was hand-carved for him by a great, African chieftain following his conversion by Fr LaBran. Students delighted to see him cheering on the sidelines at sporting events, or sharing a friendly pint in the pub; when he celebrated Mass, the services were always packed.

Fr LaBran’s passion for the way of Christ was tangible, and although you never felt pressured by Fr LaBran, you did always feel compelled, challenged and inspired to strive to be “where he was” spiritually.

Unlike other instances in my life where I have observed others and thought to myself, “Golly, that looks like I nice place to be” – this was how I routinely felt on occasions when I have been part of Evangelical or Charismatic congregations. Wherever it was that they all seemed to be, I wasn’t there. It seemed somewhere distant and inaccessible. Not so with Fr LaBran. The faith world he inhabited was warm and welcoming, just as you are.
Although vibrant and passionate, Fr LaBran exuded a Quiet strength - in true Jesuit fashion, and I am thankful to him for introducing me to a faith world built on that quiet strength.

One instance of this was during Lent in my second year, when Fr LaBran challenged me to give up an hour each day to attend Daily Mass, instead of giving up chocolate, beer or sweets. My heart sunk at the suggestion. How could I with my crazy schedule, homework, rehearsals, hall meetings, and any attempts at a social life squeeze in another daily obligation?! “The joy of the Lord will be your strength!” Fr LaBran beamed, his bright smile and blue eyes twinkling, as he walked away. I rose to the challenge, and it was, of course, an amazing experience. It became a real refuge and a source of solace and strength for me - just what I needed at that time in my life. The next challenge Fr LaBran set for me was even more profound and life changing.

My last year of university was coming to an end. During the week between the last day of classes and Graduation, I was presented with two options by which to commemorate my four years at Holy Cross: a notorious, collegiate debauchery fest called, “HC-by-the-Sea”, a week-long, unsupervised, undergraduate beach party on Cape Cod; or “The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius”, a week-long retreat of silence and solitude on the shores of Naragansett, Rhode Island led by Fr LaBran. Watching my friends packing their sun cream, bikinis and beach towels, I prayed that I’d made the right choice. I now have no doubt that I did.

“Pray always, and sometimes, use words,” Fr LaBran adviced us, amending slightly the famous words of St Francis of Assisi. One of the greatest memories I have of this experience is that of sitting high atop a rock, on the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, the vastness of the open sea before me, communing with God in silence, in the moonlight. “In Silence, you will hear the voice of God.”

Fr LaBran also encouraged us to perform an act of contrition during the week, to symbolise our humility and utter dependence upon God. I recall vivdly creeping into the chapel early one morning to perform my contrition, the sunlight streaming through the windows as I lay myself down across the cold flagstones. “The Joy of the Lord is your strength.”

For a gaggle of young people a week of complete silence was a real challenge, and amazingly, none of us broke our silence. Not even at meal time! And each day, we all seemed to be grow in our silence. There were 15 of us, all of us, on the brink of new life and adulthood, taking that next step into the rest of our lives, with Fr LaBran challenging us to always go with Christ, wherever our paths may lead us, to listen for His voice, and to walk humbly before Him. The memory of this blessed time still brings tears to my eyes. And for this reason, Fr Joseph LaBran, SJ holds pride of place in my Spiritual Hall of Fame.

The following is an excerpt from the homily given by Rev. William J. O’Halloran, S.J., vice president emeritus of Holy Cross, at Fr. LaBran’s funeral Mass in April 2005:
[It is for leading] the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius for which he is best remembered. It is no exaggeration to say that, for many years, at least a third of the graduating seniors had made the Exercises with him. Letters by the hundreds have told the story of lives repaired and changed; of discovering Jesus, the sacraments, prayer and meaning.
 Joseph LaBran, SJ

19 July 2013

God save us from…Boorish Brits Abroad

'Tis not my fault, the Boar provok'd my tongue, 
Tis he, foul creature, that hath done me wrong!' 
- Venus & Adonis 

It is a perennial problem. Idyllic French campsite, nestled in the shadow of a magnificent chateau, encircled by a lush and verdant landscape, with leaping carp and ducks gliding gracefully across a tranquil, emerald lake; sunsets to write home about, church bells softly tolling in the distances, glorious sunshine and tomatoes the size of your head…

This, is the reward for months and months of hard graft, head to the grindstone and gritted teeth. Heaven on earth. Paradise. That is, until the Boorish Brits arrive. Then, the silence is suddenly shattered, and a cruel holiday reality sets in.

You know the type. They travel in packs, or rather, successfully find members of their tribe upon arrival. They find themselves infinitely interesting, and endlessly amusing. They’ve untapped the Belgian beer and the Calvados, and they’ve got stamina. They can go for hours, and they’re here all week. “Manners” mean nothing to these people, and ‘etiquette’ is just another French word that rhymes with ‘baguette’.

And, what are we to do -- those of us for whom “holiday” means ‘a bit of peace and quiet’; a chance to catch up on all those books I’ve been meaning to read for the past 12 months; a chance to sit and watch the sun set, and actually have an uninterrupted conversation with my spouse, about nothing in particular -- when that serenity is disrupted by a bunch of boors braying and guffawing, as loudly as possible, just to show the rest us what we’re missing?

It is, of course, their right, they will have you know, to enjoy themselves as they please, but what about our right to enjoy ourselves as we please? The sad truth is that there is actually very little one can do in a situation such as this. As the revelry carried on past midnight, I tried to sooth my seething soul by penning a well-crafted letter (in both French and English) to the chateau staff. A sympathetic shoulder shrug with a “Quelle dommage”, however well intended, provides little relief.

I’m angry. And, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m sure we are not the only ones feeling this way, but, the only option that exists for us all is to suffering in silence.

How did things get this way? There used to be a time when you could approach an individual and say, politely, “Sorry, but would you mind…” and it actually had an effect.

To my embarrassment, I recall an instance, years and years ago, when I was a student living in London.  I had a little job at a pasta shop in Marylebone High Street. One morning, I was feeling a bit cheeky, and carried my portable music player with me to work. I provided myself with an audio soundtrack as I sashayed to work. “Young lady, you can turn that down for a start.” An older male voice admonished me, clearly unappreciative of Duran Duran so early on a Saturday. I snapped to attention, and switched the player off immediately.
Those were the days!

If one dared to engage in that sort of social admonishing nowadays, you’d need to be prepared for fall out, backlash or a black eye! There is no reasoning with these people. They are bigger, louder, ruder, and undeniably, here to stay.  So, what is one to do, apart from suffering in silence?

No use complaining to camp ‘authorities’, they could do without the aggro. They don’t want to intervene, as they’d rather not have their heads ripped off in your stead! No point appealing to camping organisations like the Caravan Club. Not their problem. As long as members pay their subs and clear up after themselves, these organisations are not bothered about behavior or social harmony.

Perhaps, if there was a monetary incentive these groups and camp authorities could and would get involved. What if they could extract a hefty fine from individuals who breach the peace past a certain hour? Or, following a certain number of complaints? What if groups of boors could be barred from a site after repeated infringements? Well, I suppose that would make too much sense.
Quelle dommage.

So, it is assumed and the more civilized amongst us are meant to just accept it, chalk it up to experience, vent our spleen on Trip Advisor and try somewhere else next year.  But that doesn’t stop us imagining what we might do - or pursuing creative ways to sooth our rage and frustration: strategically placed stink bomb in the bedding quarters of the offending boor’s Unicorn caravan? A ritual flogging of said boor, at dawn, outside the campsite cafĂ©?

Close, but not quite right. The punishment should fit the crime. And, at the heart of this particular crime is a desire for attention and public recognition. The other side of it, my side of it, is that feeling of helplessness, the frustration of having my highly-prized solitude and privacy invaded. How can I ever place ‘the Boor’ in the same position? By writing him an open letter, of course. And, include his car registration details for all to see.

Dear Mr K40 CWP,  
The boorish behavior you and your newfound chums displayed on the campsite last night was obnoxious, unnecessary, rude and ignorant.  Why you felt obliged to share your bravado and ill manners with the entire campsite remains a mystery. 
 I regret to inform you that your ambitions to become a stand-up comedian are woefully misguided. Your act may go down well in your local, however, I have no doubt that the strangers laughing at your sad jokes and trite stories last night were merely doing so for the free beers and crisps that were on offer. Behind your back, they think you’re as big a berk as the rest of us do. 
 Upon reflection, I realise that it is not your fault.
I blame “Top Gear”. But, not in the way you might suppose. The format of Top Gear is to blame: lively presenters, surrounded by a gaggle of enthusiastic sycophants, eager to laugh at every line. That is the dream to which you aspire. Unfortunately, Mr K40 CWP, life is not an episode of Top Gear, and you are not Jeremy Clarkson, Richard May, or even, “The Hammond”.  
Like them or loathe them, one must admit that they are knowledgeable and gifted ranconteurs who are, in fact, engaging.  They, in stark contrast to you, are professionals. Perhaps Top Gear should come with a warning: “Do not try this at home – or on a campsite.”  
Of course, Mr K40 CPW, you have every right to live out your Jeremy Clarkson fantasy as you will. But, please understand that I, likewise, have the right NOT to be an unwilling participant in that fantasy. 
 I’m not quite sure for whom I feel most sorry: myself and my husband, having a lovely, peaceful, summer evening ruined; the family camped next to you, too afraid to register their discomfiture; your wife, snuggled up on her own inside your caravan, with a well-worn copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, since your idea of ‘quality time’ on holiday is showing off to group of strangers; or, should I feel sorry for you?  
No, I think not.

Well, they do say the pen is mightier than the sword. One can only hope.