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


Robin said...

Oh, you are in it deep! It was a particular Jesuit and discernment through the Exercises that led me to seminary and I into ministry.

Beautiful post.

Martha Spong said...

I hoped this Wednesday Festival would serve to connect you two Ignatians!