I’ve been doing “The Exercises” and I don’t mean pilates (I do that as well) but the Exercises of St Ignatius, a sixteenth century saint who founded the Jesuits.
Ignatius was a romantic and a knight who dreamt of glory and heroism in battle. (He was probably a 4 on the Enneagram, which is why I feel an affinity. All those daydreams and imagining your personal tragedies/romances making you utterly stand out from the crowd).
After being wounded in the siege of Pamplona in 1521, he spent a year convalescing and underwent a deep spiritual conversion, as he noticed the effect of his daydreams on his long term moods and how they revealed the shallowness of his life.
Whilst daydreaming of impressing damsels with his heroism, he would initially feel energised, but later that palled and he felt his spirits become depressed. But after reading the only book in the building where he was recovering (a life of Christ) he noticed his mood stayed elevated and he eventually concluded that what was giving him real life was the direction in which God was calling him – i.e. to a life of service of Christ.
All this conversion and subsequent experience he distilled into The Exercises and normally you undertake them by going off on a 30 day retreat where a trained director takes you through daily readings, meditations and prayers that are all designed to promote spiritual discernment.
Now I don’t think St Ignatius was particularly liberated in the gender/working patterns department, but luckily for me, Ignatius, the single, monastic Catholic male, did envisage those who couldn’t take 30 days out of their ‘normal’ lives, and who could undertake the Exercises instead ‘in daily life’, with a spiritual guide on hand every 1-2 weeks.
Since I’m hitting middle age big time and wondering about my life stage, it seems like a good time. Also I have zero hang ups about Roman Catholic spirituality, having attended a convent at a formative age and daydreamed of being a nun (well, that daydream didn’t last very long, but it was there, along with dreams of being a ballet dancer, an artist or a concert pianist…draw your own conclusions).
Week one of the Exercises is to contemplate the sinfulness of oneself and humanity, so not a walk in the park. It sounds terribly negative but it’s really about realism. It’s only negative if it’s not true that we’re sinners. If we are, we might as well be real about it, and the more you read the news and read your own reactions, the more your realise it is in fact true, and we’re all in it together.
So, first thing that happens: I get into an argument on Facebook about the rights and wrongs of US immigration laws. And I then discover some uncomfortable truths about myself through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18. Honestly Ignatius, did you envisage the profound discomfort your Exercises would cause?
The problem with social media is that all your reactions are there for all to see. I used to read the newspapers, have a rant about something that was (to me) obviously wrong, and quickly move on. Now one has the whole gamut of reactions reacting against your reactions, and when it comes to children being separated from parents at Mexican/US borders, we are dealing with a very visceral set of reactions.
I once was separated from my toddler for 5 minutes in The Early Learning Centre in Eastbourne and it was enough to make me feel physically sick before he popped up on the other side of the display cabinet.
I cannot envisage any scenario whereby the enforced separation of families seeking asylum can be thought to be acceptable behaviour, and on the basis of Jesus’ teaching about caring for neighbours and welcoming the stranger, I’m happy to say so to anyone who follows me on Facebook (that would be over 700 people, but thanks to Facebook’s algorithms, that number is vastly fewer; probably a good thing).
So I feel I’m right to be upset about children crying at border controls. The problem is in my feeling of being right, though. Whilst believing there is actually a moral right and a wrong here, what I have less control over is how I feel about my rightness and, more crucially, how I feel about the wrongness of others who disagree with me.
Because there are people who say we cannot judge, we don’t know all the facts, we are self righteous do-gooders and actually have no intention of doing anything about the scenario we decry. I suspect the people who feel this are not as down on President Trump as I want to be. I suspect negative things about them. Worse: I suspect they may be less Christian than me.
There’s my problem. I am the Pharisee who prays ‘O Lord, I thank you that I am not like this person who doesn’t despise Trump as much as I do, that I have the correct social justice conscience, that I post about the evils of border control separations, that I feel for children crying whist their mothers are frisked by the side of a jeep. I thank you that I am not like this other Christian who uses different words from me, who thinks there are nuances to the argument, who thinks that if you’re entering a country illegally, you have it coming’.
Or words to that effect.
That’s where the genius of St Ignatius comes in (and of Jesus, St Paul and the whole biblical witness, for that matter). I am always implicated in the sin of the world. I feel my rightness, and immediately contribute to the problem. I see the other person’s speck before my own plank. That is how self righteousness works. I’m the older brother of the Prodigal Son; the Pharisee, the upright religious professional.
And that’s how sin works. It is everywhere, in me, in you, in the structures of everything we are all part of together, whether as beneficiaries of White Supremacy, or as argumentative social media users who would rather be right than show compassion to our detractors.
So I’m well into the First Week, on human sin and ‘the grace’ of feeling shame and confusion. And I’m squirming. Thank you St Ignatius. I’ll keep you posted.