Month: September 2013

Discernment: ‘finding God in everything’

A reminder from Pope Francis why  discernment is an Ignatian and Jesuit  gift to the Church:


The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process. The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. There have been periods in the Society in which Jesuits have lived in an environment of closed and rigid thought, more instructive-ascetic than mystical …



No, the Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking at the horizon toward which he must go, with Christ at the center. This is his real strength. And that pushes the Society to be searching, creative and generous. So now, more than ever, the Society of Jesus must be contemplative in action, must live a profound closeness to the whole church as both the ‘people of God’ and ‘holy mother the hierarchical church.’



Padre Pio: a closer look

In the local  Catholic Church to which I converted in the 1980s, there was a  great  cultural split between  those who followed the ‘social gospel’ and those  still  caught up in  what were known in a derogatory term as ‘private devotions’. A group met every  Saturday afternoon  in a local parish to  pray the  prayers suggested by  Padre Pio, an Italian  Capuchin known as a contemporary  mystic who could bilocate, had been seen saying Mass in two different locations  at once, and  who suffered the stigmata for  decades, bleeding profusely from wounded hands but  apparently suffering no ill effects from this strange phenomenon.

The  group of  elderly men and women who met each week were not involved with any of the social outreach projects of the parish or  diocese. They didn’t work with soup kitchens, didn’t join protests against apartheid, didn’t  like the youth projects or sign up on parish lists for visiting the sick in hospital or making prison visits. They  liked rosary groups, devotions to  particular saints and  exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

I liked prayer groups and Exposition of the Sacrament too, but felt it was vital to get out and  work in pastoral care in order to erode some core selfishness and connect with those who suffered so much and  whose faith  burned so brightly.

An older priest once commented to me that a friend of his from seminary days had once made an appointment to  have a session of  spiritual direction with Padre Pio, had  saved up for a flight to Italy and accommodation. This was to be the turning point of his  ministry. Alone in his hotel room the night before he was due to meet with the great mystic, the priest had lost his nerve, cancelled the meeting and flown back home the next morning. He told his friends that he  couldn’t face the  insights or challenges of what Padre  Pio might say to him. He wasn’t ready to change his life, he  wasn’t ready to die to self.

Pio of Pietrelcino was born  Francesco Forgione to a poor sheep farming family in southern Italy  in 1887 and given the name  Pio or Pius when he joined the Capuchin order as a young man. As a child in a devout family, he had experienced visions and later carried out extreme ascetic penances, sleeping on the  floor uncovered with a stone for a pillow. His health was  frail and  he  had debilitating  illnesses, including typhoid.

When he felt called to enter a religious order, he  struggled to improve his  educational  qualifications: his father worked in the United States as a labourer to pay for Pio’s tuition.In 1903 at the age of  15, Pio entered the  Capuchin novitiate.

His health did not improve and  his fellow novices and later  priestly confreres witnessed him levitating and conversing with saints. He  joined the friary in San Giovanni Rotunda, Foggia, and would remain there until his death. After the end of World War I, Padre Pio became a spiritual director for the Capuchins. He promoted five ‘habits’ or rules for spiritual growth: weekly confession, daily Communion, spiritual reading, meditation, and the Ignatian examen of conscience.

He compared weekly confession to dusting a room weekly, and recommended meditation and the examen twice daily: once in the morning, as preparation to face the day, and once again in the evening, as retrospection. His advice on the practical application of theology he often summed up in his now famous quote, “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry”. He directed Christians to recognize God in all things and to desire above all things to do the will of God.

Throughout his life, his health was  bad and he suffered greatly, but kept working and maintaining his own prayer ‘discipline’. As early as 1911, he wrote to his own spiritual adviser to reveal something he had experienced for a year:

Then last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks. The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feel it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain.

These mystical wounds of the stigmata would reappear in September, 1918 and  along with them, to his  great  humiliation, Padre Pio would experience the  cruelty of the  crown of thorns and  scourging.  His body  was marked and bleeding without  visible cause. His experiences of mystical suffering  find  a parallel in those of St John of the Cross who wrote of them this way:

The soul being inflamed with the love of God which is interiorly attacked by a Seraph, who pierces it through with a fiery dart. This leaves the soul wounded, which causes it to suffer from the overflowing of divine love.

When Padre Pio offered himself as a victim of the war ravaging Europe,  Christ came to him in a vision and pierced his side. The physical wound caused him agony. And that same year, the  war would end with millions dead in trenches across Europe in a world broken and shattered by global war, altered societies finally at peace. But  the suffering of  Padre  Pio was just beginning.

As I write this, the strangeness of such experiences and the desire for  suffering are hard to describe. In the  vapid and narcissistic  societies of the West, it is  unthinkable now that to embrace  Christianity might mean literal   agony or a crucifying torment, or  slow death  to self. We have convinced ourselves that God  does not  ask  anything  so cruel or  frightening of us.

This self-immolating  torture would remain with  Padre Pio for the rest of his life, an inner wound bound up with his love for the Crucified. For the next 50 years he would bear the five bleeding wounds of Christ, the visible stigmata.

I cannot tell you how much I suffered during this period of anguish. Even my entrails were torn and ruptured by the weapon, and nothing was spared. From that day on I have been mortally wounded. I feel in the depths of my soul a wound that is always open and which causes me continual agony.

Along with the mystic  phenomena  came the  shrewd and unerring ability to read hearts. He was a gentle thoughtful  confessor with terrifying penetration into the motives and  evasions of those who came to him.

In the more  scientific and  sceptical climate of the 20th century, suspicions grew about Padre Pio and he was accused of being a self-mutilating hysteric who manipulated those around him. For many years the Church would not permit him to say Mass.

Over the decades his following grew as did his reputation as a humble and  holy man. He was often heard to say, “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” He died  50 years after receiving the  stigmata, on 23 September, 1968. Immediately after his death, the  wounds of the stigmata  vanished without trace.

Pope  John Paul II declared  Padre  Pio a saint on 16 June, 2002.

Padre Pio young

To walk alongside at the same pace

Francis watch: the Pope on contemporary communications in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications:


…what role should the Church have in terms of its own practical means of communication? In every situation, beyond technological considerations, I believe that the goal is to understand how to enter into dialogue with the men and women of today, in order to appreciate their desires, their doubts, and their hopes. They are men and women who sometimes feel let down by a Christianity that to them appears sterile, struggling precisely to communicate the depth of meaning that faith gives. We do in fact witness today, in the age of globalisation, a growing sense of disorientation and isolation; we see, increasingly, a loss of meaning to life, an inability to connect with a “home”, and a struggle to build meaningful relationships.

It is therefore important to know how to dialogue, and how to enter, with discernment, into the environments created by new technologies, into social networks, in such a way as to reveal a presence that listens, converses, and encourages. Do not be afraid to be this presence, expressing your Christian identity as you become citizens of this environment. A Church that follows this path learns how to walk with everybody!

And there’s also an ancient rule of the pilgrims, that Saint Ignatius includes, and that’s why I know it! In one of his rules, he says that anyone accompanying a pilgrim must walk at the same pace as the pilgrim, not ahead and not lagging behind. And this is what I mean: a Church that accompanies the journey, that knows how to walk as people walk today. This rule of the pilgrim will help us to inspire things.


Francis and dove

This strange light is not a cry

One of my favourite poets, Christian Wiman.


A Poem Is Not a Prayer

When the evening enters water,
the clear interior stained
and all in fire its minor sky;

when the sun like melted solder
burns into the green,
delineates the bones of each leaf;

the tree feels nothing,
the lake is not in pain,
this strange light is not a cry.

Nor does darkness bring relief.



The ambiguous, searching vision of Jamie Quatro

Her father was a physician, her mother a classical pianist. Jamie Quatro grew up in California and did her  MFA in British Romantic Poetry. Her fiction brought acclaim on publication, with characters who are serious salvation-seeking Christians caught up in ambiguous troubling relationships and struggling with doubt and  their own shying away from commitment to faith traditions  or encounters with the Divine. Influenced by Christian Wiman and Flannery O’Connor  but with a voice and  way of seeing all her own.


From Demolition


“the missing stained glass was a gift. With only the lead outlines remaining, the familiar Bible stories were now articulated in three dimensions: yellow-greens of spring maple and silvered sprays of pine, fade-to-gray of cloud, blue sky beyond. Could it be, we said, that in this fusion of the ancient stories with present-day creation, God meant to reawaken our childhood sense of mystery? Hadn’t some of us noticed, lately, gilded horizon lines at the borders of things, a refracted spangling along the edges of sidewalks? Hadn’t others of us sworn we’d felt a finger brush the backs of our necks or calves while we stood loading our dishwashers, brushing our teeth? Perhaps, we said, God wanted gently to remind us of the world we’d forgotten about, the other Nature hovering just behind our own; and though we couldn’t see it–not yet–we grew increasingly certain it was there, just in front of us, waiting on the other side of a one-way mirror, breath fogging up the glass.”


An interview here in which  Quatro speaks about reclaiming ritual:

Performance, ritual: why do we think of these terms as pejorative? Performance is a part of nearly everything we do. Are we ever not performing, to some degree? Maybe when we’re asleep, or involved in a self-actualizing activity (for me, when I’m drafting or on a long run; sometimes in yoga). There’s a sense in which we need ritual. We crave it at a physical level; we inhabit a universe that operates according to ritual: sun up, sun down; work, rest, play, work; summer, fall, winter, spring. There is joy in the rehearsal of the known, the familiar. Raising children is a great reminder of this: they thrive on routine, love tradition. And without ritual, there can be no mystery—how can the unexpected enter into a life that is devoid of expectation? Ritual opens the door for revelation. We move through ritual and performance to access the Divine. Yoga teaches this: when we know the poses—when they become habit, motor-memory—we can more quickly access the state of heightened awareness that is beyond the physical. The ecstasy. I find the same to be true with liturgy. The more I practice it—when it becomes part of the fabric of my being—the more quickly and completely I can move through it to approach the Divine.



That voice from the Third World

Over the years I’ve known many  priests and even bishops like Pope Francis. Priests who came out to the mission territories or  were sent to informal settlements or refugee camps to do pastoral  work and who found themselves transformed. The much-publicised and polarised  issues of the West left them unmoved as  they lived and worked amongst those  battling war, destitution, homelessness, starvation. Poverty transformed them and in the suffering and struggles of the poor they met Christ and  began to preach about hope and mercy. This isn’t my phrasing, these are expressions I have  heard over and over  again from  priests and  women religious working in hard and  seemingly hopeless places. Where the First World only hears   the language of  a dangerous liberation theology, those who live  at the margins  know and  speak of another kind of reality.

So the  moving and  deeply sincere  convictions voiced by  Francis in his interview with the Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro are as familiar to me as the prayers in my breviary. Wonderful to hear and  very much to be expected  from a Latin American  priest who  knew the  barrios  like the pam of his hand.

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

The forgetting of self

Ill in bed and  reading the breviary at snail’s pace along with the poems of the late great Seamus Heaney.

I rarely write anywhere about prayer or  personal faith because I have  such distrust of religiosity and  pious language. It comes to me more and more in these years, living amidst the  illnesses, atrocious suffering and deaths of friends, that faith in  God is essentially all about God and  not  the self. If we look for the fullness or mercy of God in our own lives (what God has ‘done for me’ or more ominously what I have ‘done for God’)  we risk finding nothing but our own self-preoccupation and blindness, we need to turn again to Revelation in Word and Sacrament, God breaking into  history, God and the poor, the gift of God to humankind, that redeeming power in tradition and  faith.

And dying to self, this too, day by day. The crux of letting go,  moving towards darkness in naked faith.

Seamus Heaney again:

St Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.