It is hard to know what to say to those who ask about one’s experience of the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The experience is profound, intense, and deeply personal. It is also experience, not knowledge or information that can be transferred to another. To be sure, the retreat does have objective content–the life of Christ, God’s creation of the world, the moral law. It is not just a process for personal growth; it is an encounter with the Son of God who revealed himself in first century Palestine, who we know through the accounts that his followers handed on to the Church. Fundamentally, the content of the retreat is simply Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
That said, the experience of encountering that content varies from person to person. We can either look at Jesus from a distance or approach him, talk to him, get to know him. The Spiritual Exercises are a way of getting to know him–spending time with God with other distractions removed, recognizing God’s work in our lives up to this point, discovering his hopes for us. Like meeting your future spouse or holding a newborn child for the first time, you can describe what happened, but the experience itself can never be fully captured in words. Spending thirty days getting to know Jesus more deeply in prayer is a similarly ineffable experience.
Of course, some aspects of the retreat can be more easily shared, and I thought I’d start with one that might seem secondary but isn’t–the location. Christianity is an embodied, incarnational religion that acknowledges the influence of where we are on who we are. During the Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius frequently invites us to begin by imagining the places where Jesus lived, “the synagogues, villages, and towns” where he preached or the hills and valleys between Nazareth and Bethlehem. Even on an interior journey, location matters.
My trip to New Zealand last week put me in mind of previous travels in the American West. If I could make one recommendation for travelers to the USA, it would be to visit our National Parks. New Zealand offers similar pristine landscapes, though on a more compact scale. Of course, both landscapes boast their own unique treasures. New Zealand has its fiords and temperate rain forests; the American West, its vast expanses and the red rock sculptures of Utah that look like a landscape dreamed up by Antoni Gaudí.
The trip had me rummaging through old photos of my trips out West and looking up old notes. I had a few thoughts about travel published in Plough a few weeks ago, and that reminded me of an older article in the same magazine inspired by a long drive out West. Here’s that older article: Nature is Your Church? And, to go with it, a few pictures of places mentioned in Montana and Wyoming –Devil’s Canyon, Fort Phil Kearney, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier.
The new year came early for me this year–while in America 2022 still had almost a full day left to go, I was as close to the International Date Line as I’ve ever been watching fireworks erupt from the Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand. I will be spending the first half of the year doing Jesuit “tertianship” in Melbourne, Australia. Tertianship is the final formal stage of Jesuit formation in which we do the 30-day Spiritual Exercises again and have a chance to reflect on all that’s happened so far.
New Year’s Eve also brought the sad news of the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, someone I have immensely admired as a man whose character balanced both courage and humility, as a Christian for whom Jesus was the center of everything, and as a theologian capable of expressing the most profound truths with luminous clarity. Benedict knew how to cut through both theological jargon and political rhetoric to get to the heart of the matter– always the absolutely unique encounter with Jesus Christ.
Since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the idea 800 years ago, Italy has been the land of Nativity scenes. And there is no more prominent location for a Nativity scene in the world than St. Peter’s Square. The scene is different every year and–along with the Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia–is usually subject to intense comment and critique from Romans and visitors alike. There’ve been a few doozies in my years here, but this year’s scene from Friuli Venezia Giulia does not seem to have aroused great protests.
Here’s a peak at the scene, still waiting for the child who makes all things complete.
Christmas blessings to one and all!
“In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator.” (Pope St. Leo the Great)
One of the reasons I find the season of Advent so compelling is its central symbol of light growing in the darkness, as simple as it is powerful. The fifth of the O antiphons always strikes me as particularly poignant:
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Mid-December also coincides with a slight lull in the crush of tourists here; between the Immaculate Conception and Christmas the streets are a tad calmer and one can get out and enjoy the decorations. In the northern hemisphere it is one of the darkest times of the year, but that only makes the lights all the more delightful.
In Italy the pre-Christmas countdown begins in earnest after the Immaculate Conception on December 8. One of the country’s less-known charms is that Holy Days of Obligation are national holidays, so the Immaculate Conception means a day off, and if, like this year, it falls on a Thursday, this means a long-weekend for many, rather like Thanksgiving.
Advent is one of my favorite seasons, and, as the lights go up and manger scenes come out, I find it one of Italy’s most charming as well. (Christmas lights, fireworks, and outdoor summer operas are among the ways Italians take delight in being delightful.) Unfortunately, this year I was not among those to get last Friday off and the end of the semester is keeping me at my desk–so for this Gaudete Sunday , I rummaged through pictures of Advent trips past. Here’s a handful from Orvieto and Viterbo, the sort of small towns that are charming any time, but especially decked out for the season.
Happy Gaudete Sunday!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.
I have a new piece this week at the excellent Plough Quarterly magazine on one of my favorite themes, travel. It was fun to write, letting me look back at visits to Jesuit brothers in Burkina Faso, my Peace Corps days in Kazakhstan, and my one time riding a helicopter in the Alps. Plus thinking about Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart. Here is a link to the essay “Between Continents“.
Visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome often don’t realize that the magnificent baroque church is built over the site of a still more ancient basilica, built by Constantine and then torn down completely by Pope Julius II during the Renaissance. Over the course of the next century, today’s basilica was rebuilt by the likes of Bramante, Giulio da Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Bernini.
Surprisingly little of the original church remains, so I was fascinated this week to see a few of the mosaics saved from the first basilica at a special exhibition on medieval Rome at the Museo di Roma. The exhibition displayed work from the other four major basilicas, each of which has a unique history. The complex around St. John Lateran, another Constantinian construction, has changed greatly over the centuries and the interior of the church was redone by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, though the shape of the basilica remains basically the same. St. Mary Major preserves the magnificent mosaics from its Roman days, but St. Paul Outside the Walls was entirely rebuilt after a fire burnt it down in the early 1800s.
Here are a few pictures form the papal basilicas’ medieval past.
Anyone reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, of course, knows exactly where the book is leading, even if the story itself recounts a tortuous journey from doubt and confusion to faith. Augustine dedicates relatively few words to his baptism–at the time, Christians avoided describing what happened during the celebration of the sacraments to those not yet initiated–but what he does say reveals much about the power of the rite. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the baptistry of Milan’s cathedral on April 24, 387, along with his fifteen-year-old son Adeodatus. Adeodatus died only two years later. Looking up the passage anew, I was struck by the feeling in what Augustine wrote about his son:
“You had made him a fine person. He was about fifteen years old, and his intelligence surpassed that of many serious and well-educated men. I praise you for your gifts, my Lord God, Creator of all and with great power giving form to our deformities. For I contributed nothing to that boy other than sin… I learned many other remarkable things about him. His intelligence left me awestruck. Who but you could be the Maker of such wonders? Early on you took him away from life on earth. I recall him with no anxiety; there was nothing to fear in his boyhood or adolescence or indeed his manhood.”
Augustine goes on to describe his baptism, side by side with Adeodatus, both now reborn “the same age in grace”.
“We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose for the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”
Last week, I mentioned visiting the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, resting place of the relics of St. Augustine. This week, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of the church and the tomb, as well as a favorite panel from the monument, a scene of young Augustine listening to St. Ambrose preaching.
Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, is another of my favorite theologians. He was the first Christian thinker to formulate the doctrine of baptism of desire, which–1530 years later–became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. (Augustine was the second… I’m not quite sure where I fall on the list, but it’s significantly farther down.)
In any case, below is Augustine’s description of his encounter with Ambrose to accompany the photos.