Read on to watch a video of Joe Hoover and James K.A. Smith discussing this essay.
I. Bird on Your Head
HERE BY THE CHAPEL on the Jesuit grounds are a bubbling gray waterway and a pond and a duck and its partner. And then the one duck, the partner, was gone, destroyed, it is thought, by a raccoon. Then again, there were no feathers or blood, so perhaps it was not a raccoon that killed it but someone in Jayville has a new stolen duck.
And the other duck, the one left behind, who being raised from an egg by a priest never imprinted on a mother duck and so does not know how to fly and does not, let’s be clear, take to water (was thrown in the pond and completely freaked out), now sits outside the chapel and looks at its reflection in the window, looking for its mother, its wife duck, its love. Looking into a chapel of the Lord and seeing only himself, the lonely duck, his waste all over the outside of the chapel. And you cannot really get near this bird! You move toward him, he moves back—such a duck!
And Mary in the grotto amid the redwoods and crows ringing the Jesuit grounds might in some way be a model for dish soap. And I walk by the duck on the way to pray in front of Mary. To Jesus through Mary past Duck.
A retreat is like water cupped in your hands: you try to hold it, don’t let it leak out! The fruits, the insights, the longed-for peace. A spiritual retreat is like walking around with a small bird on your head, graces you don’t want to knock off. Holding these bird graces precariously. A thirty-day silent Jesuit retreat is a time of balancing these graces (the quiet strength of Jesus, the banter of the woman at the well—W@W in my journal—sweet Jayville itself) on the tilting beam of your soul, when the delicate holding of graces is likely the last thing Christ wants. Graces are probably meant to be as an allowance to a child: spent immediately on maybe what doesn’t deserve spending on, but with the notion that once spent, it will immediately come back.
Mary’s eyes, her smile, are just kind of like that. And I say this not irreverently, in the way people sometimes depict Mary statues—cute, or weirdly maniacal, with more going on than theotokos—but just as a true thing: a gentle icon of household products. In other words, Mary just seemed present and welcoming and somehow neutral but not in a passive way: a white statue perched amid green plants and pink flowers, before a proscenium of gray rocks, just unsurprised and ready for whatever you brought before her, eyes kind and right hand broken off. Basically, in short, she was effective, a pitch person for a small, simple good, like soap.
And one day she, Mary, had half a plain bagel lodged where the hand had been, and I believed it was not placed there with comic brio. I did not feel Jayville would mess ironically with the Virgin. The bagel was possibly there—somehow in league with the Lakota putting candy on a table next to a casket—it was there with reverence. A spirit of offering. I pictured a small, devout woman putting the bread there for La Virgen. It was gone the next day.
And the work of prayer, the routine, the technique; getting down to it, showing up, staying the prescribed forty-five minutes (but no longer). Four times a day. Praying for instance with Jesus and W@W at Jacob’s W. Standing not sitting because sitting you fall asleep. Three preludes, three points, a colloquy. The technique, the routine. The mind going where it goes.
—W@W, you have had five husbands.
—Okay, you have me there. I can hear that. Five. Yes.
In brief, for thirty days in cargo shorts and failing gray sandals I did the Spiritual Exercises (or the Spiritual Exercises were done to me) as created by a very intense good-hearted mystic five hundred plus years ago in a program of the Jesuits called “tertianship,” in the city of Jayville. And though it was not dramatic or life-shaking or mystically illuminating, perhaps because of those very things (the routine of it, the showing up, the honing of technique, the just hanging out)—and because it took place in Jayville—it was life-altering. It was a bit devastating.
I’d done this retreat as a Jesuit novice sixteen years earlier. The same format, in a house in Saint Paul with nine others, in the winter. In the very, very cold Minnesota pond-hockey winter. And though a grown man of thirty I was still in some ways quite young. Young and wanting the feeling of God maybe more than I wanted God himself.
Jayville is the kind of American city that draws the kind of early nineties Midwestern undergraduate valedictorian speaker who plans in her speech to exhort the entire arena to rub their hands together and thump on their legs and snap their fingers all to signal the sounds of a rainstorm, for a point about life and togetherness and what we humans can create, how perhaps we can make weather together, in a way, but weather that is more than weather, and who when she submits her speech to the people in charge of graduation is then hauled before them and told she can’t do it, can’t get everyone to make imaginary rain, and as evidence of why this isn’t an appropriate thing to inflict on the gathered audience has trotted out before her the words of a graduating senior who is Black, knowing as they did, the administrative functionaries, that she being the kind of person in favor of unity through human rain-sound-making would undoubtedly also be the kind of person in favor of Black undergraduates not having to put up with things they don’t want at their graduations, and who, having somehow heard about her rain plans, this student, said through his administrative interlocutors (he wasn’t there) that his mother didn’t clean floors on her hands and knees to put him through college so she could sit there and pat her legs while he receives his generationally hard-earned diploma (needless to say, in the end there was no rain) and who, while this was going on, perhaps in the very moments that the administrative functionaries were standing over her essentially rewriting her speech, perhaps dreamed of a place, the valedictorian, where public speakers would have full and enthusiastic approval to incite an audience to make whatever kind of weather they wanted, however and whenever they wanted, and the audience of that place would do it gladly, joyfully, as if they were born to make rain—a place like, for instance, the city she ended up moving to: Jayville.
Where, anyway, it rains a lot.
There are discounts for “Honored Citizens” on the buses in Jayville: the poor, the aged, riders with a mental or physical disability. They are honored by this municipality, it says it on the ticket dispenser.
Signs at intersections: Bikes may take full lane. No entry except for bikes. No entry except buses and bikes. All has been reversed in Jayville. Those once in the margins are now front and center. The motorists are cast down and the streets filled with good things, like Trek 9000s, or Miss Gulch bikes. This, this is Jayville’s moment, when the earth is melting.
A protest at a concert series at the zoo because the noise is harmful to the elephants’ hearing. Listings in an alternative paper: a benefit for a group that offers yoga to domestic abuse survivors; a comedy fundraiser that will bring kids from “undernatured communities” into the wilderness; a celebration for a group that strives for equitable tool access; a drag show to benefit a no-kill dog shelter.
A woman pushes a shopping cart down the street, a sign affixed to the back: “Babies should not be in cages.” She is in her own cage, disheveled, jittery, muttering to herself, healing the world.
Signs, the signs: Greenways are not cut-throughs. Set the pace. Twenty is enough. Squirrel crossing. Yard signs in English, Spanish, and Arabic: No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor. Signs in faded flag colors: In our America all people are equal. Love wins. Black Lives Matter. Immigrants and refugees are welcome. Disabilities are respected. Women are in charge of their bodies. People and planet are valued over profit. Diversity is celebrated. (The veiled reference to abortion is the only jarring note in all this defense of life.)
I look into the chapel window of Jayville and I see my own reflection, or what I want it to be. Thoughtful, kind, ecologically appropriate! A place where everyone joyfully has the same clothes, music, and bikes I joyfully had in 1992. Jayville brought me closer, you could say, not exactly to God, but to the feeling of the thing that you feel when you remember that there is Something Good out there.
And because for thirty days I talked to few people in this city but observed its outerwear, the cut, so to speak, of its jib, Jayville became whatever I wanted it to be. I mainly knew Jayville in silence and signs and trees and yards and bike lanes and thank yous on the bus. I never had to get close to it, never had to inquire into what was underneath the signs, whether the signs and the thank yous were hypocrisy or glib or whether they were buoyed by goodness.
III. Who Do You Say I Am
Tertianship is the third, or “tertiary,” year of Jesuit novitiate, but one that takes place, weirdly enough, a couple of decades after the first two years. As if for a rain-delayed game that had to be finished at a later date, you gather up your equipment, get back on the field. For years you have been working, serving, “laboring in the vineyard” (teaching, running a school, counseling youth, writing books, what have you), and suddenly you have to stop. You cannot take final vows without undergoing this retreat.
Novitiate itself is two years of trials and study and prayer and service and doing these same Spiritual Exercises. This all happens in a low-slung yellow house in Saint Paul—mine did anyway—where you eat and pray and study and change rooms twice a year. Where for several months of your first year you may or may not drape a gray towel over your mirror and then take it off because how did that even help? That kind of place.
At the end of novitiate, if you last the whole way through, you tell the Lord and the Society of Jesus in “first vows” that yes, you will forever be a Jesuit. Final vows take place several years later, where the Jesuits say yes to you, forever.
All this is subtle and hard to fully understand. As a novice you kneel before the elevated cup and host in the middle of Mass—the transfigured body and blood, the ritual height of human intensity—and recite a vow formula and say yes to the Jesuits. And then several years later, as if they have been standing over you the whole time, looking up at the ceiling, deep sighs, furrowed brows, tugging at beards, hemming, hawing, the Jesuits finally open their mouths and say yes in return. Very strange!
Jesus, this Jesus. Contemplating scripture, placing yourself in the gospel and considering how there is hope even for you as there is for W@W. (Everything I ever did!) W@W and Zacchaeus treed by the Holy Ghost and the blind man by the pool cured by Jesus and then abandoned and left to fend off the withering Pharisees himself.
But Jesus, it becomes clear, did not leave this man behind thoughtlessly, cruelly. No, Christ took off immediately after the healing because the blind man now had power enough to take care of himself. Namely, to talk back to religious elders. (You want to be his followers too? Why would I listen to you—who have lifted not a single finger for me—over someone who made me not blind.)
Jesus. This Jesus. When I first did the retreat in cold Saint Paul and later wrote about it I mainly talked about myself. What happened, what awesome things occurred to me, how I felt about it all, how it transformed me. This time I am far less interesting to myself. I have little to say about me, but mainly about him.
Who is Jesus? He wore a tunic that was perhaps a lightly dusted eggshell, a stone tunic, ecru, ivory, his face an amalgam of three or four Jesuses I have known.
Oh, is he a lot? Difficult to be with? Christ? A bit much? An exposed nerve of a man? Someone you can take only for so long, all that out-front humanity? Does he bear not only his future pain but the wounds and words and deeds of all, for all time: the splitting of the atom, the finding of fire, the exploding of the bomb, the child pinned under the Pinto, the child drowned in a black pool, the smoke rising over the vain city, the first split cell, mutation of fish, the arrow into the beast, the gunpowder, sunspots on a car window, gallons of pop: does he bear it all, Christ, churning within him, every war that ever was or ever will be, dancing in his molecules such that it is just challenging to be around this man? Upon which shelf shall you put him? He who was tempted in all ways except sin. Jesus, is he everyone’s digits, the ends of your hairs, the wife not your own, the sexless nights, the bleeding snapvine, the Lysander leaf, the dish soap, the Council of Trent, Battle of Hastings, the pill, Saint Augustine, Saint Vincent, every couplet of Shakespeare’s and each child’s drowning nightmare—does he contain them all, things lovely or horrifying, is this him, all of everything stuffed inside? How does one bear such a man as this?
And what if—frightening thought for one praying to Jesus for thirty days—what if you can’t bear him at all? Because you don’t feel him, or believe that he is actually there? What if you traipse down the walk to the Virgin Mary to pray, and stand there, and say the words, and don’t feel anything? What happens when you do “imaginative prayer,” sit and watch Jesus talking to some random publican, and ask yourself if what is happening isn’t prayer? Is not divine communication, but just you making Bible figures say what you want them to say in ways that make you feel better about yourself? What if you try so hard to get to God and have your life changed and it doesn’t happen? What if you intensely strive for God and then, and then…
Is all this Jayville goodness real? The ecological fervor, the thank yous, the elephants, the justice—is it authentic and lasting? Or is it bound to fail? Is this love and kindness something you can’t really buy and trust and sink your teeth into, a fleeting faddish care for the world, a solidarity as shallow as paint thinner? A thing that, once the buzzy fervor of goodwill is gone, the goodwill itself will be gone? Was the happy location of one’s retreat founded on a fast falling lie?
Jayville is “secular.” Jayville is “unchurched,” not very fond of religion, just kind of over it, or really never had it. Jayville doesn’t love God!
Should one go through Jayville or any good-hearted clime that does not live from the ruddy heart of God with a cautious if not scornful spirit? Where is the divine in all this humanity? If Something Greater is not acknowledged, can Something Greater even be there?
The philosopher Charles Taylor is perhaps the most usual of suspects to draw into a discussion like this one. He points out that much of the western world in one way or another does the kind of good that Jayville does. “Our age makes higher demands for solidarity and benevolence on people today than ever before,” he says in a lecture at the University of Dayton (in the nineties! Jayville’s sweet spot!). “Never before have people been asked to stretch out so far, so consistently, so systematically, so as a matter of course, to the stranger outside the gates.”
But he goes on to observe that this kind of philanthropy may be capricious, subject to the whims of trends and what makes people feel good in the moment. Jayville may not have unconditional care for the “honored,” the doomed dogs, the equal tool access. A passion to ensure that the right belt sander gets in the right hands could fade like dew on the grass once we grow weary of doing so. Signs do not always make for actions. Anyone can hang a sign and claim to be the kind of person the sign says they are. Welcoming. Safe-making. Honoring of Citizens. Thrilled at the sight of any newly arrived Salvadorans. With no one following up about whether they are actually that kind of person. Anyone can tell jokes for undernatured children, as long as it is fun, fits in with their schedule, doesn’t demand too much. But if it is not born of a lifetime commitment rooted in something larger than all of us? Well…
You attend rallies, and you witness committed people marching and agitating for great causes, but with no mention of religion at all. And you think: how nice, how impressive, these passionate and deeply feeling humans with their commitments, their ardor, but it is not deep. It is bound to fail. You are amateurs at love, you think, posing at enacting the works of human goodness.
(And how deep, you may ask, is your own spirituality, the quietly falling powder of divinity you have known these thirty days? Will prayer fail, will this all dissipate, the graces fall from our redeemed bodies? Thin and fleeting moments one cannot trust, because the Christ and the saints encountered are just imaginative renderings, whatever we want them to be, saying what we would like them to say, their reality too much to handle?)
TO OVERCOME ONESELF,
TO ORDER ONE’S LIFE,
WITHOUT REACHING A DECISION
THROUGH SOME DISORDERED AFFECTION
Saint Ignatius put these lines in his prayer manual center justified, in all caps. A child making sure everybody knows what he is saying right here is a big deal. This is what it is all about and it matters a ton. Ignatius was a Basque soldier who fought men and seduced ladies and then got hit by a cannonball. And what exactly matters a ton, to him? Living without “disordered affections.” Making decisions without being “attached” to what you shouldn’t be attached to.
It is summarized in his plodding and a-mystical “Principle and Foundation”:
Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of doing this to save their souls.
The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings, to help them in the pursuit of the end for which they are created.
From this it follows that we ought to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.
To attain this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to our free will and is not forbidden.
Those precepts! An iron plough through hard ground that grows no flowers.
Nevertheless. God’s will for you is, according to Ignatius, knowable. It is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.
The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is, in the end, to free oneself from clinging to anything except Jesus.
It is about grasping neither at being rich nor being poor. Clinging desperately neither to being sick nor to being healthy. It is about being free to notice where God is among a thousand gods striving for our attention.
If non-religious activism and Jayville-style benevolence are not grounded in something more eternal than a splash guard on a mountain bike, will that activism eventually become something less gentle?
When people we serve don’t live up to our expectations, our care for them can founder, or get quite ugly, writes Taylor. “The [philanthropy] is broken off or, worse, continues but is invested now with these new feelings, becoming progressively more coercive and inhumane…. A lofty humanism posits high standards of self-worth and a magnificent goal to strive toward. It inspires enterprises of great moment.” (Hamlet! Well stated!) “But by this very token, it also encourages force, despotism, tutelage, ultimately contempt, and a certain ruthlessness in shaping refractory human material.”
Refractory human material.
If God is not the source of the good that we do, then who is to keep that goodness from mutating into whatever the most powerful and persuasive want it to be? Says Flannery O’Connor: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”
So. Will the goodness of Jayville and all similar municipalities fade into a brutal autocracy? Will all those bikes become mandatory, instruments of rage and heartless order? Can this really happen? (I don’t believe it.)
But Jayville by these lights is a particularly dangerous place because it so cunningly masks its secularity; its kindly ways are a dark prince dressed up as a handshake to an honorable citizen.
We have a cook in our tertian house, and it so happens that her daughter cooks in another house on the same grounds. On the Fourth of July our cook, the mother, makes Rice Krispie treats that are green and pink and shaped like slices of watermelon. She puts them out on the table in the dining room. Later the priest in charge of food comes into the kitchen through the dining room. She tells him that she saw these treats in a recipe book and thought they looked cute.
“Do you think they’re cute?” she asks him.
This priest pauses and says quietly, yes, and then shortly leaves. Immediately the mother phones her daughter across the way. He said they’re cute. As if the father in charge had strolled into the dining room, seen the cookies incarnated on the counter, made haste into the hill country of the kitchen and said, “Those watermelon-shaped Rice Krispie treats are cute.”
This priest is a lovely and excellent guy who has served God and man faithfully and generously for years and has never in his entire life I guarantee stumbled upon any foodstuffs anywhere and said they were cute.
But when pressed about cute, he did say yes, and that was enough, and the word got out, quickly.
And why shouldn’t the word get out? For who doesn’t need someone to tell us what we baked, what we confected, what we made of the stuff laid out on the dusty counter of our lives is, plain and simple, good; and then broadcast it to the world, that everyone may know. All of human longing crammed into the one sequence. Did I do good? Yes. Am I good? Yes.
The key for your run-of-the-mill seeker standing in a garden trying to pray but feeling no Presence at all, is to pray as if there is Presence; to stand there and act as if Christ actually exists. To place oneself in front of a Virgin bearing Polish bread—Polish-Jewish bread, Jewish-American bread—and do the preludes. (“I imagine a great plain in the region of Jerusalem…”) And something begins to move. If this seeker believes but not right now, he fakes a belief that there is a God. And then, usually, eventually, something starts to happen. God materializes. Or he begins to see what was always there. You make rote insincere mental statements that God will not leave you, and eventually you really believe God would never leave you. You say words you might never say, yes, they are cute, and maybe over time you become someone who tosses those awkward descriptions off without a thought, doing more for the bakers in your midst than you can even imagine.
In Jayville, the people with welcome signs in the yard are, if nothing else, acting as if they believe it. As if they genuinely want to throw their arms around anyone crossing the line into the county. If you put your mission statement on your front lawn, you’ve got some “eustress,” some healthy pressure to live it out. The words in the yard, the molecules in the paint can congeal with other molecules in a fair-minded chamber of the heart. Put out the sign and create the reality.
Give me a table saw or give me death. Save the pachyderms from Liz Phair’s Fender Duo-Sonic. Ridiculous, right? Not so! Concerts that damage majestic animals ought to be protested. The small things matter. (The zoo fights back, arguing that the elephants are free to roam far away from the area next to the concert stage, but they stay and listen.) Regardless. The point is that great to small, soil to elephant to biker to bus rider, are defended, here in Jayville. Jokes are told to make sure kids see fish. Battered women are led into vajrasana, diamond pose, until they become the Form of Diamond Pose itself. All this is, how shall we say, quite lovely.
(Of course in some ways Jayville is also, I am sure, spritzed with contradiction and hypocrisy and all things that serve to confect deep human sadness. Any place wholly good would not be worth talking about, because it would be boring and doesn’t exist.)
In a way, the division between the “secular” and the “non-secular” carries little meaning in American society today. The divisions that have cachet, that really speak to the way we operate, are between “wealth and power used to crush people” and “wealth and power used to liberate.” “Rage-filled ideologues” and “not.” “Sowers of fear” and “sowers of mercy.” Those who welcome the stranger and those who reject him, and viciously.
If the scarcity of religious fervor in Jayville is in any way “dangerous” (and, really, is it?), it also must be said that divine-tethered moral action can itself go disastrously wrong.
Sometimes I think it is easier to find God in a city stripped of religious artifacts but teeming with the words and actions of human goodness. A stage picked clean of all but Lear and his fool, those words, those precious words! O, I have ta’en too little care of this. Take physick, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel. Each line heard all the more clearly because there is no scenery to distract from it. Maybe the divine can be seen more plainly in Jayville because in Jayville they aren’t concealing God with words about God.
Christians are world class at being disappointed in the world. Sorrowful, frenetic, tense. Feverishly willing God into the world. Christians with a codependent relationship with the world: If only everyone got their act together, I’d be more peaceful. And in all this serving the world not at all.
What the Spiritual Exercises attempt to do is liberate us to follow God wherever God calls, accept it as it is, with serenity.
They pull you closer and closer to a deep abiding freedom where no situation or circumstance, nothing good nor bad, no health nor sickness, no wicked cleric or terrifying ruler, no place “divine” or “not divine,” can separate you, as they say, from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Says a Jesuit document: Jesuits know who they are by looking at Jesus. Not so. By looking at Jesus Jesuits know who they’re not. We see the lack, the gaping space, the wide unholy territory between us and Christ. Who anywhere looks at Jesus and sees himself?
A duck maybe. A duck who was rescued as an egg from raccoons meaner than you think Jayville would allow. In the window of the chapel where Jesus lives, this bird sees himself. Sees, you could say, that the son of God looks a lot like him. Someday perhaps we will have similar knowledge, the devastated and resurrected Christ in the window so crammed inside of us it will by necessity explode out, and the world will be destroyed into a goodness beyond belief.
Joe Hoover is a Jesuit brother, playwright, actor, poetry editor at America Media, and author of O Death, Where is Thy Sting: A Meditation on Suffering (Orbis). His work has been published in The Sun, Agni, and Best Spiritual Writing 2012 (Penguin).