I have lived and died by short, punchy sentences that sum up complex situations. I put them at the start of stories to lead readers into a better understanding of what happened.
As an editor, I wrote even shorter, bolder statements in big black type -- headlines. When I had worked long enough hours, days and days on end, I dreamed headlines.
The assignment now is to write about what happens during 30 days of silence, prayer and meditation. What happens when you enter the world of a 2,000-year-old Jew through the mind of a 500 year-old Basque?
There is no lead for this story. I'm glad I don't have to write the headline. The Spiritual Exercises are not news. They're not an event. There is a beginning, but the end is very uncertain. The result is dramatic, but it's hard to identify by sight or sound, and escapes any final or absolute definition.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, crafted the Spiritual Exercises out of a lifetime of seeking to "help souls." He wanted to help people stand before God and know who they were in relation to Christ.
The long retreat a -- 30-day, intensive and methodical application of the Spiritual Exercises is the most important experience in the life of a Jesuit. All Jesuits make the retreat at least twice in a lifetime. Among themselves, Jesuits talk about their lives and the world in terms of the retreat. The exercises are part of how Jesuits think 15, 20 and 30 years after they last made the retreat.
Ignatius is clear he intends the exercises as a way of making a decision. A rational observer might be tempted to note it seems a very long, awkward and strange way of deciding anything.
Day-dreaming about what your role might have been had you been present at the Last Supper is not a good way of deciding between the smoked salmon and the chicken tortellini. Nor will it likely lead to a rational decision about whether to apply for a new job.
The retreat isn't directly about the day-to-day decisions. It's a way of deciding who you are. Who you are answers the question of vocation. The question of vocation answers everything.
Jesuits in California sent this advice to the novices (Canadian and American) in St. Paul just as we were beginning the retreat:
Nothing is more practical
than finding God,
that is, falling in love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you
out of bed in the morning,
what you will do with your evenings,
how you will spend your weekends,
what you read, who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you
with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
The poem is attributed to Pedro Arrupe, the great father general of the Society of Jesus in the 1970s and '80.
I began the retreat angry.
I didn't expect or intend to be angry. I thought Arrupe's poem expressed so much of everything I had been living for. I had left my job as a newspaper editor and spent a year teaching in China, while I decided what I wanted from my life. I spent the next year as a candidate for the Society of Jesus and studying theology. Then I spent the first five months at the novitiate getting ready for the long retreat.
It seemed everything led up to the retreat. I thought there was nothing I wanted more than to begin the Spiritual Exercises.
But I didn't want to make another decision. I'm 38 years old. I didn't want to be thrown back into the doubt and turmoil of another examination of who I am and what I should do with my life. I had made my decision. I sold my stuff, I left my job, made new friends, changed my life; I was here at the novitiate (despite my age). "Isn't that enough?" I asked.
A vocation isn't a decision made just once. What is enough is not a question God is inclined to answer.
As I realized I was angry, I saw the stupidity of it I wanted to make the retreat, but I could not be angry and contemplative at the same time. If I was going to pray for 30 days, I had to pray for something. But what? I had to make a decision.
To make a decision I have to live in doubt until that decision is made. I began as Ignatius began his own spiritual journey almost 500 years ago -- with a concrete, practical moral inventory. I had to face who I am and what I had made of my life. I had to know who I was before I could imagine myself walking and talking through Galilee and Jerusalem with Jesus. It would do no good to imagine someone slightly better than me following Jesus.
Having made my living off stories, the surest truth I have grasped is that everything I know, I know through a story. I don't know myself as an abstract idea or essence, but I know the story of my life. The people I know, I know to the extent I know their story.
I have, since childhood, known Jesus through the story of His life, death and rising. I have heard it every year in the cycle of Sunday readings.
In the exercises, I lived the story; it now reshapes the story of my own life.
During the retreat, I did not hear the story at a cool remove; I was not a fly on the wall, or part of the universal audience. I lived inside the story -- running from angry mobs, hauling impossible loads of fish from the lake, sitting in a dark earthen tomb with the shrouded, unmoving body of my dead friend.
St. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but became His most ardent apostle. The exercises allow us to know Jesus just as well as Paul knew Him.
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
The exercises call me to such a decision -- then, now and always.
(Swan is a novice in the Society of Jesus. He is a former resident of Toronto and Catholic Register reporter who now lives in St. Paul.)