A Sojourn Among Jesuits

A Journey with Jesuits

I live near a highway. I have been watching the ebb and flow of traffic while struggling to put into words my experience of the past months. Traffic, for all its technology and pollution, mirrors the natural progression of seasons here in the small tourist community where I live. The arrival of a carnival or vacationers over a holiday weekend affects us, disrupting the sleepy norm, leaving the town rattled, transformed and richer when the tourist tide recedes. My life was once like this.

Like any person with a lively intellect, my worldview is informed both by everyday events and the broader perspective on culture afforded by an internet connection. The tide rises and the news is absorbed, disrupting my sleepy norm. But lately, this tide has left me rattled and transformed but no richer.

The struggle for civilization is, like the struggle for self-actualization, an effort to tame the animal within. In this, our society increasingly resembles a zoo with its cages left open. The rush to assign blame for this state of affairs leads us into a wilderness of pointing fingers. Discussion of political differences, always passionate, has transformed into an ugly debate appropriating moral language. In an environment where political differences are shaded with religious overtones of good and evil, I felt the need to withdraw and reconsider some fundamental questions. And so on July 1st I undertook a thirty-one day period of spiritual reflection.

The 31 Days of St. Ignatius is a month-long course of prayer and contemplation during which participants are invited to consider a series of topics related to the Gospel and Jesuit spirituality. Classes are provided online and supplemented with additional material by e-mail. There was also an online forum and priestly counsel made available. Also, my ex-wife and neighbor Becky was also taking the course and she provided hours of lively conversation and reflection. I have always appreciated the intellectual symmetry of Jesuitical thought, taking solace in their scholarship and commentaries, their disciplined approach to faith and later, through personal acquaintance with Daniel Berrigan and John Dear, their activism. The Jesuits always seem able to strike a meaningful balance between engagement with the inner and outer worlds. With this goal in mind, I undertook the discipline. It proved a rigorous journey of self-examination, prayerful reflection and discussion.

I distilled many of my thoughts into journal form, offered for any lost in that wilderness of pointing fingers, perhaps overwhelmed by those beasts prowling once-civilized precincts.

REFLECTION ON EVIL

One of the most pervasive and commonplace evils of our time is the ease with which we attribute evil to others. Extreme demonstrations of human evil, driven by forces as disparate as greed, nationalism, egotism, ideological fervor should prompt a passionate response. But when we mistake passion for the response – where we are too swift to alarm, we will be swift to ascribe evil to others and dehumanize them. Much of the extremism I have experienced within myself occurred when I demonized those with whom I disagreed while remaining reluctant to examine my own ideological and activist excesses. The violent arguments convulsing society are informed at least partially by this truth: you cannot confront the evil in the world effectively until you confront the evil within oneself. My own failure to do so has invariably led to a lack of reflection and humility. With much cultural commentary larded with blame, there is very little left over to encourage self-reflection about personal shortcomings. Sadly, established religion often serves to cloud the waters and muddle discourse. Those who invoke religion as cover for inexcusable and inhumane policies would do well to consult their faith’s scriptures and look within. Some others of us might do well to check our righteous anger while also checking our privilege. Acknowledging one’s own flaws brings humility. Reflexively attributing evil to others can be a way to avoid that acknowledgement.

REFLECTION ON TRUTH

An honest examination of truth leads to an awareness that the truth can wound people. Indeed, it can kill. This might explain the human reluctance to face truth and a demonstrated preference to traffic in its direct opposite. Of course, we all know the sensation of being asked for our honest opinion when we know that obliging will inflict injury. We avoid speaking the truth to spare others pain. Perhaps this explains the visible absence of the Divine in our lives. To those who cry, “Where is God?” the answer: Be careful what you ask for. We can get a scale of the potential discomfort when we apply the standards of truth we have for others to ourselves. Try it sometime. Hold yourself to the same standard of truth and fairness to which you hold someone you don’t particularly like and see how you stack up. We not only spare others the truth – we often spare ourselves. This is an act of charity because to learn too much about ourselves too quickly can be a shattering experience. To be in the presence of God is to be exposed to the absolute truth about ourselves. His absence is an act of charity. Because being in the presence of absolute truth will shatter anyone.

“WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?”

Labeling others, rightly or wrongly, according to their merit or dismissing people based on popular opinion or the say-so of others is common in human society. My own reluctance to embrace the traditional faith of my culture rests mostly in the evils done in its name. But working within the Jesuit tradition required me to approach the eminence of God-in-Christ, one outside my accustomed spiritual framework. I determined to try. We are enjoined to see the God within people, I told myself, so why not God as person? What began as an acceptance of Jesus as an subject of contemplation grew, given the norms of the faith, into a relationship with the idea of Christ. This proved an object lesson for me about things said about or done in others’ name. When asked if he is the King of the Jews, Christ responds: “You say that I am.” The statement refracts perfectly into the very problems of identity, culture and truth present in that moment. It also forces a distinction between the individual and what others say of him in a time and place of legal judgment. What I bring from this aspect of the retreat into my own life is a determination to spend more time sojourning and counseling with others and less time considering what is said or done in their name. I would like to think I would answer Christ’s words: “No, you tell me.” So I owe at least that much to others.

FINISHING THE JOURNEY/TELLING THE STORY

Many is the time I felt tempted to share some new thought or insight prompted by the course, but the 31 Days format discouraged it, and for this I am glad. My early thoughts were refined in contemplation and my understanding broadened as a result. This in a contrast with our culture of “hot takes” and opinion pieces crafted within an hour of a major news event. During the period of contemplation, it struck me how impoverished this new norm has left the marketplace of ideas. The pressures of a 24-hour news cycle, a global marketplace and instant global communication have combined to create a militantly non-reflective culture in which commentators do not so much think as react. The fastest to file the story owns that day’s news cycle. But how many individual mental journeys, I wondered, have been cut short by this phenomenon? My 31 Days reinforced for me the importance of contemplation and reflection. One need not necessarily unplug – just be a little quicker to reflect and slower to respond. Finish the journey before telling the story.

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GRIST IN THE MILL OF JUSTICE: Notes on Spiritual Resistance

Allow me to begin by saying that this essay will not be of interest to everyone who reads it. This is because not everyone in our society engages in some form of spiritual practice. I take this opportunity to differentiate the spiritual from the religious: the latter is a series of procedures and observances, the former an attempt to enact religious principles in everyday life. The Republican Party of the United States is an excellent example of an organization that adheres to visible pieties while making no attempt to enact the religious principles of the tradition from which those pieties spring. In contrast to Jesus’s instructions to feed the hungry, for example, Republican politicians at all levels of US government routinely conspire to cut food stamp programs, criminalize homelessness and restrict healthcare options for women (with disproportionately negative repercussions upon families living in poverty). The lawmakers who do this can rightly claim to be religious “men of God” as they contribute to public charities and demonstrate the fundamental pieties of regular church attendance. However, in their failure to enact religious principles in everyday life, they abdicate any claim to spirituality.

There have been historical moments when the spiritual and the religious have operated in close parallel. An example of this would be in Medieval European village life wherein the regular cycle of confession, absolution, church attendance and spiritual observance was closely connected to the everyday life and yearly rhythms of the people as they could only be in a small village. There was, of course, an element of subjugation in all of this. The Church itself benefitted from the prevailing power structure, as it always has. But priests and bishops felt a real obligation to care for the people, and they did. On those occasions when members of the aristocracy abused their power and victimized the poor, the religious community threatened to embargo access to the offices of salvation in an effort to restore justice. This balance of power, precarious thought it was, served the interests of the people for centuries.

But increasingly, the Church (broadly defined) has chosen to maintain its allegiance to power in the face of demonstrated lawlessness and corruption. When the clergy abdicate their mandate to care for the people, then the Church – like the faithful – forfeits any claim to spiritual authority. Any religious leader, for example, who sided with Adolf Hitler conferred upon Hitler’s acts a tacit stamp of religious approval. Every religious establishment faces, in times of social crisis, a choice: whether to side with the people or with the powerful.

A striking response to this choice may be found in the Liberation Theology movement of the Catholic Church. As a pagan, I have studied the tenets of liberation theology, and I am strongly convinced they offer guidelines for future engagement on the political plane. The main idea and central thrust of Liberation Theology has nowhere been expressed more succinctly than in Richard McBrien’s CATHOLICISM:
“God is disclosed in the historical ‘praxis’ of liberation. It is the situation, and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed.” – pp. 249-250

It seems opportune, at a moment when the world’s richest nation has elevated a billionaire to the highest political office in the land (and, arguably, the world), for religious people of all faiths to question their relationship to the structures of power. Be we Catholic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or of any faith which posits a moral standard, we must question where we fall on said standard. Put simply: the best measure of an individual or a society lies in its relation to the Poor. At a time when the forces of oligarchy and brutality are in ascendance, people of all faiths would do well to examine their relationship to the poor, to the oppressed and the disadvantaged and ask: are we truly standing with them?

If we find ourselves wanting, we might want to take this moment to consider how best to re-engage in the work of charity and witness for the oppressed. So many politically active friends of mine are taking steps against the current wave of oligarchy and xenophobia by calling their representatives, contributing to charities and going to protests. All of these are excellent actions. But they are made even stronger by a commitment to endure, to stay the course and to remain focused on a moral compass. Faithful spiritual practice can work to reinforce this commitment.

A spiritual practice which meditates upon social justice is a spiritual practice built for the long run. A daily meditation, an immersion in prayer and communion with the divine will be fundamental to this effort. And our efforts, make no mistake, are of global importance. Put simply, we cannot – and must not – turn away from those who will be most ruthlessly victimized in the coming new order. We must practice love when dealing with the Other and we must fortify ourselves for the work ahead. I can think of no better preparation for people of faith than to sharpen the tools of spiritual resistance. We must pray together, break bread together and prepare to go to jail together in witness of our beliefs. For without that witness, spirituality becomes the empty observance of a dead religion. We are privileged to live in interesting times – times in which we are called to be grist in the mill of justice.

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Intersection

The night before the Orlando massacre, I got into a fight with my best friend and we said some pretty nasty things to one another. The whole thing hinged on her dissing my religion. Once we’d unhooked the barbs we’d thrust into each other’s hides and smoothed things over, it occured to me that her assumption that I was “going off and being a fucking hippie” (with all the presuppositions of flightiness that entails) wasn’t entirely unreasonable.

You see, I don’t discuss my religion much. Fellow Facebook travellers (observant ones, anyway) will note the occasional solstice posting, or Thelemic marginalia but I mostly keep it low key. The truth of the matter (morality be damned!) is that I consider public displays of religion to be in very poor taste. And, regardless of how broke I often am, good taste is something to which I still aspire. How well I succeed in my art is up to my peers and readers. At least thus far no one has choked to death on my religion.

So, for the record …

I am a Wiccan and a Thelemite. My initiatory path is via the Alexandrian tradition, my First Degree presided over by a student of Jan Farrar’s. From that basis and training, I pursued a spiritual life grounded in the Western esoteric traditions. In 1994 I accepted the Law of Thelema and two years later committed to what is generally known as the Left Hand Path. I am a pagan, an alchemist, a student of the Mysteries and a magical researcher. My area of specialization is reconstruction of Ancient Sumerian texts and ritual forms. Although this work is primarily intellectual in nature, my Wiccan training keeps me grounded and provides an outlet for – well, let me put it this way: “research and development”.

Because the nature of our public life enjoins us to not discuss religion, I refrain from doing so except around the like-minded. But sometimes religion finds appropriate expression in public life. Although we on the Left Hand Path scoff when we hear the pallid “thoughts and prayers” of smarmy politicans (and laugh when you threaten to pray for us), there is a time and a place for all things. And a more public expression of my religion and involvement in the occult has now become appropriate.

I am increasingly inclined to view the man-made institutions of the liberal Western democracies as dysfunctional and – where wholesale corporate ownership of government is concerned – antithetical to the interests of (and ultimately fatal to) human life. I have been and remain a committed socialist, but am now convinced the electoral apparatus in both Canada and the USA is sufficiently broken so as to preclude an accurate representation of the peoples’ will. Furthermore, the corruption of the elites, worship of money and deepening subversion of civil society in the interests of the wealthy and powerful have caused the Western democracies to enter a death-spiral toward a neo-feudal – and quite possibly fascist – future.

What then must we do?

I, for my part, am increasingly inclined to turn inward for answers. But because I am a witch, turning inward does not preclude, but rather amplifies, my capacity to cause change in the physical world in conformity with my will. And because I am a Thelemite, I want that change to work for the benefit of all. I have therefore decided to abandon traditional political action for the time being and seek a place where social and spiritual activism intersect. Going forward, I will be working collaboratively with other occultists to seek radical, transformative solutions to the increasingly urgent problems plaguing our society, and our planet.

See you on the other side.

By the Witchcraft,
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Blackbird
High-Priest

womanonaltar