WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
By Fr Eka Tanaya SJ, recently Acting Rector, St Ignatius’ College Riverview
As part of my pastoral ministry while studying theology at Boston College some years ago, I accompanied men and women of any kind who suffered homelessness.
One of the major activities of our Ignatian spirituality program for them was the weekend spiritual retreats where groups of men and women would take turns spending a weekend together, sharing, praying, resting and being in each other’s company. For some of the participants, these retreats offered peace of mind, knowing that there would be hot meals, hot showers and comfortable beds for the two nights that we were there. Most, if not all, of the men I accompanied during those retreats would reveal that homelessness was not their only issue, but there were interesting stories of bad situations and also bad choices which led them to become homeless.
Their stories of how they came to participate in the Ignatian spirituality program were also equally, if not more, interesting. Many of them continued the program for years. Many became friends with each other. Some became volunteers at soup kitchens for the homeless, some became social workers. I remember one man shared with me that he found attending the retreats expanded his horizon. He no longer only saw himself, his problems and his vulnerabilities, but he felt God was drawing him to also see others, their vulnerabilities with which he believed he was in a position to help. He gained confidence about his God-given gifts and he also felt a sense of mission.
At a recent Friends Listen Assembly at Riverview, three students courageously shared their stories of their own vulnerabilities and struggles in life. Being the loving and supportive community that we are, each of those students received a standing ovation from the whole assembly. It was truly a surreal experience for many people in Ramsay Hall. It certainly was for me. In reflection, many other students found a measure of resonance and were able to connect with the students’ stories, and some have found them inspiring.
Most of us would rather do a lot of things to avoid becoming vulnerable. Some would even rather lose their lives than be vulnerable. Being able to embrace our vulnerabilities requires a lot of strength, and that strength is often beyond our own reach and means. That alone could probably serve as evidence that God exists, at least in the hearts of the man in Boston, as well as our three students who shared their stories.
For Christians, it is the wisdom of God, not our own strength, which allows brokenness to be transformed into wholeness. After all, for God, life can come through death, and the Cross can be the way to life. The cross is not just an event which took place some 2000 years ago, but rather a symbol of our own moments of rejection, of disappointment, of pain, of vulnerability. Yet, just as the Cross some 2000 years ago led to a triumphant resurrection which gave joy and hope to so many, so can our crosses today, if we allow Love to transform them.
Last month, the Church celebrated the Ascension of the Lord. A lot of debates have taken place about whether or not this event really took place, or whether it was a story which was embedded into the Scripture to make a philosophical case to justify Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were naturally feeling most vulnerable. His glorious, resurrected appearances changed that. So, when Jesus had to go away again, to withdraw from them and ascend to heaven, he promised them the Holy Spirit to be with them.
However, the Holy Spirit is not just to keep them company. According to the Acts of the Apostles, as Jesus was lifted up, the disciples were looking up to the sky, when out of nowhere, two men in dazzling white robes asked them, “Why do you stand looking up toward the sky?” The question indicates that the disciples were looking at the wrong way. According to John Caputo, a Christian philosopher, Jesus’ withdrawal from the disciples is not a matter of metaphysics, but rather a matter of justice. It is about God deflecting our human eyes from God, toward our neighbour. The disciples were immediately invited to carry out the mission they had been given: to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those in prison (cf. Matthew 25:37-39).
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is an invitation for his followers to translate God into deeds. That was the story of the early Christians, and that is still our Christian story today. I do not wish on anyone the unpleasant experience of being vulnerable. However, with God, our vulnerabilities can invite authentic connections and meaningful relationships into our lives. The cross can become an instrument of joy and hope.
This article by Fr Eka Tanaya SJ was initially published in a recent edition of ‘Viewpoint’, the online newsletter of Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.
Feature photo by Franck Denis on Pexels.