One of the few things I remember clearly from my confirmation classes 50-plus years ago in an Episcopal church is the date of St. Andrew’s Day. Somehow it lodged in my preadolescent brain, when I wasn’t wisecracking about the wives of King Henry VIII, that Advent begins Nov. 30, on St. Andrew’s Day. So it’s the beginning of the liturgical year.
A time of new beginnings. Right? Well, this year, two things happened on St. Andrew’s Day.
One: I met with my oncologist, and we started nailing down a treatment plan for the cancer I was diagnosed with in October; nothing final yet, but it looks like I’ll be able to start chemo in mid- to late December. So that’s new beginning No. 1. And two: After I got home from the doctor’s office, I checked out an Jesuit website in Ireland called Sacred Space that offers daily prayers and meditations.
Clicking on the “Sacred Space: Prayer for today” link on the home page, I found a Daily Prayer for Nov. 30 and a scripture reading from Matthew 4:18-22 (the website uses the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Edition):
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
I’d been meaning to check out the website for a while now, and I wasn’t disappointed. Among its features: “Thoughts on today’s scripture.” Here’s one: “this call is to change their lives forever. The disciples are not only to hear the word of God but act on it.” And another: “Jesus recognises our skills; he takes them and redirects them to a higher cause so we can serve others through them.”
The meditation ends with questions (labeled a “conversation”) — “What is stirring in me as I pray? Am I consoled, troubled, left cold?” — and a prompt for the ensuing conversation: “I imagine Jesus himself standing or sitting at my side and share my feelings with him.” That’s entirely typical of the Jesuit, or Ignatian, prayer and meditation techniques I’ve been reading up on. I’ll get back to it in a minute.
But first, a word from the website’s sponsor. According to the Sacred Space “About” page, it’s a ministry of the Irish Jesuits in Dublin, begun in 1999 by the Jesuit Communication Centre. They explain:
It might seem strange to pray at your computer, in front of a screen or using your smartphone, especially if there are other people around you, or distracting noises. But God is everywhere, all around us, constantly reaching out to us, even in the most unlikely situations. When we know this, and with a bit of practice, we can pray anywhere!
Sacred Space isn’t the only resource I turned up with my keyword search. I knew there was an Irish website somewhere with daily prayers, but that’s all I remembered when I got home from the doctor’s and decided to go looking for it. In the process, I found at least two others:
- Ignatian Resources. Denver’s Regis University has a directory of Jesuit and Jesuit-inspired Daily Readings available online. “Go ahead, read, listen and explore,” they counsel students (and other readers who happen to surf into the webpage, regardless of academic standing). “And, after a while, consider going back and learning some of the vocabulary, framework and background that will help to make sense of your current experience. Enjoy the journey.”
- Pray-As-You-Go. The first item in Regis’ directory: “The English Jesuits offer a daily podcast for online prayer called Pray-As-You-Go. It is an guided audio meditation on the daily readings lasting roughly 10-12 minutes. [Including a daily examen! Woo hoo. — pe] The original intent was to have folks riding mass-transit be able to use that time to develop their prayer and spiritual life.” It’s refreshed daily (in the UK, of course, which is six hours ahead of the Central Time zone, so the days may not jibe).
But Sacred Space, like the other projects of the Irish Jesuits I’ve discovered recently, seems especially well tailored to my interests and spiritual needs. The daily prayers follow a fixed sequence of six stages, or steps, rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The first three seem to be geared to preparing your mind to receive the word of God, followed by a bible reading; a “conversation,” or reflection; and the Gloria Patri — “Glory be to the Father” — that ends so many prayers.
Seeking God’s presence in all things is a key part of Ignatian spirituality, but I’ve also been reading up on the Lutheran theologians in Finland who speak of the “indwelling of Christ” in the faith of a believer. (I blogged about it most recently HERE.) So the opening prayer for Nov. 30 got my attention:
God is with me, but more,
God is within me, giving me existence.
Let me dwell for a moment on God’s life-giving presence
in my body, my mind, my heart
and in the whole of my life.
Now I’m not claiming some kind of divine intervention here, like when you flip through a bible and put your finger down on a page at random to see if there’s a message for you. More likely, my reading of Jesuit authors — not to mention Franciscans like Richard Rohr OFM — has me attuned to seeking the presence of God where it otherwise might not have occurred to me to look for it. (Have I mentioned I tend to be a spiritual mutt? Like HERE for example? Episcopal, Lutheran, Jesuit, Franciscan, I think they all point at the same thing. Jewish, Buddhist, for that matter, the list goes on.) Also at work here, I think, is the Jesuit Communication Centre’s awareness of its readers’ needs worldwide at an especially fraught moment in history. I can’t be the only guy who needs this.
Similarly, the next two stages — headed “Freedom” and “Consciousness” — speak directly to needs I’m experiencing as I come to terms with a cancer diagnosis and prepare myself for chemo. The first of the two couldn’t be more appropriate to my situation:
By God’s grace I was born to live in freedom,
free to enjoy the pleasures He created for me.
Dear Lord, grant that I may live as you intended,
with complete confidence in your loving care.
If there’s anything I need at the moment, it’s confidence. (There’s an Anglican prayer “For Quiet Confidence” I fell back on, HERE for example, in the emergency room at the beginning of my current emergency. “Fill [my] heart with confidence,” it asks, “that though [I] be sometime afraid, [I] yet may put his trust in thee.”) I still need it, and there it is in the next stage of the Irish Jesuits’ daily meditation:
My soul longs for your presence, Lord.
When I turn my thoughts to you,
I find peace and contentment.
Again, peace and contentment are exactly what I need right now. And, again, exactly what so many people need — none of the challenges I’m facing are uniquely mine. And if God is speaking through this website in Dublin, which is exactly what I believe is happening, God is most assuredly not speaking to me alone. I take comfort in that idea, too; it’s better than feeling isolated and alone.
The scripture reading itself wasn’t exactly fine-tuned to my immediate situation, though, at least not on first reading. Instead of St. Andrew and St. Peter setting forth to be fishers of men, I feel more like I’m entering the wilderness these days. One of the “thoughts on today’s scripture” says:
The call of the disciples is rooted in the call of Jesus, and this call is to change their lives forever. The disciples are not only to hear the word of God but act on it. So the first disciples leave everything and follow Him. Jesus will go on to teach the disciples a new way of life, for they cannot be open to the work of God unless they have their ears opened by his Word.
The other brings the scripture lesson home. Or, in my case, tries to:
Jesus recognises our skills; he takes them and redirects them to a higher cause so we can serve others through them. I see that I have my own mission, given to me by Jesus, and I am part of Sacred Space – good people who try to live the Good News wherever they may be, just like the disciples. I pray, ‘Jesus, show me what I need to leave behind to be a good disciple. Do not let me fall far behind you and lose sight of you. Keep me close. Thank you for these times of prayer and for inviting me to share a meal with you in the Eucharist.’
This leads into the prompt for the last part of the meditation — the one that’s labeled “Conversation.” Which goes like this:
What is stirring in me as I pray?
Am I consoled, troubled, left cold?
I imagine Jesus himself standing or sitting at my side and share my feelings with him.
Welp, some of that I can relate to. I can’t help but feel like this illness, for better or worse, is about to change my life forever. But I don’t exactly feel like I’m setting out to follow Jesus and start a new religion. Like I said, it feels more like I’m setting out into the wilderness.
Luckily enough, the Irish Jesuits have something for that, too. It’s in a book I’ve been reading by Brendan McManus SJ and Jim Deeds of Belfast. It’s titled Deeper into the Mess: Praying Through Tough Times, and it has a meditation on the theme of “Finding God in the Wilderness.” McManus and Deeds write:
Emerging from the wilderness feels like a remote prospect when you are right in the middle of it. However, our emergence is as inevitable as the rising of the sun on a new day. We are invited to trust that God is with us in the wilderness and that we will emerge with deeper insights into ourselves, the world and our place in it. We need not worry or despair; it is God, after all, who ultimately straightens all paths out of the wilderness.
Well, OK, sure, I guess we can always learn, and the wilderness can prepare us for what comes next. Point well taken. In fact, wasn’t Jesus tested in the wilderness just before he recruited Andrew and Peter in Galilee? So with that in mind, can I go back to the meditation on the Sacred Space website and find something in it that applies to my situation? Can I pray, “Jesus, show me what I need to leave behind to be a good disciple?” In the wilderness? “Do not let me fall far behind you and lose sight of you.” In the wilderness. “Keep me close.”
With that in mind, can I imagine talking with Jesus standing right next to me? Well, let’s try this: After more than two years of social distancing and isolation, I can more easily imagine interacting with him on a Zoom call. More and more, that’s how I interact with everybody. So here’s where my imagination takes me:
Since I can reach Jesus via the internet (I blogged about it HERE when I was trying out a Jesuit prayer and meditation technique called the Triple Colloquy) I email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and propose a Zoom session. He agrees, and at the appointed time we launch the meeting.
“Can you hear me,” asks Jesus. Yes, I say, can you hear me? Jesus says yes, he can. We always start our Zoom calls like this, and I’m beginning to think there may be spiritual significance to it. He looks like he has in my other meditations, remarkably like that forensic anthropologists’ picture of Jesus in Popular Mechanics. Short hair and beard, very Middle Eastern and Jewish. In fact, in my imagination he’s wearing an embroidered kippah. Well, after all, he is Jewish. He asks, “What’s up?”
I’m having a hard time, I say, with this reading on the Irish Jesuits’ website. They’re talking about how the disciples were called on the Sea of Galilee, and I feel like I’m in the wilderness with this cancer, chemo coming up, the whole nine yards. I don’t exactly feel like Andrew and Peter setting out to be fishers of men. I feel more like a dying carp that just washed up on the beach. I mean I don’t know if they even have beaches in the wilderness.
So, asks Jesus, it kinda leaves you cold? He’s been reading the prompt on the website, I think. Yeah, I say. All due respect, man, but I’ve got so much on my plate now, I don’t know how I can be your disciple.
“Heal the sick,” Jesus asks, kind of a little half-smile on his face, “raise the dead? Make disciples of all nations?”
Yeah, something like that, I mumble.
“Do you have to do it today?” Jesus asks.
“Do it all,” Jesus answers. “Are you beating yourself up because you can’t do everything right now? Today? Are you on deadline?”
Well, I begin. I made all these commitments as a Dominican associate, and now … I don’t know. And that’s as far as I get. I can’t think of anything else to say.
“Why don’t you get yourself sorted out first?” Jesus says. “Do the chemo, see how you feel when you’re done with that. And then you can see about going out and making disciples of all nations.”
I nod my head yes. I don’t like it, but it makes sense.
“But know that I’m with you,” adds Jesus. “And the Holy Spirit. I don’t think we need to get into a learned theological disquisition about the Trinity here, but know that you’re not alone. We’ll be with you every step of the way, whether you’re aware of it or not, and you can always call on me. After all, you’ve got my email address.
Citations. Brendan McManus and Jim Deeds, Deeper into the Mess: Praying Through Tough Times (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2019), 40.
Amy Graff, “Forensic depiction of ‘manly Jesus’ rises again,” SFGATE [San Francisco Chronicle], Sec. 14, 2015 https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Jesus-Christ-realistic-depiction-scientists-6697192.php.
[Revised — repeatedly — and uplinked — finally! — Dec. 10, 2022]