It is said that the “Spiritual Exercises” make the Jesuit. I must then write of my spiritual experience in the first stage of Jesuit formation in the novitiate. During this time, each novice does a Thirty Day Retreat, following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This forms “the Jesuit” and is the basis of his future life. It must also be said that it also forms many of the steps of ignatian pedagogy.
Along with fourteen other young men, I had this experience in November 1951. We were guided by our novice master, Fr. Donal O’Sullivan. We rose at 5.30am and made an hour’s meditation at 6.00am, followed by Mass at 7am.The novice master spoke to us four times a day: at 9am and 11am, at 4.pm and at 8.30pm. We had five hours of meditation every day. He interviewed us often, listening to our experience in prayer and meditation, and giving his encouragement.
I have always had a great respect for our novice master for his aesthetic interests, love of all that was French and culture, interests in the Foreign Missions, and a thrust into modern life with our ignatian spirituality. I write this conscious of his negative opinion of me. He found me soft and woolly minded, with strange piety and little intellectual abilities. But I pulled through with the help of God’s grace.
There is the “principle and foundation” to these Spiritual Exercises, which is for all Christian living. The meaning of our life is to attain eternal life with God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Everything in the world is a means to help us attain our destiny and final goal. We are to use all in the world to help us to this end, consequently we must choose what better leads to our goal. This seems very simple, but to work it out logically is difficult- to say the least. This also gives an indication of the role of logically thinking Jesuits have, and the importance of making clear what goal is to be achieved, and then taking appropriate steps. This procedure has many echoes in ignatian pedagogy.
The reality is that we are a wounded people. There are many biases in our life. We have to correct these biases so that we do not make wrong decisions. Reflection on our life and its aims is the first step. We come to an awareness of our sins and our wrong use of the good things of the world - and even of our own self. Then we turn to ask for God’s all present mercy, and listen to the call of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Here again the importance of evaluation of our lives and activities is seen. In ignatian pedagogy, there is stress on continual evaluation.
To hear the call of Christ is the centre of the Spiritual Exercises , and to follow Him is to be our constant endeavour. Thus meditating and contemplating the events of the life of Jesus in the Gospels is important in the imitation of Christ. This call is also traced in the New Testament, and found in their origins in the Old Testament. This is the core of our spiritual life.
Spiritual discernment is made by attention to how God is working in our lives. This is a special aspect in the life of Jesuits. It is finding the Will of God in concrete daily living, by discerning charity. One has to follow one’s conscience; not our sensuality and self centered inclinations. Being a Christian is to live in inner freedom, being led by our conscience and guidance of the Holy Spirit in all the aspects of our life, to serve and praise God.
Being a Jesuit means answering God’s Call to live with a body of men who have a special life style spelt out in Jesuit ways of proceeding and traditions.
The Spiritual Exercises are a way to God, and background to the following of Christ. In my case, it led to my taking vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience as a Jesuit. This is an irrevocable promise to God in the presence of Jesuit superiors, with whom I would discern what I do for the rest of my life as a Jesuit.
There is need to explain these vows. As for poverty, it means taking to heart the words of Jesus, “Sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me”. The first step is to give up all possessions and desire for wealth and money. The Bible constantly warns us of the dangers of wealth and luxurious living. The deceits of the Enemy of Human Nature are to lead people to seek wealth and money, so the opposite must be stressed. Jesuits are to live putting their security not in money, but in God’s Care and Providence. If we are following what God wants of us, He will provide the means. Dependence on God through superiors is Jesuit living.
People in Ireland in the 1950’s saw Jesuits run famous schools. Some Jesuits were from well-known families, and they were known for their learning and high social position. In most parts of the world, this impression was the same. The name of Jesuit was associated with living on large tracts of land, in big houses, having long training and associations with people of ample means. However, it was equally true that Jesuits are working for the poor, especially with those neglected or oppressed, and serving
with no desire of recompense.
In Hong Kong, the two Wah Yan Colleges, where most Jesuits lived, are magnificent buildings on prime property, and Jesuits were associated with prominent people in society. At the same time, in Macau, Jesuits are much associated with working for refugees and the old and handicapped. Fr. Luis Ruiz even today is associated with many leper colonies in Mainland China, which he helps financially through donations from many parts of the world. The Jesuit Refugee Service has just celebrated twenty five years of work for Refugees, beginning with Vietnamese in the 1970s, and now helping 30 million people all around the world.
Jesuits aspire to serve in the spirit of the Humble and Poor Christ, who was with the poor. And today, the vast majority of people are in need of development. Jesuits are eager to help these people, as they want to be poor with Christ Poor. How this is lived is a matter which has to be discerned and decided on. For me it involved strange habits, which I will describe later.
The vow of chastity is important. For me it was rather easy, because I lived so closely with my mother, who told me that she was my best friend, and from whom I hid nothing. Consequently, not only was I the centre of her life, but she filled my heart. There is also devotion to Our Lady, Mother of the Church, and symbol of purity and dedication. As a young boy, I preferred the presence of old people, and felt I was called to a life completely dedicated to Jesus Christ. I saw that relations with the opposite sex were not for me and that any sexual activity was not to be. As for the continual struggles we all have with sensual desires and attractions for the opposite sex, I was helped by my social context with Jesuits and being careful what I read and looked at.
Lastly, and more important was the vow of obedience. This is part of the total sacrifice in the offering of self, which includes our will. Our natural inclination is to be self-seeking and to develop into lives having power over others, and so becoming proud. To undertake to follow the will of superiors is a counter balance and a check on making oneself the centre of everything, which is very near the source of sin. But obedience among the Jesuits is always done in charity and deep respect for the movements of the Holy Spirit in each person. I can only state that all my superiors have treated me as a “prince” in the past fifty years and more.
Life as a novice was communal and highly disciplined. It consisted of rising at 5.30am, followed by an hour’s meditation from 6-7am and then Mass. There would be two examinations of Conscience to assess how we were living, before the noon meal, and then at the end of the day at 9.15pm. The day would be filled with periods of study of Jesuit life and spiritual matters, with some light work, and light socializing- but only with other novices. This became the norm for the next twelve years of my formation and also for my priestly life in the future.
The ability to endure long silences and long periods of meditation and prayer are part of my Jesuit life. It is however, always directed to helping others in activities. These activities for me during the next ten years were mostly study! And study I did not like! Prayer and meditation I relished, and I found my satisfaction in activities for the good of others.
During the fourteen years of my Jesuit formation, I was always preparing myself to guide people in their Christian lives, by preaching and teaching. Our motto was to seek God in all things, following Christ by carrying the Cross in daily self-denial, and seeking the greater good by working for the Kingdom of God. We were to be aflame with the love of Christ, which we would share with all.
Lectures during the novitiate continued during the two years, punctuated by holidays, which meant staying with the novices doing other things. Then there was the “Hospital Experiment”. For us it meant going to a home for aged men, and helping them for four weeks. This was part of St. Ignatius’ life- visiting the sick and those in prison to help and bring consolations. There was also the “Kitchen Experiment” which meant living for four weeks with the Jesuit Brothers, cleaning dishes and doing housework to practice a life of humility. This also came from the life of St.Ignatius who did the most humble of work, and hoped this followers would do the same - and also teach children the Catholic Faith. But one experiment we did not do, was the month’s pilgrimage! Being in Catholic Ireland it would be too much like a holiday camp, with all people running to help, instead of the vigours of living like migrants and refugees.
I remember what I found hardest during these two years: collecting Christmas holly in frosty December, the football matches we had, together with light gardening and cleaning we were assigned to do. I loved the silence and the companionship of the novices. I liked teaching English to foreign Jesuit priests who came in the summer - Novotony from Hungary, Dennis from France, who died as a scholar of Buddhist Pali scrolls: and Krol from Poland, who served around London for the rest of his life.
Coming to the end of the two years, Fr.Diarmuid O’Laoghaire came to interview us in view of our university studies in the coming autumn. I only had my Irish School Leaving Certificate with low marks: E in English and Latin, D in French and Chemistry, C in Mathematics and Physics and Biology. As I was born abroad, I was exempt from Irish. Most of us were going to study for a Bachelor’s degree taking a combination of English or French or Irish, and Physics or Mathematics or History. I was to be the exception, as I will explain later. The main point was that most Irish Jesuits studied at the National University, University College Dublin, to be qualified as teachers, and also to give them a liberal education to equip them to deal with educated people.
There is a prayer that is sung in Chinese, and very often in St.Ignatius Chapel of Wah Yan Kowloon, which gives the spirit we were nurtured in as young Jesuits:
Take and Receive, O Lord my liberty, Take all my mind, my will, my memory. Give me only Your Love and Your Grace, and this is enough.
Me and novices in June 1953. Emo Park, Ireland