Thursday, November 13, 2008

Column: Ancient Ways

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times 13 November 2008]

Put yourselves on the ways of long ago. Inquire about the ancient path:
Which was the good way? Take it then, And you shall find rest.
Jer. 6:16a

My purse weighs five pounds - and that's if I'm not carrying anything other than my basic gear. Moms don't travel lightly in general, and I'm no exception. Need a Kleenex, a band-aid or a snack? I've got it, just in case. Add a water bottle, my laptop, the stack of exams I'm grading, tuck in my pound and a half breviary and I'm over my weight limit.

In an attempt to lighten my load, I bought an electronic version of the Liturgy of the Hours. The entire Office in four elegantly slim ounces that can be read anywhere, even in an unlit tent at midnight. Truly a marvel. And I can't abide it.

Why should the form in which the Church's prayer comes matter so much to me? "I know only enough of God to want to worship Him, by any means ready to hand," begins Annie Dillard's essay Holy the Firm. This electronic means is certainly easier to keep at hand - it slips neatly into my pocket, if not so easily into my soul.

St. Ignatius might agree with Annie Dillard. In the Principle and Foundation which grounds his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius reminds us that we are created to "praise, reverence and serve God" and so to save our souls. The created world, and all that it contains, is meant to be the "means ready at hand" to that end, and that end alone. If my tiny device brings me closer to God, I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss it.

All that said, Ignatius might be surprised at what the created world contains these days and how we are putting it to use. The recent Synod of Bishops closed its meeting by calling on the Church to continue to use current technologies, be they newspapers and radio shows, podcasts or blogs, to bring God's word to the world.

Generally my geeky self revels in the modern marvels ready to help me find God in all things - the British Jesuits' superb daily podcast meditations on the Scriptures, or the Catholic Standard & Times' online version that I can call up the moment it's published from 7,000 miles away. God is alive and well on the information highway.

Still, the prophet Jeremiah asks us to think about the highways we're on - to try not only the new and the modern, but to remember to explore the ancient paths as well. He invites us to consider whether a path draws us toward the good - or leads us away. Seek the restful places.

My low-tech breviary is a restful place - it needs no special tending. There are no cables to keep track of, no battery to be charged, and software updates are rare (the last one was in 1975). It has a solidity that makes it difficult to displace.

Having trod paths new and old in search of a restful prayer book, I may be ready to undertake a longer journey. Two months from today, I enter a way that is half a millennia old, spending 30 days in silence making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The Exercises will take me along the ancient Gospel paths, walking with Christ, asking God to show me my own "good way," so that I may take it.

On Jan. 5, I'll step off the information highway - no voice mail, no e-mail, no iPod. No batteries required.

We should not fix our desires
on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty,
success or failure,
a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads to God's deepening his life in me.

From the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, translated by David Fleming, S.J.


  1. No, I don't suppose Ignatius imagined our need for indifference with respect to electronic versus modes of communication.

    This morning I got delayed and so I finally took my laptop into the bathroom and balanced it on the plastic drawers so I could listen to PAYG while I got ready!

  2. "electronic versus other" is what I meant to say

  3. GG that is REALLY praying on the go....

  4. hmmmm, I heard that Ignatius said one could find God in all things except puns. ;')

    anyway, a giant wave of missing prayer just hit home as I sat here by my computer. maybe tonight...

    I so miss saying, "Here I am..."

  5. GG and Stratoz, you are both far more experienced in the Exercises than I - but I read the Foundation to suggest that God will certainly be found in the puns...even the unintentional ones!

  6. OK, I see how YOUR 30 days are gonna go.

    BTW, have you told us where you're making your retreat?

  7. are too right, I fear. I'm going to Eastern the depths of winter.

  8. I swear it says in the Bible that there will be much gnashing of teeth if puns are released into the kingdom...

  9. I am also delighted to find your blog. We have several things in common and two mutual friends.

    I am envious of your upcoming retreat to do the Spiritual Exercises. It is on my list but first I have to get through grad school.