Thursday, October 21, 2010

Column: How big are our hearts?

My memories of this day are of joy and light. It was a gorgeous, brilliant day, the church full of light. But it was the joy on so many faces, the joy on the faces of the men making vows, that beautifully lit the entire space.

As each of them knelt, I could remember praying with them throughout the Exercises. Standing around the altar in the marbled entry space, in the chapel at midnight - hoods pulled up on our sweatshirts for warmth.

The photo is of the group that made the Long Retreat at Eastern Point in January 2009.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 21 October 2010.

How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
— Ps. 116:12-14

“Almighty and eternal God, I, understand how unworthy I am in your divine sight. Yet I am strengthened by your infinite compassion and mercy, and I am moved by the desire to serve you. I vow to your divine Majesty, before the most holy Virgin Mary and the entire heavenly court, perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience in the Society of Jesus.”

With these words, eight young men — some of my companions of the Spiritual Exercises a year and a half before — professed perpetual vows in the Society of Jesus.

I watched in Holy Cross Church as Ricardo, Kevin, Keith, Pat, Tim, Vinnie, Rick and Brian knelt in turn before Christ, held before them in the Eucharist by their provincial. I offered up fierce prayers for these men, that God might grant them grace, strength and passion to live this life, but above all that there may be abundant joy. I thought too about the vows I had professed, the promises I had made before God.

On that very same weekend almost 30 years ago Tom and I had been married in a not-quite-finished church near the university we both attended. And this weekend 18 years before, found me, then a widow of six years, with Victor in St. Hilaire in Quebec, asking for the Church’s blessing on our engagement.

In his homily at the Mass of profession, Joe Lingan, S.J. the novice master, quoted St. Gregory the Great’s description of St. Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit order): “Ignatius had a heart big enough to hold the universe.” Father Lingan challenged all of us present, the assembly as well as those making vows, to consider our own lives. “A vow ceremony is a good occasion to assess the size of one’s heart — it’s openness, flexibility, passion and desire — and to see how and in what way I allow God and God’s grace to assist in the maintenance of my heart.”

I heard in his words echoes of French Catholic laywoman Madeleine Delbrêl who, with several companions, began a lay community dedicated to living a contemplative life in the midst of a busy world.

Speaking of her own conversion to Catholicism Delbrêl wrote, “You had fashioned my heart to Your size….” Delbrêl found her vocation not in religious life or marriage, but in finding solitude and silence in the cacophony of 20th century urban Paris. Obedience in Delbrêl’s life was not owed to a religious superior, but instead to the small circumstances of everyday life.

“Each docile act makes us receive God totally and give God totally, in a great freedom of spirit….It makes no difference what we do, whether we take in hand a broom or a pen.” Or as St. Ignatius would have it, in his “Principle and foundation,” “everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.”

What ultimately brings us all to the place of our own vows? What calls forth this deep response in the men of the Society of Jesus, in Madeleine Delbrêl and her companions, in Victor and me? Love. We are all drawn by love, and lavished with God’s grace. We are all called to open our hearts wide enough to receive God freely and completely and give God, freely and completely. With brooms or pens, as priests or sisters or married couples.

How big is my heart? I suspect Madeleine Delbrêl is right, God has fashioned it large enough to hold the universe. If only I would, as St. Ignatius advises, “abandon myself into His hands and let me be formed by His grace.” Totus tuus ego sum.

“I humbly ask that you judge this total commitment of myself acceptable; and as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace
to fulfill it.”
— From the Vows in the Society of Jesus


  1. This is a beautiful column. I think I'll send you an email in response.

  2. I look forward to reading it!

  3. OK, too lazy to write it before you depart (or too busy reveling in my news of the day).

    But the jist of it: perhaps the great gift of our Jesuit spiritual directors is those hearts open so wide that they can see and draw forth the potential for the expansive growth of grace in our own cramped and squished hearts.

    Speaking only for myself, of course!