Talking about faith is not unlike talking about sex. It’s awkward, and the feelings evoked can be impossible to describe.
Yet for nearly nine months now, I’ve spent two hours a week talking about big and little faith experiences. Every second Sunday I’m with a group of Catholics going through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. On the week in between I’m with my spiritual director, a Jesuit priest.
Horribly, there’s just two weeks left in the Exercises. Panic has set in.
Where will we go now to talk about Jesus walking on water without people looking at us like we’re deluded and deranged?
Before I came out of the Catholic closet and started writing for Crux, I would never have considered a “faith sharing” group or a “bible study class” or embarking on the Exercises, even with their whiff of Jesuit intellectualism.
I mean, come on. Who are these people? Ex-nuns? Choir ladies? Maladjusted men ranting about gays or uppity women?
For a while in college, I lived in a huge room with five other women: four born-again Christians and one Jewish redhead from New York. Every morning when the four born-agains would get up and read the Bible together, the Jewish redhead and I would put pillows over our heads or make some similar gesture of we’re-smarter-than-you disdain. This was rude and obnoxious, I realize. But it’s where I was at.
Yet even in my 30s and 40s – as Mother Church was reeling me in – I still couldn’t imagine walking into a room full of Catholics to dissect this Sunday’s reading from Saint John, “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth,” etc. My faith life was Mass and private reading: Evelyn Underhill or Thomas Merton or St. Augustine, who always cheered me with his famous line, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”
But here I am in middle-age organizing my life around getting to the church basement every other Sunday and to my Jesuit priest in the week between, looking forward to these occasions like I look forward to a great adventure or being together with all three of my grown children.
The attraction, in hindsight, is obvious. People who appear neither deluded nor deranged get together and talk about the presence and action of God in their lives – how they feel it and believe it’s real. I think to myself, well then, perhaps what’s happening to me is real, too. I’m not imagining it or making it all up in my head.
I look around the room. I hear the childcare worker, the nurse, the academic dean, the lawyer, the retired financier, the young man doing prison ministry, the young Jesuits from all around the world. These are serious Catholics talking not about Church politics or sex abuse or the latest on Pope Francis vs. climate change deniers. They’re talking instead about the movement of the spirit.
“It’s a constant humming.” That’s how one retreatant put it. A humming “that stays with you all day.”
“Something has happened to us” since we began the Exercises, writes the Jesuit Kevin O’Brien in “The Ignatian Adventure,” the study book we’re using. “We are not the same as we were.”
No, we are not.
Of course he’s only expressing what nearly all spiritual writers do.
Says the aforementioned Merton, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going.” Just open yourself up to the risen Lord and he will change you, writes the also-aforementioned Underhill. “We become different people … transfigured,” she says, until one day we see the “transcendent permeating the ordinary.”
Or, as the Jesuits put it, we can find God in all people, all places, and all things.
Needless to say, our little group is not keen on leaving behind this joint quest. Even close friends and family may feel uncomfortable hearing about a faith journey. They may believe us – to use the term one more time – deluded, if not deranged, or at least inhaling the opiate of the unenlightened masses.
So lots of us are exchanging emails. Plotting our next move. Hoping to keep hope alive. Or, as the man next to me said Sunday, we’re ready to sign up for the next round of the Exercises. It’ll be his fourth go-round. It just gets better, he told me, and goes deeper, like a bottomless well.