Friday 30 July 2021

Desolation and Consolation

This weekend (July 31st) commemorates the Feast Day of St Ignatius of Loyola. It is a story we know well – the headstrong young firebrand who was wounded in the battle of Pamplona and whose painful and protracted convalescence changed his life. The circumstances of Ignatius’ youth were anything but saintly, however, life experiences can be a powerful determinant of human endeavour, aspiration, and resolve: something that Ignatius grew to know well during his adult years. At this time of year, as we face our own challenges and anxieties that are both personal and communal, there may be some extra lessons that we can take from the life of the Founder, particularly that instructive paradox of ‘desolation’ and ‘consolation’ that gave rise to a distinctive spirituality as a metaphor for faith and life.

As we enter week 6 of the lockdown, there is no doubt a prevailing sense of containment and despondency – and at times, not a little desolation about the constraints of daily life. Those morning routines of coffee and a chat with locals at the café, exercise classes be they gym or yoga, a swim or group walk in the park have been exchanged for more inward bound activities. The opportunity to visit family is one that plays heavily on those who have frail parents and grandparents, whose relations are interstate and those who have loved ones in countries where the pandemic is wreaking havoc. I noticed during the week that Germany – one of the powerhouse economies in Europe – is registering 100,000 infections each day, such is the ongoing impact of this virulent pathogen. I am sure the boys are tiring of the online environment – as are we all, due to those interminable hours on screens that are necessarily part of the current reality of work and a digitised social life. The grounds of the College are eerily silent; while the sun shines outside and the raw beauty of the city punctuates the background, there is a prevailing sense of inertia. The tactile and sensate animation of the boys as they clamber to classes, jostle at lockers, and engage in their own programs are all in abeyance. And with it, there is a sense of desolation: the opportunity cost of what could otherwise be happening is both palpable and arresting.

Though, the human spirit is one of resolve and resilience. Ignatius taught us that. After surviving the original injury and acute infection, Ignatius underwent painful surgery to correct blunders associated with his initial medical treatment. He entered, of his own volition, a new period of desolation through which he grew to experience the intrinsic reward and consolation associated with making the most of life opportunity. He re-envisioned his world and the contribution he could make to it. His faith in a benevolent God was there as his inspiration and his rudder. It was the propulsion he needed to acknowledge and rise above the challenges that were so consuming in his time and place. There are some instructive lessons here. While we don’t have the physical pain and hardships Ignatius suffered, how do we make sense of our world and take consolation from it? How do we alter our perception of reality, one that is so distorted and constrained by the circumstances of a global pandemic? How do we embrace a positive and forward-looking vision to the benefit of our family and community during these adverse times?

We have much, despite the current situation, to be grateful for. Gratitude is another distinctive element of Ignatian spirituality, and perhaps it is here where consolation is truly found. During the week I was fortunate to receive contact from different parts of the world where the situation is truly overwhelming. Two of these will suffice to make the point, the first from a friend who has family in South Africa, the second from an Old Boy who is working for the World Food Program in Africa:

“On a personal note, I thought I would let you know about my family in South Africa. My nephew had COVID, and my sister has had it for a few weeks… My mum lives on my sister’s property which is in South Johannesburg where they are experiencing civil unrest and looting. Mum says there are already empty food shelves and petrol shortages, with pharmacies and supermarkets being targeted. The turmoil is frightening and tension and fear are everywhere… We are very blessed to live in this beautiful country where we are all being taken care of.”

“Apologies for not being in contact sooner, but I have just returned from Ethiopia where the World Food Program (WFP) is leading the response to the Tigray crisis… The situation for over 5 million Tigrayans is dire, many are suffering from famine and the situation is deteriorating.”

While Australia is dealing with its own situational difficulties, none are of the order of magnitude that are consuming other parts of the world.

We are poised between moments of ‘desolation’ and ‘consolation’ at the present time. It is not an easy place to be – let’s be honest about that. But there is a space for prayer and resolve, for faith, optimism, and hope that we will continue to move through this. And the day is around the proverbial corner when the morning gym class will be augmented by the coffee and the chat; the buses will arrive at school crammed with the animation of young men, and these grounds and classrooms will be filled with the life, dynamism and energy of the boys. Let us be consoled by the opportunities that are, and will continue to be afforded by a country, and an educational provision that not many in the world are fortunate to experience.

Dr Paul Hine