In recent weeks I have been exploring with some of our staff one of the so-called ‘Ignatian Foundational Insights’. These insights, fundamental to the success of Ignatius’ ministries to others, are: Dreams and Desires (taking seriously one’s deepest imaginings, entertaining and exploring all those possibilities of ‘what might be’ and ‘who I might become’ so as to discern our truest and most authentic life choices), Service (the realization that the only life worth living is one spent in the service of others, especially those who have the greatest claim on our time, talents and treasure), Finding God in all things (cultivating a spirituality that, apart from prayer and liturgy, readily finds God’s traces in creation, in human history and in others), and Holy Conversations (those richest communications that are at once pastoral, formational and spiritual).
To open up a topic with one’s colleagues entitled ‘Holy Conversations’ is a brave move indeed. It hardly sounds riveting stuff! Such language is, of course, a product of its time, yet when ‘unpacked’ is as pertinent today as it was more than four centuries ago when those first Jesuits embraced it. ’Holy conversations’ were and are a central exercise of cura personalis, which we know here as that particular care of every student in all his dimensions. In our common mission it is, of course, an experience shared by both teachers and parents.
‘Holy conversations’ should never be dismissed as some form of pious or saccharine talk. I would call these conversations holy because they are based on respect – even reverence – for the other person. They acknowledge the other’s human dignity and worth. Such personal value does not spring form one’s accomplishments, one’s status, or one’s wealth. Our dignity and worth comes simply (and profoundly) from our being loved by God. That is our worth – nothing more. And that is everything. Therefore these conversations with another are sacred. They concern themselves with finding common ground and are never about lording it over the other, manipulating or point-scoring. So we may, with some justification, style them sacred. They are holy because they are pastoral (ie, seeking the best for the other) and often move into the so-called “big questions” of life – Who am I really? What is the purpose of my life? How do I find meaning? What am I to make of suffering and evil? How do I know and choose what is a good life? And so on.
A more recent Jesuit historian, John O’Malley SJ, whom I would suggest currently knows the mind and the manner of Ignatius best, prefers to call these ‘devout conversations’. This may, at first, not seem to shed much more light on the exposition, until we understand that Ignatius saw devotion, not as a particular religious practice, but as ‘ease of finding God’, to use his words. So, in pastoral contexts, we begin by asking ourselves which conversational style or direction will most easily lead to finding God? Or which will point us to the tell tale signs of God’s presence, or God’s gifts? Which will lead to goodness, truth or justice? Which, after some hurt or damage to relationships, will lead to reconciliation and healing? Which will be a seedbed for the Spirit’s gifts, for example, of peace, wisdom or discernment? Finally, and more traditionally, which will take a person to prayer (a conversation with God), to reflection (as in an Examen) or to the sacraments?
The style of Ignatius and those early Jesuit companions was simple. The starting point was to approach individuals with love and a desire for their well-being, while carefully observing each person’s temperament and character. Then they began conversations with subjects of interest to the other, moving gradually to matters of deeper moment and importance, to matters of the spirit, we might say. Ignatius was very fond of a Spanish idiom of his time: “Go in by the other person’s door and lead them out your own.” That became his style. Jerónimo Nadal, one of the first generation of Ignatius’ Jesuit companions, was known as the best interpreter of Ignatius’ thinking. He wrote that conversations were more effective even than preaching because “one endeavored to enter gently and with love into the thoughts of a specific individual”. The elements of such gentleness and love will guard against conversations being manipulative in any way. Respect for the other underscores all such engagements. Always.
Conversations became one of the consueta ministeria, the ‘regular and customary ministries’ of the beginning Society. In pursuing opportunities for these conversations, those early Jesuits would speak of ‘going fishing’. That image was taken, presumably, from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus invited Peter and his friends to become ‘fishers of others’. So, on their days off (usually Sundays and feast days) those Jesuits would make for the likely places – the marketplace, the ships in dock, the abandoned souls in prisons – to find people in need of conversations, in need of care, of direction, of consolation.
Luke records in his Gospel, after the death of Jesus, two disconsolate disciples walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus. All hope gone. Then the risen Jesus approaches them, but unrecognised, and asks what is troubling them. He hears them out and then helps their understanding. Their burdens are shed. Later they recognise who he was, but by then he had slipped from their sight. Yet they were left with a new freedom and such peace of mind. They later recalled, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?”
Such are the possibilities of ‘holy conversations’. They continue to warm our hearts as well.