Ignatius, the BBC and Our Lady of Sorrows
I used to have a really bad problem with sleep, where I would wake up after only an hour or two and then not be able to get back to sleep. Luckily the local NPR station used to play the BBC from 10 PM until 4 AM, because that was the only thing that could lull me back to sleep. There was something about the sound of that BBC style voice that was so comforting! But I think it was partly also due to the fact that they were always talking about people, situations and places that I didn’t know anything about, so I would get a little bored and just zone out. It wasn’t until after my first visit to England that I actually really listened to the BBC and saw their newscasts on TV and really started paying attention. And the thing that struck me was again how most of the things they were reporting were about people and situations that I was only vaguely familiar with and places that I often couldn’t even locate on the map. However, that’s when I had the realization that the problem was me––and how insular and parochial American news usually is! If it’s not about New York or Chicago or somewhere in California or even Columbus, Ohio I used to just turn off: “What does that have to do with me?” Part of the immense benefit of traveling around the world in ministry for ten years was how much it broadened my worldview. Now the BBC makes sense, and it’s one of the things you can count on anywhere in the world.
The reason I bring that up is because this is one of those gifts that Ignatius brings to us, to our community, and to our prayer. So often I’ve noticed that while we’re praying for our own needs and intentions, Ignatius is offering prayers for the people of Mogadishu (which is the capital of Somalia, by the way, a little country south of Ethiopia on the east coast of Africa on the Indian Ocean), or for the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma, or for the ethnic cleansing going on in Nigeria where the Muslims are being sheltereded in a seminary and defended by the local bishop. Besides this wider optic of the world that Ignatius got not growing up in Columbus, Ohio, his years working for social services in London have given him a heart that is especially sensitive to the little ones, the outcasts, the persecuted.
Ignatius and I were negotiating back and forth via email about what date to celebrate his solemn vows, and he suggested September 15th. I wrote back and said, rather cautiously, “You know that’s Our Lady of Sorrows, right?” And he was rather firm about it; that was the day he wanted. I hoped that it wasn’t a reflection on monastic life itself (though Benedict does say in chapter 58 of the Rule that The novice should be clearly told all the dura et aspera––the hardships and difficulties that
will lead him to God!). I really understood why he would choose Our Lady of Sorrows as the day of his solemn monastic vows after he preached––for the first time here, actually––on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. It wasn’t just because Mary is the model of lectio divina, as she carries all these things in her heart. In his homily he made a point about how and why Mary was so beloved of the little ones, the hidden ones, the poor ones.
Our Lady stands in that brackish water where human beings, especially the poor and the little ones, are always trying to push her as close to being divine as possible. In some ways, for many people, she really is, practically speaking, the feminine face of God. On the other hand the Church is always reminding us that she is a human being––exalted, yes, chosen, yes, even immaculate and virginal, fine––but still she is a human being. And that’s what makes her story so wonderful, so attractive: that someone that we praise as being so divinized, so exalted, so holy, also knew suffering, was not immune to suffering, carried suffering like swords that pierced her heart, and so becomes the Great Mother, the icon of Divine Compassion.
I remember having a debate once with someone who had been a monk or a long time about the general intercessions at the Liturgy of the Hours. He was insisting that we shouldn’t even have them because “they weren’t monastic”! It wasn’t monastic to pray for others?! “No,” he said, “our life is really about our own spiritual perfection and path.” Since he was my elder I (wisely, for once) decided not to engage him in that argument, but I knew in my heart of hearts that he was dead wrong. This has been a big theme of mine, always to remember and emphasize that we monks are part of something bigger––a community, a congregation, an order, a Church, a diocese, a nation, a world, the Body of Christ, the Cosmos! And nothing truly human is foreign to us. As Gaudium et Spes states, and the Eucharistic Prayer for Various needs and Occasions echoes:
The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and the anguish of the followers of Christ as well.
It may seem redundant, but the same applies to a Christian monk. In case we need to be reminded, this is what a Christian monk carries to his prayer, to his cell, to the sacred synaxis as well, even, maybe especially, a hermit. There is this beautiful passage from Catherine de Houeck Doherty’s book Poustinia, about the Russian hermit tradition:
It is to be remembered that you are going to the desert for the following reasons:
to fast, to live in silence, to pray,
so that you may die to yourself quicker,
so that Christ might grow in you faster,
so that you might give Christ to the world faster too––
this world that is so hungry for him––
… to pray for humanity,
to pray for peace,
to pray for the missions and unity among Christians. . .
[I want to add to that, in this day and age, the unity of religions, too]
to become saints faster, lovers of Christ in truth and in deed,
to imitate Christ,
… to learn total surrender to God quicker.
Ignatius, I pray that, like in Mary, the Word will make a home in your heart so that Christ may grow in you; and that, like Mary, you would always carry the little ones, the hidden ones in your heart, in your prayer, into your silence and your songs of praise so that, again like Mary, you will be able to rejoice at the great things the Lord has done through you, with you, and in you.
15 sept 17