Through Jesuit women, a call to compassion

I received a fiery call on my first Ignatian retreat in 2014 to investigate an old, shelved desire to “be a Jesuit.” Through lots of searching and lots of dialogue and experimentation at Regis University, where I was in nursing school, and after serendipitously finding Lisa Fullam’s article, “Juana S.J.” in the Regis library, I realized that the form my discernment needed to take was an actual, experimental Jesuit novitiate based on the formation experiments of the Constitutions. How would I know I actually was called to be a Jesuit, if I didn’t enter the discernment period of a novice?

From May 2017 to May 2019, I completed all of a Jesuit novice’s experiments. Jesus was my novicemaster, and God led me to find the site and manner of each experiment. My passionate “why” at this time was FORMATION and ENCOURAGEMENT of other women who felt called to be Jesuits. I wanted to change the Society of Jesus and the Jesuit family. I wanted honesty, transparency, and inclusivity. I saw the Society of Jesus as a sleepy Eli, not able to hear God’s call to Jesuit women but still, in good faith, trying to direct us back to God for more information. I wrote about these thoughts and experiments and reflected on how they were changing me in a blog, http://www.jesuitwomen.net. The formation was an immensely creative project for me, a moving-beyond the walls and boundaries that I had felt about living my vocation in the Catholic church and in the world. There were many mentors, people whom I called Jesuit women and men, as I looked at my world with a sweeping vision through which a Jesuit person need not be a member of a religious order called the Society of Jesus. These Jesuit people embodied and carried on the fire of the charism that was first manifested in that organization. I was adamant not to call my charism “Ignatian.” I felt at that time that “Ignatian” was just a watered-down word for “Jesuit,” a tag created to enshrine privilege in the word “Jesuit” and put Jesuit people who were not part of the religious order in their clerical place in the church. (My view on this issue has widened a lot and softened since then. If you treasure Ignatian spirituality, please know that I do, too.)

As a Jesuit woman novice, on the 30-day spiritual exercises and in daily life, I learned to ask for what I wanted from God…to ask for specific graces. When I made my final service experiment in Malta at Jesuit Refugee Service in September 2018, I asked for the grace of humility. This grace was granted, in a 14-month term of service, first as a volunteer and then as a staff member, that was both beautiful and horrifying.

The first thing that fell apart was my conception of myself as a minister. In December 2018 I realized how driven I had been, how much I felt I had to prove in my Jesuit experiments, and how poorly I had treated my body and myself. As one of my refugee companions told me later, “Te viste muy…descuidada en esos dias. Una sabe cuando una mujer se ama a si misma.” (‘You looked very…uncared for in those days. A woman knows when another woman loves herself.’) I became very sick in late January 2019 and for the first time needed to receive love and support, in the form of meal trays, from the Jesuit community who was hosting me as a volunteer.

The second thing that fell apart was my conception of myself as a peacemaker. In the summer of 2019, in the most searingly, suffocatingly hot weather I had ever experienced (that’s a lot to say, growing up in Michigan!) I worked the front desk at JRS 40 hours a week, Monday thru Friday. I met some really amazing people as a receptionist. Most had been through hell on earth as asylum seekers through Libya to Malta. They came from over 50 countries and in that sweaty reception room, I regularly heard over 10 major languages. For a person who loves difference, it was incredible every day. But I also realized very graphically in these situations, that a lot of what I had thought was “peacemaking” in my behavior was actually “codependence.” I was trying to change people with my politeness and kindness, rather than simply be with them as they were. I was not setting boundaries that needed to be set in my role. I was taking responsibility for things I couldn’t control. I was daily feeling intense shame and taking all of the trauma that came into that room into my body, and again, I was getting physically and psychologically sick. I started going to Alanon in Malta, which is an organization that offers 12-step spirituality and group support to families and friends of alcoholics. This helped me start to practice some self-care and to set some boundaries at work.

But the third thing that fell apart was my innocent idea that government is essentially there to help people, and that when people seek help from institutions, they will find something…some resources, some recourse. During the time that I worked in Malta, large swathes of the government, including the Refugee Commission and AWAS (the Association for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers) started to disintegrate. The cultural mediators, lawyers, psychologists, social workers and nurse that I worked with at JRS Malta were accustomed to this. Rules and agreements could not be counted on from day to day and week to week. The boats continued to arrive, and sometimes the Maltese government would let the boats of 50 – 100 people stay out at sea for many weeks, full of people who needed medical attention, food, and clothing…the very basics of life. There was so much darkness reported that I will not recount right here, right now, but which really challenged my faith in people and in systems.

As the asylum system in Malta fell apart in the face of rising arrivals, it felt like our small organization was falling apart in the face of the pressure of being one of the few major providers of services in the country. Our director and principal lawyer, a youthful, brilliant Jesuit woman in her 40s who was my hero, suffered a stroke from the stress and was out of the office for months, leaving us all with a sobering realization of the consequences of being idolized. To be honest, I thanked God that she was getting some rest. As the receptionist, I remember a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and sometimes yelling at meetings and over the phone during this time. We were doing our best, but, as a young Jesuit man my age said, “Sometimes our best isn’t good enough…and where is God in that?” My best wasn’t good enough. I sat at the desk powerless, face to face with people we couldn’t help materially, people who were being blacklisted by the government for participating in just lawsuits against the government, people whose cases couldn’t progress through the courts because of a combination of systems failure and backlog in our work.

I know I need to stop writing now because I am over the word limit, but I can’t tell you how much I appreciate being able to share stories like this in the context of this forum. What is my “why” now that I have received, to some extent, the grace of humility? I would say that my “why” is compassion. Oftentimes, all I could offer to myself and the people with whom I sat in the office was a cup of water, a cup of tea or coffee, and compassion. As a stranger in a strange land who didn’t speak Maltese or Arabic or understand a lot of what was going on in the government, all I could offer my coworkers was compassion. I didn’t talk about it much here, but my conception of the Society of Jesus and of Jesuit men also changed a lot over the course of the novitiate experiment. Living in a community of about 30 Jesuits over 60 years of age in Malta, and spending time in the infirmary there as all of these other fallings-apart happened in my faith and work life, I started to see Eli for who he was in the Samuel story. I saw Eli’s bleary eyes, his time-tested heart that had been through both good and bad times, ups and downs in his service to God, and his nostalgia for the youth of Samuel and the call Samuel was experiencing in the at first resistance, and later delight and nostalgia that the community had in hosting me, not as a woman, but as a young person…youth in its midst. I saw Eli’s vulnerability and heart in the Jesuits I met who passed on in the infirmary, while I was there…Br. Theuma, Fr. Gellel, Fr. Darmanin, a little while after I left Malta. Coming back to the US, I could no longer see the Society of Jesus as a fortress or a power-broker…instead I saw a bunch of guys trying their best to hold it together, limited, yet doing their best, just like me. I saw an institution passing away, needing to pass the torch and not quite knowing how. I saw a lot of kindness and a lot of effort.

I don’t know where this compassion will lead me, but I want to let it grow and let God guide it in the coming months and years.

3 thoughts on “Through Jesuit women, a call to compassion

  1. Maggie,

    I actually read aspects of your blog a few years ago when I was in an Ignatian Spirituality class at Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. I, too, read Lisa Fullam’s piece on Juana S.J. (Lisa was also my academic advisor at JST). I worked on a project/podcast about women jesuits and the ways in which continue to live out the Jesuit charism. I am humbled to walk with you on this journey now. I feel like we have some kindred spirit working among us!

    Your descirption of working wiht JRS in Malta is profound. There is so much present. You describe a shift when you came back to the US from Malta (last fall??), “Coming back to the US, I could no longer see the Society of Jesus as a fortress or a power-broker…instead I saw a bunch of guys trying their best to hold it together, limited, yet doing their best, just like me. I saw an institution passing away, needing to pass the torch and not quite knowing how. I saw a lot of kindness and a lot of effort.” I appreciate that nuanced perspective of broken humans holding it together and a need to pass the torch, entering uncharted territory. How does it feel to articulate that notion of a group of guys needing to pass a torch? How does that feel in your body? You articulated a lot about trauma and boundaries and feeling physically and psychologically sick at times. I honor that you shared with such depth. Know that sorting through it all is heavy and important work. You are not alone.

  2. Maggie, I appreciate your boldness and your creativity in taking seriously your desire to discern if you were called to be a Jesuit. No matter the outcome, the journey would be worth it. The call to compassion is a great gift from your experience as a novice. What if in their own way, the Jesuits you met did indeed hand you the torch? Where do you want to go next with the torch?

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