All Along the Watchtower: Witnessing the God-Forsaken

Eye on Fire Flikr image by drukseldorji

We stand like watchmen in a wilderness fire-tower

Every twenty years or so we Jesuits will have what we call a “General Congregation.” It’s where an elected group of us get together to discuss the future of our Society and to select our leader, the Father General. As is well known, it’s impossible for Jesuits to get together without writing something, so each time a General Congregation gathers we have more things to read.

The documents from our most recent General Congregation (the thirty fifth) state that Jesuits are “missioned to the frontiers.” Reading this for the first time as a novice I imagined a bunch of dudes in a large room wearing black cowboy hats and listening to Captain Kirk as he admonished them to boldly go where no one had gone before. Combine this image with the Ignatian imperative to “Go forth and set the world on fire” (captured in the same documents as “a fire that kindles other fires”’) and you’ve got a real summer blockbuster on your hands, or at the very least, a killer commencement speech.

I think a better way of putting this mission to the frontiers, though, would’ve been to say simply that we are sent to “God-forsaken places.” It probably wouldn’t sell as the title of a Hollywood script, but the phrase does illuminate another side of this Jesuit life: We go to God-forsaken places, we witness God’s life there, and in so doing we hope to prove that such places don’t even exist.

We hope to show that there are no God-forsaken places and, for God, there is no final frontier.

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The distinguishing mark of a Jesuit missionary has always been the simple conviction that there is no person we shouldn’t engage, no question disallowed, no place we’re unwilling to go. This Ignatian way of proceeding is sometimes comically rephrased: “There is virtually nothing a Jesuit wouldn’t do to bring someone closer to God.”

The worst possible iteration of this “God-forsaken” refrain is when we find ourselves willing to say that there are God-forsaken people out there. I want to say with my entire being that this is not true, perhaps not even possible.

The Ignatian task of finding God in all things is, I think, an effort to stretch our notions of where God resides; to push the boundaries of the Church ever wider; to work, as Jesus did, to broaden our understanding of what it means to live in the kinship of God; to ensure that no one is left outside of the tent nor beyond the reach of God’s loving embrace. As companions of Jesus, we are witnesses to the simple truth that there is no such thing as a God-forsaken place and, more importantly, that there are no God-forsaken people.

This is risky business. Many have lost their lives in this effort, even more their reputations, but in the end, most of us will tell you that the things we’ve lost pale in comparison to the graces we’ve received. In truth, the thing to worry about isn’t losing your life, it’s missing it.

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The real risk in Jesuit life, perhaps in any life, is coming to believe that something, or someone, could be God-forsaken in the first place. If we believe this then we’ve forgotten the indwelling God of whom we claim to be companions. This, it seems to me, is the death of a Jesuit; it ends our mission, it makes of the frontiers to which we are sent a prison sentence instead of a vocation, a desolate wasteland instead of an infinite horizon.

An even greater danger is the risk of believing that we’re somehow bringing God to these forsaken people or places. This is a more troublesome predicament because it leaves us pointing not at God’s life, but at our own. “Look at the great things I’ve done, look at the places I’ve been,” it says. Even now, writing this blog, I realize my own temptation to fall into such a self-serving trap. Am I here to tell about my life or God’s? Maybe both? I don’t always know.

I can say this much: The Jesuit Post should never be a post about Jesuits, but rather a post where we stand like watchmen in a wilderness fire-tower, a place where we can point to God, always to God. The world is full of burning bushes screaming of God’s redemptive presence, and each person’s life is a point of light in that fire, a flicker of flame announcing that God’s indwelling Spirit is present.

People everywhere live with their hearts burning within them. I’m not sure we need to set the flame; we only need courage enough to walk out into the wilderness and point out that it is already burning.

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