In mid-October, my sole novitiate classmate, Matt, drove all the way from St. Louis to Chicago for a visit. He was looking for a much-needed break from his philosophy studies and, after nearly three months apart, I was anxious to catch up. Loyola University Chicago–where I’ve begun my own studies–had a break two weeks prior, and while I hoped to have some carefree time with my friend, my own academic agenda pressed upon me. On a sunny Monday afternoon, we found ourselves sitting with a few other young Jesuits around a table full of books–you guessed it–studying philosophy.
I had felt the void of not being with Matt for some time. When you spend the better part of two years inextricably linked to the lives of others (as you are in the novitiate), you become fairly invested in them. This void feels familiar. I have been separated from people over and over again in my life, whether by moving, by the organic progression of a friendship fading away, or even in a few sad cases, by people passing away. Yet, time and time again, I have been witness to the kinship of mission. A sense of mission helps me to feel united in some way with the many I am with or not, those whom I know or don’t, and those who are living or dead.
On that sunny day in Chicago, it struck me that while my fellow Jesuits and I were engaged in studying different things for different classes in different places, we were all there for the same purpose. This step in our formation is known simply as “philosophy studies.” What better way, then, to spend time with my friend? We were, after all, engaged in a common mission. And we weren’t just studying philosophy. We were engaged in the act of becoming more capable of love, and preparing ourselves to bring others more deeply into that love.
Many of us are taking a logic course. For most of us, it’s our first go at symbolic logic and, knowing what I know about Jesuits, it may be both our first and our last attempt at anything logical. While our teacher is remarkably effective, I’m often reeling. My brain is constantly muddled, and on a quiz day about a month ago, I was particularly anxious. My previous scores weren’t so great, and I needed to turn things around.
Before the quiz, I was in the library with a classmate and came across a book written by Fr. Pedro Arrupe about his life in Japan. Fr. Arrupe was a much beloved Superior General of the Society of Jesus, and he is often referred to as the “second founder” of the Jesuits. When I pulled the book off of the shelf I found a handwritten note from Fr. Arrupe himself taped casually to the inside front cover. It was largely illegible and written in Spanish. Even though I had no idea what it said I still felt some sense of his presence. It was as if an old friend was suddenly with me in the room.
I checked the book out, stuffed it into my backpack, and headed off to class hoping to show Arrupe’s note to my Jesuit brothers. Another scholastic just happened to have a first-class relic of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, another Jesuit all-star, in his backpack. He was transporting it somewhere and before he could deliver it he needed to take our logic quiz. So there we were, a room half-full of Jesuit scholastics and, by chance, two of the most famous Jesuits were with us, inspiring us through their legacy and urging us through their example to keep pushing forward.
I couldn’t help but think that Arrupe and Gonzaga became who they were in the very same way that I’m becoming the man God wants me to be, in part through philosophy studies, but more than that, as men called to love. Beyond the time and space of our limited lives, Arrupe and Gonzaga still bear witness to us here and now. They are our brothers in Christ; they are my companions in the Society of Jesus. They probably felt the same way I do at times: separated from the world of comfort and ease they had once known, yet bravely facing the unknown, committed to a common mission.
It’s easy to feel lonely, I think. I often find myself in large crowds of people astounded at the fact that I will never know most of them. It just isn’t possible. They know things that I want to know. They have friends and families that I’d love to meet. They have incredible joys and sorrows that I want to hear about. They’ve had their hearts broken, and I want to help them heal. It is astonishing for me to consider just how much life there is out there. But, when I’m able to look past the fact that I don’t know, I remember that I’m not supposed to. I find peace within this astonishment because I really do believe that we belong to each other. I really do believe that there is a Holy Spirit fusing us together through the love we share. I really do believe that we are on a common mission.
They say that St. Ignatius liked to gaze at the stars from the rooftops in Rome. Sometimes, when I need to get away from the books, I’ll head outside to look up at the night sky. The city lights drown out most of the stars here in Chicago, but when I look to the east, out over the dark expanse of Lake Michigan, I can see airplanes lining up for their landings at O’Hare. These planes take the place of the missing stars. They’re filled with people coming and going, leaving behind and reuniting with those they love most in the world. When I watch these planes, my mind floats to mission. I am united with them and mysteriously linked to them. We are a holy family, brothers and sisters seeking love. Even if I can’t know them, I want what’s best for them.
As the holidays approach, and I think of Matt, Arrupe, Gonzaga, and even the strangers in those planes over Lake Michigan, I feel a strong sense of connection and commitment to the other. As the weather turns and I bury myself back into books and papers, I remember that the antidote to missing is mission, and I’m grateful to have witnessed the power and possibility of being united in love.
The cover image, from Flickr user FRANCISCA, can be found here.