The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the First Principle and Foundation from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The First Principle and Foundation: What Are Human Beings Made For?”
Around the time of the Epiphany, I watched Don’t Look Up, the new Netflix film about two astronomers (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) who discover a comet set to hit Earth. I watched it because it was trending on Netflix, but it turned out to be appropriate for the liturgical feast. Both the movie and the Gospel story depict astronomers who look up at the skies to find meaning in their lives on earth. The central conflict of both stories pits these astronomers against a political figure: an attention-hungry politician in the movie and King Herod in the Bible story.
Don’t Look Up captures very well the divisions and distractions in our world. Nowadays, we’re divided into political ideologies: we’re for or against vaccines and masks, we think climate change is serious or not, etc. We’re constantly distracted by the latest media-reported scandal. This is represented well by the two prominent cable news anchors in the film (played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) who often downplay the comet’s threat by focusing on the latest celebrity breakup or just treating the news as entertainment. Even the astronomers in the film spend their time caught up in celebrity and social media wars.
When the Magi reach their goal, they sit in adoration of the Christ child. One of Ignatius’ insights is that human beings are created for this kind of adoration. In the Principle and Foundation, Ignatius tells us that we’re created to praise, reverence and serve God. Standing before Christ, the Magi recognize themselves as beloved children of God. DiCaprio’s character in the film, however, gets so distracted by the drama that for most of the film, he forgets his loved ones and the world around him. Until the very end, he can’t spare to sit still and adore something larger than himself. The unity we find in adoration helps us heal our divided and distracted hearts.
I learned through trial and error that I need adoration in my life. I experienced a lot of anxiety during regency, a stage of Jesuit formation in which we’re sent to work, typically in one of our schools. I spent two years as a videographer at America Media and one teaching in a school. I wrestled with many inner questions during my time at both apostolates: I haven’t done any video work in five years, will I live up to the magazine’s expectations? I’ve never taught middle school before, will I live up to the expectations of my students, their parents, the school?
Most of my anxious inner monologue had to do with the fear of not being good enough. My working situation at the middle school exacerbated my anxiety because I had a dysfunctional working relationship with one of my bosses. We didn’t see eye to eye. She shut down my ideas with no explanation or constructive feedback. I felt gaslit by contradictory demands and expectations. I stopped really praying because I was so caught up in the drama of my daily life.
In the midst of this, I started the process of applying to theology, the last stage of Jesuit formation before ordination to the priesthood. To be approved, I had to write a letter examining myself and explicitly stating my desire. Writing the letter allowed me to review my life in the Society until then. During my novitiate pilgrimage, I put my trust in God, staying, praying and working with different families along the Dominican-Haitian border. The hospitality of these poor families revealed to me a God that seeks to welcome all into his love. During my philosophy studies, I regularly visited people at the hospital suffering from alcoholism-related diseases. I saw how deep a person’s desire to be forgiven and healed can be. Creating short documentaries during regency required awareness of God’s action in other people’s lives. I told stories of God’s presence in the world, of his incarnation.
This review helped put things in perspective. The memories that most kindled my heart all involved a relationship to something outside of myself: friendships I’ve made, sights of God’s beauty in nature, instances of solidarity in the midst of pain. I also saw how I had let myself get so far from that during my conflict with my boss. I had stopped reserving time for personal prayer and treated my job as a substitute for it. In response, I pushed myself to pray more often in my community’s chapel, near the Blessed Sacrament. Christ had to be the center of my life for all the rest to have meaning.
Adoration transformed my gaze little by little to the presence of God around me. I became more aware of my inordinate attachments and could take my difficulties at the school less personally. The problems were still there. But I dwelled less and less on them because I became more aware of how small they were compared to the larger purpose God has for me. Usually, when I felt anxious it was because I was, in some sense, doubting God’s presence in my life. The Principle and Foundation was an antidote to my anxiety because it reminded me that God is taking care of us, that God is at the center of our lives.
In the film’s final scene, the otherwise non-religious astronomers spend their last family dinner recognizing God as the Creator and asking selflessly for love and acceptance. Worship teaches us to recognize God in what we usually dismiss or belittle when we’re too centered on ourselves, as the Magi do when they recognize God in a poor baby in a manger. Through worship, through adoration we learn to step out of ourselves and baptize the world with our gaze. Praise and reverence, as Ignatius identifies in the Principle and Foundation, heals our distractions and divisions by centering our hearts on what is truly essential: God and our fellowship with Him and others.