Faithful and Flexible
Over the past month, one of the key themes that I have gleamed from our history is what can be called “Jesuit flexibility.” Our forebears from the beginning have sought to embody St. Paul’s attitude of becoming “all things to all people,” of adapting to the needs of a given situation for the sake of the Gospel. Flexibility is what enabled the diverse missionary efforts of the Society to so many cultures of the globe. This flexibility is one which St. Ignatius had to learn, as he dealt with broken dreams, such as his thwarted ambition to minister in the Holy Land. Eventually, St. Ignatius became an exemplar of the interior freedom from which faithful flexibility springs. In this way, he could seek the “magis,” the greater thing for the sake of God and His people. One of my favorite tales from the life of St. Ignatius is about a younger Jesuit telling him that his Italian was quite mangled (due to his native tongue being Spanish). Ignatius, rather than being stuck-in-the-mud or offended, responded with a spirit of discernment, “what shall we do for God’s glory?” Eventually the younger Jesuit realized that Ignatius’ shabby diction was really of no importance, since the people were nonetheless so deeply inspired by his message.
As has been noted, this approach is more than that of St. Paul or St. Ignatius; flexibility really lies at the heart of the Incarnation. When St. Ignatius has us meditate on the three persons of the Trinity looking down upon the waywardness of humanity, it is as if they too must discern “what shall we do?” and then adapt in order to save us by becoming one of us. So too Mary must be flexible with her plans of a typical betrothal to Joseph, by saying to the angel “Let it be done according to Thy word.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is caught in between many tensions and must find how to be both creative and faithful. Likewise, as Jesuits we cannot be like stern trees that are knocked over by forceful winds, but rather like strong reeds that are firmly rooted yet can bend in appropriate ways.
Pedro Arrupe, former Father General, was one of these reeds that could bear the storms of conflict in the post-Vatican II Church and Society of Jesus. As Vincent O’Keefe, one of his assistants, recounts, Arrupe was profoundly humble, creative, open, and committed. Like Mary, he was able to live with grace in times of terrible uncertainty, always remaining docile to the movement of the Holy Spirit. While Arrupe believed in collegiality, he was willing to quietly call-to-task Jesuits who went astray in thinking with the Church. One of the most striking testaments to Arrupe’s flexibility was in his patient suffering through a severe stroke and relinquishing control over the Society and indeed his life. As he let go of the reigns, he shared the following moving prayer with his brothers: “More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God's hands.”
As I heard more about the spirit of Arrupe, I felt consolation in the witness of this man who was at once so gifted and so giving. He really walked the talk of Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit mission. O’Keefe says that Arrupe “slept, dreamt, and wrote” the Spiritual Exercises, so completely was he swimming in their riches. The Exercises are the fountain of flexibility and fidelity in answering the call of Christ. As I approach vows, that is the kind of Jesuit that I hope to become: one who is totally alive, attentive, active. There is so much that can weigh us down in answering our calls in life. The Church and the world can seem like a jungle at times. Yet Arrupe shows that such circumstances need not obliterate our hope. He went forward with trust and joy, on fire with so much zeal and hope. Even the worst that befell him did not break his spirit. How can we afford to not exercise this faithful flexibility as well?