Lesson from the Jesuits: balancing within paradox
By JEANNETTE BATZ
Setting aside bills, I opened a big, friendly manila envelope and found a collection of essays about St. Ignatius Loyola with a note from an old friend paper-clipped on top. Two pages in and everything flooded back. If there is an Ignatian literary style, it is a style of paradox: intensely serious, but leavened with a wit as dry as Chardonay; lucidly organized, but spiced with metaphor. Jesuits learn from each other how to lighten words without trivializing them.
Its a necessary lesson: Members of the Society of Jesus are traditionally scorned as the cerebral ones, mistrusted as elitists, conspirers, wielders of power. To gain the common touch, they take their founders route: through the senses to the heart. Intellectual principles may be the compass, but the journey is one of flesh and mud, blood and monkeys and garlic.
As was my own college journey, led by Jesuits improbably passionate about all those categorical imperatives. These men loved ideas so much they could taste them. They left me with the same hunger. And they placed a curse on me, too: Never rest flat on one side of paradox; balance your whole life long on that pin that sticks straight up in the middle.
For years I thought my problem was my own private idealism. I lived taut, pulled one way by a love of beauty, culture and refinement, yanked in the opposite direction by an inescapable awareness of poverty. I felt a need to go within, strip my life bare and pare away the busyness. I felt an equal need to go outward, do things, find myself in relationship to everyone in the whole wide world. I was attracted by the life of the mind -- pure, intense, controlled -- and by the life of the body -- messy, earthy, generous. I wanted to continue the intellectual digging but abandon it for immediate intuition. I wanted my soul to be clad in prayerful white and splattered with the bright colors of experience.
I spent my 20s waiting for resolution, but reached only resignation: I could not be a mystic and a wife at once; I could not live in guilt-free simplicity and still go to French restaurants.
I spent my 30s learning to compromise, and realizing that the tension never ends. That its not supposed to end. It is the tension of paradox, and paradox is the exact shape of the human condition. Squiggly peg, squiggly hole. Perfect fit.
A beloved psychology prof used to give one standard lecture to every group of untried freshmen. He said the main thing to remember about life was that it wasnt fair. For some of us, his early, unexpected death a few years later was the first proof.
Now I hear people rail against their fate, rage against the world and its Creator, because of all the injustice. And all I can say is, Life isnt fair.
The paradox being that we cannot ever once stop trying to make it fair. The deeper paradox being that, even without being fair, it is worth living. There is joy in it, and love. There lives, as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, the dearest freshness deep down things.
It was a philosophy professor -- a former Jesuit -- who first read me that poem, running nervous hands through hair worthy of Beethoven, telling us to go see the Picasso on the second floor of the Art Museum because it summed up human sexuality, asking if we knew what Hopkins meant when he wrote: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
We stared back blankly. Think what happens when you crumple a piece of foil, think how it catches the light, he urged, clasping his hands together and then opening them fast, holding the invisible ball up to the fluorescent light overhead. His eyes were what was shining.
That course title was Phenomenology, and its theories had little to do with sex or art or poetry or God, per se. But in the Jesuit tradition, the senses inform the mind, the mind shapes sense experience, spirit pervades art, art expresses faith. Everything connects. The world is not to be renounced; nor is it to be deified. You cannot rest until you rest in God.
I envy other approaches to the world: they de-emphasize half the paradox, either spirit or matter, and ease the tension. Or at least they keep the terms in separate compartments, studying phenomenology in the morning and talking about sex in the evening, making money all week then going to church on Sunday. How much simpler it would be to either meditate oneself into desirelessness or go buoyant into the world like Zorba the Greek. How blissful it would be, to choose.
Paradox is not an easy lesson to incorporate.
Its an even harder lesson to escape.
Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.
National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998