Dear Discerner: Notes on love and promises

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My name is Patrick. I’m a Jesuit, 28 years old. And after seven years I’m finally on the downward slope of that seemingly endless Jesuit preparation. I write to you from my home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota—a home to which I’ve just returned from the wedding of a close friend.

Promises, promises

I watched a friend of mine yesterday, standing in her white dress and holding her soon-to-be-husband’s right hand in hers, and thought to myself: However did she get here? How in God’s name did she dig up from within herself the outrageous courage to promise to “love you and honor you all the days of my life”?

I sat in my black suit and white collar and felt again what we’ve all felt: the fear, the old nervous attraction, of commitment. I glanced down at my two hands clasped in my lap and felt the ring on my own finger, and oft-repeated phrases of my own vows came bubbling up from within me:

“Almighty and eternal God . . . yet I have been strengthened by your infinite compassion . . . perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience . . . as you have given me the desire to make this offering . . . give me the grace to fulfill it . . . I promise to enter this same Society to spend my life in it forever.”

Forever. Lifting my eyes, I watched this friend of mine again. It was the fire in her slight smile that reminded me what had nudged her beyond the hesitation of that old nervous attraction: She had fallen in love. And not only fallen in love with this man who was about to become her husband but with whom she was able to be when she was with this man.

And yes, even this joyful moment took courage, but she hadn’t sweated to dig up the courage only for this moment. No, she had trusted that falling in love was falling into the arms of the God who is God of the future, the God who takes and who gives good gifts. It was her slight smile that shed a small light on my own heart. Hadn’t I fallen in love, into the arms of a good God who gives good gifts and who had given me as good a gift? Wasn’t that why I was sitting there dressed as I was? Hadn’t God swept me off my feet? Yes, many times.

First nudge toward love

The first time, the time that nudged me into this Jesuit life, happened during my junior year of college. I was visiting a group of young Jesuits at Loyola University in Chicago when I really fell. But it isn’t so much those guys that I remember; it’s the buzz in my heart I had those few days. The sense of purpose that climbed and climbed toward the heavens. The realization that all good lives demand a depth of sacrifice I could only glimpse. The sudden and deep desire to give myself completely. The stirring possibility of being able to live in relentless pursuit of a good God. And all of this coming out of a couple of conversations, a game of Frisbee on the lawn, and some prayer. Simple stuff, what these life-changing moments are built of—simple stuff and trust.

Patrick Gilger, S.J. with guitar
PATRICK GILGER, S.J. “listens to
Common, the Fleet Foxes, and Bob
Dylan. He spends altogether too much
time analyzing his fantasy baseball team,
and his cheers are embarrassingly
loud at high school basketball games.”

And, yeah, the feeling is a similar one—not the same, but similar—to the one I remember having when I’ve fallen in love with people (something I hope has or will happen to all of you who are considering this religious life). It’s the same sense of being stunned by joy and possibility, the same sense of hope and gratitude. And it requires the same painful depth of sacrifice and the same death of the self as well.

But it’s different, too. For me there was a broadness of love I felt, something like being all of a sudden open to almost anyone and almost anywhere. Rather than a sense of being beautifully tugged into another’s heart, it was like being cracked open for a weekend and making my heart with its strong wounds and strong love as available as a mountain stream in the spring. It may be different for you, my friends. Probably I would say that the commonalities will be the joy of it, the openness and buzzing fiery hope and the trust it will require of you.

Bliss meets challenge

I went back to school after the visit. I began my application to join the Jesuits with excitement. I remember friends telling me that I was glowing, smiling all the time, or something similar. Whatever it was they said, they knew. They knew that my heart had been blown open and that now the question was whether I would be able to do what the slight smile on the face of my recently wedded friend proved her able to do: trust in the God who gives such love.

I’ll just say that it wasn’t a smooth road for me. I fell for the Society of Jesus during my junior year of college and for a woman my senior year. I felt broken and confused in the face of giving up “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children,” as Jesus said in the gospels. So what got me in?

Listen: These are mysterious times. And I’m still not sure what it was that turned me toward religious community. Stubbornness on my part? Maybe. Some real trust in a God who gives good gifts? Maybe. Begging the Lord for courage? Maybe that, too.

Courage needed

I have a friend—a Jesuit brother and a very talented man—who during his own discernment process approached an old priest who knew him well and asked him to pray that the Lord might give him clarity and let him know whether he should “upon Christ throw all away,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. The old priest looked him in the eyes, paused a moment, and said, “No.” My friend was baffled, stunned. Why wouldn’t this man do him this favor, he asked aloud. The old priest looked him once more in the eyes and replied: “Many people ask for clarity when they should be asking for courage.”

I agree. But it’s not only raw courage for the sake of being courageous. The courage we ask for is the courage to trust in the experience we’ve had of falling in love with the Lord of our lives. My own experience of falling in love with the Society of Jesus is what I think nudged me past the fear, the old nervous attraction, of committing myself to an unknown future.

Trust: Fragile and forever

My friends, I write this letter to you as a friend to a friend, a sibling to a sibling in Christ. It is in the same spirit that I want to say to you that I need—that we all need—to trust in our experiences of falling in love with the good future that our good God holds before us.

And not only that, we must support one another in cultivating that trust. We need to help each other take up the shovels that will dig from within us the courage to love God and honor God all the days of our lives, especially during these fractious and confusing times.

Here, for you who are considering this life of a Catholic religious and for myself as I continue to be formed in it, the trust we have is not in ourselves and our ability to say “forever.” Our trust—is in the God who has given use the strange desire to offer our whole self, and who will, I believe, give us the grace to fulfill such a commitment.

Patrick Gilger, S.J.Patrick Gilger, S.J. teaches classes such as philosophy or interreligious dialogue at Red Cloud Indian School and coordinates the Red Cloud Volunteer Program,




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