The following talk was given to a weekend retreat group. I begin by referring to a session the previous evening where I’d shown a couple of clips from the film American Beauty in which the central character, at the point of death, reflects on his life and finds himself moved by gratitude and beauty. I asked the group to do their own reflection:

  • What would you like to flash before your eyes in that last second, that ocean of time?
  • What are you grateful for–really, spontaneously grateful for?
  • Where is the beauty in your life and where is it leading you?

Called to Discipleship

I deliberately didn’t pretend last night that I knew what was meant by ‘Called to Discipleship’—it could mean all sorts of things—in general or specifically for this group or individually for me or for any one of you. I deliberately started of our working with the topic last night from what seems to me a particularly Ignatian angle. You start with experience, with life, with memory, with imagination and you let God show Godself there—in beauty, in gifts given, in attraction felt, in desires that grow and deepen.

In a section of the Spiritual Exercises that deals with making discipleship decisions one of the questions St. Ignatius asks—or one of the imaginative exercises he presents—is the one from last night: he says tersely, ‘consider, if you were at the point of death, what procedure and guide you will at that time wish you had used in this present decision’.

You’ll see I’ve already taken a position on our title: being called to discipleship is—at least in part—about making decisions. But before I go any further I want to get your sense of what might fit under our theme this weekend, both in general and for this group specifically.

So for a moment think or re-think about that:

  • What does discipleship mean?
  • What would it mean to be a disciple today?
  • What about the calling part—what is it to be called?
  • And what do these two terms leave out that also feels important?

We did some exchange of experiences and ideas at this point…

I hope we’ll get into most of your concerns and ideas in one way or another this weekend… For now I want to keep going with looking at how discipleship is handled in the Spiritual Exercises. I’ve already spoken about one of Ignatius’ major orientations: discipleship is about making a decision—or about continually making decisions. But what kind of decisions and how are we supposed to make them?

If we took his death-bed perspective—or did another thing he suggests and imagine ourselves before God on Judgement Day—if we took that vantage point on our decisions it could feel like we have a tough and threatening God looking over our shoulder ready to ruin us if we get it all wrong. But that isn’t how Ignatius wants us to go about it. The very first time he raises that question of choice he does so in the context of gratitude and of grace. What are you grateful for in your life? How do you feel you have been gifted—even among the pains and problems of life—how do you feel the thread of grace running though your days? It’s in that context—the context of redemption—that Ignatius asks us what kind of response we want to make: what will I do for Christ who has saved me and continues to save me?

Discipleship only makes sense out of an encounter with grace and an experience of real and spontaneous gratitude. And discipleship as a response of gratitude only makes sense if it is freely entered into.

So alongside decision we have to add gratitude and grace. Ignatius’ next word is probably attraction…
There’s an imaginative exercise he entitles the Call of the King—it all gets a bit Lord of the Rings here—the call of the king. He asks you to imagine a king—bring it forward 500 years and make it any kind of person who has a vision and a dream—imagine the kind of person who could inspire you to respond generously, even heroically. Imagine what kind of vision or dream would be worthy of you. What kind of project could catch your imagination? And more—what kind of person could catch your imagination and get you to reshape your life so you can help them do what they are burning to do? Ignatius wants you to do this imaginatively and not just abstractly: what would he or she look like, their manner, their clothing, their look? What would their friends be like? What, in fact, could so attract you about someone that you’d change your life for them?

Got any ideas? … Ignatius does a ‘bait and switch’ at this point and says ‘well how much more worthy and attractive is Jesus and his living out of God’s vision and dream’. Discipleship is about letting ourselves be attracted, letting ourselves desire and need to be disciples—not just in some abstract sense but disciples of this man with his crazy dream for this personal corner of the world. Attraction and desire awake in us a need, a need to be alongside this man—a desire and a need that go beyond the practical. Not just sharing the same project, or putting my money in the same pot, or casting my vote as he would vote, but taking up the same lifestyle: doing what he does, eating what he eats, sharing his hardships, enjoying his victories, mourning his setbacks. ‘What would it take to make you a hero?’ is the discipleship question. Who would it take?

Ignatius roots discipleship in relationship—and relationship that is mutual. Most people praying this exercise only experience an inkling of attraction in a dark and tangled mass of ifs and buts and doubtful maybes but insofar as they feel any desire they discover their vulnerability. I might desire to be with this man but he might not desire to have me with him. We have to be chosen, called. There’s an agonising echo of that schoolyard moment of picking teams— pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me. We need the call. Not just abstractly—we need to feel our desire met and kindled. Discipleship is only grown in the dance of mutual desire. God and I desiring together.

OK the list is growing: decision, gratitude, grace, attraction, desire, relationship and call.

Ignatius’ next move is to switch viewpoint—or viewpoints—he goes all split screen. He asks us to imagine three scenes. First of all imagine the Trinity in heaven having a conversation… Give it a try … What are they talking about? You have to follow their gaze to find out. They are looking at the face of this round world. So imagine scene two: the world. What do the Trinity see? They see people, they see people in all their diversity, their sorrows and joys. They see us loving and laughing; they see us hurting and hating. They see violence and they see tenderness; care and callousness. They see discrimination and oppression and misery. They see all we see when we open the newspaper or turn on the TV: AIDS and Iraq and climate change and polonium 210. What do you imagine they see, they hear, they feel? What moves the Trinity when they see this planet’s condition?

Back to scene 1. The Trinity is moved to come to our aid. ‘Let us work redemption’, is what Ignatius puts into God’s metaphorical mouth. Which brings us to scene 3: Mary in Nazareth and the mutual risky endeavour entered into by one person and their God. That’s discipleship for Ignatius—both what transpires between Mary and God—the ‘let it be to me as you say’—the asking and the answering—but also what happens ‘before’. The Trinity sees need and chooses to respond. Discipleship always arises from the choice to answer concrete need. Discipleship is always a response to reality, the way something will punch us in the guts with its injustice, its wrongness, its need that things be different. The gospels are always saying Jesus ‘took pity’ on someone or other. It’s a bad translation of a Greek word that also gets rendered as ‘felt anger’, ‘had compassion, etc. But it’s a word to do with spleen. It means feeling that churning in your guts at the wrongness of things that won’t let you rest until you do something even if it’s only weep or rage. The first disciple in the Spiritual Exercises is God, the Trinity. Or from another angle it is Jesus.

Jesus offers an easier way to study the discipleship of God—and to learn our own discipleship. Ignatius urges the person praying to ask, day after day, for a particular gift: to know Jesus better. To know him with the kind of knowledge that is very like falling in love. To know him better, to love him more, and out of all that to follow him. To know, to love, to follow. There’s discipleship.

How’s our list looking? Decision, gratitude, grace, attraction, desire, and call. But also: need and spleen. And, finally, the following, what used to be called the imitation of Christ. This imitation is more than mechanical reproduction, or following a set of maxims, or espousing certain values. It’s not quite ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ But it is about knowing Jesus. It is about knowing Jesus in a way that transforms us—that simultaneously makes us more like Jesus and more like ourselves. That’s discipleship: falling in love with God, with Jesus, so that we can respond to the planet’s need the way he did and does and would do through us.

Pedro Arrupe, the General Superior of the Jesuits before the present one, used to speak about us having a planet to heal. Grand, that! But it’s true. He had another favourite topic too: falling in love and the difference it makes to our lives. Both are about the call to discipleship.

7 replies on “Discipleship”

  1. We need the call. Not just abstractly—we need to feel our desire met and kindled. Discipleship is only grown in the dance of mutual desire. God and I desiring together.

    I posted something about this after reading a part in a William Barry book … he writes that people with personal problems won’t be called, if I understood him correctly 🙁

  2. Crystal: I don’t think you do understand him correctly, although from the passage you quote I can see where you are going. God calls each person in an individual way that both respects that person’s gifts and limitations and transforms them. Barry talks about the ‘radical’ discipleship of leaving home and family and following the poor Jesus on his dangerous mission into places where no one else will go. Not all of us can do that. I can’t be a brain surgeon or an Olympic athlete either. These days I can hardly function in that ‘radical’ sense at all. But each one of us can respond radically to our own call and see where that takes us whether it be outwardly heroic or not.

    PamBG: These days ill-health means I lead only the occasional retreat but I live and work in a retreat house doing a certain amount of spiritual direction etc.

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