Saturday 12 May 2012

Repeating Quebec City (and Other Things)

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

I recently visited Quebec City with some fellow brother Jesuits to attend the closing events of our 400th anniversary celebration. This city is not unfamiliar to me; it was where I spent two months to learn French before I joined the Jesuits in 2008. I have fond memories of those days: attending daily mass at the cathedral; going through the Old Quebec quarter en route to school; soaking in the night view from the old ramparts; and enjoying the local cuisines. Having said that, my mentality going in was not that of a tourist’s: been there, done that. I was here for the anniversary celebration.

That was the reason why I was a bit ambivalent when my brother Jesuits decided to take a walk in the Old Quebec quarter, but I went anyway to be a good sport. And here I was, walking the same path, and visiting the same places, in 2012. The cathedral was closed when we arrived late in the evening; the streets in the Old Quebec quarter was surprisingly quiet for a Friday night; the night view from the old ramparts remained formidable; and most of the restaurants were closed. The landmarks and shops have not changed, yet it felt so different.

For instance, when I was looking at the historical monuments which documented the Jesuits’ involvements in Quebec City’s rich history, the experience felt different; I felt more involved. More connected. I suppose almost four years’ of Jesuit formation would do that to you. I thought to myself, “What on earth was I thinking when I first saw this? How could I feel so distant from it when I first saw it four years ago?” But perhaps more importantly, this revisiting of the sites meant more now; they weren’t one-and-done events. There is actually value - lots of value - in revisiting them. They are not limited by descriptions in a book, because I am now interacting with them. Our experience changes the way we see things.

This is similar to what we call “Ignatian repetition”: basically, we learn more about something through repetitions. To continue with my real-life example, the reason why Quebec City seems alive to me is because I have changed. Indeed, we do change over a long period of time; but we also change everyday, for better and for worse. We are touched, moved, annoyed or irritated by our daily experiences. The person who looks into the mirror this morning is still the same one who will look into the mirror tomorrow, but at the same time, he is not. He has been changed by his experiences, whether it be in little or big ways.

Let us think of a place where we would frequently visit; say a Sunday mass. I used to think that mass is just mass; I knew the rundown, I knew the readings, I knew the songs, and many times I knew what the priest was going to say in his homily. So, it was very easy for me to zone out and it became a weekly been-there, done-that mindless routine. But I have changed throughout the week; and the way the songs, readings, homilies strike me, or how I interact with the ambiance of the mass changes as well. What is around me interacts directly with my subjectivity in the most personal way.

I think that we often neglect to bring this personal aspect of ourselves with us; we do not allow our experiences to mingle with our personal selves and keep them at an arm’s length. As it is with the ramparts of Quebec City, so it is with things repetitive, like the Jesus whom we meet in the words proclaimed and in the host consecrated and consumed. If anything, perhaps this would plant a small seed within us, so that we would be slow to roll our eyes the next time we enter the repetitive cycle, but rather ask ourselves how I am personally affected by it in the here and now.


  1. Hmmm... "Ignatian repetition"... =)

    There are similar concepts in the field of education too, but not nearly so profound and aligned with the development of the self.

  2. You are right, Joyce: Ignatian repetition can be understood as a kind of pedagogy, but it offers more.

    I would say that Ignatian repetition first began to exert its influence in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, where he would ask the retreatants to do a repetition of a previous Gospel contemplation in an attempt to reap more fruits from it.

    Given the important role of the Exercises on the formation of us Jesuits, it is unsurprising that the essence of this Ignatian repetition would also affect the way we see and interact with the world. This includes the ministries that we do, such as the field of education, in which we have been involved since the early days of the Society of Jesus.

  3. Side note: I think I had been arriving slowly at the same attitude of Ignatian repetition during this past year, particularly in the context of the Liturgy of the Hours. This has been my first of praying Lauds and Vespers without lapses. What seemed quite repetitive and mediocre for the first eleven months eventually became a treasure chest for me every day, replenished with fresh advice, direction, and comfort from God if I only sought these, bringing my own baggage to the recitation of the psalter instead of approaching it with a here-we-go-again-let's-just-get-this-over-with attitude. I think the DIA session on Lectio Divina really helped provoke this change. =)

    I think it's great that this spiritual exercise also influences the members of your order not only in how you are nourished by God, but also how you bring that nourishment to others. As a layperson, this is giving me very good food for self-reflection!