Wednesday 9 July 2014

An Open Letter to St. Paul

View from Highway 1, along the California coast.

Dear St. Paul:

I know that you have to sort through much fan mail, so I want to thank you for taking the time to read this letter. You probably know me from all the “intercession requests” that I've sent you. You are a great inspiration to me; in fact, you are one of my top-five saints.

 For the past four weeks or so, I have been a part of a Jesuit “mission band” which gives the Spiritual Exercises to young adults. I trust that you've heard of this manual written by my spiritual father, St. Ignatius of Loyola. I am not here to recount to you all the details of the retreat; rather, I think I've found some parallels between my experience and yours.

You know, working with fellow young Jesuits has been something that I have thoroughly enjoyed. It isn't as if we all think alike and we always get along. Friction is inevitable, as we are only human beings. I mean, even you and St. Peter had that argument in Antioch. If that could happen in public, I wonder how the discussions were like in private!

But I digress. What I find fruitful is that we challenge each other for the sake of improving the retreat. Each of us is responsible for at least one of the presentations, and we give each other feedbacks on what can be improved. Sometimes it feels as if my brother Jesuits have ripped my presentation into pieces, but it stings much less when I realize that their comments challenge me out of my comfort zone and help me to improve.

I imagine that you and St. Barnabas or St. Luke would bounce ideas off each other in a similar manner when y'all prepared yourselves to share the Good News with those who had never heard it. Some of you are better at rhetoric, others at writing or theology. But it is teamwork for the sake of the Kingdom of God. All the behind-the-scenes stuff has not gone unnoticed. Not by me, at least.

Not only are we preparing for these presentations, we are helping each other better understand the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises. It is no small matter, as the Exercises define the world view of us Jesuits. It has been a great learning experience. I cannot help but think that this was how your theology was shaped as well.

We Jesuits have a charism that is missionary at heart, and a mission band travels quite often. You would understand this, being a missionary yourself. It is also why I have given you the nickname “Jesuit anonymous”. I've been in this Jesuit life for six years and have lived in three different cities, but this mission band is something else altogether. Living out of a suitcase is difficult in many ways. We have already completed several nine- to ten-hour trips, and the travelling definitely takes its toll. You've done some travelling yourself, so you can sympathize. All those dangerous trips by boat would scare the heck out of me; I don't know how you did it all. The frequency of movement also plays a factor. Since the tour began, we haven't stayed in the same city for more than five days.

This can seem exciting at first glance: “Wow, you get to visit Denver/ Salt Lake City/ Sacramento/ Los Angeles/ Orange County/ San Diego!” But everything comes second to the primary purpose of our visits, which is to give retreats to young adults. When you factor in the necessary down time to recover from the high-intensity retreat and the time spent to improve our presentations, we haven't got much time left. We had a chance to drive past some gorgeous scenery, but this is quite different from wanderlust.

I am also a person who needs to get into a rhythm. This is especially so with the two things that I need to have a balanced life: prayer and exercise. I tend to do my personal prayer early in the morning, but it becomes more complicated when I share a room with another Jesuit, or when there isn't a small chapel around. The difficulty here is that we often need to unpitch our tents just as soon as a rhythm is established. It is not the end of the world, but it is a realistic portrayal of the daily life of a mission band.

When we give retreats, we are not only there to preach and hope that the retreatants get something inspirational out of it. A large part of this ministry is to engage in deep conversations with others, an approach that we Jesuits call cura personalis. This is also a crucial aspect of friendship: to care for the whole person. I desire authentic friendships, like the ones that you had with Priscilla and Aquila. So, I do not consider this as “work”.

Small group discussion at a Hearts on Fire retreat. Sacramento, California.

I personally prefer to develop friendships over time in a more profound way, and the itinerant nature of our mission band makes this a tricky endeavour. Also, staying in touch through Facebook does not cut it for me. At least you got to stay for more than five days in each city and develop your friendships! But I will stop my whining. There is something to be said about remaining in contact with others in other ways, but the tension remains. Now I can better appreciate why you wrote all those letters to the early Christian communities. I wonder whether all these blog entries that I've written might serve a similar purpose. I mean, it is not directly addressed to my retreatants, but I have them in mind as I write.

Many of my Jesuit missionary brothers in the past have looked to you for inspiration. What they have done is also extraordinary: bringing the Good News to the remotest part of the Earth, and often on their own. I am glad that I am on the mission band with four other brother Jesuits; being a lone ranger as a missionary would be mighty difficult and lonely. Ultimately, it is the love of Christ and his people that sustains this fire from within. This fire must have burnt pretty brightly in them and in you, whereas I still have much to learn in that regard.

At any rate, I will conclude this letter now. My experience is that people usually stop reading an article when it gets too long. I would appreciate any insights that you may have. Keep me in your prayers, will you?

Yours in Christ, 

July 9th, 2014
San Diego, CA


  1. A beautiful reflection! Let us know how St. Paul responds, won't you?

  2. very inspiring, down to earth and genuine. Add oil!