Holding – Chris Gleeson SJ

For much of 2017 we Australian Jesuits and many of our lay companions have been engaged in a marathon listening exercise in preparation for some hefty apostolic planning for the Province. It is called strategy planning in corporate speak. This revelation that Jesuits could exercise enough discipline to participate in spiritual conversation requiring active listening and intentional speaking might surprise some of our readers. Well, let me assure you that the old Native American adage ‘listen or your tongue will make you deaf’ has been heard and taken seriously.

In all the words that have come across my radar this past year the image of ‘holding others’ has struck me very forcefully. Its origin, I believe, is in the research work of our Provincial, Father Brian McCoy, whose book Holding men: Kanyirninpa and the health of Aboriginal men, was the result of his first-hand experiences with and ministry to Kimberley desert men for some 35 years. Very simply, Brian helps us understand the challenges to young men’s health when they are no longer held by the land, their elders, and their culture. Conversely, he shows that understanding the cultural values and holding relationships of Indigenous men may provide the key to making lasting and much-needed improvements to Indigenous men’s health.

We hold others when we listen carefully to their stories. In fact, we become the caretakers of their story; we are privileged stewards. As Joan Chittister has pointed out in her many reflections, listening is an act of healing. Indeed, it is an act of love. As the wisdom of Robbie aged eight wrote for his teacher: ‘Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas when you stop opening your Christmas presents and listen.’ Listen for love. Isn’t that extremely wise? And isn’t that what we should do each time we come to the Eucharistic table to receive Communion? We need to listen for the love that Jesus shows each one of us when He gives us Himself in that wonderful event. We focus on listening for Love, knowing that Jesus holds us together every time we receive Him in that special way at Communion.

Holding others in their time of need comes from a compassionate heart, of course, but it can be very challenging. During his address to the Jesuits’ 36th General Congregation in October 2016, Pope Francis spoke about the need for holding or harmonizing tensions inherent in Ignatian spirituality. This ‘harmonization…of tensions (contemplation and action, faith and justice, charism and institution, community and mission…) is not given to us in abstract formulations. Rather it is attained over the course of time…’

When speaking about young people and their loss of literature, writer Gore Vidal once remarked that they ‘are quite unable to comprehend the doubleness of things, the unexpected paradox, the sense of yes-no without which there can be no true intelligence, no means, in fact, of examining life as opposed to letting it wash over one.’

We need to hold both the contemplative and active elements in our life if we are to function properly. All of us need a contemplative balcony in the journeys of life if we are to maintain some perspective on the busy-ness of its dance. For life is a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Life is a series of combinations, of doubles: light and dark; weak and strong; ebb and flow; bread and wine; Good Friday and Easter Sunday; victory and loss; rich and poor; success and failure; rights and responsibilities; life and death; male and female; divine and human; yin and yang; the saint and the dragon; the contemplative and the active. We need to hold and harmonize all these tensions together.

As holders of people and tensions we need to be effective jugglers or balancers. Like all balancers, we sometimes fall, but we should remember that, where we stumble, there we find our opportunity. With our feet firmly planted on the ground and our eyes on the stars, all of us are continually striving to balance, and by example, teach others to balance – values and freedom, rights and responsibilities, mind and heart, thinking and feeling, involvement and detachment, male and female, the body and spirit, giving and receiving, inheritance and ownership, the formal and intimate, the conservative and innovative.

Where any of these elements are allowed to get out of balance, where we lose proper perspective, both suffer. To have enough is enough. For example, we have got ourselves into so much trouble in recent years by talking excessively about ‘my’ rights, without realising that they make no sense if they are not balanced by my responsibilities. The simple truth of the matter is that, if I do not protect the rights of my neighbour, I will lose such rights that I have personally.

In thinking about this piece and the many needy people on my radar during prayer recently, I found myself striking up a five-beat mantra for them in these words: ‘Jesus Lord and Friend, Hold them in Your Love.’ May you experience the holding power of Jesus at this time!