John English SJ, Spiritual Freedom. 2nd Edition. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1995. 311 pp. $12.95.reviewed by Mary Bastedo
John English has a deep passion for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He has been witness to the way the Exercises, lived in the context of a thirty-day retreat, have changed people's lives and brought them to a sense of identity, vocation and mission.
The Exercises have been an instrument to help people find spiritual freedom, the theme and title of the book. "The freedom I am speaking about," he writes, "is a kind of realized, existential freedom--freedom with oneself, and freedom within oneself. It might be called ultimate freedom, the freedom that accompanies deep awareness of the ultimate meaning of one's life."
The book is a collection of insights Fr. English has gained from his experience of guiding hundreds of retreatants through these meditations on the life of Christ. As a member and leader of the Retreat Team at the Guelph Centre for Spirituality for fifteen years and later as coordinator for the Christian Life Communities in North America, Fr. English has been a pioneer in making the Ignatian Exercises available to the people of God, lay and religious alike.
Fr. English himself describes the book not as a technical handbook or a theological treatise but rather a "phenomenological study," that is, something that emerges from experience, observation and reflection. Fr. English has the gift of being able to bring the Exercises into dialogue with modern culture. He addresses what could be considered the "rough edges" of the Exercises: language that may be male-weighted; images of hell or of the human person that we may find difficult to relate to; potentially offputting images of Christ as Victor on the battlefield or as King. He gets beneath the images to the truths about who God is, who we are as creatures and what kind of relationship with God we are being called into.
The first edition of the book, published in 1973, sold thousands of copies. It corresponded to a thirst people across North America had for a personal encounter with God, rooted in Scripture and Tradition. This second edition is adapted to the nineties. Its language is inclusive of women and men and in some ways gentler (for example in speaking of "spiritual guidance" rather than "spiritual direction"). Fr. English has added references to current books to illuminate his points. Most important, there are three additional chapters, which reflect the evolution of his experience and concerns over the past twenty-two years, especially in his work with lay communities.
These last chapters continue the dialogue with modern (or postmodern) thought. They focus on getting in touch with our operative images of God, self and the world and allowing ourselves to be transformed by new images; learning to experience our life stories as "graced history"; and moving from individualistic to communal spirituality, where one realizes that one's own salvation is intimately connected with others.
All of these areas are approached with the weighing, discerning attitude characteristic of Ignatius. What images are authentic and help me grow in a true relationship with God? Which ones are false, deceiving and distracting me, leading me away from greater love and service? There is an open attitude towards the world here, finding and using the good, sifting out what is harmful. Always the search is to find God in all things. Where is God present in our world today and how are we being called?
"Consider the impact of our ecologically conscious society on our identity," writes Fr. English. "What changes of images are taking place? What transformations do these changes bring about? How do they affect our interpretation of the Exercises? What does this mean in our presentation of the Exercises and the discerning process throughout the Exercises?"
In the light of this ecological consciousness, for example, Christ can be seen as the Companion of the earth: "Christ becomes the one who suffers with the other things of the earth, including other humans. He becomes the one who brings glory to the suffering earth and raises up all creation. The Trinity's love for us is expressed in the mothering care we receive from the earth."
These last three chapters are especially good food for thought, and the book is one that can be chewed over and returned to again and again. It will be especially useful for those who are guiding others to find spiritual freedom, and for those who have had an experience of the Ignatian Exercises and want to deepen their understanding of the implications of the Exercises in today's world.
Howard Solverson, The Jesuit and the Dragon: The Life of Father William Mackey in the Eastern Himalayas. Montreal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1995. 299 pp. $19.99.Barbara Crossette, So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 320 pp. $35. reviewed by John Perry
People today are aware as never before of birds, animals and cultures that are under threat of extinction. Faced with this prospect, we marshal our resources to preserve and to protect. We also film television documentaries and write books to capture the beauty and essence of phenomena that may soon disappear forever. Both these books are examples of our penchant to celebrate and to worry at the same time. In this case the topic we are fussing over is Himalayan Buddhism, as found in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
In October 1995, Fr. William Mackey SJ passed away at the age of eighty. For the previous thirty-three years, he had lived and worked as one of the first people from a western country in remote and mountainous Druk Yul, the land of the thunder dragon. In The Jesuit and the Dragon, Howard Solverson allows Fr. Mackey to tell his own story. The first third of the book, dealing with his early years, introduces to us his energy, sense of humour, and commitment to his students in Montreal, and then in Kurseong and Darjeeling in northeastern India. All of this sets the scene for the main event, his arrival in Bhutan and his establishment of the first nonmonastic school system there. Words have their own power to convey reality: Solverson's biography brings us close to an extraordinary man, his immediate environment, and his day-to-day life with colleagues, friends, students and a few enemies.
The two books make a literary diptych because while Solverson goes deeply into the intimacy of Bill Mackey's life in Bhutan, Barbara Crossette has us wander far and wide not only in Bhutan but wherever Himalayan Buddhism can be found, either in living forms or in archeological monuments. In So Close to Heaven, she presents the case that Tantric Buddhism is an endangered species that deserves to be preserved and enhanced. The cause of the threat to this expression of Buddhism, which differs in many ways from its Hinayana and Mahayana forms, is mainly political. Bhutan's future is imperilled by an uprising in its southern districts. As Sikkim lost its monarchy, its independence from India and much of its Buddhist culture in the recent past, and as Tibet suffered a similar fate within China a few decades earlier, so Bhutan faces a serious threat today. This seems to be Crossette's central concern and the reason for her book, which is the best I know of on the subjects she has addressed.
Crossette knows a great deal about her subject and presents it well. She has a journalist's eye for telling human details, but also the professor's interest in accuracy and synthesis. My only regret is that she did not describe that quintessentially Bhutanese event, the three-day annual dance festival called Tshechu, at which personal faith encounters popular culture to produce Buddhism.
These books left me with some lingering questions and concerns. Both Solverson and Crossette have spent extended periods in Bhutan, as did Fr. Mackey. Their presence, and that of many others from outside Bhutan, necessarily changes the reality they have grown to appreciate so highly. Short of deporting non-Buddhists, which would not be just to the Hindus of southern Bhutan, how can a traditional culture and polity like Bhutan's not change profoundly and incur loss in this situation? Nostalgia alone will not satisfy Fr. Mackey's many students who have learned from him to value not only their religion but also the modern world.
As far as the uprising goes, I realize that if either author were to espouse the so-called "antinational" cause in their book, they could become persona non grata and no longer have the opportunity to wander freely about Bhutan. However, there are at least two sides to every quarrel. An objective explanation of the presence in camps in Nepal of more than 20,000 refugees from southern Bhutan would have been most welcome. Had these two writers provided such an explanation, it would have added a further dimension of truth and justice to their otherwise fine presentations.
Mary Bastedo lives in a home of L'Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Meeting John English in 1978 and belonging for a time to a Christian Life Community have been important moments in her journey towards spiritual freedom.... John Perry SJ has taught in Bhutan and is now professor of theology at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld