Race and Ignatian Spirituality: Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart

One of the great challenges of race discourse for many people of good will is simply finding a doorway into the conversation. For white folks especially, finding ways into the conversation (one’s TV set doesn’t qualify) can be far from simple or easy. As readers of Hope Sings, So Beautiful will know, music and the arts have served to “initiate” me into the joys and struggles of cross-racial encounter my whole life long. In more recent years, Ignatian spirituality, which finds its roots in the life and legacy of St. Ignatius Loyola, has provided me a fruitful entry point or spiritual “framework” for thinking and praying through questions about racial justice, reconciliation, and dialogue.

A few years ago I recorded a lecture exploring the intersection of racial justice with Ignatian spirituality. The talk was edited into four short video segments by the Center for Mission and Identity at Xavier University. One point I highlight in the videos is the Ignatian charism of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person.” What would cura personalis look and feel like in conversations around race? To my mind it would mean that whoever would “host” or mediate such conversations should strive, intentionally, prayerfully, to meet people where they are, presuming that every person bears hidden histories, and sometimes traumas, yet unknown to us; it would further entail the commitment to give participants time enough to listen, linger, and learn, room enough to imagine and grow together, into another possible future.

ignatius.1To the degree we dare to enter the conversation at all, we are all pilgrims, every one of us, still “on the way.” None of us comes to the table free of blindness or racial bias, a perfectly integrated, perfectly empathic, whole person. The challenge is forging new webs of relationships from which we can begin to re-imagine and grow bodily into a new “We” inclusive of others outside our usual ken. Jesus called this radically inclusive circle of kinship “the Reign of God”; King called it “Beloved Community.” To get there, St. Ignatius offers a discipline of transformation toward love, a way of seeing others and indeed the whole world more clearly through the eyes of the heart.

There are other challenges, too, of course, deeply racialized structures of sin and inequitable power relationships that demand political engagement, which I have written about in Hope Sings and on this blog. Personal encounter and face to face transformation is but one piece of a larger journey we must undertake together, but it is a critical one, and a catalyst, I believe, for gathering movements of cross-racial solidarity and political activism. Indeed Ignatian spirituality may be described as a revolutionary spirituality because it permits no false separation or protective boundary between the personal and the political.[1]  Care for the person in no way truncates or dilutes the prophetic call of the Gospel to radical solidarity with our neighbor and a commitment to social justice as integral to friendship with God.[2]

In recognition of Black History Month, I invite you to view any or all of the videos, linked here – one of the four you’ll find below – and to consider sharing them with any person or group whom you think might benefit from them, especially in contexts where they might serve as a kind of entry point for heightened racial consciousness and for cultivating new, empathic relationships across the color line. As ever, I would welcome your feedback or suggestions in the comments thread below.

[1] For a great resource on this point see Monika Hellwig, “Finding God in All Things: A Spirituality for Today,” in An Ignatian Spirituality Reader, and other essays in this volume.

[2] For a wonderfully frank and personal witness to what she calls “naming the gap” and “holy boldness” in confronting institutionalized racism within a Jesuit framework see Maureen O’Connell, keynote address, Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, November 2015. “We’ve got to be intentional with how we go about building bridges, and maybe adjust our sense of where we need to start.”

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