A Fire That Kindles Other Fires

Fr. O'leary - Story

Written by Patrick O’Leary, S.J.

In a world that overwhelms people with a multiplicity of sensations, ideas and images, the Society of Jesus seeks to keep the fire of its original inspiration alive, to be a flame that kindles other fires, to embrace a mission that sets all things alight with the justice and love of God. To live this mission in our broken world, we Jesuits are called to be bonded to one another so as to express together with great intensity this passion that unifies our differences and brings to life our creativity. We are blessed as well to bond in mission with other inspiring and inspired colleagues and companions who in wonder and gratitude seek to give meaning and provide focus in a fragmented, broken world.

This last spring the university community gathered for its annual Mission Day. Through the years we have had various themes touching on Seattle University’s mission—for example, visioning a community that models education for justice, identifying faith-based initiatives in a broken world and highlighting the spiritual dimensions in educating the whole person. Last year we explored the Seattle University Youth Initiative as a response to the needs of our neighborhood. The theme of the most recent Mission Day was “a fire that kindles other fires,” which inspired conversation around the ideas of wonder and the pursuit of justice. Part of the discussion included a panel of SU students, faculty and staff who shared how “wonder” in their own lived experiences kindles and sustains the passion they bring to the mission of SU.

The first panelist, Paul Fontana, associate professor of physics, spoke from his own personal calling to work with nature on nature’s terms as a movement of spirit, a sense of perpetual surprise, of wonder. This is not just scientific wonder but a religious experience, a contemplative attentiveness that Ignatius of Loyola described as “finding God in all things.” The gift of faith adds to the sense of awe in disclosing the hand of God at work in the ongoing process of creation.

Leigh Weber, the second panelist, described the impact that an immersion trip to Nicaragua had on her late husband, Chris Weber, who taught economics at Albers. The people, the poverty and an encounter with a sick child in Nicaragua reawakened and focused a long-dormant calling. A light went on! Development economics became for him a ministry, a passion to guide and inspire, a fire that kindled other fires. Like Chris, we are all called to move life forward, to be genuine grace to the world.

Jesuit theologian Pat Kelly, S.J., addressed his own calling in terms of an ongoing fascination with the relationship of body, mind and spirit. Early experiences of wonder, of self-transcendence, of openness to a larger world arose in the context of play—positive experiences of freedom and joy, but negative experiences as well. These initial experiences were greatly enriched by study and prayer, especially the grace of the Ignatian exercises. Father Kelly’s doctoral studies explored Christian attitudes with regard to sports through the years and focused on the human and spiritual aspects of play. In a world where work can so easily dominate the human spirit, Fr. Kelly stressed the singular importance of contemplative activities with no purpose beyond themselves. Play has its own capacity to draw body, mind and spirit to wonder, expectation and joy—a sense of the presence of God. 

The focus of wonder for the final panelist, Ilia Delio, consisted of an embrace of the “whole”—God, creation, humanity, united in and through the love of Christ. Delio is a scientist schooled in the mystical way of Francis of Assisi, an authority on the theology of St. Bonaventure recast in the dynamic vision of Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. In a talk later that evening, she spoke of the “heart and fire” mysticism of Teilhard. For Teilhard, the heart of Jesus was the “fire” bursting into the cosmic milieu to “amorize” it—that is, to energize it in love. The “universal Christ” was born from “an expansion of the Heart of Jesus.” Because of Jesus, Christ reigns in the universe.

As I listened to the presentations—the second panel as well—and joined the dialogue that followed, I felt a deep sense of wonder and a surge of gratitude for the graces of these gatherings and other initiatives over the years. When we come together, we do intensify the passion that unifies our differences, and we bring to life our creativity in forming leaders in the Jesuit tradition for a just and humane world.



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