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The grace in disillusionment

Disillusionment is a prevailing sentiment these days, be it in some ordained men or the politicians of our world. Chris Chatteris SJ, argues that it’s also an opportune moment because the gloom and disappointment it brings also “throws us back on God”.

If disillusionment be a grace, then it greatly abounds at present in South Africa and elsewhere. At home the Zondo Commission’s findings are a current cause of it with politics and business. For those of us who still believe in the Church it is the seemingly never-ending sex abuse scandals that throw us into this ‘slough of despond’. For many there is also an ecclesiastical disillusionment sparked by the tawdry spectacle of an attempted coup by some senior churchmen against Pope Francis.

Anyone who has worked in the formation of the young knows that at some point, the bright, eyed, idealistic young person comes face to face with the shortcomings of her role models. I remember this happening to me as a student after I had written an essay which might have passed as a canonisation process for Gandhi. My lecturer gently told me about the other side of my revered saint — from his self-obsession to how expensive it was to keep him in his apparently poor and simple lifestyle.

Or maybe the young person is shocked by corruption in an organisation that he has committed himself to. Some seminarians that I teach are going through this as the skeletons in the Catholic Church’s cupboards continue to crash out into public view.

Or the person might even become disillusioned with him or herself on account of some serious lapse from the high if somewhat romantic ideals so dear and proper to the young. Having signed up for some great enterprise to contribute to the changing of the world for the better they discover that their own foibles cause them to fall short of their noble aims.

In terms of Ignatian spirituality, disillusionment can be lumped under the umbrella of desolation because it is a serious form of discouragement and discouragement holds us back or diverts us from our chosen path towards God. But Ignatius also believes that the one who suffers from desolation can grow through the experience. One can learn from one’s patterns of behaviour. We can become more mindful of those circumstances which plunge us into desolation. The believer can emerge stronger with the strength of God. Can this also be true for disillusionment?

I believe it can. It is precisely at the point of disillusionment that a person is invited to dig deeper. In the Christian tradition this means digging deeper in the spiritual life. Simply put, disillusionment throws us back on God. We can find ourselves saying with the disciples, “Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Disillusionment with the community, whether the body politic or the body of Christ or any other body that we belong to, is where I would like mainly to focus. This happens to us, not just when we are young, but also in midlife and beyond. “We had hoped” (Luke 24:21) is the bitter taste of it and it can make us very cynical and unattractive people if we allow it free rein and fail to find the grace to go beyond it.

This radical view from a Quaker of how disillusionment with community can be an occasion of grace may be helpful:

[quote author=”Parker Palmer quoted in Mary Jo Leddy, Reweaving Religious Life, 128.” pull=”center”]The primary spiritual function of community is to disillusion us about ourselves, remembering that ‘disillusionment’ is a positive process in the spiritual life; it means losing our illusions so that we may come closer to reality. The human failures of community teach us to put our trust in God, where it belongs, and not in our own skills and charm. As we learn this lesson, the paradox ripens. In trusting in God we become more trustworthy to each other, more available for authentic community that is grounded in God’s power and not our own.[/quote]

This striking insight makes it clear that the appropriate response to disillusionment is not to withdraw into a spiritual ivory tower or a hermitage in some real or virtual desert. We must stay where we are; we keep faith; we go with Jesus’ faith-eliciting words: “With people this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  And so, we dig more deeply, particularly in prayer. This will inevitably mean that we will have to spend more time at it since for most of us, the inescapable fact is that depth only comes with length. In some situations of serious disillusionment (such as we have today, I would argue), we may have to pray a great deal longer than in the past, and we will almost certainly have to strive to sustain this lengthier spiritual rhythm for the lifetime that is left to us. For Mary Jo Leddy, whose concern is the “reweaving” of religious life, a “radicalisation” of a congregation’s life of prayer is a way to “more radical forms of community and service” (128).

St Ignatius is very much with us here. In the Rules for Discernment in the Spiritual Exercises he remarks in his characteristically blunt manner:

[quote author=”St Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 319″ pull=”center”]Though in desolation we must never change our former resolutions, it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against desolation.  We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves.[/quote]

And if we listen to and put into practice these wise counsels of the spiritual traditions of the Church we will find, as Palmer notes, that we become “more available for authentic community that is grounded in God’s power and not our own”. This revitalised availability makes a difference in the community and in our work, creating a virtuous circle, enabling us and the community to function better, re-energising us in our ministry and nudging us back on course towards the ideals of the Kingdom of God that we thought had become a romantic dream.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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