A number of weeks ago, word got out that Jesuit Father James Schall, a beloved teacher and writer, a priest who had retired from his position as a government professor at Georgetown University in 2012 after more than three decades, was dying. We knew things had turned around, however, when we saw an essay about the experience online.
Upon reading his resurrection column (my words, not his), I had to see for myself. Short of getting on a plane – he’s in Los Gatos, California — I did what I had done many times over the years from a laptop. I sent him an email with questions, in the hopes we might have a little e-mail exchange. This is part of the back and forth. (The first part can be read here.)
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why have you, at least as long as I have been reading your emails signed off with the request “Pray for me”?
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.: First of all, it is because I do want people to pray for me. Lord knows that I need all the help I can get, and the help of the Lord is something basic that we are to ask for from one another. The classic response in the litany is Ora pro nobis. Pray for me is simply the same response in singular.
One does get some various responses. One will wonder if I am not in some kind of personal crisis. Another will assure me that he does not pray, but wishes me well. Most will not comment, or say, “Pray for me, too.” Some types of letter do not include it—letters of recommendation for student applications, for example. But personal letters usually do include it. It assumes that everyone prays for something, even if they do not. We might as well include Schall in the mix.
Lopez: Why do you keep writing? Why don’t you give yourself a break?
Fr. Schall: Well, writing is the one thing that I can still seem to do, though with restrictions due to sight and ability to get at texts and other sources that arouse one’s interest. One usually keeps on doing what he has done, when possible. Writing is in most ways an acquired habit. Keep on writing is like keep on breathing. It keeps you alive.
But I admit there is a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to write, a time to be silent. One can at some time be content that he has said all he has to say. This way of approaching things gets back to the notion that our lives are encased in stories that end when we finally end. I think of W. C. Fields’ tombstone: “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philly.” This inscription is doubly amusing because, in Fields’ time, Philadelphia was considered the most boring of places to be.
Our words last longer than we do. In any case, I prefer to think that I give myself a break by writing rather than not writing. However, a case may be made that my readers, if any, might need a break. We still retain the freedom of choosing what we read and what we pass over. The function of a writer is to make it difficult to pass his words over.
Lopez: What do you want the world to consider about St. Ignatius, if it’s a last prod from one of his Jesuit sons?
Fr. Schall: Ignatius taught us to be alert to the on-going drama of human life as its details unfold before our very eyes in this vast cosmos in which we find ourselves. When we look at the world, we do not see only the world, however much we insist that such is all that we see. We see some rising and others falling. We see fame and pettiness. We are so to discipline ourselves so that we see what is there, not what we would like to be there.
If we consider that perhaps 100 billion people have already lived on this planet, we cannot but wonder how it all fits together not merely in numbers but in intertwined stories of individual lives. Ignatius was not afraid to consider the reaches of hell and what it might mean to find one’s self or others there. But this consideration is the obverse side of our freedom that orders us to see the wonder in all existing things and in what happens to them.
The Jesuit motto, in actione contemplativus — contemplation in action — has always made sense to me. It can be used as an excuse not to consider the transcendent order, grace, and sacrifice; but in itself it makes one aware that an order of grace and providence is present among us. God not only created the world, but He keeps it in existence and governs it for the purpose of His initial decision to invite other free and rational beings (angels and men) to participate in His inner, eternal life. We do also contemplate the rise and fall of nations and men. No story is insignificant. Our own story is interwoven with the stories of others.
Action refers to our doing and making things. These too are worthy of our attention. Indeed, the very first act of our mind in knowing is contemplative. The first thing we do is to behold, know what is there. Only then can we properly act upon it. We not only need to pray, we need to act, to rule ourselves. We need to be free to be what we are. We are the only being whose perfection (or degradation) also depends on itself. And all of this self-rule takes place in the context of ourselves immersed in a world of others with whom we must deal.
But in the end, I find myself constantly returning to Ignatius’ principle: “Man was made to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things in the world are given to him to use for his ultimate purpose. Hence, he is to use them or not use them according as they lead him to the end for which he was created.”
We are involved in the saving of our own souls, in the final purpose of our life. And Ignatius’ saving does not just run through ourselves but through our dealings with others in the world in which we find ourselves. We are not asked to live someone else’s life, only our own. We are asked, yes “prodded,” to live our own life for the end for which it is called out of nothing in the first place.