John English, sj in conversation with Jim Bowler, sj
(November 22, 1998)
JB - What do you mean by the concept of blessed history?
JJE - One becomes conscious of the ongoing presence of God's love in one's life. Blessed history is the writing of one's autobiography with God.
JB - When and why did you change the name from blessed to graced history then?
JJE - Well, I can't remember the exact time but I did have a discussion with George Schemel once about this whole question of blessed history and sinful history and at the time he just said, "Well, you know, God is in it all, so it's all blessed John". And then I'm not sure whether at that time we started to talk about our life as graced history. I decided that what was important was to become conscious that my whole life story is an experience with God and that therefore God is present in my whole life story. While I may not know it and I may reject God in my life story -- which is what I do when I sin -- still God is present in it. If I find that God is present in all of the events or if I have an act of belief that God is present in all the events then all those events are graced. That's really the point, that my whole life experience is a graced experience in the sense that God is with me and present in all of the events of my life.
JB - How did your thought pertaining to such things as light, dark and hope history develop over the years?
JJE - Initially, the probable insight was that my life was graced but that there was a tendency at the time for people to put themselves down in relation to God. The sinful aspect was very dominant in people's lives and when they looked at their life, their sinfulness was what they focussed on when they went on retreat. You know, all that time we spent on purification and getting prepared for the sacrament of reconciliation, all that time was focused on one's sinfulness and the thought that God was present in that experience was neglected. So, it became important that we see one's whole life story as a graced experience, that you have light parts of that history, shadow parts, suffering parts, joyful parts and hope-filled parts. I know even today, though, some people would still want to make the distinction between graced history and sin history. I don't favour that approach because to get out of one's sin requires grace. I can go through my life working with moments of consolation which I find in my light history. Then I can also do the same thing with respect to sin. I can go through and see where I have not responded to the love of God present to me and discern God there. Also, I can look through those hope or energy-filled moments in my life when light came out of darkness. To do this it is better to focus first on light history to give me the proper perspective to deal with the shadow or the sinful aspects of my life. It's very difficult for me to start with the shadow or the sin and realize God is there, so I start with the light and then you can deal with the shadow. After that you can discover how there's energy in that experience that carries you into the future. Really these are the instruments to assist us to get an in-depth awareness of the ongoing presence of God within us.
JB - In your book Choosing Life you refer to a 1972 retreat experience which was important in the evolution of your concept of blessed or graced history. Could you say something about that retreat?
JJE - I did that retreat in Auriesville (New York) under Jerry Shanahan. During that retreat, as in many retreats I had made up to that time, the second exercise of the 1st Week [SE 55-61] was a very dominant experience for me. As you know, that is the exercise on one's sinful life. In some sense, that's probably the real basis of where this idea of graced history came from. In 1972 I was getting on in years, I would have been in my late forties and I made these retreats year after year - fixed on this exercise of the 1st Week. I realized there must be more to it than that. I knew intellectually that God is the benevolent one, the compassionate one, and that God is on my side, but when I looked through my life all I could see was that that may be true about God but it's not very true about myself . The 1972 retreat stirred up in me the sense that God is constantly with me and not just there, in some sense, as a saviour or as a somebody who points a finger at me as an accuser. God is there calling me. I think it came out of that experience with the second exercise of the 1st Week when I had a deep experience of God's personal affection, and a personal affection that is with me all the time.
JB - What other experiences either of your own or others were pivotal to the development of your thought on graced history?
JJE - I can't get in touch totally with the historical development but I can talk about some incidences. These were communal instances of God's presence. One was when a group of Jesuits came together under Bill Ryan in the 1970s to discern a decision. I'm not sure of the sequence of events. I know that we had a retreat with a group of Jesuits trying to discern a decision. So I said to Bill there's nothing like a lump of money to prompt discernment. He said, "Well, I'll put out a $100,000 and ask the group how they're going to use it." That became quite a significant experience for us, and as part of that experience we had people getting in touch with the history of the province. I'm not sure if it was before or after that Gordie George and I did an 8-day retreat with a group of Sisters of St. Joseph in London in which we had them also get in touch with their history. Then I had an experience with another community of women religious where I actually got them to develop this communal graced history retreat in which some of the members within the group would do some work on different aspects of their history. So I had somebody doing light, somebody doing "sin" history and somebody doing hope history. This was meant as a reconciliation service prior to their Chapter. It was a powerful experience. In some sense, it was the most powerful of these communal efforts that I've had. That's where the strong conviction came from, was from that experience with this community of women. They discovered the skeleton in their closet that they didn't know about and that just blew them away. Out of that communal sense of sin they were then able to be reconciled with each other. So, those were powerful experiences. If you take my own experience in Auriesville and these other experiences you see this sense of graced history. About this time, there was a high emphasis on sinful, social structures. At a meeting of Exercises people in Milford, Ohio, George Schemel and I were discussing this development in spirituality. I said to George, "Do you think we could create spiritual exercises that would help people get in touch with graceful social structures." George was quite excited by this and he shared with me that the centre in Wernersville, PA was giving Executive Leadership Retreats that were focused on developing just social structures in small decision-making groups. This was the beginning of an enterprise between the teams of Wernersville and Guelph to develop the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises for the Corporate Person (ISECP). In some sense, one might say that sinful, social structures can tend to focus on communal sin and bring about a communal desolation. But to bring about a spiritual balance in social awareness it is necessary to bring forth the experiences of communal consolation. We must remember that good decisions are made in a time of spiritual consolation, so a reflective knowledge of a group's communal consolation is necessary. Both the communal desolation flowing out of sinfulness and the communal consolation flowing out of blessedness make up communal graced history.
JB - Did the number of times you directed individuals in the Exercises have any influence in your developing this concept?
JJE - I would say
that the number of times I directed the Spiritual Exercises influenced
the development of this concept in this sense - that people would come
to me during the Exercises trying to explain what happened in prayer and
I would find their explanation somewhat fuzzy. In their explanation they
presumed that I knew a great deal about their historical background. It
was as if I were God and knew what was happening to them in their various
prayer exercises. I began asking them certain significant questions about
their personal history to help me locate their prayer experience. The point
is that everybody has a unique personal history, that everybody has a unique
history with God. I think it is somewhat important to know some of the
highlights of that unique graced history. For myself, at least, I find
it helpful to know some of the concrete events and reactions in the history
of the one I am directing.
JB - John, is this why in your 19th annotation edition for CLC members, you suggest that they begin this experience with the first point of the Contemplatio?
JJE - I think there's an image of God you have to establish pretty strongly and at the beginning of any retreat: 'I am the Beloved of God'. But where are you going to find that experience? You've got to look back to your life story to discover you are the beloved of God and that's what the Contemplatio does.
JB - What theologians and other theoreticians helped you clarify this insight?
JJE - I'm not sure whether it's Herbert Butterfield or Bernard Lonergan or the two of them together - I think it's Butterfield - who insists that history is not a series of events that take place but the meaning one discovers in the events. This is the real definition of history that I'm working with. You can have the same events looked at from a medical, theatrical, economic, social, or militaristic perspective and get a different interpretation of the same series of events. The point really is that when I interpret the events of my life from the viewpoint of God's love then I see that my life is an experience of grace, an experience of being loved. And this applies even to the shadow, sinful side of my life because in some sense I wouldn't even know that I'm a sinner or that I was dysfunctional or limited unless grace was given to me to recognize that.
JB - What influence did people like John LeSarge have on your development of the concept of blessed history?
JJE - I think John LeSarge did a house retreat with us in 1973 or '74. He had us doing some history stuff , people just getting up and talking about St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier, and things like that. Then he himself tried to lead us through a history experience, similar to the experience of the Exodus. I credit John for a lot of the initiation of this material in Choosing Life, with the initial insights to work through. He didn't fine tune it, he was dependent more, in some sense, on documents and on essays than he was on the personal reflection of one's personal life story and then the sharing of it.
JB - What was LeSarge's contribution?
JJE - Basically, I would say it was that our life story is significant and we have to get in touch with it. Just as the Hebrew people constantly remembered their life story from Exodus, so we have to know our own. It's not new with LeSarge, but he is the one who presented it to us. I think the thing with John LeSarge and myself would probably be the business of Anamnesis. He had us going back with Anamnesis and looking at Exodus and in some sense it was a seed experience.
JB - Was there anything occurring in the culture of the time that influenced your insight?
JJE - In the psychological culture of the time people were eager to get in touch with their childhood experiences to see if you could find out where it started. The role of the psychologist was to assist the person in going back in their life story to discover the sources of their dysfunction, or their unease, or their neuroticism, or whatever it was, in order to find the roots. I think that was significant. The other thing was the emphasis on the sinful, social structures of the time. Psychologically and sociologically this approach to present events was happening.
JB - Can one do spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition without an appreciation of his or her own blessed history?
JJE - Some people would be able to appropriate individual religious experiences, which would give them the ability to recognize consolation and desolation as it is happening in another person so they wouldn't have had to formally work their way through their life story as I've been promoting it. But, you know, what I think is so helpful in graced history is when a person becomes conscious of the ongoing presence of God within him or herself. But yes, I think that you could do spiritual direction without having done the graced history retreat. Yet, when I say this I am thinking of types of spiritual direction other than Ignatian. But if you start saying Ignatian tradition then you have a number of very serious indications in the Spiritual Exercises that point directly to graced history, and the one I've mentioned so often is the second Exercise of the 1st Week. It's also present quite dominantly through the history of the life of Christ - "I will reflect upon myself and draw some profit" [SE107]. That is reflecting on your historical life to draw some profit. The same thing can be seen when it comes to the whole question of deception in the 2nd Week rules when Ignatius has you looking at the beginning, middle and the end [SE333], an historical approach to life. Even the repetitions [SE118] tend to have a looking back at one's experience perspective. Then, of course, the first point of the Contemplation [SE234] where I recall the blessings of my life. So I would say if you're going to speak about the Ignatian tradition I would agree that no, you probably can't do it if the sense of your own personal graced history is not present. If you're going to find God in all things you have to have found God, as it where, in all aspects of your life.
JB - Does an insight into one's personally blessed history automatically flow out of most prolonged directed prayer experiences?
JJE - I think it depends a great deal on the director. If the director wants to assist the person to really appreciate the deep interpersonal relationship of God with us, I think the director needs an instrument like graced history. It's not just in moments of crisis that God loves me or condemns me but God is always there loving me with benevolence and compassion and mercy. It could be that the director might say, what I have to do in this instance is to discover how God is immediately focusing on this person in this issue. On the other hand, my position would be, if a director hadn't gotten in touch with his/her whole life story then they may not have the right context for dealing with an instantaneous and isolated experience.
JB - From your own experience of guiding people to a deep felt understanding of their personal blessed history, did many receive this insight as a result of consolation without previous cause? [SE330].
JJE - I would like to make a distinction here in this focus on consolation without previous cause. I think that what Ignatius means by this is a deep affective experience of the love of God flooding one's heart. Now, that seems to me different than what I might call an intellectual experience. It's not that the intellect is separate from the heart. I can have what I call a strong intellectual belief that God is constantly present to me, loving me. This intellectual conversion or deep experience of belief I can call upon when I don't have a deep affective personal experience of God. It can prevent me from falling into desolation or falling into despair. As Ignatius would say, it is a way "to deal with the desolation". If I have gone through my life story and have discovered this great truth, at one moment at least, in a deep affective way, then I can keep calling upon that to deal with desolation or to deal with sin. In some sense I think that when I do that in my life, I have that sense of deep faith in God's constant, ongoing, compassionate and merciful love. You could say there's a danger of presumption. Well, that's because of my age and the fact that I've done this so often and I just keep seeing how God works through me, in spite of my sin, my limitations, and my faults. God keeps working through me. It doesn't matter what I do, God is going to love me. That could be presumptuous, but it is also hope.
JB - How does one's personally blessed history provide the criteria for spiritual consolation?
JJE - In order to be able to discern we need reflective knowledge of one's personal unique consolation. All these words are important - reflective knowledge of one's personal, unique consolation, because that's the criteria for judging when I am in consolation, especially at a time of serious decision making. It is so important just to live a healthy life, to know that God is on my side, and not against me, that God is ever present calling me through my sin, through my disorders, through my limitations. My life story is a unique story. Nobody else has the same life story. Therefore, in that unique life story there is a unique expression of consolation in turn which is the unique expression of God's love calling me forth.
JB - How does one's blessed history provide clues for making authentic life decisions?
JJE - In the 2nd Week rules Ignatius is really dealing with decision making, whereas in the 1st Week rules of discernment he says that we make a good decision in the time of consolation [SE319] because the good spirits guide our choice. In the 2nd Week set of rules, he has you dealing with deception and he says that when I find I have been deceived I look back and I look at the beginning, the middle and the end of the experience [SE333]. So, therefore, just as there's a unique consolation that I have, there's also a unique desolation. I think there are unique experiences of deception. When I look through my life story, when I can get in touch with what is unique in my consolation, what is unique in my desolation, what is unique in my deception, they become the basic criteria to judge at the moment whether I'm in true consolation or not, whether the good spirit is guiding me or not.
JB - Are you saying that with each one of us God establishes a unique pattern of relating?
JJE - Yes, I really believe that, just as I think that an analogy can be made with the business of parents and friends. I can have about ten friends, let's say. I don't relate to every friend in the same way. I relate to Jim differently than I do George, to Margaret to Elaine. Why is that? Well, because the relationship is different. So does God relate to each one of us uniquely. But the point is the relationship is a relationship of love, friendship, whatever words you want. Is that what you're asking me?
JB - That's one part of it. The other part of it is when I say a pattern I mean there is a continuity in the way God relates to us. In other words, if I go through my own history with God then I can see a pattern in how God deals with me.
JJE - Yes, well I think that's true too. But I think that has two components to it. The one is that I am getting in touch with how I relate to God and then how God responds to me. The second thing is that I get in touch with how God relates to me and how I respond to God. We come into the world in a different time and a different place. God relates to each individual on the face of the earth and only God can do that in this uniqueness. The parallel I always talk about is that Earl Smith came from a family of 13. He says his mother related to all of them. A lot of us didn't have that experience of a large family wherein the loving parents related to each one uniquely because each one came into existence in a different way and time.
JB - There is the question of the constancy of God dealing with us in a unique way, but is there a similar pattern that God uses in God's unique relationship with each individual?
JJE - I remember talking to Fred Crowe about this when I was writing my book and he was concerned about the word pattern because he said it suggests that God is being controlled in this thing and I kept insisting it's the pattern of free relationship, it's the pattern that you use with different people. We have to be careful with this question because God is obviously free. So God can come at us differently - this is Gerry Hughes' "God of Surprises". I think the God of surprises, if I remember Gerry's book, doesn't talk about constancy so much as "I" am surprised at the constancy of this love. It's surprising because it's constantly there. On the other hand, sometimes I can also be surprised because it's different.
JB - Finally, John, do you feel that the pastoral praxis of graced history has come of age or is it yet to have its greatest impact?
JJE - I just know from the work that I do that this whole idea of the image of God as the benevolent, compassionate, merciful God has certainly not got all the way through to our culture or our age. That is still to come. But then some people will say: so what? They believe that God is benevolent, etc. and that there's no hell but they wonder what that's got to do with their individual life stories? They can't put these two together. You can have this effervescent, as it where, act of faith in the goodness of God, but in order for it to have an impact on individuals they need to pray with their blessed history. I don't think it really has got that far. The thing that has come forth a bit is the discernment of spirits, but the idea of using something like one's graced story to help with that, I'm not sure. There may be some other people writing about this but I don't think a lot of people have really appreciated it to date. I think it's just on the edge of happening.