By Eric Martin
The practical elements of a simple, devotional faith and the benefits of a daily routine that supports it, was the context for the presentation by Fr Chris Collins SJ at his public lecture on Thursday 25 July at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle.
Flown in from the United States of America (USA) for a series of talks on both sides of Australia, Fr Chris Collins is the Assistant to the President for Mission and Identity at St Louis University (USA) and Assistant Professor of Theological Studies in the area of systematic theology and spirituality.
He regularly gives retreats around the USA based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Society of Jesus) and has based the content of his talks on his latest publication, Three Moments of the Day: Praying with the Heart of Jesus.
In her introduction to the audience of some 50 people, UNDA Head of Campus Prof Selma Alliex noted that: “I think you can all agree with me that he’s extremely well credentialed to give this presentation for us – every presentation of his has been very inspiring and raised a lot of questions for us to reflect on”.
Fr Collins has a Bachelor of Arts and Philosophy from the University of St Thomas in St Paul Minnesota; a Master of Arts in Early Modern European History from St Louis University; Master of Divinity and a Sacred Theology Licentiate from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge Massachusetts; and a Doctorate of Sacred Theology from Boston College.
“In a lot of our conversations back home in the States, where I work at the university and in the local Archdiocese, we keep reflecting on ‘what is the way forward for our community of faith and for ourselves as individuals?’ Fr Collins said.
He went on to explain that in the life of our faith there can be all kinds of reasons for discouragement along the way: in our faith; in our church; in our countries; in our own personal lives.
“There’s a great deal that can be a source of discouragement for us,” Fr Collins shared.
“And that can get overwhelming and sometimes we can find ourselves getting a bit paralysed by some of those reasons for discouragement, which are real and which are many.
“I think that in our life of faith – and this is really what I’d like to reflect on a bit and invite you to consider – there is a lot to be said for getting simple and coming back to the origin, really coming back to the basics of our life of faith.”
Fr Collins pointed out that, fortunately for Catholics, that simplicity is very much alive today and is something that we can easily grasp through a heart of devotion.
“I think it is still the same Jesus that is available to us, that some people have pointed us towards to say ‘follow him, trust me, you’re going to want to spend time with him – get to know him and don’t worry if you still have questions about things, just start following.’”
“I would suggest that this might be the context of the discipleship that each one of us is called to: to continue for me to spend time alone with the Lord and have awkward encounters with him; ask him awkward things; confess that I don’t even know what to ask for in my prayer sometimes; I don’t even know how to pray – and he says: ‘well, come just spend some time with me’.”
Fr Collins shared his own experience of the Spiritual Exercises when he first entered the Society of Jesus, admitting how even as a man who had decided to dedicate his life to a vocation, he felt lost when faced with the prospect of even just half an hour alone in prayer and reflection.
“The question of even how to pray … I felt like I didn’t even really know how to pray, that I didn’t really know what I was doing.
“One of the great simple moments that came out of that retreat for me, out of the Spiritual Exercises [and it struck me in a flash], is that I have been called in to be a friend and a companion to Jesus, right in the middle of my ingratitude.”
He explained that during this period of quiet contemplation he felt agitated at first, unable to keep his mind from wandering; then, following the guidelines of the spiritual exercises, as he shifted over days from contemplating the blessings of the world, to dwelling on its sin and his own personal culpability.
It was at this time that Fr Collins heard the quiet voice of the Lord softly saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’
“That was the fundamental grace coming out of the spiritual exercises for me and to begin to have, for me, a much more personal relationship with Jesus from then on. He knows me. In all my flawed history and selfishness and he still calls me – and I can be honest with him.
“That was a huge moment of grace for me that keeps unfolding.”
The three moments of the day provide a framework that supports active practice of St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: At the very beginning of the day, during morning prayer, we offer up to the Lord of all the little things; the third moment of the day is at the end, to review the day and ask ourselves, ‘what happened?’ – and then living the Eucharist as the core of our day.
“It’s a simple but accessible way to get my mind around, at the very beginning and at the end of the day I have these bookends, if you will, to think about my relationship with the Lord,” Fr Collins said.
“In the end, it’s really all about meeting every person, one at a time and getting to know the story and sharing our own stories: this is the way that Jesus operates in the Gospels.”