The following article is an email interview with Brother John Hamilton about his new series of reflections being posted to Living the Charism. It was originally published in the October issue of “Associate Notes.” »»
Associate Notes: Brother John, a couple weeks back Living the Charism began to publish your “Reflections” on the website. What were the origins of this project?
Br. John Hamilton: Thanks for your question. The General Chapter of 2013 approved for the first time a description of the Xaverian Charism and began an articulation of a uniquely Xaverian spirituality. Through historical research, we had begun to discover that Brother Ryken’s religious formation and sensibility had been profoundly, even if largely unconsciously, influenced by Middle Dutch mysticism and its very rich understanding of the inextricable bond between true contemplation and action in service to others.
As the newly elected leadership team began its work together, it occurred to me that it could be valuable to offer a reflection on the scripture of the day that was informed by the spiritual tradition of Ryken and of the Middle Dutch Mystics as a context for our work of that day. So, I began to offer each weekday morning my own reflection on the scriptures, usually the gospel, of the day, from that perspective. With the advent of our newly designed websites, we thought it could be worthwhile to share these reflections with all who might find them helpful in their unique living out of the “Xaverian Way.”
AN: You use many sources outside of the Xaverian and Middle Dutch traditions, as well. How do you choose these sources?
JH: The other sources come from my study in the area of spirituality plus my own personal reading. I find the classic works of all the great wisdom traditions to be a great source of encouragement, challenge, and consolation on the spiritual path. Poets and writers of both fiction and nonfiction are also real companions on the human and spiritual journey.
Oftentimes, my reflection comes out of the daily scripture reading, but it is also interesting to me how my current reading (as my current experience) informs my reading of the scripture. So, interestingly enough, it is not unusual that something I have very recently read illuminates the scripture reading of the morning and thus the scripture reading more deeply integrates the previous reading experience. So, at times I select a source based on my own reflections and at other times the reading itself actually sources my reflection for the day.
AN: As you are open to and influenced by a multiplicity of spiritual traditions and texts, what have you found to be most distinctive about “Xaverian” spirituality?
JH: Two distinctively and contemporarily relevant insights of Brother Ryken are, I believe, his focus on the ordinary (or one-fold) and the common.
For Ryken, as for Ruusbroec, the heart of the spiritual life is the recognition that the life of each of us, when we are living from our proper and true place, is “the same ordinary ground” as that from which the brightness of the Divine “immeasurably shines forth.” This ordinary ground, this true place, is who were are in God, before we begin to remake and redefine ourselves in conformity to society and culture. And so, it is a teaching that our call is to keep “becoming” ourselves as God made us and knows us in our ordinariness, not in all we have developed to try to make ourselves extraordinary. From the time I was a young student of the Xaverian Brothers I recognized in so many of them the lack of pretension or privilege. I was immediately amazed that these “religious men” were the most ordinary and simple of human beings, who did their work and cared for us. It is this ordinariness, to which we must return with great spiritual effort, that is the source of a “brotherly” presence and ministry.
The second distinctive insight, I believe, is that of “the common life.” This essentially is the understanding that the “heights of contemplation” and the daily run of human activity are not separate from one another. The active life in the world can seem to us to be at odds with the call to communion with God in the contemplative life. Yet, Ryken longed for his followers to come to realize the common life. Ryken understood that falling in love with God requires us to put ourselves in God’s service. Love of God is a direction and an action; and the most ordinary of daily acts in service is done in communion with God and is a radiating of the love of the God in whom we are living.
AN: As Associates we are committed to daily prayer. And Xaverian Spirituality, as you point out, calls us to open our hearts to God in the most common of daily experiences. Yet, we are constantly distracted in daily life away from the ordinary (the one-fold). How do you deal with distractions and the frustrations that they give rise to?
JH: The simplest answer to the question is that because our mind is busy, we are always going to be distracted to some degree. However, we can practice “bringing back” our mind to whatever it is we are engaged in each time that we begin to lose our mindfulness and presence. The spiritual tradition speaks of recollection because it recognizes that it is of our nature to become dispersed. A teacher of mine always said that “Human life is life in diaspora.” So, when we realize that we are not present where we are, we can bring our attention back. The more we practice this the more we become more “recollected” and fully present. We also become less dispersed through the daily practice of meditation and mindful living.
It is also important to say something about the “feelings” of frustration that our distractions engender in us. Frustration is always an expression of ego or willfulness. We get frustrated because we are who we are and not who we demand of ourselves to be. It is of the very nature of the “one-fold” the simple presence in our own deepest reality and the rest that God would offer us there. So, when we feel frustrated with ourselves perhaps we can learn to smile at ourselves and recognize that our inability to even stay fully present “to the one thing that is necessary” is another reminder of the weak but loved creatures that we are.
AN: Thank you for the interview. One final question: At the Retreat this past June, Sr. Donna Markham spoke about five “ordinary mysteries.” Perhaps paradoxically, two of those ordinary mysteries, Home and Displacement, seem to come together in your teacher’s quote (“Human life is life in diaspora”). At times we suffer from a sense of “displacement” in life, yet we are also granted a sense of “home” within the displacement. How do you see our Associate communities in light of this image of human life as being “life in diaspora”?
JH: You’re welcome. Thank you for the very thought provoking questions.
Sr. Donna, as I recall, said that home was the place where we could share what was most important to us. I think, in this light, we can begin to appreciate the potential for the Associate communities as an aspect of home for each of us. It is by sharing, and by listening to others, that what is most important to us begins to become clarified and embodied in our lives. In light of our earlier questions, it can be a place where we come to recognize and to help others recognize more fully the richness and beauty of our and their ordinariness. And this recognition is not self-referential and certainly not self-centered but, as common to all, it is a unique call and task to the world.
The sadness of life in diaspora is that we are constantly being pulled out of what is most ordinary and common in us toward a self-definition that is a comparative and competitive product of society and culture. It is an identity that is precisely the opposite of ordinary (in that it wants recognition above all) and common (in that it wants to see ourselves as separate from the others) As St. Augustine wrote in Chapter X of the Confessions: “You were within and I was in the external world and sought you there.” The Associate community is a home insofar as it is a place where we create a space where each of us experiences the trust and possibility of sharing what is most important to us so that individually and as a community we might discover through that expression and listening the unique mission to the world at each stage and moment of our lives that is the ordinary and common life of each of us. Ω