Called Again: A Protestant Theologian Experiences the Spiritual Exercises

By Sharon Tan

Sharon Tan

Sharon Tan is a mom to two young women, one in college and the other in high school. They live in Webster Groves and identify as Asian American. She is an immigrant from Malaysia and grew up Protestant in various denominations; she currently attends The Gathering, a United Methodist church here in St. Louis. She moved here from Minnesota two years ago. In a former life she was a lawyer, and now works in theological education, teaching ethics and designing programs. She experienced the Bridges Retreat last year, and this is her story.

“Out of the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” Paul Ricoeur

As a teenager I heard the call to me to “love God with all my heart, soul, mind and body.” This led me eventually to become a professor of ethics and then academic dean of a mainline Protestant seminary. But by the time I came to St. Louis on an interim position, I had been battered for several years by conflict both at work and at home.

Needing to know what to do after my interim assignment ended, and encouraged by some friends, I looked into the “Retreat in Daily Life,” an 8-month version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. A significant component of the program is learning “discernment” and, I needed a way to figure out what God was calling me to do next.

Up until then, I had very little exposure to Roman Catholicism in general, and no exposure at all to Jesuits except for the novel and movie “Silence,” some music by the St. Louis Jesuits from my charismatic youth (which I had not realized were actual Jesuits), and the movie “The Mission.” Being in a suburban St. Louis Catholic church hall for the informational meeting was a complete culture shock. On their part, they were puzzled at my level of Ignatian ignorance. “When I asked to read the book ahead of time,” I told a friend, “they asked why?”

But I started the program, telling myself that if I couldn’t manage the daily hour of praying called for, I could drop out before paying the fee. My guide was a semi-retired Jesuit priest, who came to our first meeting in a baseball cap and a button-down shirt. “So this is what an American Jesuit priest looks like,” I thought to myself (as opposed to a South American radical in a black cassock). We started the program with ½ an hour a day of meditation on the Scriptures and prayer, working up to an hour a day, and with the Examen at night. I met weekly with Fr. Mark, “my Jesuit priest.”

The Spiritual Exercises presents one with several different ways to meditate and contemplate. Frankly, it was hard for me to tell the difference between the various ways. While I scrupulously tried to follow the instructions, sometimes I dozed or simply waited for the time to end.

But it wasn’t that I was bored, I was afraid. I was afraid of where an hour of prayer a day would lead, of what I would find out about myself and God if I actually took it seriously. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to know what God truly wanted from me. Moses was curious about a burning bush, and where did that lead him? Studying theology (or reading books ahead of time) had become a way of controlling what and how I heard God speaking.

In the “First Week” (the first section of the program) we spend some time focusing on the human condition. Some of my friends moved to using an adaptation that articulated this in terms of evolutionary consciousness, but I chose to struggle through the adaptation using the more traditional language of sin. While I found some of the metaphors archaic, I was surprised at the Ignatian emphasis on God’s love for humanity.

Early in the program, the daily Scripture was the story of Jesus healing the boy with epilepsy. “I believe, help me believe,” was his father’s cry. An over churched seminary professor and administrator, I resonated with that prayer. “I choose to believe,” I told Mark, a statement I would end up making again and again the whole time.

In “Second Week,” we imagine ourselves in different scenes in the Gospels in order to know Jesus better. It started with how Jesus was born in humanity’s pain and trouble. I saw how Joseph, the unsung hero, protected Jesus and Mary.

Jesus’ first invitation to his would-be disciples was to “come and see.” I took up that invitation, placing myself in the crowd around him. By then I enjoyed imagining scenes from the gospels. On each new scene, I would spend some time Googling information about different characters, “getting the thinking out of the way,” and then jump into the scenes and the dialogues. Praying became a lot more fun than I expected!

From the story of Jesus healing the bent woman I thought about all the places in my life I had been bent. I felt Bartimaeus’ helplessness and desperation turn into hope when Jesus called for him. I heard Jesus’ call to me to come down from the tree I climb up into to watch what happens rather than participate in it. I felt, for one brief and stunning moment, what it was like to proclaim in the synagogue that the “Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” and how that meant my life is not my own.

I felt the terror of what it is actually like to walk on water – in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm, with nothing to hold me up, nothing to hold onto, unable to see and hear anything for the wind, waves and rain, the only solid thing out there being Jesus who is nevertheless “immediately” there when I call for help.

In the meanwhile, I was trying to discern what to do in my future. Ignatius seemed to think that our desires are God given and that we are to listen to our emotions, notions that were completely opposite to what I had grown up with. I could not understand the idea that resulting peace, joy, etc. were reliable indicators that a particular choice or direction leads us toward God. The God I had grown up with was mysterious and sovereign, and thus capricious!

The “Third Week” of the Exercises focuses on the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, and took up approximately the six weeks of Lent. I knew that generally, Catholics emphasize this a lot more than Protestants, and so was not surprised. During this time the coronavirus pandemic also spread across the US, giving a surreal synchronicity to the daily readings and real life.

In the documentary “Free Solo,” the climber Alex Honnold has to navigate a smooth rock face high up with nothing to hold onto at one point except the side of one foot pressed against a barely perceptible rough spot in the vertical rock. He practiced it with ropes, falling more often than not. “At some point, you just have to trust,” he remarked nonchalantly. “Trust what?” I yelled at the screen.

Then one day, reading John 14, I asked myself, what if I simply took Jesus at his word when he said, “trust me?” As God did not need the widow’s two small coins, perhaps God didn’t need what I thought I could do for God with my degrees, years of experience in theological education and fierce independence. I realized with a sick feeling that “my precious,” the treasure I had been withholding from God all along, was my trust, all 2 cents worth of it.

“Watch how Jesus surrenders to God,” Mark had said to me, “how he loves in the face of evil.” So I watched how Jesus trusted his future to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, how he gave himself up to the soldiers to protect his disciples, how he did not answer the questions hurled at his trial, except to say, yes, I am the Messiah, whom Israel has longed for. What do you do with a Messiah who does not answer your questions, but answers the deepest longings of your heart?

It was hard to accompany him as he was betrayed and humiliated, a pain even more than the physical horror. I knew how the disciples must have felt; at least I have two millennia and a book between myself and then, not like them. I also realized that this was practice for staying with someone in their suffering, something I had not yet been able to do even with my own parents.

“This relationship will not blow up,” Mark had said to me at another time. As Jesus hung on the cross and darkness covered the land, I wondered, “What if God did not abandon Jesus, even if it felt like it? What if the darkness was not God turning away from Jesus but was God cradling him, like a mother turns off the light and cradles a child to sleep? What if Jesus’ death was not the greatest act of punishment in the universe, but the greatest display of love?

“I finally got it,” I said to Mark the next time we met. “At the end of Week 3, I finally got the message of Week 1. Now I’m ready for Week 2.” He just chuckled.

After weeks and weeks of waiting and watching and accompanying Jesus in his last hours, I was frankly not ready for the resurrection. I understood the disciples’ inability to comprehend this never seen before event. The earliest versions of Mark’s gospel end with an empty tomb, a strange man saying crazy things, and the women afraid, the resurrection a reality that no one knew or understood.

In John’s gospel, after Mary, Peter and John see the empty tomb, a gardener comes up behind Mary. She begs him to tell her where Jesus’ body is. And Jesus says her name, “Mary.”

“What would it feel like if Jesus said my name?” I wondered, suddenly hesitant. Hesitant, because I expected to hear from him disappointment and anger for my years of conflict and failure. Nevertheless, I turned to face the direct encounter I had been avoiding for so long. “Sharon,” Jesus said, and with my name, reached across the lifetime of failure, rage, and hurt that had built up between us. None of that mattered to him. He had been there the whole time.

And I knew I had come to St. Louis for this.

Then Jesus said to Mary and me, “Go tell…” And this is what I’m doing now, telling you how God found me and called me again, using the most unexpected of ways (Jesuit spirituality) in the most unlikely of places (St. Louis, Missouri). I choose (again and again) to believe that this relationship will not blow up. No, I don’t know what I will be doing next year, or next month. But I pray, daily, that God’s love and grace will be enough for me.

The Spiritual Exercises end with Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples so that they can “go tell” the good news in many ways to many people. In the book of Acts we see how the Holy Spirit transformed Peter from an impulsive loudmouth to a bold proclaimer. Who Philip becomes. Saul becoming Paul, going where only he of all the apostles could go, to Rome. And I wonder what the Holy Spirit will make of me.