by Ben Brenkert
Something big happened last year. I was a Jesuit seminarian studying to be a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Two years from ordination, I was befuddled by the corporate spirit of the Society of Jesus; the proprietors of the Jesuit brand (think Nike or Pepsi) seemed more interested in the legacy of the Jesuits than in confronting the Church. The Society of Jesus, including Jesuit priests and brothers and lay partners, suffered under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—those years saw the Society of Jesus turn from radical hospitality and commitment to social justice to incorporation, from going to the frontiers to going to the status quo.
Personally, I was increasingly dismayed by reports about the firing of lesbian and gay employees and volunteers from Roman Catholic institutions. How could a church that ordains gay men be so insensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable, members of the LGBTQ community who have no voice nor full participation in the life of the Church outside gay-friendly parishes? To me Pope Francis’ joy of the gospel was turning into a spiritual but not religious form of Catholicism. The Pope of tweets and Snapchat and Instagram posts never reflected his pastoral theology in the doctrine, dogma or tradition of the Church.
As a Jesuit I was trained in the spirituality of our founder Saint Ignatius of Loyola. For ten years I practiced the discernment of spirits, seeking to know God through the movements of the good spirit and being tempted in my life with God by the evil spirit. I felt let down by the Church, asking, “Why is the Church leaving so many behind?” And so one day, while on vacation at the Jesuit villa house in Cohasset, Massachusetts, I walked in the freezing cold to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
There I met Margot Critchfield, and chatted with her about the contents of my soul, my unhappiness with the Roman Church. It’s easy for a Jesuit to do this; we are trained to be inflamed with the love of our Creator and God, and sharing the gifts of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises provides us with an opportunity to talk about love itself.
Before I left St. Stephen’s, Mother Critchfield gave me a personal copy of the Book of Common Prayer. I had no idea what this book was, really, but I felt consolation immediately. St. Ignatius of Loyola describes consolation as the moment when “a person sheds tears which lead to the love of our God, whether these arise from grief over sins, or over the passion of Jesus our Lord, or because of other reasons immediately directed towards his services and praise.”
On my way back to our villa, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, and from which one can see a home owned by the family of America’s second president, John Adams, I became increasingly full of joy.
I quietly entered the house, got a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, went to my room and took out the Book of Common Prayer. I opened it and stared at the Reconciliation of a Penitent. I laughed.
Part of the first weeks of making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola includes time spent getting right one’s relationship with God, Jesus, others and the self. In a sense the first week of the exercises is about the reconciliation of a penitent to right relationship with God, self and others. And so, that was the message that the good spirit was telling me—get your relationship right.
As I read the prayers, responses and parts of the rite I was struck especially by these words: “Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
I was struck about the place of mercy and restoration of self. It sounded so Ignatian. It was clear that restoration included the company of the faithful people, people who I’d also be asked to forgive in the same rite.
Like the Prodigal Son I felt myself returning home, rejoicing in heaven and the joy of the gospel. For a Roman Catholic, and any Jesuit, reconciliation plays a major part in our faith life, and in the history of the formation of the community of believers.
As my first experience of the Book of Common Prayer came to an end I was consoled knowing that God was acting in my life, that the grace of the Holy Spirit was in me, and that I did not have to fear the machinations or temptations of the evil spirit.
What I didn’t know then is that that first day of praying with the Book of Common Prayer would commence a journey that saw me depart the Society of Jesus. I could not discern my being Roman Catholic while seeking ordination as an openly gay Jesuit. Once I realized the Church left me, I sought to know more about the Episcopal Church, a Church that flourishes despite her own experience of consolation and desolation.
This year I am seeking reception into the Episcopal Church, and will enter through St. Luke’s in the Fields in Manhattan. I am happy and joyful, at home and at peace. Like the great Anglican poet George Herbert I am full of gratitude knowing that “Perpetual knockings at thy door, tears sullying thy transparent rooms, gifts upon gift, much would have more, and comes.”
While I felt some loss about my departure from the Society of Jesus, the good spirit, which led me toward consolation, enkindled me, and I felt gratitude deeply. That is something that the spirituality of the Society of Jesus and the Anglican Communion share: gratitude. And for me it all started with the Book of Common Prayer and the Rite of Reconciliation.
Ben Brenkert, a native New Yorker, is a seminarian intern at St. Luke’s in the Fields, and studies at the General Theological Seminary. He is an author, social worker and activist. You can follow him on Twitter @BenBrenkert.