By Fr. Hung Pham, SJ
Creating or reordering a space is labor intensive and time consuming. Yet, there is grace in the process. The resulting sense of belonging and ownership outweighs the difficult and demanding journey.
Moving to Denver
Last summer, I was entrusted with the responsibility of rearranging and organizing part of the Xavier Jesuit Community in Denver into the home of the newly established Office of Ignatian Spirituality for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.
Six of us – my two brother-in-laws, my sister, my niece, Nick Blair, SJ, and I – set out from St. Louis and drove more than 800 miles to Denver. There we were to meet with Fr. Pepe Ruiz, SJ, who had arrived a week earlier to chart our new venture. The twelve hour journey along I-70 was plenty of time for my emotions to fluctuate between apprehension and excitement about this new initiative of the province.
In the space those movements, Nick, who met my family for the first time, was quickly drawn into lively exchanges about different American and Vietnamese cultural behaviors, customs, and, of course, food. Not only did we enjoy each other’s company during the trip, but we were surprised by the incredible hospitality of others. On our stop in Kansas City, Mo., for instance, we were treated to a fabulous dinner at Cafe Trio by the owner, who decided to open the upper room to host us when no other table was available on a packed Saturday night.
In all, candid conversations, lively exchanges and incredible kindness have marked the beginning of the Office of Ignatian Spirituality in Denver as a space where new friendships are cultivated, and old ones are renewed.
“Creating a Space for Sacred Encounter” has become what we are striving for in the heart of the Mile High City.
As with all conversions, the joy and excitement of creating a new space is often accompanied by heartaches and grieving over the reordering of the space – in this case, over what used to be the Xavier Jesuit Center.
The process of moving furniture, removing framed pictures and rearranging bedrooms is not simply dealing with material things or a physical configuration. Instead, it recollects those who had breathed their life into the space and instilled their memories into it.
Until this summer, Xavier Jesuit Center, adjacent to the campus of Regis University, had been a community of mostly semi-retired Jesuits and a few others working at Regis. Most of these men moved to other Jesuit communities to allow the building to become the new home of the Office of Ignatian Spirituality.
Walking into the house in Denver, the space, with its pictures and memorabilia, immediately called to mind the fond memories of those Jesuits who shaped my human formation and inspired my Jesuit vocation while I was a student at Regis.
There was a picture of the late Fr. Jack Teeling, SJ – considered the founder of Xavier House – whose gentle and kind presence on the Regis campus always provided comfortable security and reassurance for confused freshmen like myself.
There were a couple Erlenmeyer flasks, which could only belong to Fr. Bill Miller, SJ, my organic chemistry professor, whose dedication to teaching and commitment to researching a way to “transform water into wine” (as he jokingly responded to our curiosity of what he was doing with the distillation machine in the lab), instigated my love for chemistry.
And there were the beautiful chrysanthemum pictures hiding behind the Japanese screens that belonged to Fr. Jim Guyer, SJ, whose class on Asian History offered a safe refuge for a lost and scared immigrant like myself.
For a moment, their voices, their laughter and their passion came alive right before my eyes. Their presence will remain in my heart all my life.
That early morning, what appeared to be an old residence, with its crooked photos, old containers and dusty pictures became a space of reverence, of respect and of profound gratitude.
Honoring and treasuring my memories of these great Jesuit mentors and teachers has empowered me to keep experimenting with something new, even when it seems impossible at times, in order to build a sanctuary for all those who are spiritually lost and weary.
It was these Jesuits who taught me that it is precisely in the wrestling with joy and pain, with excitement and grief, that a new way of being is envisioned. It is through this grappling that a living tradition continues, and a new way of life is born. These men helped me understand that grief and pain are part of the joy of birthing something new.
Indeed, reordering an old space and creating a new space remains at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises, the Ignatian way of life. For it is through a similar process of spiritual reordering that one rids oneself of inordinate attachments, to seek and find the Divine will for the salvation of one’s soul.
New space emerging
Our experiment with the Office of Ignatian Spirituality (OIS) and the reordering of the Xavier Jesuit Center is proving fruitful. In just a few short months, the OIS has provided a spiritual home for a group of young professionals praying and pondering their life directions. After more than a year and a half praying together online, members of the Ignatian family from all over the country united in person at the new physical office of the OIS. We have even welcomed a group of young men who gathered to discern their future life direction while praying together.
Contributions and donations of all kinds have been overwhelmingly generous. In all, the Office has become a healing ground open and waiting for all the birds to land.
A sense of home
Personally, the hard labor of moving and re-moving, of ordering and reordering, while difficult and challenging, has generated a sense of ownership and accountability I have never experienced before in the Society of Jesus.
Perhaps for most if not all homeowners, such a sentiment is common and ordinary. However, for a Vietnamese-American Jesuit like myself, the experience has been refreshing and energizing.
Throughout my Jesuit life, all the Jesuit residences I have stayed in have been very nice and comfortable. I have always been provided for and cared for. I am truly grateful for all. Yet, I haven’t felt a sense of home. The spaces, furniture and pictures didn’t connect with me. As a result, I tend to retreat into my room, building a cocoon of the familiar.
My involvement in the creation of the Office of Ignatian Spirituality has burst my cocoon wide open. The sweat and hard labor of moving furniture, of redesigning the building interior, of re-placing and re-forming have somehow fashioned a new sense of the homeowner in me. I’ve worried about what might happen to our home. I look forward to returning to the colors and patterns we have picked and arranged. It is a true sense of home.
I have been healed and made whole through the process of physical, emotional and spiritual reordering. I have prayed that my sense of home will not develop into a feeling of entitlement or self-absorption, but will continue to deepen in the spirit that invites and welcomes all people to our Office of Ignatian Spirituality. There, with the grace of God, all hearts will be healed and made whole again.
Father Hung Pham, SJ, is the provincial assistant for formation and the first director of the province’s Office of Ignatian Spirituality. He is also directing the province’s activities related to the Ignatian Year. The title of this article refers to a Vietnamese proverb which translates to, “Once the land is healed, the bird will land.”