Friendship and Ignatius Loyola in isolation

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Ordinarily the last two days of July would for me be occasions of celebration. July 30 is the International Day of Friendship and July 31 is the feast day of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. This July, in Victoria, at least, it is hard to summon energy to celebrate. We are in a time of endurance.

Main image: Social distancing foot shake (elvira boix gomez/Getty Images)

In the beginning everything was new and seemingly distant: the news of the virus, the extraordinarily ruthless lockdown of a province in China to limit its spread, the first cases in Australia in quarantine and then in the community, the first experience of isolation, limitation of public gatherings, social distancing, working and studying from home, and widespread unemployment. Each experience, however unwelcome, was new. It was accompanied by some satisfaction that our privations were endured for the good of the whole community, and by the unexpressed hope that life might soon return to normal.

The second lockdown, occurring in midwinter, marks an unwanted return to a stale world with an alarming rise in infection. The response has included the introduction of compulsory mask wearing. The masks, which make it difficult to read faces and to communicate, widen the distance between people. They enact the privileging of immunity over community, and conduce to self-preoccupation. The public mood is more sour, reflected in the media hunt for people to blame, as the personal costs of the COVID-19 and the response to it are more deeply felt.

People now realise that life may not return to where it was before, and that the new normal may continue to include social distancing, wearing masks in public spaces, and restricted and unpredictable access to travel, with all the consequences for employment and income in these conditions. Even after a vaccine becomes available we may still have to live with the virus and its successors.

This bleak vision of a possible future suggests that the responsibility of governments to keep people safe and to encourage an economic growth that benefits all will be difficult to discharge. It suggests, too, that the challenge we all face to live decently and hopefully in the time of coronavirus with all its strictures will be equally exacting. Both the threat of the virus and the restrictions necessary to meet it weigh heavily on the lightness that is an essential part of ordinary human living.

The International Day of Friendship and the feast of St Ignatius Loyola offer some quirky hints on how to live. For many people they may evoke quite contrary moods. Friendship is soft, unifying, blurs boundaries and can be an obstacle to rulers in making fair and wise decisions. In many popular accounts Ignatius is seen as a hard man, a general in the Catholic army that opposed the Reformation, and a proponent of strong discipline in schools and church.

 

'In grinding times of insecurity, immobility and unpredictability, when we all must travel light, friendship is a great gift.'

 

That image is misleading, but it is understandable. Ignatius certainly did become at home in hard places. He had to convalesce after being wounded in battle. He begged his way around Spain, slept rough, had constant run-ins with authorities suspicious of his faith and morals, went back to school in his late 20s, begged his way to visit the Holy Land but was ordered home, and faced every obstacle in placing himself and his friends at the disposal of the Pope. For much of his life, too, he suffered the acute pain of kidney stones.

If resilience is a quality highly to be prized — as is widely proclaimed in this year of coronavirus — Ignatius had it in spades. It came from his conviction that God loved and had called him into service, and that the map of the future is read by reflecting on the successes, the failures, the lights and the unnoticed shadows of one’s life. In a world marked by bitter conflicts, by people wanting unconditional commitment to narrow causes, by war and plague and troubled conscience, he listened to people and led them to focus on what matters most deeply. These are qualities suited to hard times like our own.

So is friendship. The coronavirus threatens deep relationships: it arouses fear, tempts us to see other people as threats, and emphasises social distance. These responses discourage expressions of friendship, and impede the ordinary ways in which we deepen relationships. Although they are necessary to limit the effect of the COVID-19, they can foster isolation and withdrawal from society at the precise time when connection with society and an affective commitment to the common good and especially to the people who are most vulnerable are most necessary. Attention to making friends and deepening friendships have a high social as well as personal value.

Contrary to the image of Ignatius as an austere warrior, friendship was also central to him both personally and in his work within the Catholic Church. The group of students who formed the nucleus of the Jesuits were friends. They met at university and decided to stay together. Ignatius described the members of the Religious Order that developed out of this group as friends in the Lord, bound together both by lively faith and by mutual friendship. They relied on both these qualities for meeting the demands of the life they envisaged. They would need to spend much of their time alone on special missions without the support of a local community and an ordered timetable. To counteract the natural erosion of shared commitment by distance and separation they needed to cultivate a strong faith, a habit of reflection, and enduring friendships.

In grinding times of insecurity, immobility and unpredictability, when we all must travel light, friendship is a great gift. Like all gifts it needs to be watered and nurtured if it is to flower and fruit. Far from being the enemy of resilience and endurance, it is their companion and enabler. If not providential, the juxtaposition of Friendship Day and St Ignatius Feastday is at least suggestive.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: elvira boix gomez/Getty Images

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, International Day of Friendship, Ignatius Loyola, COVID-19

 

 

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If isolation and social distancing in the fight against the corona virus threaten deep relationships, it might be expected that they threaten superficial relationships even more. The fracturing of relationships we are seeing with the social confinements/isolation implemented to control Covid, expressed through domestic violence and increased alcohol and drug use for example, are likely to be the more superficial and less enduring, methinks. The deep relationships, like that of Ignatius and his old university companions, are the ones that endure despite the enormity of external difficulties. Never know, it might be a good thing for some if the stresses that come with Covid control dissolve some relationships that might better be described as associations of convenience or circumstance.
john frawley | 30 July 2020


A reading from the Acts of St Ignatius taken down by Luis Gonzalez: "Ignatius was very addicted to reading aimless and exaggerated books about the illustrious deeds of the famous, and when he felt well again he asked for some to pass the time. But there were no books of that type in the house and he was given a book called "The Life of Christ" and another "The Flower of the Saints", both in his native language. By reading these regularly he developed a certain sympathy with what was written in them." It's kind of like how to be a friend to a reader so the reader won't stop reading.
Pam | 30 July 2020


July 30 is also the International Day Against Trafficking in Humans. If we followed Ignatius' lead in truly finding God in all people, all things ... in our blessed and broken creation ... trafficking would be overcome ... maybe?
Anne Muirhead | 31 July 2020


Happy feast day to Jesuits in Australia and throughout the world.
John RD | 31 July 2020


Loyola (June 1521 - February 1522) : Home again. The unconquering hero, The field of battle shifts to an upper room. Dreams of a lady dissolve at the sight of your crippled leg, precluding jousts, sports and the nimble masques at court. Beneath the cauldron and the rampant wolves wolves, thoughts turn lean in the hungry mind. Romantic reading is hard to find; the lives and deeds of saints and Christ begin to dazzle and blind. And, out of the sunken hulk of your own dreams, there begins to emerge God's more extravagant dream , , ,
John RD | 31 July 2020


Just in time to commend Living the Story : the Ignatian Way of Prayer by Fr Joseph Cassidy who died before it was published. A former Jesuit priest, he became an Anglican and a long-time greatly loved Principal of St Chad's College (my own old college) in the University of Durham.
John Bunyan | 31 July 2020


In his preconversion days Ignatius was a dashing blade. A bit like some Guards officers. That all changed when he was blessed to see the reality behind his old life. He brought much of what he had learnt in his military career to his new life, including courage; the ability to endure great hardship and a sense of what genuine camaraderie and loyalty to a worthy cause mean. His love had also changed and refocussed. The time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation is extremely contentious historically. What the early Jesuits did was to fortify the Catholic Church both intellectually and spiritually to survive and thrive into the future. That work, in terms of education and outreach, continues in the Order he founded. Were it not for him and his companions the Church today would be very different indeed.
Edward Fido | 03 August 2020


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