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First Words

Winter 2017-2018

My wife and I spent three weeks on vacation this fall in Spain, where we saw some wonderful Ignatian sites. Kathy and I had previously visited Montserrat — the place where the soldier Ignatius surrendered his sword to a statue known as La Moreneta. This time, we visited Pamplona, where a cannonball injured Ignatius during his defense of the city’s castle in 1521. Two days later, we toured Ignatius’ home in Loyola. One shrine marked the spot where he was born. Another designated the place where he had his conversion experience while recuperating from his injuries.

I was surprised by much of what I saw. After touring the dry Andalusian countryside, I didn’t expect the deep green of Ignatius’ Basque region. Kathy and I pulled into Loyola just as a rainstorm was ending and the skies were opening to a luminous azure. The yellows and reds of the fall leaves punctuated the sky with color.

We discovered that Ignatius’ home had a simple elegance, in stark contrast to the neighboring baroque chapel. The inside of Castle Loyola was filled with dark wood polished from centuries of use. All of this made me think just how hard it must have been for Ignatius to leave a place so beautiful, lush and familiar.

What I saw in Pamplona was a statue of a man of action — the soldier who leapt to the defense of an attack by the French. In Loyola, however, I found a statue of a man contemplating what to do with his life.

Later, Ignatius asked those joining his band of brothers to become “contemplatives in action.” This was a radical shift for those choosing to enter the Society of Jesus. Why? Because when Ignatius was a young man, priests and religious were either people of action — working directly with lay people — or monks and nuns cloistering themselves in monasteries and convents to lead lives of prayer. Ignatius wanted his followers to combine the best of both lives — to take time to pray each day while also practicing a faith that does justice.

This year, our school’s theme is that of being contemplatives in action. I thought of this often on my travels, in part, because I’m a reluctant tourist. Those of you who know me well know that I love to travel — and you may also know that I’m a bit of a workaholic. I commit the mortal sins of traveling: I check my email far too often, and I do a little work during down times. Yes. Shame on me.

Let me express Ignatius’ dictum in my own words. I think we need to be both citizens and tourists. Tourists come into a city ready to contemplate the wonders it has to offer, from museums and cathedrals to parks and pastries. I love being a tourist wandering through Granada’s Alhambra, exploring Sevilla’s Alcazar and hiking below the arches of Ronda’s famed bridge.

However, I can only do this for a brief amount of time. I need to feel productive — that I’m helping someone, contributing to society, making this world even one iota better. Call it Catholic guilt or a Protestant work ethic or me just not knowing how to relax, but it’s who I am. I need to be a citizen of a community, rolling up my sleeves and doing something regarding homelessness, rent control, litter and wetlands restoration.

So here’s my 2 cents’ worth of wisdom. For me, Ignatius’ call to be a contemplative in action means figuring out how to balance being both tourist and citizen. I need to be a tourist at home as well as abroad. Kathy and I have a book of self-guided walking tours of San Francisco that we’ve nearly finished. (Can you imagine a better city in which to play tourist than our very own?) We also are committed to helping our communities — those defined by geographic borders and those by association, such as SI.

I know many of you do the same. As I move toward semi-retirement, I still plan to edit Genesis, but I also hope to find more time to play tourist — to contemplate the glory of God that surrounds me and that I see most clearly when I take time for long walks, deep breaths and the peace that comes from mindful contemplation.

— Paul Totah ’75

Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Friday December 29, 2017
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