John Surette, SJ (NEN)
“Your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 3:1)
I have been a member of our Society for fifty-five years and have just turned seventy-eight years of age. On the occasion of my birthday I desire to share with you my dream for our Society in this first half of the twenty-first century.
My dream begins with a story from medieval Europe. It is a story about three classes of men: Three men were carrying stones at a worksite. The first man was asked what he was doing and he replied that he was carrying stones. The second, when asked the same question, replied that he was supporting his family. The third man answered the question by saying that he was building a cathedral.
In my dream I ask the question. What is the cathedral that we Jesuits are building in this century? Like the second man in the story, many of us are busy doing our teaching, our pastoral work, our social action ministries, our giving of the Exercises, and many other good works, but what is our overarching Great Work as a Society in this century? My dream reaches for an answer to this question.
I see our Great Work as our discerning the “universal good” and as our focusing on the “greater good.” I also see it as our moving onto the “frontiers…those geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find difficult to reach” that Father General Nicolas mentioned in his recent State of the Society message.
My dream also contains a reading of the signs of the times, those deep movements within the world and in the souls of peoples at the beginning of this century. What stands out for me among the signs is the slowly growing awareness that Earth’s web of life is under ever increasing stress and diminishment. Forests are shrinking, water-tables are falling, soils are eroding, fisheries are collapsing, rivers are running dry, glaciers and ice caps are melting, coral reefs are bleaching, the ocean is becoming more acidic, the atmosphere is warming, plant and animal species are going into extinction at a greater rate, and the children of all species are increasingly being born sick. In all of this and much more we are reaching the limits of what life on Earth can tolerate… we are facing ultimacy.
We are the first generations of humans ever to be aware of such an ultimacy. No previous humans could even have imagined it. The great teachers of the past did not speak about it. There is no mention of it in our sacred texts and traditions. Our evolutionary past has not prepared us to deal with it.
In my dream I worry that later on in this century the children and grandchildren will find themselves living within a community of life here on Earth that has a compromised future, a future in which it will be increasingly difficult for them to live with hope, find meaning, and enjoy beauty.
What is happening to Earth belongs to an order of magnitude beyond any other into which we Jesuits have poured out our apostolic energies in the past. It is of greater magnitude than any of the present day social justice issues. In fact, it is foundational for them in that none of them will succeed apart from the larger context of what is happening to Earth itself.
We are confronted with the hardest reality of our times, namely, the fate of Earth with its human community. As a Company of religious men I see us being called to make a religious response to Earth’s fate. This appears to be the most challenging role that we Jesuits have ever been asked to assume. It is soul size. It will require that we move beyond any denial and paralysis and that we move into the future with hope, courage, and intention.
In my dream this future begins with embedding our passionate love of humanity within an equally passionate love of Earth and its web of life. This love will lead us into working with others to bring about a mutually enhancing relationship between Earth and its human community.
My brothers in Christ and companions on the way, I thank you for reading this outline of my dream. In doing so you have participated in my birthday celebration!
John has been giving retreats and workshops on ecological and cosmological themes for some twenty-two years. In these programs, he assists people to experience themselves not as living “on” Earth but as being “of” Earth. He resides in Chicago, USA and can be reached through his e-mail at spirearth(at)aol.com.