From a forthcoming book: Ignatian spirituality speaks to a dying AIDS patient

Views Edgar Rivera Colón / October 29, 2022 Print this:
A cropped, mid-17th century depiction of Saint Ignatius of Loyola by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1662). The painting was purchased for England’s Queen Victoria in 1853. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The following is an edited excerpt from the forthcoming book Love Comes in Knots: Meditations in the American Labyrinth, written by Edgar Rivera Colón. This excerpt is printed with permission from the author.

Grace Comes in Our Failures

I’m on my way to visit him. I’ve heard from former colleagues and friends that he is extremely ill. I remember him during the training institute: sleek, piercing eyes alight with intelligence, a wit that never suffered fools gladly, and the baseball cap always in a slightly rakish angle atop his head.

He was one of our leaders in formation who knew Brooklyn’s streets and public housing projects well, since they were his native haunts. Essex Hemphill and Malcolm X would have recognized him as one of their own. Being a Black gay man in this country can mean living on the brink of abysses that White America created and sustains, but refuses to recognize as the work of their own bloodied hands.

Do we really think that James Baldwin, God’s Black revolutionary mouthpiece, as Amiri Baraka eulogized him, remains such a prophetic voice in this country by some fluke of chance? The fate of Black America always has been a key true measure of freedom’s depth and breadth in this country. 

One of our older friends, who was in the battle against AIDS in the early days of the crisis and cared for many of her gay male friends as they passed on, is doubtful, given his condition, whether or not he will return to the land of the living. How could this happen? He was one of our best leaders. At the frontline H.I.V. prevention worker program where he was my student, the other trainees looked up to him and listened when he spoke.

He was a key player in getting us to change the curriculum and have the students decide what trainings they needed, as opposed to what we, the alleged experts, thought they required, to be the new cadre of fighters in this struggle. Once our students graduated from the program and became our colleagues at the various community organizations that had sponsored them, we would see each other less frequently, but we were in touch through the ever-chatty grapevines that wind their way in and out of New York City’s not-for-profit world. These are the customary ways we hear about people. Whether or not we listen carefully is another matter altogether.

As I ride in the back of a yellow cab on this rainy day, thoughts race through my mind in a more hurried and reckless speed than my cabbie’s Manhattan defensive driving techniques. My friend and former student is at a care facility in Lower Manhattan. As I get out of the cab, the wind shifts and the rain pelts me in my face as if to brace me for what awaits. I’m drenched by the time the duty nurse directs me to his room. My Danish friend’s maxim, “No such thing as bad weather just bad clothing choices,”is on a loop in my head. I’m apprehensive as I walk the long antiseptic corridor. 

I wanted to bring him something that might comfort him during his stay here, since I’m unconvinced he is dying despite my friend’s warning. What gift can I bring that would comfort my colleague, even in a small way? Throughout the prior day, I go through gifts in my head that might cheer him up, but every item I consider seems utterly beside the point and strangely offensive and even cruel.

Why do we bring flowers to the sick and dying in the first place? To cheer them up or to have some bright object that can stand between us and them? Is it for their benefit or our sense of safety? We choose almost anything that can act as a tacit mediator between their illness and our presumed (and, albeit, hard to admit) fleeting health.

I wanted to bring him something that might comfort him during his stay here, since I’m unconvinced he is dying despite my friend’s warning. What gift can I bring that would comfort my colleague, even in a small way?

So, not knowing whether his sight was still functional, I decide to read to him from a book that changed my life in more ways than I can list or imagine. In my backpack, I’m lugging around a battered copy of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I’ve had it in my library for more than 20 years and have returned to it often, even when I had little or no faith at all.

I will read to him one of the last exercises in the series of rules, recommendations, exhortations, meditations and contemplations that Ignatius offers his readers in his 16th-century Catholic Counter-Reformation language and symbolism. Prior to his conversion, Ignatius spent his pride-filled youth carousing with his friends, prowling for sex and looking for opportunities to excel in combat. Thus, he received university training much later in life than most priests of his generation and noble lineage.

Consequently, his writings lack the erudition, polemical charge and finesse of his contemporary and theological opponent, Martin Luther. Nevertheless, Ignatius is a master of human spiritual psychology, especially in understanding the deep connections between the uneven and often unmapped landscapes of our desires and God’s active presence in our lives and shared histories.

One of the organizing themes of his Spiritual Exercises is to get its practitioners to clarify their desires in such a way as to remove the barriers that prevent them from being free to love. For in that freedom to discover what it might be like to become human, Ignatius believed that people would experience the grace and strength to change themselves and the world around them. To use his language, they would have the capacity to “go and set the world on fire” (Ite et ignari orbem).

I share with my bed-ridden friend Ignatius’s Contemplation to Attain Love (Contemplatio Ad Amorem). The Contemplatio, as it is called by those who practice or guide people in retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises, is one of the last exercises that Ignatius offers to those who follow his approach and path. The Contemplatio acts as a rear-guard anchor to the threads of desire, rigorous mental and moral self-examination, enactments of our sensory and spiritual imaginations to accompany Jesus in his ministry.

We accompany Jesus through selected Gospel stories, confrontations with the forces of death and evil in the world, testing the movements of the “spirits of light and darkness” in discerning one’s life choices and the indwelling labors of God’s spirit in and around us in the form of radical love and mercy, which animate our individual and common histories.

Ignatius invites all who are willing to try his method to engage in the necessary soul work that will mobilize the soul power in us, in the service of collective freedom projects. At root, this kind of soul work is the insight that God’s love is the ultimate material and spiritual force in the world bringing us ever closer to the culmination of human history in the long and difficult building of a peaceable and just earth. In short, the Beloved Community that Dr. King prophetically discerned in the best people and traditions of our land.

As soon as I walk into his room, he greets me with his signature smile that still illuminates my memories of our visit that day. Upon seeing him, I know that he is in a bad way. He is dying. We begin to chat and catch up. He asks about the other people that went through the worker training program with him. I share what I know from seeing folks and what I’ve heard. He tells me the ins and outs of the decline in his health.

I listen and ask a few questions now and then. His mind is razor sharp, as always. He hopes to recover very slowly, go home and get back to “the work,” as so many of his contemporaries call it. We reminisce about our days in the training program and how he led “the revolution” against the outdated trainings we had prepared for a generation of young Black and Latinx LGBTQ people who simply knew better than we, the so-called experts, did.

“For some reason I still cannot pinpoint, I felt he was revisiting in his mind’s eye the faces of his former lovers, as I often do when I hear the words of the Contemplatio. God is in those faces. Where else would God be?”

I tell him that I brought a little exercise for us to do. He laughs at me and says, “I’m not ready for exercise yet, comrade.” (“Comrade” is the nickname the trainees gave me.) I tell him that we are going to do a spiritual exercise and the teacher who invented this particular exercise had no problem with people laying down on the floor or a bed while doing them, as long as they didn’t fall asleep.

We laugh at that last idea since some of his fellow trainees would fall asleep during the more mind-numbing trainings we made them endure until they rebelled. 

I tell him about Ignatius and the impact his spirituality had on me when I was young and even now. “Was he your sensei, brother?” he asks. “I guess he was,” I respond. I also relate to him that Ignatius was a soldier in his youth and knowledgeable in the European martial arts of his time. Yes, Ignatius, the sensei, made perfect sense to me at that moment, as it continues to do.

“Okay, let’s see what Ignatius got for me, comrade,” he instructs me from his hospice bed. I begin with two brief preparatory notes, or considerations, that Ignatius offers the person doing the Contemplatio. “The first is that love ought to manifest itself more in deeds rather than words.” As I read the first note standing near his bed, his eyes are closed tightly. I can hear him savoring the words. “The second is that love consists in a mutual sharing of goods, for example, the lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses … and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover.”

He begins to nod as I read this last point. He asks me whether “lover” is the exact word that Ignatius used. I tell him that the exact words are in Spanish: el amante (the lover) and el amado (the beloved one). He simply says: “Wow.” For some reason I still cannot pinpoint, I felt he was revisiting in his mind’s eye the faces of his former lovers, as I often do when I hear the words of the Contemplatio. God is in those faces. Where else would God be? I never ask whether that is the case. I regret not having that conversation with him. 

As I read through the entire Contemplatio and pause at appropriate moments to allow his heart and mind to form images from Ignatius’s words, his closes eyes to relax. He reaches his frail hand to mine. I take and grasp it as I hold on to the Exercises with my free hand. I can see a stream of tears crossing the left side of his face. I begin to tear up.

When I come to the end of the Contemplatio, we are silent for a while. Releasing my hand, he opens his eyes and looks at me. “That was beautiful. I needed that,” he tells me. He is amazed he didn’t know I had been trained in Ignatian spirituality. “Edgar, why didn’t you teach us this too? You taught us about activism, organizing and revolution. All that good stuff. Why didn’t you give us what your sensei taught you, comrade?”

I had no good answer to his question. I admit that I didn’t really know. We kept on talking into the evening. I promised to make a return visit the following week. I never did. He passed on before the week’s end. As always, the Angel of Death has the last word with all our future plans.

I resist, with the entire force of my will and intellect, the notion that someone much younger than me can die. I know how foolish and naïve this feeling is. Yet, the death of the young disrupts my sense of order and justice. I also feel a piping hot anger within me at the wretched poverty and racism, coupled with a deadly homophobia, that made my young friend’s death likely, if not inevitable.

In a wealthy country like ours, any death from AIDS is an unspeakable injustice. What possible good came from this young Black man’s early death, given his deft leadership skills, alert mind and open heart? None at all. To understand this point, we must confront the largely unnamed reign of evil and death in many of our society’s economic and political institutions.

“In a wealthy country like ours, any death from AIDS is an unspeakable injustice. What possible good came from this young Black man’s early death, given his deft leadership skills, alert mind and open heart?”

The worship of corporate wealth and the vilest aspects of state power have led us to our present unraveling. In the final analysis, racial capitalism kills Black and Brown folks as effectively under ‘liberal’ administrations as it does under conservative ones. And the killing fields come in a plethora of guises and places. The untimely death of ‘surplus populations’ in an increasingly automated and job-eliminating American future is just another cost of doing business. The AIDS crisis and the resulting destruction of lives is a banal and quickly forgotten entry in the ledgers of profit and losses.

To return to the question my fallen comrade put to me during what turned out to be our last encounter: Why didn’t I teach those talented young people about the things I learned from Ignatian spirituality? After all, they were Black and Latinx LGBTQ folks: my people, like no other people on earth. I now can say that, at the time, I did not think it appropriate to bring spiritual matters into what was a putatively professional context.

I could not give myself permission to make links between the fight for social justice with the soul work that the Spiritual Exercises initiated in me when I was a young man. Part of the reason for this was my intentional, as well as unconscious, internalization of the academy’s secular religiosity and failure to comprehend that the Eurocentric ideology I mistook for reason was largely a tool deployed to dominate, deauthorize and control my folks. That the so-called Enlightenment was always tied to the colonialism, the slave economy, heterosexism, white supremacy and capitalism I had been fighting against most of my adult life. 

I’d chosen to disarm myself spiritually because the worship of social scientific expertise and secular rationality had become my unexamined idols—my false gods, if you will. Most of my folks never did that. They were wiser in their assessment of the forces arrayed against them than I was. They kept their soul work, at times in clandestine forms, as their last defense against the great and small indignities and violence that structured their daily lives. They were more awake than I was in ways than I could never surmise. They still are. And always will be.

Edgar Rivera Colón

Edgar Rivera Colón, a medical anthropologist, teaches narrative medicine at Columbia University and health justice at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. He is the co-author of “The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine,” published by Oxford University Press. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Rutgers University—New Brunswick.

All articles by Edgar Rivera Colón

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