This is a guest blog from Fr Brendan McManus, SJ. Brendan is a Jesuit Priest working as a spiritual director, retreat giver, pilgrimage organiser and speaker all over Ireland, Europe and beyond. He is also my co-author on two books and many magazine articles. You can find our books here.. Brendan is also an author in his own right, of course, and you can find his books here. More than all this, Brendan is my friend, a brother on the journey. Brendan says…
500 Days of Summer is the name of a film I saw many years ago. ‘Summer’ is the name of a girl that the protagonist Tom falls in love with but it doesn’t go as planned. The whole film revolves around the precise nature of the relationship, friends or more than friends, and without wanting to give the plot away there is an unexpected ending which leaves you reflecting on love, relationship and destiny or call. There is a brilliant scene towards the end where the screen divides in two, one side shows the protagonist’s expectations and the other, the reality. The gap between the two is where the suffering lies!
I remember being in love in 1982, nearly 40 years ago and before I was a Jesuit, an experience which marked me in many ways. As in the film, I think I was keener on her than she was on me and the end when it came was very painful. It took me a long time to get over it and as luck would have it, I was on placement in England from my degree course in Belfast. This was a time of solitude and searching, trying to make sense of the break-up and get on with life. I remember it now as a kind of exile of grief, sequestered in a maelstrom of emotions that forced me to acknowledge certain truths. ‘She wasn’t that into you’ was principal among those, as well as ‘infatuation blinds you to the obvious’.
The letting-go process which played out over a number of months abroad helped to heal the wound over time and to forge what I now realise was the beginning of my Jesuit vocation. The pain of that separation was a wake up call on getting my life and priorities together. Ironically, the breakup brought me into contact with an old teacher of hers, a religious sister, who was to become my spiritual director. This wise woman was one of the greatest helps in getting my life together and getting some direction.
I eventually I came to realise that you cant pine over an idealised lost love for ever; you have to move on. It would have been the safe option and I was too young. It wouldn’t have been good in the long run. It was an early lesson in letting go and embracing genuine freedom. The pain eventually forced a renewal and a release. I remember applying myself to my studies like never before and facing into interviews and career choices that would eventually bring me to further studies in England and eventually a career in IT. The experience of working as a professional, having a mortgage, travelling, meeting others and exploring other relationships was unwittingly the basis for wanting more out of life- specifically having meaning, and eventually the Jesuit vocation loomed into view some 8 years later.
Looking back now, I can see clearly the value of all these experiences, especially the experience or being ‘in love’ and its loss. Ironically, the Jesuit vocation is characterised as ‘being in love’, it has the same contours of relationship, purifying of your motives, and walking humbly with your God. In fact, the famous Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a 30 day silent retreat, is summed up as falling in love with Christ. Knowing that journey of deepening love that passes through infatuation to self acceptance to intimacy has helped me enormously in life and ministry. I owe a great deal to that lovely young woman (and the religious sister who came providentially into my life) who unwittingly taught me a lot about life and love, about not clinging and real freedom. Ironically, that early experience of unrequited love set me up for recognising true love when it came along, understanding that the pathways of God are challenging but beautiful, and that love moulds and shapes, as it prunes and purifies.