Saturday, June 16, 2007

An Evening with William A. Barry, SJ

At the end of May, Crystal put up a post called William Barry & riders on prayers. It was about a book she'd been reading by the spiritual writer, psychologist, and former Jesuit Provincial of the New England Province, William A. Barry, SJ. The book is called Paying Attention to God: Discernment in Prayer.

Just as a matter of coincidence, the Book Club at my parish happened to be reading this book as well. I wasn't involved, and I haven't read the book yet, but the director of the club invited Fr. Barry to come to our parish to speak about his book, and last Thursday night he showed up and spoke to a small group of about 25 people or so. I had the pleasure of enjoying a short chat with him before his presentation, about my brother-in-law (a Jesuit scholastic studying in London), and the recent developments that have arisen around the work of Jon Sobrino. I also told him that a blogging correspondent friend of mine in California had read his book and spoken highly of it. :-)

You'll have to forgive me if my notes and my commentary on the talk seem sketchy, but I haven't read the book yet.

As he began, Fr. Barry made it clear that he had not prepared a talk on the book per se, but assumed that most of the people attending had read it, and that he would turn the floor over to us and would be glad to try to answer any questions that we might have.

One of the things that immediately came up was what he himself described as a "controversial" aspect of the book. Apparently there is some discussion in the book about women and their feelings about women's ordination. When asked about this, he said that all he could do is speak from his own experience. He said he once wrote an article about what he had heard from women who felt called in this regard. He sent it in to America, and they sent it back. He sent it to Commonweal, and they said it was wonderful, but sent it back saying that a woman should have written it... He sent it to the National Catholic Reporter and never heard anything. He sent it to The Tablet, and they published it the next week. He said his own experience was built upon the contact he had with people he directed and people he worked with. He told the story of a woman he'd heard from once, a married woman who had gone on a retreat, and felt an overwhelming call from God to be a priest. Wrestling with this dilemma later on led her to experience a stretch of spiritual dryness. Fr. Barry pointed out that it is a hierarchical Church, and that ultimately the authorities have to decide, but unless they listen to experiences, they will never know all the things they need to know in order to make informed decisions. Faced with the inevitable question about what the laity can do to provoke or force change in the Church, Fr. Barry did seem to indicate that it really does ultimately depend upon a change of heart within those in leadership positions in the hierarchy.

Moving onto the thrust of the book and a discussion on prayer, Fr. Barry pointed out that the great spiritual writers in the history of the Church felt compelled to write because their experience of God was different from what others had said and written about who and what God was. For example, there was a gradual realization, moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that God is not a tribal God, but rather that he was a God for all, and that his chosen race was to be the Light of the World. We are essentially a branch of Judaism that believes that the Messiah has come.

Someone told Fr. Barry that he appreciated what he had written in the book about death and dying, because we are in denial about it. Fr. Barry tended to agree, and mentioned that many Jesuits would not want to live where he lives (The Campion Center in Weston, MA), but that he finds grace in it . With many retired priests in residence, there have been several deaths just in the last few weeks. A few years back he faced a serious challenge - cancer in the vocal chords. He had a cousin with the same cancer. Fr. Barry is doing better now, and told a story about how shortly afterwards, just before leaving for a retreat, he was walking outside after a terrible incident he'd had with some people he was in charge of supervising, and the thought suddenly flew through his head "You could be dead now", and he couldn't help but to laugh. He said it was always important to remember that the central image in our faith is of Christ on the cross, a crucified, suffering victim, a victim of a Roman execution.

Not having read the book, I asked if the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen Prayer, and the Discernment of Spirits were still very much an aspect of his prayer life and something that he would recommend as still relevant for today. He said yes, very much so, even if there was some medieval imagery in it that might be obsolete. He said that the Ignatian exercises were very much a part of his own prayer life, and that he has always been careful about what he writes, and often questions himself. He must always ask himself and humbly ask God if he is right. He doesn't want to lead anyone astray. He said that the Examen and Discernment are still very useful today. He pointed out how Ignatius Loyola, a military man, described the Enemy as a general laying siege to a city, looking for weak points to assault and exploit. In some cases, this weakness may be a poor self image. In others, a tendency towards scruples...

Fr. Barry, in response to one question mentioned how important it is for us to have sympathy for God. Think of God not only for what he puts up with, but also for what he keeps in existence (murderers, cheats, pedophiles, other types of predators).

There was a good amount of discussion that came up from the audience about fear-based religion vs. grace-based religion. Some of the older members of the audience wanted to know how the the Church could move away from the fear-based model of their youth. Younger members of the audience, who denied any experience of being brought up in this climate of fear being spoken of, wanted to know what the Church could do to make better known its rich intellectual tradition to a generation that has no knowledge of the faith. Fr. Barry had some sympathy for both parties. He tends to think that, unfortunately, bad news sells better than good news. Fire & brimstone can be a better sell than the opposite. He says he has done what he can do in his books and in his spiritual direction to get away from fear-based religion, but he does have sympathy for those who bemoan a collapse in catechesis. He also laments that we went through a phase of teaching "only that God is love..." and " all hearts and flowers", adding "God has standards too." (for those who think he might be an ultra-liberal for discussing women's ordination, or just by virtue of being a Jesuit, I will say that his expression darkened perceptibly when I offered the opinion that although they are similar in a lot of ways, the last pope led us with his personal motto "Be Not Afraid", while the current pope seems to be afraid of everything). He also has sympathy for people in leadership positions in the Church. We are polarized because things don't work anymore. Looking at the "Signs of the Times", this is a difficult, challenging, and dark time. Now we have a chance to see if we believe in God. Now is the time to see if we really trust in God or not. We are not meant to believe in the Church, or in the Jesuits, or whatever... We are meant to believe in God. The Church and the sacraments are instruments for us to meet God.

In regard to praying to God for what we need... People in the audience indicated how they'd been brought up not to pray for specific things, but to conform and to accept God's will. Fr. Barry voiced a pet peeve of his, of how we offer all of these Prayers of the Faithful on very specific matters, and then the priest sums up all with "God grant us all these needs, but only if it is your will. You know what is best for us." Look back to our older tradition... Like Abraham and Job, challenge God to be just. Like Jacob, wrestle with God. Tell God what you want and what you need, while recognizing that God is ultimately a mystery. Communicate and build a relationship. It is a lot like a human relationship. The closer we get to people, the more we can tell them about intimate things, and the opposite is also true. When you find there are things you can't say, or won't say, you grow estranged and grow apart.

As we were wrapping up, one Jesuit-educated gentleman thanked Fr. Barry and the Jesuits, and expressed his view that in his opinion, they were still the cream of the crop (even in these days of reduced numbers). Fr. Barry thanked him, but he also spoke a bit about the danger he and his brother Jesuits needed to be aware of in thinking that they were something quite special, and he pointed out:"St. Ignatius Loyola cautioned that the Society was not founded by human means nor carried on by human means, but by the grace of God..." Nevertheless, Fr. Barry also said at another juncture, "Ignatian Spirituality is world affirming, and the Project of God depends upon us saying Yes".


crystal said...

Oh, so cool - I am green with envy!

Thanks for posting this, Jeff, and being so thorough. I have almost all his books and think the world of him. I'd say that what I believe about Jesus/God and how to relate to him has been formed by Fr. Barry, the retreat I took, and Fr. Marsh - all very similar in their teaching.

My Jesuit friend Fr. Quinn once had him as his spiritual director, and couldn't really remember anything about him except that he was tall :-)

Jeff said...


I thought you might get a kick out of that. I'll have to read the book. I've never read anything by him except maybe God and You, a long, long time ago.

He is tall. Very gentle and humble in his ways. Gentle, and gracious, but straight-talkng in an Irish sort of way too. Typical Jebbie of his age. :-)

Don said...

Thank for this posting. I had never heard of him and I like what I read. We need women priests. In our area the diocese has closed so many parishes and/or consolidated them with others that there are serious discords developing. The future of the church rests with married priests and woman priests. We are the only Christian denomination other than some of the more fundamental sects that don't accept women for the priesthood. My own mother would make an excellent priest. You'll be hard pressed to find a more fervent Catholic and a graduate of Catholic education from primary to postgraduate.

Jeff said...

Hi Don,

Good to see you here again. I know what you mean. We have enough of a sacramental shortage, dearth of leadership, and brain drain going on, we can ill afford not to use all of the talents and gifts available to us in the Church. I think married diocesan priests are a must. I just wish they'd stop dilly-dallying and get on with it. As for women priests, I admit that it isn't something I've given much thought and attention to. This Boston Irish guy brought up in social conservatism can only handle so much change in a lifetime, I guess... I think the same is true of the Church. This might have to be another generation's battle. Women priests? I'd probably have a real hard time getting used to it, but I'm also perfectly aware that that isn't a reason not to do it.

Martin O'Shea said...

A graphic novel which explores the response of the Church to suffering within its scope is available from:

There's also a preview at:

Whilst the book challenges certain attitudes and dogma it remains a Catholic (if underground) comic.

All the best,


Jeff said...


Thank you for visiting, and thanks for the information.

I'm terribly, terribly sorry about what you went through in the Lloyd case, and I'm glad that what you wrote takes a human and nuanced view of the characters involved in this ongoing tragedy, and that it isn't bound up entirely in bitterness.

God Bless, and keep up the good work.

Deacon Denny said...

Jeff --

Thanks so much for this post. I found your notes so clear and so descriptive of an engaging encounter . . . makes me wish I could have been there.

Here in Seattle I've had the good fortune of knowing two women who are leading nearby parishes, and both are on their second assignment from the Archbishop as parish leaders. It would be very easy to see either of these two as priests. Both are women of prayer and have been spiritual directors, both are excellent in preaching the Word, both can "hang tough" when necessary, and both are excellent leaders in their respective communities.

I'm glad that the present Church can at least recognize their talents, though it can't ordain them.

Jeff said...

Hi Denny,

They probably do the same thing in your diocese, but here they run a very good program called Master of Arts and Ministry, which is offered to laypeople and includes a lot of the same coursework that the seminarians take. A lot of women have been graduating from it the past few years.

A few years back, there was a woman in our parish who earned her advanced degree in theology. Our pastor let her preach a homily after she graduated, and someone reported him to Cardinal Law for it. The chancery called and asked him why he allowed it. He replied, "Where would you prefer that she preach, here, or down the street at St. Mary's Episcopal?"