Pierless Bridges

The Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition

Volume 2: 2021 Contemporary Experience with Tradition

The Spiritual Exercises and "The Creation": Work That Matters

By Kimberly Rae Connor
Serena Johnson '23, Spiraling, 2021

Among the most enduring Africanisms that animates African American culture is the concept of nommo, the generative power of the word. Derived from the Dogon people of Mali, nommo calls on ancestral spirits to bring into existence all that is seen and unseen. Explained by Molefi Asante, nommo means “the proper naming of a thing which in turn gives it essence.” In a recent incarnation, we see this ancestral power clearly articulated in the collective acceptance of the naming of the Black Lives Matter movement. Intended to foster transformation by naming the current reality and reimagining a future, Black Lives Matter achieves its nommo power in part because its spiritual power is embodied in and referenced to the stuff of reality, the material world. Matter is both a verb that insists on the human dignity of Black lives, but it is also a noun, invoking the practical matters of our world that call for our attention.

This power of naming and dignifying Black life takes on biblical potency in James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation.” Included in God’s Trombones, a collection of sermons in verse published in 1927 that explicitly engage southern folkways characteristic of the culture created by enslaved people, The Creation exercises nommo in ways that imagine the past as a way to name an eternal reality. In Johnson’s poem, the act of Creation is described not as some far-off celestial event provoked by a distant deity. Rather the poet personifies God’s efforts as the result of a lonely being whose view on the world is obscured by a “darkness,” that the poet compares to a familiar site on Earth for enslaved Africans: “Blacker than a hundred midnights/Down in a cypress swamp.” To dispel the darkness, God “smiles” and from that first benevolent act, Creation gets moving as God continues to not just name and pronounce good the results of His efforts but to describe them in terms analogous to the lives enslaved people were living—lives of labor.

In the poem, God doesn’t just command when God names, God moves. God “reached out” and “rolled the light”; God “gathered” up the light that was left and “flung” it against the darkness. To shape the topography, God “walked” and from his footsteps “hollowed the valleys out/And bulged the mountains up.” God “spat” to make the seven seas, “batted His eyes” to make lightning, and “clapped his hands” to make thunder. Once named, Creation participates in God’s labor, with personified trees pointing fingers and spreading arms, while lakes “cuddled” and rivers “ran,” and the rainbow “curled itself around His shoulder.”

As God continues His animated waving and clapping and the flora and fauna explode with life, God remains “lonely still.” Resting from His labors, God contemplates the absence in his relationship with Creation. “Then God sat down/On the side of a hill where He could think;/By a deep, wide river He sat down;/With His head in His hands,/God thought and thought,/Till He thought, ‘I’ll make me a man!’” In a remarkable sequence that follows, as the poet recalls the biblical myth of Golem while also referencing the enslaved past of Black women caregivers, Johnson contrasts the demanding physical labor involved in creation and offers another image of a different kind of work: “This Great God,/Like a mammy bending over her baby,/Kneeled down in the dust/Toiling over a lump of clay/Till He shaped it in His own image;/Then into it He blew the breath of life,/And man became a living soul.”

Johnson’s depiction of Creation engaged the power of nommo when he recast the biblical story in a context of labor and landscape familiar to enslaved persons of African descent. His poem illustrates how humanity participates in co-creation as beloved companions to God who are intended to thrive, not just survive. Johnson’s depiction of human creation originating in breath also poignantly anticipates the desperate cry of “I can’t breathe,” so resonant of the Black Lives Matter movement’s claim to this fullness of life, and reasserts, as the movement does, that only God has power over life and death.

From its African origins to its African American expressions, nommo moves from naming reality to living it and loving it. The depiction of God in “The Creation,” and the moral urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement both find echoes in the writings of St. Ignatius, who advises seekers to act in a dynamic characteristic of how God works in “The Creation”—He labors, He rests, He contemplates, and He acts. This is the same rhythm of a contemplative in action, a follower of the Society of Jesus. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius encourages seekers to pay attention to Creation and to find their place in it through a combination of meditation and action. St. Ignatius repeatedly refers to God as “Creator and Lord,” pointing seekers to the same etiology Johnson describes in his poem, and urges seekers to engage this experience with “relish,” as exuberantly as Johnson’s birds who “split the air with their wings.” St. Ignatius also frequently analogizes God as a worker or a laborer, and advises seekers to approach their lives with the same intentional industry and effort.

In Johnson’s poem, the creation of humanity comes last as an explicit effort on God’s part to heal His loneliness. In the Spiritual Exercises, this special relationship between God and humanity is announced early on as the purpose of not only the Exercises but indeed of life itself. In “Principle and Foundation” St. Ignatius declares: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord,” while “The other things on the face of the earth are created for the human beings, to help them in the pursuit of the end for which they are created.”

All that follows by way of instruction in the Exercises is designed to cultivate and secure this relationship between humanity and divinity and fulfill its purpose in all of Creation. The Spiritual Exercises, too, move from naming, to living, to loving. They begin by naming the evil spirit that is causing desolation and move a seeker toward a life of accompaniment that will lead to consolation.

The exercises of the First Week are a series of points that guide a seeker in mediations on her own sins, taking her to a darkness similar to Johnson’s description of the world before Creation. The Fifth Point, however, takes a turn from this mortifying self-examination and “is an exclamation of wonder and surging emotion, uttered as I reflect on all creatures and wonder who they have allowed me to live and have preserved me in life.” Included with angels and saints are “the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the elements; the fruits, birds, fishes, and animals. And the earth…” Ignatius is demonstrating, as Johnson did in his poem, the benevolence of God’s creation, but he also warns us of the ways in which we stray from our place in Creation. During the First Week a seeker continues to go deeper into a purgative examination of her own sin and repeatedly prays for mercy in the remaining exercises. She begins to understand the difference between mere movement and intentional action.

In the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises, the seeker reads about the life of Jesus as an example of purposeful action, and is encouraged to accept God’s invitation to “labor with me during the day and keep watch in the night.” By rehearsing the life of Jesus in the Second Week, a seeker’s path is incarnated in matter and action. It is embodied and given purpose, illuminated and brought to life in Jesus’ words and actions in the same way Johnson animates Creation and completes it with human relationship. Indeed, Ignatius instructs seekers to cultivate the five senses aroused by the Creation in a particular manner of contemplation “and draw some profit from it,” before entering into the life of Jesus.

In the Third Week, a seeker encounters the Passion and death of Jesus, and in so doing understands the great cost of discipleship in much the same way the events that generated the Black Lives Matter movement have led many away from what James Baldwin described as “willed innocence,” and toward recognition that what follows for the seeker costs “not less than everything,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets. Now sensitized and aware of her role in Creation, a seeker moves forward in humility (a posture seen in Johnson’s poem when God kneels before the riverbank) that will eventually lead to her an election—a choice to live in relationship to and service for God. This is nommo, too, bringing to definition and fullness of existence each created life.

And just as God completes his Creation in Johnson’s poem by creating a loving relationship with humanity, so in the Fourth Week does a seeker recognize this relationship and commit to attain love, framed by St. Ignatius as the same material and somatic directive by which Johnson described the loving and also humbling act of Creation: “Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.” Creation is more than an act of mojo; Black Lives Matter is more than a hashtag; and a way of proceeding is more than an exercise.

St. Ignatius concludes the Fourth Week reminding the seeker to reflect on the gifts of Creation and her place in it. He follows up with guidance on how to show love in deeds, emphasizing the active and material work involved: “I will consider how God labors and works for me in all the creatures on the face of the earth; that is, he acts in the manner of one who is laboring. For example, he is working in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, cattle, and all the rest—giving them their existence, conserving them, concurring with their vegetative and sensitive activities and so forth.” In James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation,” and in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, God is characterized in similar ways—as a laborer working in and through an ongoing relationship with humans, created by nommo, animated by unrestrained breath, and sustained by love. In both, God creates matter and makes it matter.

KIMBERLY RAE CONNOR is a professor of ethics in the School of Management and Lane Center Faculty Chair for Mission Integration. She is also a student in the Pierre Favre program at El Retiro Jesuit Retreat Center.