Put out into the deep*


5 May 2020

We need to develop a deep understanding and appreciation of what is important, rather than living life on the surface.

During the 35th General Congregation of the Jesuits in 2008, Pope Benedict challenged the Society of Jesus to go to the frontiers – to travel to those ‘geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it difficult to reach’.

The new Father General elected on that occasion, Adolfo Nicolas, later put some words around one of those places and challenged Jesuits across the world to go to what he termed the ‘frontier of depth’.

What did he mean? In an address to Jesuit educators in the Philippines in 2009, Father Nico, as he was affectionately known, gave his own take on the much-used Ignatian term Magis by translating it as ‘Depth’.

He explained that ‘Ignatius was always concerned with depth. You have heard many times, I am sure, his principle of Non multa sed multum. Literally, “Not many, but much,” originally one of the annotations in the Spiritual Exercises, but applied often to Ignatian pedagogy as well.

‘One could paraphrase this as “not quantity, but depth”: “what satisfies the soul,” Ignatius says.

In other words, what really matters in the business of becoming human and Christian is not many superficial bits of knowledge and information, but a deep understanding and appreciation of what is most important.’

Living life on the surface by wading in the shallows, living alongside the world rather than within it, can be seductive for all of us.

In October 2010, our own Fr Frank Brennan was accompanying former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, during the events celebrating the canonisation of St. Mary MacKillop in Rome.


The then Foreign Minister asked Frank whether he could arrange a meeting for him with the Jesuit General, Father ‘Nico’ – no easy task at short notice given the demands on the latter’s diary. Nonetheless, Frank was able to manage it, and Mr Rudd moved promptly to question Father General about what he saw as the greatest challenge facing the Jesuits

in 2010. Father Nico without hesitation answered: ‘The globalisation of superficiality’.

It does not take much reflection to realise that Father Nico was absolutely right. Every day our senses are assailed by the banal, the trivial, and the plastic. Have we not reached new heights or rather lows of triviality with the so-called ‘reality’ television shows? I cringe, for example, every time I see an advertisement for Married at First Sight and shake my head when I read that it enjoys such popularity in the television ratings.

While ‘the globalisation of superficiality’ is a catchy phrase, it is also a rigorous challenge. To see life at depth is, in Sister Joan Chittister’s words, ‘to choose between what is real and what sparkles, between the lasting and the ephemeral, between what is necessary and what is fluffy indulgence’. (Uncommon Gratitude)


Just recently I was sitting in a School Assembly at Xavier College, Melbourne, and the vice-captain of the school was sharing his views on the meaning of the college’s Ignatian theme for the year:

‘Look to the good first.’

It was an outstanding speech of substantial depth for one of tender years – so much so that I later asked him for a copy which I quote here. ‘There have been some dark chapters in our school’s history. It has not been immune from the abuse scandals, it has in the past had elements of a culture of unhealthy masculinity, which was harmful and degrading and the college has at times struggled to confront such problems. But if we look to the good, by understanding the challenges of the past, and acknowledge these aspects while demanding more of ourselves and each other now and in the future, there is cause for hope and optimism.’

Bravo, Tom! Such a far cry from the crass superficiality and triviality of so-called ‘reality’ television that thrives on put-downs and humiliation.


On most occasions when I am beginning a conference or retreat presentation, I quote the words of American Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr in his book Things Hidden – Scripture as Spirituality: ‘You lead others to the depth to which you have been led . . . you can only transform people to the degree you have been transformed.’

Surely this is our raison d’etre for producing Madonna four times a year – helping people to search for greater depth in their lives and learn that ‘the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.’ (1 Cor.2:10)

After all, life is really about learning to live it deeply, coming to live it well, beginning to live it as a spiritual experience rather than as a perpetual burden or an eternal wonderland. ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10) l

*When Jesus calls his first disciples in Luke 5, he tells Simon ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch’.

This article first appeared in the Madonna magazine Winter 2020 edition. Subscribe to Madonna magazine at madonnamagazine.com.au/article/subscriptions.

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