The Life of Pi and The Spiritual Exercises

Posted by Santiago Rodriguez , SJ in Our Culture

Courtesy of wikipedia.comThe Life of Pi – the best-selling novel by Yann Martel adapted by Ang Lee – is a compelling and beautiful film. It is a visual delight and its magnificent score is a lovely lullaby – it soothes the soul. The film portrays the story of Piscine Molitor Pi Patel, the son of an Indian zoo keeper, adrift after a shipwreck that claimed the life of his family. The incident acutely affects Pi; a teenager who has striven his whole life to understand the world around him, the emotions of those who live in it and the various beliefs that exist in that world. Pi survives the wreckage, but his life remains endangered. Not only is he adrift at sea, but also the other inhabitant of the lifeboat is a dangerous and hungry Bengal tiger – Richard Parker.

Pi finds himself in quite a predicament. And yet, he still marvels at the beauty around him: at the sea, the fish, the sky, the cruelty of nature, and his life in the lifeboat and the raft he created to protect himself from Richard Parker. Pi also ponders about the presence of God in his life and in his ordeal. He concludes that God can soothe his senses and strengthen his spirit.

Pi is someone who is searching for God. Before the shipwreck, he had become restless and longed to find something that would bring meaning into his life. The wreckage compelled him to wrestle with his emotions and grapple with his beliefs. His survival is the parable of a soul trying to make sense of the beauty and the cruelty of this world. Pi is coming to terms with God, who animates such a world. It is in this sense that Pi's journey resembles the journey of a person making the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Ignatius tells us that during the Spiritual Exercises it is God who must work in the soul of the retreatant. The spiritual director must allow the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord. And so in the story, the circumstances allow God to act with and on Pi, and Pi to respond with sorrow, gratitude and wonder. Ignatius invites the retreatant to enter the Spiritual Exercises with magnanimity and generosity (Sp Ex no. 5). And although Pi's predicament is not of his choosing, he responds to the situation wholeheartedly. He responds with generosity even towards his deadly companion.

Courtesy of Jesuit Sources.The Spiritual Exercises invite the retreatant to heartfelt intimacy with God to become more fully alive. Pi almost died in the shipwreck where he lost everything. He then clinged to life as he clinged to the lifeboat during the storms. Ignatius calls spiritual exercises every method of examination of conscience, meditation, contemplation, and mental and vocal prayer (Sp Ex no. 1). Pi examines his life and its meaning, he contemplates the spiritual elements. In moments of despair and wonder, he encountered God and conversed with him. These cries or calls to God witness to the journey of his soul.

Three of those conversations with God touched me deeply. In his first colloquy with God after the wreckage, Pi says, “God... I give myself to you. I am your vessel. Whatever comes... I want to know. Show me.” Pi gives himself wholeheartedly. He desires to know God and to be a vessel and instrument. But the silence of God and the cruelty of his world prove too much at times for Pi and for Richard Parker. In the midst of a thunderstorm, Pi invites the tiger to “come out and see God.” But Richard Parker is scared. And so is Pi. And thus he tells his Creator, “Why are you scaring him? I've lost my family. I've lost everything! I surrender! What more do you want?”

This is the cry of a soul who longs to understand what God is asking of him. He struggles to understand. He seems to say, “God, I have given you all. You have taken everything. I told you I surrender. I said I want to be your vessel. I want to see. I want to know. I want you to show me. I said the right things. I worshipped you in many ways. I went to church. I did my prayers. What else do you want? What else can I do?”

Courtesy of eatthebirds.comHis last prayer is an offering. He thinks he is dying. He is at peace in this defining moment: “God, thank you for giving me my life. I'm ready now.” But death does not come. He is given something else. He is given rest, food, meaning.

Through his journey, Pi learned to let go, even if he did not get a chance to say good-bye to so many he loved. He learned to surrender. He grappled to find the best way to live for the more – he strived for the magis. His life became an offering of himself to the eternal Lord of all things (Sp Ex no. 98). He marvelled at God's presence in the world and how God dwells and labours in all creatures. In turn, Pi found rest and peace. He found the meaning and purpose he was looking for.

Just as with every other retreatant, Pi's spiritual exercises are not an end, only a means to live a fuller and more meaningful life. They are a new beginning. Pi's life will be forever affected by his days adrift, the nights he spent at sea with Richard Parker and the moments of great communion with creation and its Creator. For him, and for all of us, that journey is expressed well in the suscipe:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me. To You, O Lord, I return it. All is Yours now, dispose of it wholly according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace, that is enough for me (Sp Ex no. 234).

About The Author

Santiago Rodriguez, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic studying in the USA and also working with the Hearts on Fire Young Adult ministry.

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