A Heart on Fire:
Br. Mark Mackey, SJ
I have two early childhood memories, one of my mom waking me up with a simple prayer and the other of catching frogs and salamanders in our backyard creek. Interestingly, God was clearly present in both moments. Nature and spirituality have been intertwined in my faith journey since its beginning. As a kid, I had no problem seeing mystery and wonder in nature—seeing every little creature as artwork from a creative hand. As I got older, I lost sight of this, and part of my faith journey has been simply returning to this simpler view of the world as an adult.
I grew up in Cincinnati and went to St. Xavier High School. Although I had some powerful experiences on student retreats, I focused mainly on social and academic endeavors. I went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to follow my passion for nature by studying zoology and environmental science. A successful stint in undergraduate research segued me smoothly into graduate school where I continued research investigating impacts of human land use on aquatic ecosystems. I spent morning to night reading, writing, and designing studies to progress my research career. Slowly my work shifted away from being life-giving and fueled by wonder. I found I had let my view of nature become more empirical and data-driven. Additionally, one day I realized it had been weeks since I had last prayed or thought about my faith. I realized I either needed to let go of my old faith or invest in it more.
A critical turning point came during my graduate years. The catalyst was when I found a faith community in a Catholic Newman Center where I would ask questions, examine my own beliefs, and worship with others again. I also began to explore spiritual reading and found a treasure trove of authors that nourished me, including spiritual author Fr. Anthony de Mello, SJ, and Jesuit scientist Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Finally, and most importantly, I relearned to pray and how to make it a daily part of my life.
As I deepened my prayer life and relationship with God, my desires and where I found fulfillment began to change. I was no longer satisfied with a career that focused so much on myself and my own accomplishments. I also recognized nature wasn’t just a thing to study or conserve. In fact, it was most important to me because of what it taught me about God and my relationship to others. But I didn’t feel my research or teaching allowed me to talk about this.
It was the recognition and following of these deep desires that led me to discern away from my career in scientific research to pursue a more spiritual-based calling. Eventually I rediscovered the Jesuits, discerned my vocation, and entered the Society of Jesus in 2015—the same year Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato si’, was published.
It feels providential that each year I have been in the Society, the Jesuits have been discerning how we can commit more to caring for creation (see the Universal Apostolic Preferences). I am currently finishing my third and final year of first studies at Loyola University Chicago. I am completing my master’s degree in Christian spirituality with an emphasis in ecospirituality and studying how Ignatian spirituality and ecology intersect. This past semester I was able to help teach a course titled “Ecospirituality for Action,” where I helped young science students make ties between their spirituality and environmental work. I look back now in awe and gratitude at how recognizing and following my call through my God-given desires has so clearly made me more deeply me.