By Rachel Moccia
A symphony of voices and footsteps echoed in the hallowed halls of the Martyrs’ Shrine, as over 12,000 souls with diverse beliefs journeyed together in pilgrimage. Among them, a young Tamil Canadian, Raj Vijayakumar, would find himself ensnared in a divine dance of accompaniment that would ultimately lead him to the Jesuits. Today, as a spiritual director, Raj walks with others along their own unique paths, opening their hearts to the profound and transformative presence of God in their lives.
Tell me how you first encountered the Jesuits.
I’m Tamil, from Sri Lanka, and Tamil Canadians have an annual pilgrimage that they take to the Martyrs’ Shrine. It’s the biggest pilgrimage that happens there with over 12,000 people from a variety of backgrounds — Hindus, Buddhists, Christians — going up to the Martyrs’ Shrine on a single day. So, my family would go to the Martyrs’ Shrine once a year, and it was through that experience that I first came into contact with the Jesuits.
How did you discern your vocation?
My story is very funny when I look back on it. There was a lot of back and forth in my discernment. I had considered entering the Jesuits for a while and ended up entering the Jesuits for the first time in 2013. Then in about 2018, toward the end of my regency, I left. There’s something about religious life, and all vocations, that invites you to a bit of “death to self.” I was coming face-to-face with that reality and in the moment, I just said no.
There’s something about religious life, and all vocations, that invites you to a bit of “death to self.” I was coming face-to-face with that reality and in the moment, I just said no.
I feel like my vocation story is a bit like Jonah’s — God is inviting Jonah to go somewhere, and Jonah just wants to go in the opposite direction. At the same time, there was something deep in my heart, telling me that God is calling me to this vocation.
How did you end up discerning your way back to the Jesuits?
After I left, I did a few different things, but the year I spent working at L’Arche was really my conversion moment. I was working closely with a man who faced a lot of challenges — he had cerebral palsy, he couldn’t speak, and he would have seizures. I became good friends with him, and as I walked alongside him, I realized that although he was going through so many difficulties, his life was very healing for everyone around him. He was fruitful in a very deep, spiritual way. And that changed how I understood God’s work in the world.
How did that encounter change your understanding of God?
When I left the Jesuits, I had thought that God could never expect that path of me because it was just too difficult. But after accompanying this man, I realized that God’s desires are much bigger than what I think or even understand. I realized that faith means putting myself into His hands, not knowing what’s going to happen, and that the suffering I’m going to encounter may surpass my understanding. But at the same time, there’s a sense that I’m doing what God wants. Despite the fact that there are challenges around me, there’s a sense that God is really there, working with me and through me. That’s what led me back to the Society.
Your experience of accompaniment at L’Arche had a huge impact on your journey! More recently, you’ve been accompanying people through spiritual direction. Tell me about that.
I learned the ins and outs of spiritual direction from Fr. Kevin Kelly, SJ, at Villa Saint-Martin. He really helped me grow into the vocation of spiritual direction. To be honest, I’m a terrible listener because I’m always in my head, analyzing things and breaking them down. And listening is about 90% of the job of a spiritual director! At the Villa, I not only learned skills and tools for spiritual direction, but I also grew as a person. I learned how to really listen to another person and not make assumptions. It was a huge personal and spiritual development for me.
What do you think the value of spiritual direction is in our current moment?
I think spiritual direction is the most effective way to help someone because it involves both human and divine elements. If the director is doing their job, they’re helping the directee to open themselves up to God, and they’re allowing God to be the active agent.
I think spiritual direction is the most effective way to help someone because it involves both human and divine elements.
The other special thing about spiritual direction is that it’s an encounter that’s unlike any other in our daily lives. It’s a relationship that you enter simply as two humans at the same level, without assumptions, and as the director, you to allow the directee to build who they are right in front of you. As the director, I’m not there to teach you something or make you do something. I’m here with you as another human being, connecting with you. Spiritual direction is about being willing to listen to the other person, to be changed by them, their story, and how they think about the world.
You talk about allowing yourself to be changed by your directees. Can you share about an experience that had an impact on you?
When I was working at a prison, I met an inmate who was so kind; he was always helping the other inmates and taking care of them. As I got to know him, I learned that he was in prison for murder. He shared that at a certain point he had decided that he wasn’t going to hurt people anymore and he was going to start doing good. His witness was incredible. Here is someone who has done probably one of the worst things you can imagine, and you see that God is not holding that over him. God is deeply in relationship with him and working through him.
How do you cultivate the kind of openness that allows for these transformative encounters?
There’s an obvious answer for me and it’s simply praying for the grace to be humble. In addition to praying for humility I try to practice it by resisting the temptation to enter into power games with people, even if they’re trying to play power games with me. That involves not only a willingness to not play into those games but also an acceptance that I might get hurt; but I know that if I enter into these games, I lose myself and I lose that openness to genuine encounter.