The Back Story: Part One – Philip Shano, SJ

Source: Kevin Burns

Back Story is a new feature about some of the regular contributors to igNation. It’s a series of short interviews with writers, their influences, how they go about writing in general and especially their work for igNation. The interviews are about writing in general rather than an exploration of any particular piece they have authored for the blog.

Each of the participants in the Back Story series was interviewed by Kevin Burns by telephone. He asked each participant the same set of questions, plus a few more based on things that surfaced during their conversation. What follows is an edited version of a much longer conversation.

Because the igNation format has a limited word-count, each of the interviews in this series will include an additional audio component: “To hear more about [whatever the topic might be]: Click here.”

And having explained the pattern, this first Back Story is an exception since it does not conform on two counts. First, the interview was not carried out by phone and second, as a consequence of that decision readers will have to imagine any additional audio for themselves!


This first interview in the series took the form of an e-mail exchange between Kevin Burns and Philip Shano SJ who is a regular contributor to igNation from his base at Pickering and his pieces are reflections on scripture and spirituality. Here is an edited version of what Philip Shano said in his e-mail:

KB: Let’s start with a question I’m asking everyone in this series. Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a work of yours in print? What is that experience like, seeing something you have written actually in print?

PS: It may have been a piece on the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian spirituality, published in The Way, an international journal of thought on Ignatian spirituality. It feels good to see myself in print and regardless of how often it happens, I’m still humbled and grateful.

However, the really good feeling comes from meeting or receiving correspondence from someone who has read something by me. I’m grateful that they read it and have serious comments on it. It is especially gratifying when someone writes from another part of the world, asking to use a piece by me in an anthology or a study. That has often happened with my writing on the Spiritual Exercises.

I’ve also had the experience of being told that someone just read word-for-word on of my blog posts as their Sunday homily.

KB: Many writers follow special rituals when they write, using certain pens, or special notebooks – you know, the paper kind. Do you have any such rituals?  

PS: I have absolutely no rituals. I go between my Mac Book Pro, my iPad, and long-hand. It all depends on what I am writing, where I actually am, and so on. Many of my pieces for igNation are composed on my iPad while sitting at Starbucks.

I come home and edit the piece on my laptop. I guess that there is no ritual, except a recognition that I do different things for different kinds of writing.

KB: When you write a piece for igNation do you go where your ideas take you or do you follow a prepared outline?


PS: I prepare a detailed outline when working on a scholarly article. It undergoes changes as I start writing and as I end up doing more research. But it is fundamentally formulated in my mind when I start writing. I know where I am going. There are times when I draft a closing to a piece early in the process.

Blog posts are a whole different process. There are times when I have the basic idea and just start writing, letting things “flow” in an intuitive manner. I start writing and keep changing and evolving the ideas. There are other times when I have very little sense of what I want to say.

I should explain here that a piece on a particular feast or topic (e.g., a review of a book or a document from the Pope) is easier for me than another assignment I’ve been doing in the past year for igNation.

The editor, John Pungente SJ, asked me to write on the Gospel for each Sunday in the liturgical year. I really cannot decide what I’ll write about until I’ve tried to integrate the Sunday Gospel in question. A few months ago, he asked me to use my Sunday piece to deal with the Las Vegas massacre, and to refer to the Sunday Gospel only if it helped.

from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Source:

I needed to sink my teeth into something besides the Gospel. As it is, I do try to help people relate the Gospel to their lives.

KB: Where does writing “fit” in your life as Jesuit? 

PS: That is easy! There are many ways to reach people. I know that I am a gifted writer and I can adapt my style. I am not so good with speaking. I guess that my real hope is to help readers find God in the little things in their lives, to reflect and ask questions.

I’m grateful if I can help people to make sense of their lives and their world. I spend a lot of my time offering spiritual direction while sitting with someone. I think that I sometimes try to do that in the blog posts.


KB: Can you tell me who the writers are who have influenced you the most, and also tell me about any of the books that are on your bedside table right now?

PS: I am influenced by every writer I read, some more than others. I don’t really have favourites. I try to always have fiction on the go, a serious book about some aspect of contemporary culture, a “spiritual” book, etc.

Some of my reading is just a break: P.D. James, Henning Mankell, etc. One influential book I will mention, though, is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I’ve read it many times and it always serves to remind me of why I write.

I love memoirs. When I send my mother books, she says, “Not another book about death!” Books such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) or Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (2016).

I’m always drawn to a memoir that deals somewhat with the interior movements going on in a person. That kind of writing fits with my involvement in spiritual direction. Of course, I’m always drawn to something in Ignatian spirituality.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

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