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Are you bogged down in your spiritual journey? Does church seem to hinder more than it helps? Here is a welcoming and realistic guide for all who may be feeling spiritually jaded. Whatever your circumstances, Companions of Christ will show you how to embark on a journey of the heart, starting wherever you happen to be and no matter how unfit for the journey you may feel. In Companions of Christ popular British writer Margaret Silf unearths the gold mine of spiritual wisdom to be found in the legacy of Ignatius ...
Are you bogged down in your spiritual journey? Does church seem to hinder more than it helps? Here is a welcoming and realistic guide for all who may be feeling spiritually jaded. Whatever your circumstances, Companions of Christ will show you how to embark on a journey of the heart, starting wherever you happen to be and no matter how unfit for the journey you may feel. In Companions of Christ popular British writer Margaret Silf unearths the gold mine of spiritual wisdom to be found in the legacy of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Ignatian spirituality sets out an engagingly down-to-earth vision of connecting with God in everyday life. Neither a recipe for a privatized spiritual life nor an agenda imposed by someone else, the Ignatian vision is centered on companionship, which means literally to "share bread" with another. It latches onto God's presence in stories, in other people, in the created universe, and even in God's apparent absence. Perfect for those whose faith in God or patience with the church is flagging, Companions of Christ contains very practical teaching on great Ignatian themes — imaginative scriptural meditation, spiritual discernment, and honest prayer. Incorporating helpful spiritual exercises throughout, Silf shows both tentative and seasoned believers how to keep faith despite the odds.
Probably the last thing Inigo Lopez would have wanted, I venture to suggest, at least in his more mature years, would have been to become something of a cult figure for spiritual searchers in subsequent centuries. The best gurus, indeed, are usually those who deny any such role and resist every attempt to put them on a pedestal. Even so, this man is interesting, and his life is quite an adventure, in more ways than one. Moreover, the particular approach to Christian spirituality that is his special contribution has become widely explored in recent times, both within and beyond the visible 'church'. So I hope he will forgive us if we indulge in a bit of creative nostalgia, and imagine ourselves back in the Basque country of Northern Spain, some five hundred years ago.
There is a purpose in the exercise. We will peer back through the lenses of history not just out of curiosity (though Inigo's story justifies a certain amount of healthy curiosity), but also with a view to finding something of our own story reflected back from that, now slightly antiquated, mirror. It is a bit like rummaging through grandmother's attic and discovering old newspapers that, quite startlingly, have something very relevant to say about today's world and our place in it. When we rummage around in Inigo's attic, we find there are treasures there that stop us in our tracks with their spot-on insights into some of our most pressing spiritual questions in the twenty-first century. But don't take my word for it ... decide for yourself.
If I had to summarize in a sentence what Ignatian spirituality means for me, I would certainly want to include two keywords in that sentence: 'story' and 'image'.
The story-telling aspect of Ignatian spirituality speaks to us today, especially by invoking our intuitive sense of being engaged in a process, or a journey, rather than being cogs in a fixed system or structure. Perhaps that is because Inigo himself discovered so much wisdom, not from 'the system', but from his own direct experience of God's action in his life and the process of growth that this action initiated and nourished.
The use of image in the Ignatian approach is rooted in his recommendation that we indeed use our imagination in prayer - in ways that we will explore later in this book. For many, this way of praying has opened up fresh new possibilities of discovering the real, living connections between the gospel story and their own stories, which is often the first step to embodying gospel values in our own choices and decisions.
Given these two key aspects of Ignatian spirituality, it seems appropriate to begin our exploration by entering a little into Inigo's own story, and by pausing to reflect on a few snapshot images from that story which may reveal something of what it is that gives Ignatian spirituality its particular flavour and character. To do this, we must travel back in time in two ways:
Back to incidents that happened in Northern Spain, Rome and Paris at the beginning of the sixteenth century;
Back to our own personal memory bank.
I invite you to browse through the photo album with me for a few minutes, and pause to reflect, not only on what these snapshots reveal of Inigo, but also the ways in which they resonate with your own story.
A Basque boy
Our first picture is of a little boy born in 1491, the youngest of 12 children. The place is a sunny spot in the Basque region of Northern Spain, and the family seat of this noble family is at the castle of Loyola. This is where Inigo spends his early years, and seems destined for an aristocratic life and a military or courtly career. His formal training begins at the age of 14, preparing to be a royal page to the King of Spain.
The boy grows to young manhood, and at the age of 22 experiences redundancy, on the death of his employer, Don Juan Valasquez, who had ensured his favour with the royal court. With Valasquez, Inigo's income and status die too. His next employer is the Duke of Najera. Inigo works as a 'gentleman-at-arms' and begins serious military training. He is full of the zeal of his class, certainly not immune to the attractions of women, nor above the odd street brawl when he is crossed. It hardly seems like the best nursery for a future saint, but God writes straight with crooked lines.
The next snapshot takes us back to a completely forgettable, and largely forgotten battle around the Spanish fortification of Pamplona. The battle is raging between the French and the Spanish. Inigo Lopez of Loyola is defending the fortress, with more courage than common sense, against an overwhelming French invasion. We find him standing there, bold and determined, defying the inevitable. His hour on the parapets is to be short, however. It ends when a cannon-ball shatters his leg and breaks his knee. And along with his knee, the cannon-ball shatters his ambition, his pride, his dreams and his self-esteem. It lays him low. It puts him radically out of action.
Without a doubt it was the personal catastrophe of Pamplona that became the means through which God worked his miracle in Inigo. But Inigo's story and his subsequent experience of working it out in his life is only of value to us because it catches some of the threads of the universal pilgrim story.
Spain's loss was to become Inigo's gain, in the long term. And God's gain, and ours too. And isn't it true that the deep and life-changing movements in our story so often happen when we are floored and floundering, hapless and helpless?
So perhaps the problems that we so long to circumvent or the pain we seek to avoid may be the very places where we are being drawn beyond ourselves. They may be the very places that stretch us towards new understanding, deeper love - the places that contain the seeds of our growth.
Inigo's career as a soldier had ended in defeat, humiliation and extreme pain. Reputation, strength, status, ambition - all those things were gone in the moment it took the cannon-ball to shatter his knee. He finds himself with plenty of time to brood on these things, as he is carried across the mountains on a stretcher, back to the family home in Loyola, there to spend months trying to recover from an injury that nearly cost him his life.
In all of this there is still no sign of God making a dramatic entrance into this wounded soldier's life. Rather the opposite, in fact. Inigo can't have been the easiest patient. As soon as he can find enough energy to read a book, he casts around in the Loyola library for some literature to while away the boredom. He wants something to engage his imagination. He finds more than he has bargained for, in a surprising quarter. Learning that the library doesn't have his favourite romantic novels or adventure stories, he has to make do with a life of Christ and lives of the saints. His comments on first being offered this fare are not recorded!
An active mind is not an easy tenant of an immobilized body. Our third snapshot reveals Inigo in the process of relieving his boredom - by daydreaming. Perhaps first as an escape route from the lives of the saints, he spends his time fantasizing about the fine ladies he would like to pursue and the great battles he would like to win. This is fine as long as the dream lasts, but he realizes that it leaves him feeling more disgruntled than ever. He even gets to wondering why it should leave him so flat and dejected. Perhaps it is because it is all history now, and this injury has put him out of the league when it comes to women and glory. Or could it also be because these dreams are all centred on Inigo, and Inigo is no longer centre stage. Maybe his disappointment and frustration with himself is penetrating his daydreams, and colouring them grey?
But there are other dreams. The life of Christ and the lives of the saints don't leave him untouched after all. He starts to dream about doing the saint-thing himself. If men like Francis and Dominic could do great things, why not Inigo? So off he goes into dreamland again, this time imagining himself giving his all, as they had done, for a cause that is worth spending a life for. And he notices that this kind of dreaming has a different effect on him, leaving him inspired and more alive, his inner energy store replenished and overflowing. The King of Spain is not, after all, the last word in kings. There is another King, whose service engaged the minds and hearts of these fine men in the past. That same King is already knocking on the door of Inigo's own heart, with a call and a challenge that is going to shape every moment of his life from now on.
Inigo's discovery of this difference in the after-effects of his dreams is the beginning of discernment. He begins to notice which dreams are capable of sustaining him and providing new vision and energy, and which dreams are transitory, leaving him feeling flat and disappointed. It is the start of a personal experience and understanding of the inner movements going on all the time in his mind and heart. He begins to notice his moods and feelings and reactions, and to measure them against this unseen compass of discernment. And gradually his desire begins to grow for what sustains him and gives him life, and he becomes more willing and able to let go of what is not (or is no longer) leading to life. He is learning how to distinguish between his own self-focused fantasies, and the stirrings of what we might call the God-dream within him.
Mountain high ...
Inigo has experienced a radical conversion during his painful period of convalescence in the castle at Loyola. He is ready, and eager, to live out the God-dream and to make it incarnate in his own life. He sets off from Loyola, a pilgrim for God.
Our next snapshot records Inigo's pilgrimage in search of the deepest desire of his heart. And we find him, first, at the Abbey of Montserrat, high on a jagged mountain peak, overlooking the plain of Manresa. Here, in the abbey, he makes his confession (which tradition tells us took all of three days!) and receives his first guidance in prayer.
By any standards, the jagged teeth of the Montserrat mountains are spectacular. It is in this dramatic setting that Inigo lives his spiritual mountain-top experience. This is the time of commitment. He marks this crucial decision - his 'option for God' - with a typically impulsive gesture. He gives his fine nobleman's clothes to a beggar, and dons the simple outfit of a poor traveller. (The beggar is later arrested on suspicion of having stolen the clothes!) And he places his sword and dagger on the altar as a sign of surrender of all that he had valued in the past, and a symbol of his new commitment to the service of God.
... and valley deep
We all know how hard it can be to come 'down to earth' again after a heightened spiritual experience. Yet if the commitment is to become a reality in our lives, we have to bring it down to where our lives are really being lived. For Inigo, this means coming down from the high drama of Montserrat to the plain of Manresa, intending to stay there for 'a few days' before going on to Barcelona, where he hopes to board a boat to the Holy Land. These 'few days' stretch into eleven months, and it is in Manresa where the next stage of Inigo's pilgrimage is to take shape, and in a manner very, very different from anything he had planned or expected.
Determined to live true to all that he has promised God up in Montserrat, the proud and self-willed Inigo now faces the heat and dust of everyday reality. Our next snapshot reveals him begging for his food and coming face to face with the dark side of the dream. He makes a 'home' for himself in a cave near the river. Alone, in this bleak place, he begins to meet his own 'demons'. Here the insights of his dream-time in Loyola are put to the test in the cold light of day. He is to discover for himself the true force of the 'destructive spirits' of spiritual desolation as well as the overwhelming joy that only the 'creative spirits' of spiritual consolation can bring.
In the Manresa months, Inigo is, as it were, living in his personal wilderness, which exposes him to the extremes of his own personality, as well as to the depths of God's love. There in his cave, he experiences the very best of himself and the very worst. The worst leads him close to suicide. The best leads him close to God. He begins to notice the dynamic of God's love operating in his heart, and to realize that when his focus is on himself, and his past and present failures and sinfulness, real or imagined, the destructive movements are likely to overwhelm him and paralyze all his efforts for good. When his focus is on God, however, and on the world around him with all its needs and longings, he notices that the creative movements within him will restore him to the sense of vocation that has led him this far on his journey.
His own moods - reflectors of those hidden inner movements, the God-focused joy and the self-focused despair - help him to find his way forward, by trial and error, on his inner journey to God. He learns how to use his feelings and reactions, and his memories and desires, as pointers to help him to seek out what, in every situation, is leading him closer to God and to leave aside anything that is causing him to drift away from God.
And as he journeys through this huge inner struggle, he records his experience in a notebook which forms the basis of his Spiritual Exercises. These notes have helped countless thousands of pilgrims, through the centuries, to uncover their own hidden depths in the search for God, and we will explore them more fully in a later chapter.
Back to school and a summer picnic
Be prepared for a surprise when you leaf over the next two snapshots. After the heights of Montserrat and the depths of Manresa, the pilgrim might well have hoped for an uncomplicated life in the service of God, sharing the fruits of his own experience with others. It was not to be. It very rarely is! So we join him now following a series of setbacks and disappointments, including the frustration of his dreams of serving God in the Holy Land, ill health, a close shave in a shipwreck, and some major opposition to his ministry which leads him into the grip of the Inquisition. How can this upstart layman be preaching the gospel, when he hasn't been to seminary? Who knows what he might be up to! Secular and Church authorities alike set themselves against him, but his determination only deepens to serve God in the face of whatever opposition and humiliation may come his way.
This leads him to a surprising new idea. If the only way to be accepted as a credible authority in the Church of his time is to be ordained, then this is what he will do. And so our next snapshot reveals the grown Inigo sitting uncomfortably at a school desk, among a gaggle of twelve-year-olds, learning Latin, with a 'whatever it takes' expression on his furrowed brow.
Eventually Latin is conquered, school yields to university, and Inigo is off to study in Paris. There, as elsewhere, he freely offers his companions the benefit of his spiritual experience in Manresa, in the form of his Spiritual Exercises. Particular friends are Francis Xavier and Peter Favre, whose lives are changed by the power of the sustained prayer of the Exercises and who long, like Inigo, to share the experience more widely. By 1534 the band of friends has grown to seven, and our next snapshot finds them out for a summer picnic on 15 August 1534. It was a celebration picnic. They have just shared the Eucharist, and made solemn vows that they will serve God together as companions of Christ, or in Latin, Socii Jesu, a religious order which has come to be known as the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. Surely the Jesuits must be the only religious order to have launched itself with a picnic in a Paris park.
Excerpted from COMPANIONS OF CHRIST by Margaret Silf Copyright © 2004 by Margaret Silf .
Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Indigo - the man behind the myth||1|
|2||Down to Earth with God||17|
|4||First principles, firm foundations||47|
|5||Free to grow||63|
|6||Prayer that works||82|
|App. 1||To take your Ignatian journey further||113|