The Ignatian Workout: Daily Spiritual Exercises for a Healthy Faithby Tim Muldoon
We look at the world-and at God-in drastically different ways than our ancestors did, and yet the wisdom of a sixteenth-century Catholic saint perfectly suits our doubtful, antiauthoritarian, pluralistic age. St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that we could know God better by paying attention to his work in our lives, our experiences, our
get fit spiritually
We look at the world-and at God-in drastically different ways than our ancestors did, and yet the wisdom of a sixteenth-century Catholic saint perfectly suits our doubtful, antiauthoritarian, pluralistic age. St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that we could know God better by paying attention to his work in our lives, our experiences, our imagination, and our feelings. His Spiritual Exercises, an enduring masterpiece of spiritual insight, teaches us to grow spiritually by learning to respond in concrete, practical ways to this divine presence.
The Ignatian Workout presents St. Ignatius's wisdom in today's language-as a daily program of "workouts" to achieve spiritual fitness, tailored to people with busy schedules. It is a program that shows us how to recognize and respond to a God who is already at work in us, inviting us into a deeper relationship and into richer lives of love and service.
"A thoughtful, clever, and very practical introduction to Ignatian spirituality."
-J. A. Appleyard, S.J., vice president for University Mission
and Ministry Boston College
"The Ignatian Workout is a valuable contribution to contemporary writing on Ignatian spirituality. Muldoon does a fine job of illustrating just how relevant this spirituality is for today's young adults."
-J. Michael Sparough, S.J., director of Charis Ministries
Ignatian Spirituality for Young Adults
--J. A. Appleyard, S.J., Vice President for University Mission and Ministry, Boston College
"The Ignatian Workout is a valuable contribution to contemporary writing on Ignatian spirituality. Muldoon does a fine job of illustrating just how relevant this spirituality is for today’s young adults."
--J. Michael Sparough, S.J., Director of Charis Ministries Ignatian Spirituality for Young Adults
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Read an Excerpt
For many people, the coming of summer is a mix of exhilaration and dread. It’s exhilarating, of course, because it’s the time for vacations, barbecues, visits to the beach, and long nights. But the downside is that suddenly people become preoccupied with having to get into shape! I know that on the college campuses where I’ve been, the gyms fill up sometime before spring break and stay that way until classes end. Men and women flock to the treadmills, bicycles, weights, and (my personal favorite) rowing machines, in the hope that they can burn off the winter pounds and achieve the bodies that magazine editors drool over. Every year I see this, and every year I wonder the same thing: where have these people been over the winter? Maybe I tend to be a little critical. But it seems to me that if someone is really concerned with being fit, muscular, and svelte, that someone ought to be at it year-round. Bottom line: you can’t get a perfect body in one fell swoop, no matter what the latest magazine headline tells you!
My experience as a college athlete helped me to learn something about being in shape. I began rowing as a freshman, having had no prior training, and it was a slow process. I remember watching the Olympic rowers on TV and marveling at how incredible their skills were. When I first got into a boat, I remember wanting to row fast and hard, to feel the wind at my back as our crew cut smoothly through the river. The reality was that we splashed around like a bunch of uncoordinated children. That was the first lesson in patience. We all had to ditch our prior notions of how talented we were and get down to the business of learning slowly if we were ever to make progress. But gradually we did; and by the end of the season, though we were far from Olympic-level rowing, we were able to move a boat reasonably well—and it felt great. I still cherish the memory of that first feeling of rowing well; it was satisfying on a personal level because I had spent a great deal of time working on it. It was also just a lot of fun.
This book takes a look at the practice of spirituality in a way similar to getting in physical shape. We can learn a great deal about “spiritual fitness” from understanding physical fitness. Many people suffer from attitudes toward spirituality similar to their attitudes toward fitness, like those I described earlier: namely, wanting the results without really understanding the process that leads to results. We want to have inner peace, a sense of meaning, a connection to other people, a knowledge of God and the world—and we want it now! Sadly, too often this desire for spirituality happens in the wake of difficult times in people’s lives. Some realize that something is missing, and so they go out looking for it in the hopes of making themselves feel better. But it doesn’t work that way! Just because the warm weather is coming doesn’t mean all of a sudden we can get into shape. Just because I see talented athletes doing their thing and I want to do it too doesn’t all of a sudden make me a great athlete. And in the realm of spirituality, just because I want peace, meaning, and connectedness doesn’t immediately make me a saint. All of these desires require a sense of reality, a sense that things take time, a sense that our work will pay off in the end.
So the first question we must ask if we are to get our spiritual lives in order is a basic one: What is spirituality? If I’m going to take a trip, I’ve got to know where I’m going. But in this case, the question is not so easy. There are so many different ways people out there use the word spirituality that it’s hard to decide who’s right. In this situation, then, we’ve got to use a little discernment. Whom can we trust? Let’s eliminate the obvious: we can’t trust only ourselves. For if we were so sure about what spirituality is, we wouldn’t be asking questions about it. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that spirituality is just about themselves—it becomes a “self-help” exercise, yet another kind of consumer product. If spirituality is to have any meaning at all, it must be about God. And when I use the word God, I don’t mean that image that we all had as kids, of the old, old man with a long white beard and sunlight coming out from his head. Instead, I mean that spirituality is what leads us deeper and deeper into the mystery of life, of beauty, of truth, of goodness—in short, into the mystery of the person we name God. And since we can’t trust only ourselves, we must trust those reliable guides who have, in their own lives, manifested beauty, truth, and goodness, and so are most likely able to show us how to move in the right direction. I am speaking about the saints: not the cardboard saints whose names people throw around like baseball cards, but those women and men who have with their very lives shown the very best of what it is to be human. In recent times, names like Mother Teresa and Cardinal Bernardin come to mind. In more distant memory are names like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, and Ignatius of Loyola.
All of the people I’ve mentioned have written on the spiritual life, and I am inclined to believe them simply because I want my life to be more like theirs. Mother Teresa, as many know, lived an unselfish life ministering to the sick and dying in Calcutta, India. She repeated time and again that everything she did was for Jesus and that she saw herself as “God’s pencil,” simply an instrument of the love of God. Cardinal Bernardin was for many a model of a church leader who led by example; and his book The Gift of Peace stands as one of the finest contemporary spiritual journals, a chronicle of his overcoming great stress and coming to deal with his slow dying of cancer. Francis, Teresa, and Catherine are all examples of people who, in their own times and places, sought to live the gospel by using their talents to give glory to God. In this book, though, I will pay special attention to the example of Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), who wrote an influential work called The Spiritual Exercises that grew out of his own struggles to grow closer to God. It is Ignatius’s sixteenth-century text that is the inspiration for the title of this book. In fact, the very structure of this book is an adaptation of Ignatius’s ideas, which many people have used in their spiritual lives. In particular, the order of brothers and priests that Ignatius founded, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), uses the Spiritual Exercises in its spiritual formation, and on the campuses of many Jesuit high schools, colleges, and retreat centers around the country, this same text provides the basis for retreats that many ordinary Christians undertake.
If we are to understand spirituality, we can begin by taking a look at how Ignatius wrote about it in his text: spirituality is a practice, a regular endeavor through which we come to build our lives on the love of God—to order our lives according to God’s plan for us. Its focus, then, is not primarily ourselves but, rather, God. In naming his spiritual practices “exercises,” Ignatius sought to suggest something about how we ought to approach them: as undertakings we must repeat again and again in order to progress slowly toward a goal. We can see spiritual exercises, then, as a part of regular maintenance for the soul. If we practice them, we will give ourselves the chance to know God more intimately and to know God’s will for us. Why is this important? Because, to paraphrase the theme of Psalm 139, God knows us better than we know ourselves. If God called us into existence and continues to intimately shape our existence every second, then God counts every hair on our heads and wants our good. Too often our lives bring us suffering, which seems so meaningless; and our natural reaction is to fight our suffering—and often God, too—in order to rid ourselves of it. Faith, I think, is the gift that enables us to suspend our judgments so that we might retain the belief that even through our suffering, God seeks our ultimate good.
The key word here is ultimate. Clearly, when I am suffering, I can’t see any good in it. But if my concern is my ultimate good, then there are times when I must inevitably accept suffering. Back to our model, then: if my life were devoted to the elimination of all suffering, then I could never grow strong. I would avoid all exercise because exercise sometimes involves certain levels of pain (no pain, no gain, right?). Taking this a step further, though, let us recognize that the objective is not pain per se—not all pain is acceptable. There is a difference between the pain of my burning lungs after a good hard cardiovascular workout and the pain of a pulled muscle. Athletes must learn to distinguish good pain from bad pain, and in so doing, they learn how to tolerate the good and avoid the bad. Similarly, then, in the spiritual life, we must be concerned with learning how God helps us confront certain kinds of suffering that help us grow and how he helps us avoid the suffering that only breaks us down. Moreover, we can see from this example that the spiritual life must be more than simply avoiding suffering; rather, it must be learning to discern among types of suffering and accepting the kind that leads us to greater spiritual growth.
One of the most memorable experiences I have of my early training is a morning spent doing set after set of leg exercises. By the end of the hour or so we all spent doing this, we were exhausted, and our leg muscles were on fire. Our coach instructed us to do one last exercise, a so-called wall sit, in which people stand holding their backs against a wall while keeping the legs bent at a ninety-degree angle. Try it—it’s incredibly hard to do it for any significant length of time; we had to do it when we were already tired. I remember actually starting to cry because my legs hurt so much! After the ordeal was over, I was barely able to walk away, and the next day, I was almost unable to climb a set of stairs. What was important about that workout was that it forced me to confront my natural desire to avoid physical pain and my desire to become a stronger athlete. You may have heard the slogan “mind over matter”—it points to this idea of developing an attitude to confront pain for a greater good. It is an important idea for any serious athlete. I think about this same idea for the spiritual life because at a certain point, we must confront the need to pray when it seems difficult or meaningless. Not all spirituality is fun; not all of it bears immediate fruit. But the important idea is that we must develop a long-term understanding of spiritual goods. More precisely, we must remember that in steering us toward our ultimate good, God moves us through times of suffering to our ultimate happiness in God’s presence.
A spiritual workout is first about confronting the reality of God and the reality of ourselves. This will involve some pain because the sad fact is that our lives often involve choices that lead us away from God— what in traditional language is called “sin.” In fact, Jesus’ own advice on how to live was to first “repent,” or identify the wrong things we’ve done so we don’t do them again. This advice makes sense; the only way we can get better at anything is by understanding the wrong ways of doing it. Coaches counsel their athletes on how to avoid mistakes; ministers counsel their flocks on how to avoid mistakes. The second thing a spiritual workout involves, then, is building good habits in place of the bad ones. If we want to develop our skills, we must not only learn what we’re doing wrong; we must also learn how to do it right.
Doing spiritual workouts will help us to get rid of our bad habits, our sins, and to develop a stronger practice of living according to our ultimate good. They will help us to become better human beings by practicing the love of God and neighbor; and in so doing, we will live happier lives.
I’m racing toward the finish line to win the prize of God’s ultimate calling in Jesus Christ. Every one of us who is spiritually mature has to think this way. (Phil 3:14–15 my translation)
WHAT ARE SPIRITUAL EXERCISES?
Ignatius (the Latin version of his name) the saint began life as Iñigo the tough guy. He was a hard-core kind of guy; he never did anything halfway. He was used to having it all: he was a nobleman from the Basque region of northern Spain, wealthy and good-looking, and ready for a life in the fast lane. He spent his early life in pursuit of glory, as a soldier under the Spanish crown. Everything in his life, up to a certain point, made him think of himself as being better than most people. He writes, describing himself, “Up to the age of twentysix he was a man given to the vanities of the world; and what he enjoyed most was warlike sport, with a great and foolish desire to win fame.”1 But one tragic event forced him to completely rethink his selfimage and his views of other people and God. This event marked the beginning of a terribly difficult process of change in his life. It was, for him, excruciatingly slow, painful, and seemingly without meaning for a long time. By the end, though, he was a changed man. One writer describes well the kind of process that Iñigo underwent, a process that all of us face: we live our lives forward but understand it backward. When Iñigo looked back, he saw the hand of God, even though he didn’t realize it as he was living through it.
When he was twenty-six, Iñigo was in a fortress that the French were attacking. He describes how other officers were ready to surrender; but Iñigo—taking the hard-core attitude—persuaded them to fight. In the mayhem that followed, his leg was shattered by a cannonball, and he was captured by the French. They treated him kindly; eventually he was released and sent home. But by that point, his leg had healed so badly that it was misshapen and shorter than the other.
To the vain Iñigo, this was unbearable. He asked doctors if it could be healed, for with his ambitions, he could not stomach the idea of being disfigured. The doctors told him, though, that to heal the leg properly would be horribly painful; they would have to break it again, and he would face a long convalescence. Gritting his teeth, he told them to do it. He suffered awful pain, but he eventually began to recover.
It was during this slow, boring period of his life that he looked for something to do. He was confined to bed, which was (for him) bad enough; but even when he had to sit still, he was usually able to take some pleasure in reading stories about knights. Unfortunately for him at the time, the place where he was staying had none; the only books available were about religion. But he was so bored that he began reading. The stories of the saints particularly intrigued him, similar as they were to the stories about knights. The saints, though, were spiritual heroes, not military heroes, and he began to like learning their stories. Over time, he came to an important realization: reading about these “spiritual heroes” left him with a greater sense of peace than his earlier reading about knights and warfare. This experience left a lasting impression on him and was instrumental in his later work developing the Spiritual Exercises.
Over time, the contrast between his desires for fame and his desires for spiritual heroism became more pronounced. He wrote:
When he was thinking of those things of the world he took much delight in them, but afterwards, when he was tired and put them aside, he found himself dry and dissatisfied. But when he thought of going to Jerusalem barefoot, and of eating nothing but plain vegetables and of practicing all the other rigors that he saw in the saints, not only was he consoled when he had these thoughts, but even after putting them aside he remained satisfied and joyful.2
This experience, Iñigo later realized, was part of God’s work in his life. He wrote, “Little by little he came to recognize the difference between the spirits that were stirring, one from the devil, the other from God.”3 Not long after this realization, he had a vision of Mary and Jesus, which moved him so strongly that he resolved from then on to completely relinquish everything he had sought in his desires for fame and wealth. He set his eyes only on growing in the knowledge and love of God. The mature Ignatius of Loyola could see that God was trying to speak to the young Iñigo. Learning how to hear God’s voice was what Ignatius would eventually call “discernment,” and this forms the heart of his Spiritual Exercises.
We can make a couple of observations based on Iñigo’s experience. First: sometimes God works on us when we’re depressed, or lonely, or grieving, or lost. Iñigo was in a bad way during his long convalescence; he was an adventure seeker (the sixteenth-century equivalent of an adrenaline addict) and so could not stand having to stay in bed for months on end. But it was due to this period of having to quiet down that he could listen for the voice of God, which whispered to him through his imagination. The second observation, then, is that we can discern the voice of God by paying attention to the things rattling around in our brains (but only if we pay attention!). Iñigo did not begin some spiritual search; he did not go out looking for God. But he did practice a little bit of self-knowledge: he recognized what it felt like when he thought about adventure, and he recognized what it felt like when he thought about sainthood.
We can take these observations as suggestions for a very basic spiritual exercise, imitating what Iñigo was forced into by circumstance. The exercise (call it a kind of spiritual warm-up) is simple:
1. Be quiet (turn off radios, TVs, computers, video games; close books, magazines, etc.).
2. Think about what really makes you happy.
For many people, step 1 is nearly impossible. We are so accustomed to having noise around that silence can make us uncomfortable. If you live in a busy area, silence is rare, so go to a church or a park or someplace where you can eliminate distractions. Once you do that, you’ll probably notice how much “internal noise” we deal with: things you have to do today, things you forgot to do yesterday, things that happened to you on the way to work, whatever—they barge in on your attempts to be quiet. But keep trying! If it helps, focus your attention on just breathing. Another idea is to start with your toes and become aware of physical sensations, slowly moving up your feet into your legs and all the way up to your head. By focusing on these sensations, you start to turn your mental focus away from the world and in toward yourself. Eventually, you may feel ready to focus on step 2. What really makes you happy? Think about what you’ve done over the past day, the past week, the past month, the past year, the key moments of your life. What has produced lasting happiness? Move beyond the things that have been temporarily fun; focus instead on what has helped you to retain a feeling of joy toward just being alive. Think about the basic elements of your life that you take for granted: the way your body works; the way your mind works; the people close to you; the things you’re proud of; the life events that have given you the most joy; the things you look forward to. What do these things tell you about yourself? How do they reveal to you the way God has made you? Repeat these practices several times in order to get used to the practice of focusing your attention.
Several things may happen. Some will feel a sense of gratefulness for what makes them happy. Others may feel disappointment, or loss, or even despair. If these negative feelings happen, don’t dwell on them; simply acknowledge that they exist and recognize that they may be a sign that it is time to change your life. This, I think, is what happened to Ignatius. In recognizing that he had been making life choices based on a pretty shaky notion of happiness, he knew that he had to find something more permanent. This was the beginning of his conversion.
My friend once told me of the experience that led him to stop smoking. He was out playing with his four-year-old son, a whirlwind of energy. The little boy was so excited that his dad was out there with him, and he kept urging, “Catch me, Dad! Catch me, Dad!” as he ran around the yard. After a couple minutes of chasing little Jake around, my friend was exhausted. He had been smoking since his teens and so did not have very good lungs. He was unable to keep up with the four-year-old. In describing this experience a couple of years later, he spoke of how painful it was to realize that he simply could not do what was so valuable to him. But with the wisdom of hindsight, he was able to acknowledge gratefully that it was that experience that led him to the difficult decision of quitting smoking. Today he is healthier for it and much more able to chase his son around the yard.
The experience of confronting one’s own bad choices is never easy. It is necessary, though, if we are ever to grow. And sometimes the way we confront our bad choices is, unfortunately, when they cause us pain. We are very stubborn creatures and will tend not to change things unless they hurt us. Pain, then, can sometimes be the necessary impetus for our spiritual growth. Just like we don’t know we’ve caused our bodies injury unless we have some pain, we often don’t know we’ve caused our souls injury unless we have some pain. And while this doesn’t mean we should go looking for pain, we should let our pain tell us that it’s time to change. The good news is that Jesus repeatedly promised that God heals us.
Iñigo confronted his spiritual pain and realized that it was pointing him toward a real life change. By the end of his recovery period, he was thinking about how he could take his energy, which had previously been about glorifying himself, and use it to glorify God. He writes about his desire to do stupendous acts for God, like a kind of spiritual hero. If he read of a certain saint’s strict spiritual practices, Iñigo thought about how he could go one step further. In his autobiography, he writes of this period with a certain self-criticism, for he understood later in his life that this early period was a romanticized kind of spirituality. Many people fall into a similar pattern, thinking of spirituality in grand terms but missing it in the most basic, everyday ways. I’ve seen it among college students, who very often are willing to go and work in soup kitchens, travel to Appalachia or South America and do service work, or devote hours to participating in retreats, but don’t apply this same kindness and generosity in their sexual lives, for example. One writer has described the spiritual life as involving first a movement of self-knowledge, then a movement away from self-centeredness. Many of us get stuck, though, in a very selfcentered spirituality.
Over time, Iñigo made various attempts to render glory to God through his actions. Eventually, he settled himself into a rugged life in a cave outside Manresa, in northern Spain, and put together his observations about the spiritual life that would become the Spiritual Exercises. In the Spiritual Exercises, we see someone with a keen sense of psychology, even before there was a science of the mind. Iñigo was fully aware of how difficult the spiritual life can be, since he himself had led the kind of life that was based on the kind of choices we all make today: choices based on what’s fashionable, what other people are doing, what’s new and exciting. Reflecting on his earlier life, he came to conclusions that challenge our ways of thinking: “I don’t care if I have health or sickness, riches or poverty, honor or dishonor, a long life or a short one. I care only about the things that lead me to my ultimate good, which is God’s love.”4
In short, Iñigo formulated his Spiritual Exercises as a way that people could get rid of their illusions and focus on what is most important in life. He used the Spiritual Exercises among his friends when he went back to college, and during these years, a group of young men banded together under the name “The Company of Jesus,” or the “Jesuits” (as they were sarcastically called—like we might say “Jesus-ites”). This small group accepted the name, unafraid as they were of being labeled as Jesus freaks. They didn’t care what other people thought; they were rebels and proud of it. And what gave them such a strong focus on their spiritual lives was the constant practice of Iñigo’s Exercises.
There is a certain goodness and integrity to such single-mindedness as we see in Iñigo and his early companions. Today we recognize a similar attitude in those who prepare for the Olympics. During the coverage of the recent Olympiads, the networks would sometimes run stories about certain athletes: how they overcame obstacles, how they faced personal tragedies, how they maintained devotion to their athletic pursuits. It is easy to cheer on someone who has faced a long struggle to compete; we laud their courage and perseverance. I think we all recognize on a basic level that there is something noble about this kind of long-term vision toward a goal. And I want to suggest that if we carry this same kind of attitude into our thinking about God and about spirituality, we will be better off than those who just want a quick “spiritual fix.” If spirituality is about discerning God’s will for our lives, then it must be a lifelong pursuit.
HOW CAN SPIRITUAL EXERCISES HELP POSTMODERN PEOPLE?
It is difficult to read any sixteenth-century text, let alone to see it as a model for postmodern living. What makes the Spiritual Exercises remarkable is Ignatius’s keen psychological insights. He did not see himself inventing some new kind of spiritual practice as much as having people pay attention to very basic forms of prayer: reading the Bible, meditating, asking God for help. Ignatius’s Exercises are all about paying attention in prayer. They are not about reciting the right words, or undertaking some amazing spiritual devotion, or even traveling to the ends of the world doing acts of charity. More important, they don’t rely on outdated understandings of God, or Jesus, or faith, or piety—they leave a great deal up to each person, to figure out who God is, who Jesus is, what faith is, and what piety is. But they do this recognizing that we all begin with limited ideas of these things, and so they emphasize that we need proper coaching (more on this in chapter 1). Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises are great for postmodern people because they invite us to learn spirituality by doing it.
This is important. There are two significant changes in the way people practice spirituality today, in contrast to Ignatius’s time or even our grandparents’ time. First, we live in a much more pluralistic world. The world has shrunk; we have the Internet and cell phones and up-to-the-minute, live news reports all around the world. Many will remember the broadcasts of the millennium celebrations all around the world on New Year’s Eve 2000, when they could turn on the TV and instantly see people in Tokyo, Sydney, Moscow, Cairo, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Honolulu celebrating the coming of their respective midnights. It was, and is, very easy to learn about people very different from ourselves, and so it is difficult to maintain strong feelings about the rightness of one way of thinking and the wrongness of another. Cities and towns all around the world have become more diverse ethnically and religiously; and as a result, people are forced to confront their differences in order to build better communities.
Second, we don’t treat authority the way people used to. People have learned to trust the judgments of their own consciences more than the judgments of religious or political authorities. This is a result, I think, of having immediate access to the world’s knowledge at the click of a mouse. We simply can know more than our predecessors. Of course, the major difficulty is that there is too much information; we have to learn how to sift through it all. But even here we trust ourselves. We don’t want others telling us what to learn and not to learn.
What makes us postmodern people is that we live in a new era and approach the world in ways different from the ways our parents or grandparents did. Philosophers describe the “modern” era as lasting from around the sixteenth century (the time of Ignatius) until the twentieth, a four-hundred-year stretch that involved the expansion of scientific knowledge, the exploration of new lands (and eventually outer space), and an optimism about the future of civilization. In our recent history, we can see evidence of this modern approach to the world in the ways that older generations thought about themselves. Even after the Second World War, which signaled for many the beginning of the end of the modern era, many people returned home, got jobs, raised families, paid taxes, voted, went to church, saved money, and did well. For this generation, duty and responsibility were key ideas; and this means that they had a certain level of trust of authority. Their children, the baby boomers, reacted against authority. When they came of age in the 1960s, they changed the way people looked at authority. Even the most basic glance at the major events of that decade in the United States and worldwide shows how things were changing: the Cold War; the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church; the rise of pop music and the phenomenon of Woodstock; the Vietnam War; and eventually Watergate. Many factors contributed to a growing suspicion toward authority and led many to greater and greater pessimism about the modern ideal of progress.
Our postmodern age is about the crisis of authority. Our grandparents respected it; our parents reacted against it; today we don’t give it that much thought. With these cultural differences come differences in spirituality. For if spirituality is about the way we as human beings respond to the invitation of God, then the only way we can “do” spirituality is through our concrete, culturally and historically situated lives. In our culture and in our history, authority is a problem; and so our spirituality manifests a certain ambivalence toward what has been passed on to us from religious authorities. Our grandparents, in large part, practiced a spirituality that was about obeying the Ten Commandments, the words of Jesus, and the local minister or priest. Many in our parents’ generation (though not all) began reacting against these traditional notions of authority and began their own spiritual searches, which for some involved moving outside the traditional sources of Christian spirituality toward, for example, Eastern religious practices. Popular figures such as the Beatles captured attention and inspired followers to see religion not as something we are bound to by birth but, rather, as something we can choose by opening our minds beyond what we have been taught.
The consequence for the postmodern generation has been an authority vacuum. Many have been brought up with little or no religion whatsoever, sometimes because of the deliberate choice of parents not to force any religion on their children. Our interest in spirituality has arisen because we still face the same basic questions that all people face: questions about God, love, death, suffering, meaning, and so on. But we face these questions, in many cases, with no religious vocabulary, no way to talk about these questions because we lack the language and the symbolic world within which we can make sense of them. Many in the postmodern generation describe themselves as spiritual but not religious—interested in developing a spirituality but not so interested in having to go through what seem to be the “motions” that are inherent in religion.
What makes the Spiritual Exercises a helpful guide for us postmoderns is its insistence that we can come to know God by coming to know ourselves better. Ignatius was a bit of a maverick in his early life, as I described; the spiritual practices he worked through were not simply repeating old formulas but, rather, a fresh attempt to make sense of God’s will. For us, these same exercises offer a chance to explore on our own terms, with our own thoughts, the same question. The exercises are not about determining who is the best Christian, or who knows the Bible the best, or who is most obedient to the laws of the church, or anything along those lines. They are about seeking to understand the movements of God in our own lives, our own experiences, by paying attention to our imagination. They are built on a basic trust that God will self-reveal to us and that we can recognize God even if we don’t have doctorates in theology or even if we aren’t particularly religious. In fact, this book can be useful both for people who are religious and for people who may have very little positive experience with religion but who still want to confront the tough questions in their lives.
The bottom line is that postmodern people need God no less than people of earlier times, even though we live in an age that makes it hard to know how to find God. There are so many places that our hunger for God manifests itself; the tragedy is that too often we aren’t even aware of this hunger. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises can help us to first recognize our hunger for God—which can be painful—and further, they can help us to respond to the God who is already present to us, inviting us into a deeper relationship.
This book has two parts. Part 1 introduces the idea of spiritual workouts by looking at some basic notions of what constitutes authentic prayer. Chapter 1 is devoted to an overview of some basic ideas on how to pray. Chapter 2 offers two specific exercises, which will be especially helpful for those who are beginners at prayer. Chapter 3 then addresses how to get the most out of workouts, focusing on seven regular practices during the time of prayer. What will come out in these first three chapters is that Ignatius offers flexibility in prayer, recognizing that different people will pray differently. These exercises are about coming to better understand ourselves as conversation partners with God. I suggest that you read the first three chapters, then take some time to go back over the exercises in chapters 2 and 3. Spend some time practicing them before moving on to chapter 4.
Chapter 4 is the central chapter, both in terms of its being in the center of the book and in terms of its being the heart of the spiritual workout. In that chapter, we shall take a look at what Ignatius identifies as the most fundamental attitude that we must have in order to grow spiritually. The first three chapters lead to this chapter, and the following four build upon it. The principles discussed in chapter 4 are the bedrock upon which a mature spirituality can be constructed, but for many, the foundation itself may need some work. As you practice the exercises in chapters 2 and 3, pay attention to what you learn about your own spirituality so that by the time you reach chapter 4, you have a stronger sense of your own foundation. You may need to spend some time simply working on developing a stronger foundation: a stronger faith that God is intimately helping you construct your daily life.
Part 2 is a guide to more advanced prayer, based on the core of the Spiritual Exercises. The chapters in part 2 represent four weeks of prayer (originally designed for a thirty-day retreat), each week focusing on a different element of the mystery of Christian faith. These chapters are best read in order, though it is possible to use any of the chapters as a single spiritual workout on different occasions. The structure of the four weeks is pretty simple. First, we confront our bad choices; second, we ask which direction we want our lives to lead; third, we consider the example of Jesus; and fourth, we focus on the promises of God to care for our ultimate good. There is, then, a movement in the four workouts, from our narrow vision of how to live and toward a reliance on God’s will for our lives. Again, the objective of these workouts is to build our lives on a vision of our ultimate good, which God knows better than we can. It is best to take your time with the suggestions in these chapters. Don’t think about each workout being a single day’s prayer but, rather, remember that each of these workouts was originally designed to last a week of retreat (meaning that a person did nothing all day but pray, eat, and sleep!). So take your time moving through these workouts—pay attention to yourself and your needs. As I explain in chapter 1, it is important at some point in your spiritual workouts to rely on the guidance of a director, and so I encourage you to use the resources listed at the end of this book to locate one.
Whether you are a novice at prayer or have always tried to live a Christian life, you can gain something in these spiritual workouts. It is worth mentioning, especially if you are unfamiliar with prayer, that like anything else, learning to pray takes time. No one is going to become an Olympic gold medalist right away; no one is going to turn into a mystic right away. In both cases, we need to develop a longrange vision. For Ignatius, that vision was simple: he wanted to know the will of God to achieve his ultimate happiness. I invite you to practice these workouts, to discern God’s will for your life, too.
What Is a Spiritual Workout?
What to Expect in Spiritual Workouts
I find it interesting to be at a wedding or some other public ceremony when a minister or priest utters the words, “Let us pray.” Almost always, the room becomes quiet, heads bow, hands are folded, postures are straightened. It’s as if God won’t listen unless we behave like second-grade students on their best behavior when the teacher enters the room. What’s sometimes even funnier to me is that after this solemn exercise, sometimes people will resume telling off-color jokes, gossiping about so-and-so, or whatever. The implication: we have to be on our best behavior when God is around, but after we’ve dismissed God, we can get back to the fun!
I mention this observation to highlight that if we are going to pray in a way that isn’t deceiving to ourselves, then we have to have some basic ideas straight. We must, in other words, have some legitimate ideas about what we’re trying to do. Imagine a child learning that she is about to join a soccer league and wanting to make a good impression on the other kids. She tells her mom, “I’m going to practice soccer today so I can be as good as my friends.” Mom smiles and pats her daughter on the back and watches as the little girl goes out the door to practice. After an hour, the girl comes back into the house and announces proudly, “I’m going to be great, Mom! I can catch the soccer ball every time!” Mom realizes, with some chagrin, that the little girl has been using her hands for the last hour to throw and catch a football, not a soccer ball.
Sometimes I think people’s efforts at prayer are a little like this. They spend a great deal of effort at something, but that something may have very little to do with God. Their efforts come from misunderstandings, or partial understandings, or bad teaching, or whatever; and when they complain that they don’t feel like anything is happening, they blame God and give up. This chapter will address the basic question of what prayer is like and what to expect when undertaking spiritual workouts. It will focus on five areas that Ignatius identified as important throughout his work: fundamentals, coaching, dedication, discernment, and the practice of finding God in all things.
The single most common mistake people make in their spiritual lives is wanting God to follow their lead. Especially in a world in which we have so many demands, we feel an intense need to keep everything organized so as not to feel overwhelmed. Unfortunately, for many people, God fits into a neat little box that is opened only once in a while, whether it be on Sunday mornings or when reading or out enjoying nature. If we want to take God seriously, though, we must be the ones ready to follow God’s lead. Gerard W. Hughes has it right when he writes about a “God of surprises,” a person whose presence in our lives often calls us beyond the narrow limits of our expectations.1 We might, however, take comfort in the words of someone like Peter when Jesus first met him: “Leave me, Lord. I’m a sinner.” Initial reticence to pay attention to God’s invitation is not uncommon, for his call pulls us outside of the comfort zones we create for ourselves in a scary world. If we think about it, responding to God’s invitation should be something we want to do—as scary as it is, it is about trusting that God wants our ultimate good and believing that God is more capable than we are of leading us to it. According to the Gospels, God is intimately concerned about our well-being: God counts the hairs on our heads; seeks for us like a shepherd when we are lost; issues invitations to us to join in a feast; waits like a father for a lost son; holds us close like a mother with her baby. As a father, I find these parenting images especially meaningful, for they describe for me a God whose feelings for me are as profound as those I feel for my children.
Our posture toward God is often skewed because we work hard to create a life for ourselves in the midst of economic or social conditions that are not always helpful. To cite one example, my wife once shared with me that as a child, she was terrified of the idea of having to commit to a religious vocation—becoming a nun—because all the stories she had heard as a child about faith involved priests or nuns. As much as I respect those who have religious vocations (including a family member, friends, and coworkers), I realize that this is only one of the many ways God calls people to live lives that reflect faith. As my wife grew older, she realized that religious life was not her vocation; she instead began to look at the specific characteristics and talents with which she could express her faith.
Some people seem to have the image that in order to follow God, they have to do something radically different than what they enjoy or do well. They are afraid to let God into the mainstream of their lives; they prefer to keep God on the periphery so as not to upset the careful balance. They wish to hold on to what they think is valuable about their lives, afraid of letting go of the things in their lives that help them to feel important: job, money, education, connections, whatever.
Addressing this situation, a priest friend of mine from Papua New Guinea once gave a sermon in which he told a parable of a man who loved living in his tropical paradise. Having been born on the island where his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had always lived, he held in his heart a special place for the beauty of the palm trees, the white sand, the sloping mountains, the gentle climate. This man, approaching death, told his loved ones to place some island sand into each of his hands when he died, so that he might hold on to the memory of his beloved place forever. They did, and so the man proceeded to the gates of heaven still clutching the sand. At the gate, he was warmly greeted and told that as soon as he emptied his hands of the sand, he could enter into eternal joy. The man was crushed, for he could not let go of what he loved so much, and so he waited. He waited, the parable goes, for a long, long time; so long that at last his hands grew weary and could no longer hold the sand. It eventually slipped through his fingers, lost forever. At that moment, Jesus came to him, holding the man as he sobbed at the loss of his memory, and said, “Come now, and enter into your rest.” With that, Jesus walked with the man through the gates of heaven, where before them both stretched out the entirety of the man’s beloved island.
The parable challenges us to consider what we hold on to that prevents us from turning our lives over to God, and whether it is indeed wise to try to seek our happiness apart from what God would help us to find. The fundamental posture of authentic prayer, Ignatius counsels, is that of openness to the will of God for our lives, for it is through that will that we will be led to our very reason for existing in the first place. In short, God knows our hearts better even than we do, and so when we pray, we ought to seek greater understanding of God’s will. To put it differently, our prayer must involve more than just asking for things that we’d like. While it is good to ask God for good things, as Jesus himself taught us to do (“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find” [Mt 7:7]), this is not the only way to pray. If we take seriously the idea that God is inviting us into a relationship based on love, then our prayer will naturally involve things like appreciation (saying thanks) and praise but also, at times, resentment and anger. We fool ourselves if we think any relationship is always sweet and pleasant. What Jesus counseled was persistence in prayer, even during the times when it seems God is not listening.
There is a story Ignatius recounts in his autobiography that illustrates a kind of openness. It seems that after Ignatius recovered from his leg injury, he was having difficulty deciding what to do with his life. He resolved to travel to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and began making plans. On the road to a place where he was to collect some money, he encountered someone who, in Ignatius’s mind, defamed the Virgin Mary. Ignatius stewed over this encounter for some time, finding it hard to decide what to do about it. Ultimately, finding himself torn between chasing after the man and killing him, or continuing on his way in preparation for his pilgrimage (and after that, a life of penance), he resolved to let the mule he was riding on make the decision. Up ahead was a fork in the road: one direction took him toward where the man was staying, one in the other direction Ignatius was traveling. When the mule came to the fork in the road, he resolved, Ignatius would wait for the mule to decide which road to take. The mule took the road that did not lead to where the man was staying, and so Ignatius did not kill the man.
This story was for Ignatius a metaphor for the spiritual life. By that point in his life, he could recognize that the desire to kill his traveling companion was not motivated by love of God, and yet the desire was still there. It was a remnant of what Ignatius later called a “disordered affection,” a skewed way of feeling about things in the world. Having grown up with the image of the knight as the supreme manifestation of manly virtue, Ignatius developed an emotional and psychological predisposition toward thinking of all things according to the standards of chivalry. Through his conversion experience, though, he recognized these standards as being different from God’s. Allowing the mule to make this formative decision in his life was tantamount to recognizing his own inadequacy to determine right from wrong.
An important prerequisite for doing spiritual workouts is openness: the sensibility that ultimately God is in charge and that whatever desires, ideas, fears, hopes, or expectations we bring into prayer might be transformed. It is bringing an open mind and heart into prayer, anticipating only that it will give me the freedom to change according to the ways that God wants me to change—not against my will but because of it. Like Ignatius, we may come to recognize that the things we think we want in life are, ultimately, of little value. We may come to a point when we can look back at our earlier life plans and laugh at our own ideas! This is clearly what happened to Ignatius as he was writing his autobiography. His mature outlook on life was very different from that of his youth.
In introducing his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius writes about them as follows:
The name “spiritual exercises” is given to any way we prepare or make ready our souls to get rid of our skewed feelings, and then once they are gone, to seek out and find God’s will for our lives and our ultimate good.2
A regime of spiritual workouts is about giving ourselves the opportunity to form our lives based on what God wants for us, even if that may be different from what we have planned. For some, this idea may sound difficult; we don’t like the idea of giving up what we’ve done with our lives and running off to join a religious order. But what I’m trying to suggest is that whatever God wills for us will be the fulfillment of our deepest desires as human beings. True, some have been called and are called to change their lifestyles, like Ignatius did (or St. Paul before him), but many will simply be called to do what they are doing with renewed depth. We can take some comfort from the stories of saints who have been called into life-changing conversions, for again and again, what characterizes the life of trust in God is joy. God calls us into making our lives what they should be, clearing away the things that may have taken us off track. What Ignatius calls “skewed feelings” or “disordered affections” are really those things we think we like, based on our circumstances. A spiritual workout helps us to see them in a greater perspective; it helps us to let go of the things we think we like so that we might be more free to attach ourselves to what gives us more permanent joy.
A second common problem people have with prayer is that they form elaborate ideas about what it’s supposed to look like; and no matter what the circumstances are, they hold on to these ideas. Underlying the whole of Ignatius’s writing is a sense of sobriety about the spiritual life, its demand for honesty on the part of the person doing the workouts. We cannot pretend that prayer is always going to put us in a peaceful mood or that we will leave it with a profound sense of having been touched by God. Sometimes prayer leaves us dry and weary; sometimes it makes us angry; other times it makes us feel terribly alone. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, while not concluding that they mean God doesn’t love us. Early on especially, people for whom formal prayer is new may feel like nothing is happening. It is important not to pretend in our prayer, for only by acknowledging what we feel can we make any sort of progress.
When I coached collegiate rowing, I came across many great people who were also very dedicated athletes. They wanted to prove themselves able to perform the workouts I assigned and show that they could handle the stresses on their bodies. They saw workouts as challenges to be overcome and wanted to prove to themselves that they could do whatever was necessary to make fast boats. I found that novice rowers especially were unlikely to tell me about any problems they were having, because they didn’t want to appear weak or incompetent to me or to their friends on the team. So, often, they would simply ignore problems. After a time, I learned to look for telltale signs: fatigue, stress, lowering interest levels; and so I learned to ask questions about their experiences in training. In many cases, the difficulties were due to simple technical errors (like the placement of the hands on the oar) that, if addressed directly, could lead to moreefficient performance. Often, I had to coax out their problems: “What do you feel? Where does it hurt?” If they told me what was going on, most times I could help them address the problem.
A similar dynamic takes place in our spiritual lives. If we assume everything is supposed to go smoothly all the time, frustration can set in the first time we feel different from the way we expect to feel. Being honest in our workouts means, first, acknowledging when we are finding them difficult or pointless. Often, this is simply a reflection of how our expectations are not matching the reality of the situation. Coupled with a sense of openness, honesty can allow us to recognize problems but deal with them in a more fluid way.
I’d like to share an analogy from rowing that I find helpful here. A key to rowing well is to have a certain flexibility about what is going on. On any given day, the water could be choppy, the wind could be strong, the current could be fast—all of these things affect how a person or crew feels in a boat. Novice rowers often make the mistake of trying too hard under these different circumstances to keep the boat in perfect balance: they hold the oar handles with white knuckles, muscling through the strokes in an attempt to keep moving smoothly. What invariably happens, though, is that the boat (which is narrow and thus hard to balance) tips from side to side, even for crews who are experienced. If someone is gripping the oar handle too tightly, it can tip the boat even more wildly; the oar acts like a pole striking the water, pushing the boat down to the other side. Good coaches know to counsel their crews to stay relaxed, to allow the boat to tip slightly from side to side, but to focus on what is more important: keeping it moving fast. Instead of gripping the oars tightly, people should stay relaxed and absorb whatever tips should happen.
What I find illustrative about this metaphor is that it suggests something about expectations and effort. When our expectations are wrong, our effort sometimes has to increase; we can grow tired more quickly and sense that things are not going well. On the other hand, if our expectations are legitimate, we will often find that problems that arise do not bother us as much; we simply adapt to whatever comes our way. In prayer, this attitude can be helpful. Instead of trying with every ounce of energy to do prayer the way we think we should (good posture, pleasant words, a saintly smile on our faces), we can instead try to be realistic. We should expect that sometimes “waves” will come our way—life situations that make it hard to pray—but we can still keep our focus on a more long-term understanding of the spiritual life. It is important to allow ourselves to change our workouts, based on the varying circumstances of our lives.
In my own life, this point was hard to learn. I had developed the practice of formal prayer during college, having learned from the Jesuits at the institutions where I studied. After a time, it felt like I had achieved a certain rhythm, and I felt confident that the methods I had learned would sustain me throughout my life. Yes, there were life changes; moves, changes of jobs, marriage, and just growing up had effects on my prayer life. But I was able to adapt and more or less maintain a prayer life in spite of those changes.
But then came children! Life circumstances became very different, and I found myself having real difficulty with prayer. My wife and I encountered a long process of struggle that finally led to the adoption of our first daughter. As I look back over the last couple of years, I realize how much of my problems in prayer came as a result of not dealing honestly with these struggles. I had developed a certain expectation about my spiritual life over my college and single years, and this expectation may have hindered me somewhat when my life changed. I could not pray the way I used to; I probably will never again pray the way I used to. This is not to say what I did then was wrong; rather, it is to recognize that I am now a different person. Fortunately for me, a caring spiritual director helped me to understand this (I’ll discuss spiritual direction more in the next section). It took a long time to honestly confront what was going on; my own unwillingness to confront God under difficult circumstances hindered my ability to pray at all.
The spiritual life involves highs and lows, periods of what Ignatius called “consolation” (comfort) and “desolation” (despair). We cannot pretend that prayer is always going to make us happy at the moment any more than we can pretend that life experiences will. Our spiritual lives, to state the obvious, are our lives—with all the attendant joy and grief that come with them. In order to construct our lives well, we must not fool ourselves with false images. The biblical term that is relevant here is idolatry, idol worship: the practice of making God into something more manageable. It is very easy to fall into idolatry because we all want to have control of the circumstances of our lives and to make God fit into the place we have assigned. Sometimes we need someone to tell us when we are doing this, because we can tend to be blind to the ways we do it ourselves. For this reason, Ignatius suggests that we need guides.
Any serious athlete knows that training alone is often a bad idea. Since we can’t actually watch ourselves perform, the only feedback we can have as individuals is through reflecting on what we are doing at the moment or thinking about it afterward. This practice of selfreflection is very important, to be sure; but it is inadequate. We need someone with an outside perspective who can tell us what we’re doing well and what we’re doing wrong, who can suggest ideas about how to get better.
This is especially true for novices. The first time a person tries a new sport, she is awkward and unused to the new physical demands, whether they include shooting a basket, running fast, or hitting a ball. A good coach will take a person’s interest and provide encouragement and hints for how to improve, recognizing that the person’s ego is still a bit fragile. Recently I participated in a “learn to row” day at our boathouse, when dozens of people showed up for the first time to have a try at what they considered a new and interesting activity. I’m always interested in helping out at events like these because I find it refreshing to meet people who want to try something new and are willing to feel a little silly as they get started. I’ve been involved in rowing, both as an athlete and as a coach, for over a dozen years; so it’s nice to meet people who look at it with fresh eyes. I find that I, too, can learn something from them about what motivates them to try in the first place.
I was on the other side of this experience recently. I was at the beach and decided to try surfing. I met a man in his fifties who was the surf coach—he had been doing it for many years, and his attitude was contagious. In a short while, he was able not only to teach me the mechanics of riding waves but also to convey a real enthusiasm and love for the sport. On that first day, I walked away feeling as though I had learned something and looked forward to being able to try it again.
Prayer, like anything, takes time to learn. Good coaches help us to channel our enthusiasm in ways that make us look forward to doing it well. They can help us to avoid frustration by making sure we get off to the right start. Christian spirituality has recognized the value of tradition as an authoritative guide, a kind of coach for the spiritual life. Ignatius himself, though he was an innovator in some respects, did not really invent any new forms of prayer. On the contrary, he used what he considered to be useful guides for his own prayer life and adapted them to fit the needs of his situation. Today we are wise to follow his example by appealing to sources of spirituality that have some grounding in long-standing practice.
One obvious example is participation in a worshiping community. Sadly, many today who are interested in spirituality don’t follow through with this step, which is necessary if we are to avoid deceiving ourselves. Spirituality cannot be a solitary endeavor; it must be grounded in the life of a community, or else it becomes little more than an isolated and ineffective version of self-help. Spirituality that is grounded in community is like the house built on rock that Jesus described (Mt 7:24); it is less likely to be blown away by the winds of change that inevitably move through our lives. When our spirituality arises from our participation in community, several things happen. First, we are challenged to see our prayer as one part of the larger exercise of living the Christian life, for we must apply our prayer to the ordinary problems of living with other people. This prevents us from treating spirituality solely as a private exercise. We will be in a position to encourage others in tough times; in turn, they can help us to persevere in periods of spiritual dryness. Second, participation in community worship means we will be confronting ideas that make us uncomfortable, pushing us outside of the natural comfort zones we develop in our spiritual lives. This point, I think, is difficult but important. It’s easy to fall into patterns that must change as we grow. Third, we will begin to see our own spiritual lives in some perspective, by seeing the struggles and issues of people who are both younger and older than us. Seeing what younger people confront can make us cognizant of how we have grown; seeing what older people confront can make us cognizant of how much more we must still grow. Considering the spiritual journeys of people around us can help us to navigate the changes we, too, encounter. My hope is that as people come to see church as a place where people help each other grow in their spiritual lives, it might be transformed.
Ignatius understood that all Christians are called to practice the spiritual life in community but some are called further to deepen their relationship with God through more concerted efforts. As far back as the earliest centuries of Christian life, there are examples of men and women who elected to turn their backs on the society of their youth and devote themselves wholeheartedly to God. Some went literally empty-handed into the desert, where they practiced a kind of spiritual athleticism: subduing their minds and bodies through the constant practice of prayer. Over the centuries, we encounter stories of people whose spiritual practices sound astonishing, even absurd; the common bond is that these people sought a deeper knowledge of God by relinquishing all things that might distract them. As noted earlier, Ignatius himself was enthralled by stories of spiritual athleticism, for it attracted the part of him that wanted to be better than anyone else. Later, it seems, he came to realize that there was a somewhat selfish motive in this attraction; but the core idea of devoting himself wholly to God was what impelled him in his vocation. He wisely recognized, though, that in order to pursue it, he needed the help of those who had themselves already been practicing their spirituality for some time.
An important part of his Spiritual Exercises, therefore, focuses on the role of the spiritual director, the person who acts as a kind of coach to the person seeking to understand the will of God. Today there are people all over the world who are trained in this capacity; many are involved in retreat centers and can help even people who have never prayed formally. (At the end of this book, there is a list of such retreat centers, which interested people can contact for further information on finding spiritual direction.)
The role of the spiritual director is to help a person see through his or her biases in order to more clearly know the will of God. He or she does not lecture or teach but, rather, helps the person see more clearly the movements of God in prayer. Teresa of Ávila, a mystic who lived at about the same time as Ignatius, wrote that in a good spiritual director, knowledge is more important than piety. In other words, a director is someone who has studied prayer and who (like many athletic coaches) is sometimes better at teaching others to do it than doing it personally. The bottom line is that spiritual direction is a skill different from prayer itself, for it involves understanding something about the way God communicates to people in prayer and the way people are likely to respond.
In this book I do not presuppose that you have immediate access to spiritual direction, but I encourage anyone who is interested in furthering his or her prayer life to consider it. What I do suggest, however, is that you not treat spirituality as something you can learn completely on your own. No one can run a marathon without someone to train her; no one can dig deeply into prayer without a spiritual director. In the earliest days of the church, we see that certain people were called to be spiritual leaders, people who had internalized the words and actions of Jesus and could communicate them to other people. From these times onward, it became clear that seeking God involved more than just good intentions—it also involved learning from those who had themselves already advanced on “the Way,” as Christianity was first called in apostolic times. Today those who devote themselves to professional ministry are the inheritors of that tradition, and in my experience, they like nothing better than helping out someone who is truly interested in knowing the will of God.
One of the unpleasant tasks I had to perform as a coach was to keep my athletes motivated to do the work they needed in order to compete at a high level. Often this took the form of cajoling or even threatening them to finish a workout—not in a sadistic way, of course, but with the understanding that when people get tired, they can sometimes get sloppy. Under these circumstances, it was very important for me to understand what workouts feel like: weariness, lack of motivation, and other factors can inhibit people from doing what they know they are capable of doing.
The hardest time to motivate athletes to do their work is after a difficult loss. At low points, people naturally start to ask questions about whether all the hard work pays off; and sometimes it’s hard to come up with an answer. At such moments, the trust that teams have built over the course of the season becomes crucial, for without it the project would collapse.
Like anything else in life, prayer will involve highs and lows. We all know that it’s easy to continue doing something when it makes us happy; but the opposite is true when it makes us depressed. But, as I suggested earlier, expectations are important: if a team absolutely refuses to believe that they can ever lose, then the first time they do lose will be particularly difficult. Realistically, it’s important to understand (even with a hard-line, motivating “no lose” attitude) that there are going to be setbacks in any endeavor worth devoting energy to, so that when these setbacks occur, they can be seen as part of the larger picture. In the case of prayer, the larger picture involves consolation and desolation: periods when God’s love and care seem obvious, and periods when God seems totally absent and unconcerned. In the times of desolation, Ignatius’s counsel is clear: don’t change anything. Stick to whatever resolutions you made during the period of consolation. And during consolation, moreover, we should think about how our resolutions will affect us during the next period of desolation.
As a college athlete, I was impressed by the counsel one coach gave me about doing workouts: he said that as long as you do each one with as much intensity as you can, then on race day, you will have no regrets about your preparation. So I became accustomed to working as hard as I could every day, sometimes doing double workouts just so I could be sure I was giving everything I had. On certain days, especially in the middle of a dismal winter, I would have vastly preferred doing any number of other things: hanging out with friends, seeing a movie, going out, whatever. But every night, even on Fridays when everyone else seemed to be doing something interesting, I would head off to bed early so I could make the 5 A.M. wake-up and get to my workouts. There were times when I thought I was crazy to make such sacrifices, especially when we had some pretty disappointing results during race season. But I am still moved by the feeling of having no regrets, even in a losing cause—there’s something about knowing that you tried as hard as possible to be your best.
Confronting the reality of highs and lows in any endeavor is hard, but unless we do it, chances are we will not succeed. How many people do you know who have made New Year’s resolutions that lasted only a short time? Usually, people have great intentions that eventually fade because other life concerns choke them off. Confronting the reality of desolation in our prayer lives can help us take a realistic, farsighted view of what to expect: sometimes prayer will be boring or difficult or painful. But it is still worth doing. I am convinced that the twentieth-century monk and spiritual guide Thomas Merton was right when he wrote in a well-known prayer that our desire to know God is important to God, even when we don’t particularly understand what is going on. Dedication in our prayer lives means simply that we expect periods of consolation and desolation, and that we do not place unrealistic demands on what prayer is supposed to feel like. Yes, sometimes it makes us feel good; it can bring us to periods of intense contemplation; it can help us to know God’s loving care; it can confront us with the sheer beauty of creation. And it is wonderful when those things happen! But they are not the reason for prayer. Deepening our relationship with God is the reason, and so, as in any other relationship, we must be prepared to experience low points. Abandoning anything when it becomes difficult may prevent us from growing as human beings; abandoning prayer when it seems worthless may prevent us from knowing how God is changing us during these periods. Again, good coaching helps us to gain perspective on the low points in our spiritual lives, to understand that sometimes the greatest spiritual growth occurs at those times when we feel distant from God.
As I look back over my prayer life of the last decade or so, it is clear to me that times of desolation are necessary, not unlike periods of sleep in our daily lives or periods when fields lie fallow. In these examples, it seems to us like nothing is happening; but these periods make possible the growth that we can later see and understand. If we allow ourselves to prepare for the fact that sometimes desolation happens, we can give ourselves the chance to trust that God is preparing us for a more mature relationship when we are ready. It may be helpful to consider the example of Jesus on the cross: his moment of utter desolation led him to cry out to God, “Why have you abandoned me?” But as we know, that was not the last chapter in his story.
Ignatius counseled that the key to the spiritual life, listening to God’s will, is discernment. Discernment is a process in which we look at the different experiences we encounter in prayer and distinguish what is leading us toward God from what is leading us away from God.
Earlier I described how athletes must learn to distinguish good pain from bad pain. This may be a helpful starting point to think about discernment; we learn the practice through continued effort over time by asking questions about the effects of different experiences. An important theme in discernment is that it must involve more than just an immediate reaction to our prayer. As noted above, sometimes we will encounter painful times. Discernment helps us to understand how on occasion we must confront pain in order to grow, but it also helps us to recognize the times when the pain is too much for us and we must seek help.
In our time, sciences like psychology, sociology, neurobiology, and others have made us much more conscious of the different factors that affect our attitude toward life. Even on an intuitive level, though, most people understand how things like the weather, job stress, relationships, health, and other factors can make an impact on our spiritual lives. There are some days when everything seems to go wrong; it’s hard for me not to get mad at God under such circumstances. While Ignatius was not trained in the modern sciences, he did nevertheless have what we would call today a keen psychological insight. He did understand how spirituality is tied up with these other factors, and so his rules for discernment are about trying to get a sense of what one is facing in prayer. To use an obvious example, imagine that you’ve got the flu, you’ve just learned that you are about to be downsized at work, and your significant other has announced that the relationship is over. What will your prayer be like, assuming you decide to do it at all? Honestly, if it were my situation, I would probably think about some choice words for God and skip the prayer altogether!
If I practice discernment, though, I realize that this attitude tells me about how I presently view God: I’m ready to pray when things are okay but then blame God for any problems that creep up. I try to keep in mind that when I am angry at God, I still need to pray and allow time for God to change me. It’s not something I enjoy, but I do it because I trust that in the long run, it will make me more conscious of God’s will.
With the help of a guide, one who practices discernment will learn to recognize those movements in prayer that call a person to spiritual growth. But a person may also recognize those factors that truly inhibit spirituality. Just as a good counselor can help a person understand psychological problems, a director can help a person understand when prayer is not the answer to problems. It’s important to recognize that there are legitimate blocks to prayer and that for some people, it will be necessary to seek the help of other professionals. Discernment is not a perfect solution to all the things that make life difficult; it is, rather, a specific practice within the context of one’s prayer life that can help a person to grow.
To use an analogy, think of discernment as an athlete’s physical self-consciousness. One thing I enjoy about rowing in an eight-person boat is that I can become so focused on performing well that I can forget about everything else that’s going on in my world. I developed the habit of bringing an almost meditative attention to my form— paying careful attention to every movement of the hands, every stretch of the back, every sensation on the oar handle, every drive with the legs. Over time, I have become able to recognize if something is slightly off: perhaps my hands are a bit too high, perhaps my shoulders are slumping a little, perhaps my timing is out of sync with the other rowers. Usually, I can make small adjustments so that the general feeling in the boat improves. I have, in short, developed a level of self-consciousness that enables me to look for signs that something is wrong. Discernment is like this; over time, people become accustomed to looking for those things that hinder the ability to pray well, so they can seek solutions.
But to take the analogy a step further, imagine that one day a coach is out watching me in the boat and notices that there is a pronounced problem in some aspect of my rowing. The coach, remember, is able to see me in a way that my self-consciousness cannot—he or she can point out problems that may lie outside the scope of my discernment process. Further, sometimes the problems people encounter are not directly related to the activity at hand. If, for example, my coach tells me that my hands are not working smoothly, I might respond that it’s because I’m feeling some pain in my wrist. Perhaps it’s a minor problem that can be corrected with better form, but perhaps it’s due to a medical problem like tendinitis. In the latter case, no amount of discernment on my part will help; I need to seek medical attention. The bottom line is that while discernment is an important practice to bring to the larger picture of the spiritual life, it must be complemented by the understanding that sometimes our spiritual problems are manifestations of problems that need attention outside the realm of prayer.
Ignatius offers several ideas about how to practice discernment that a person can develop more and more over time. The first one involves paying attention to the ways that we make destructive choices in our lives. It’s easy to get caught up in choices that bring us only temporary happiness, because our culture is saturated with them. The entertainment industry thrives because we choose them again and again; like candy, they give us a little pleasure for a short time. But candy isn’t enough to live on, and so the person who has nothing but candy will, in the long run, be in bad shape. If we get stuck in the pattern of choosing only these temporary pleasures, we can find ourselves unable to get out of the pattern—we become slaves to our unsatiated desire. Our desire, like that of a person who drinks salt water, grows stronger even as we take in what seems to satisfy it.
Under these circumstances, people find that conscience enters the picture. It’s often depicted as the angel on the shoulder, telling the person, “Don’t eat that chocolate cake! It’s bad for you!” Meanwhile, the little devil on the other shoulder says, “Don’t listen to that little fairy! Go ahead, live a little!” Not a very good depiction, I must say, since it makes conscience seem like a wet blanket. On a more serious note, people sometimes describe conscience as the part that makes them feel guilty about things, the part that prevents them from really enjoying themselves. It’s important to think of conscience as the part of us that discerns the will of God. In other words, when our conscience stings, perhaps it’s because God is trying to get our attention. Notice that in this case, the pain of a guilty conscience may be a kind of good pain, calling us to ask questions about the choices we make in life.
As I suggested earlier, though, discernment doesn’t happen all at once, and so it is also good to be careful when dealing with guilt. True, sometimes guilt is a call to make different choices about our lives; but other times it may be the result of more deep-seated problems that really are better handled with professional help.
A second idea about discernment applies to people who have decided that they need to make some changes in their lives. Usually, tough decisions, like quitting smoking, take time; people wrestle with the issue before they come to a resolution. There can be obstacles to making a decision, even if a person knows it’s the right one. Reasons that to an outside observer seem small can loom large in the mind of the person wrestling with the decision. Discernment under these circumstances is about getting a certain perspective, recognizing that the end result, and not the difficulties along the way, must be a person’s focus.
A third key idea about discernment relates to consolation and desolation. Consolation is an increase of faith, hope, and love, giving the person interior peace, while desolation is exactly the opposite. Discernment over the long term is about recognizing how the spiritual life involves both of these at different times and choosing those things in our lives that ultimately lead to more faith, hope, and love.
There is a more positive aspect to discernment. At certain times in our lives, we are faced with more than one good option and have to choose which is the best. I may have to decide whether to go to college or begin work; to get married to someone I love or move to begin a new career; to welcome another child into the family or settle into a permanent lifestyle with the children I already have. In these cases, discernment is not about choosing right from wrong but, rather, about choosing one good over another. These kinds of decisions can be the most difficult precisely because all the options seem good. For Ignatius, the key is the same: which decision allows me to truly become what God is continually creating me to be, in every moment of my life? Which decision makes me most true to myself, the deepest self, where I find God? How do I respond to God’s invitation to cooperate in God’s constant project of building the real me?
GOD IN ALL THINGS
Developing the practice of spirituality enables one to grow in the ability to see God in all things. Ignatian spirituality is pervaded by this sense of God’s presence in all of creation, which means that anything in human experience can be a source for prayer. People unfamiliar with prayer tend to think of it as something you have to do in a church or some other holy place, with hands folded and head bowed. On the contrary, if spirituality is about the ongoing conversation between the person and God, then it can take place at any moment of the day under any circumstances.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) wrote what I think is the best reflection of this theme, in “God’s Grandeur”:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
I love the image of the Holy Spirit enfolding the world in her wings, caring for it the way that a mother holds her baby close. It speaks of a tenderness that God brings to us, even in the most dismal conditions. Writing during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, Hopkins was aware of the difficult conditions in which many people lived at the time. His reference to everything being “seared with trade” points to the way that people can cover up the beauty of creation, immersing ourselves in the commercial world, which can seem so dehumanizing. And yet, he writes, there is still the hint of God everywhere—the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as he calls it—suggesting that if we look beyond this world that constantly assaults our senses, we can come to know God’s presence.
In Catholic theology, this vision that extends beyond the everyday world toward God is called “sacramental.” Developing a sacramental worldview means that we are able to look at the ordinary things in everyday life and ask how God self-reveals through them. To use a personal example, I often marvel at my students, many of whom overcome significant odds in order to attain a college degree. At times, their desire to do well means that they wish to challenge the way I’ve graded a paper or assignment, and sometimes I have to confront their anger. Under some circumstances, confronting a person’s anger makes me defensive: you push, I push back. But I’ve come to see even expressions of anger as arising out of what I think are very holy desires: a better life for oneself and one’s family. So even when a student expresses her anger at me, sometimes I can detect a hint of the work of God moving that student toward her goal.
Seeing God in all things is about challenging the concepts we have formed about God over the course of our lives, recognizing that they are always limited. Part of the way we as human beings think is to break down our world into manageable chunks; we develop a sense of how things work based on what we are able to understand. If God is God, though, our understanding of God will always be very limited. We must be prepared always to challenge what we have previously thought about God and allow God to challenge us to think in a new way. When we allow ourselves this kind of open-eyed wonder at the world, rather than assuming we’ve got it all figured out, we will begin to be surprised. God will begin showing up everywhere! The English mystic Juliana of Norwich wrote a well-known reflection on a hazelnut, in which she saw the whole of God’s creation. This simple little nut became for her a point of insight into God! In our own time, Mother Teresa wrote about how she saw the face of Jesus in the dying poor of Calcutta. These two examples tell us something about the sacramental worldview: what we see is less important than the way we see it. The whole world can be a moment for discerning God’s face, if we are ready to see it.
Too often, it seems, people are looking for God in the big things: great miracles, epic moments, noble causes. We prefer to think of God as the one who parted the Red Sea and did other great deeds. But we do well to think also about the example of Jesus, whose way of manifesting the love of God was simple: one-on-one conversations, oral teaching, compassionate action. He did not always seek the “big things,” if we think of them in the political or social sense. What he sought was connectedness to other people in order to teach them about how great God’s love for them is. Jesus’ God is the God of the story about the prophet Elijah, who looked for God in a strong wind, an earthquake, and fire—but found God instead in a tiny whispering sound (1 Kgs 19:11–13). God shatters our illusions, our concepts, and so if we use them to look for God, then we will be disappointed. But if we simply allow God to self-reveal as God wills, then we will begin to see the hand of God in all things.
To conclude, I am suggesting that if we are to undertake spiritual workouts, we must have a good idea of what to expect. And what Jesus teaches us is that God wants to love us and to be loved in return through the way we love other people in our lives. Our posture in prayer, then, must be one of openness to whatever ways God moves in our lives. We must listen, wait, watch, and be ready for God; we must be vigilant. We must be ready to encounter God in ways that we had not expected, by honestly acknowledging the situations in our lives from which we begin our prayer. We must be ready for correction in order to know the ways we have set up blocks to God in our ways of thinking. We must be prepared to encounter difficulty, both from life circumstances and from our own tendencies toward sin. We must be ready to learn the process of discernment in order that, over time, we may come to find traces of God everywhere.
Meet the Author
Tim Muldoon is a theologian and a young adult formed through the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. For several years, he was the Chair of Religious Studies at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He currently serves as the Director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. He is married with two young daughters.
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