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Letting God Come Close: An Approach to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises

Letting God Come Close: An Approach to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises

by William A. Barry

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An approach to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
As more and more people begin to reclaim their spiritual heritage, longoverlooked traditions resurface, offering seekers new ways to rekindle their spiritual selves. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola is such a tradition, and its recovery in the church has sparked the interest of


An approach to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
As more and more people begin to reclaim their spiritual heritage, longoverlooked traditions resurface, offering seekers new ways to rekindle their spiritual selves. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola is such a tradition, and its recovery in the church has sparked the interest of many believers—religious and laypeople alike.
In light of this resurgence, Fr. William A. Barry, a director of the Spiritual Exercises for more than thirty years, offers Letting God Come Close, a guide that shows spiritual directors how to effectively and creatively help individuals meet the living God through the Exercises. Using clear, down-to-earth examples from his own experience, Fr. Barry hopes to instill in the director the trust, confidence, and skills needed to help retreatants approach God.
“Spiritual directors will find a gold mine here of help in understanding and giving the Exercises.”
—George Aschenbrenner, S.J., director, Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth
“For over thirty years Barry has listened attentively for the ways God deals directly with God’s people through the Spiritual Exercises. God’s voice comes through and Barry helps directors pay attention.”
—George R. Murphy, S.J., adjunct lecturer in spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley

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Loyola Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Fifth Edition
Product dimensions:
5.04(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.59(d)

Read an Excerpt


After the Second Vatican Council, many religious orders and congregations began to reclaim their heritage, going back to their founders to rekindle the original charism that had led to the foundation of their orders or congregations. It was no different for the Society of Jesus. One discovery the Society made was that the Spiritual Exercises of their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, had originally been given to individuals, not to groups. Prior to 1965, the notion of individually directed Exercises was almost unheard of and had been unheard of, it seems, for more than a century. In living memory, Jesuits and others knew nothing of a tradition of individually directed retreats. The Spiritual Exercises were preached to large groups of people, and they had an enormous impact in this form. So pervasive was this practice that some Jesuits felt the introduction of the individually directed retreat was an innovation, and perhaps an unhealthy one at that, another instance of the triumph of psychology in spiritual matters.

After 1965, Jesuits and others began to learn how to give the Spiritual Exercises to individuals. Training courses and programs proliferated. People flocked in large numbers to retreat houses to make individually directed retreats of varying lengths up to the traditional thirty days. At first, these people were largely diocesan priests and men and women who belonged to religious congregations, but gradually word spread among the Catholic laity and then to members of other Christian churches. Now there are a number of retreat houses in the United States that almost exclusively give directed retreats throughout the year. In addition, the rediscovery of the Ignatian heritage has led to the giving of the Spiritual Exercises to individuals and small groups while these people carry on their ordinary daily lives. On any given day in the United States, hundreds of people are making the Exercises by praying for an hour and a half every day and seeing their director once a week while continuing to work a regular job and carry out their other daily tasks.
As a result of this recovery of the tradition, the Spiritual Exercises have taken on a new life in the church. Articles and books have appeared at a steady rate, climaxing in 1991 during the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ignatius. Since 1970, I have been engaged in giving the Exercises, in training directors of the Exercises, and in writing on various aspects of Ignatian spirituality. During the Ignatian year, I gave a series of lectures on the Exercises at Boston College, and this series was published in 1991 by Ave Maria Press as Finding God in All Things: A Companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. That book tries to make the Exercises accessible to people with the hope that many more will want to try them out under direction. The present book has a different focus. My hope is that it will be helpful to directors, either by stimulating their own creative directing or by being a foil against which they can joust to deepen people’s understanding and experience of this tremendous tool. I have reworked material already published in journals and have added new material, all of which tries to show how I approach directing the Exercises. I hope that the book may also be helpful to people who seek God, who want to let the Creator deal immediately with them. All my writing aims to help people who hunger for God, to encourage them to give God a chance to satisfy that hunger.
I have dedicated the book to Sister Mary Agnes Reed, R.S.M., who taught me in grade school and who always kept me in her heart and thoughts throughout her life. She died on Holy Saturday afternoon, 1993. As it turned out, I was putting the finishing touches on the first draft of this book as she lay dying and then died. Let her stand for all those dedicated Sisters of Mercy who helped shape my early years both intellectually and religiously. I am grateful to them all.

I thank my father and sisters, who so faithfully read my material and encourage me. Once again I am indebted to Marika Geoghegan, my good friend, who read the manuscript and gave me strong encouragement. My community of ten other Jesuits has been a great help to me since I became provincial two years ago. Without them, I would not be able to do my job, nor would I have the time and energy to write. Moreover, they encourage me in my writing. I am especially grateful to William C. Russell, S.J., and William G. Devine, S.J., who read the first draft very quickly and thoroughly, gave me helpful suggestions for improving it, and expressed enthusiasm for the material. Finally, I take this opportunity to thank the past and present staff of the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who helped me to hone my approach to spiritual direction and to the direction of the Exercises and who encouraged me to write in those early days of learning how to direct the Exercises.

Preface to the Revised Edition
I am grateful to Loyola Press and to my editor there, Linda Schlafer, for agreeing to reprint the book. For this reprint I have made some changes in order to remove duplications and inconsistencies and to bring the book more up-to-date. I have also enlarged the last chapter on the Contemplation to Attain Love and have added a chapter on the historical Jesus and the Second Week. I hope that the book will continue to enlighten people on God’s ways of dealing directly with us.
William A. Barry, S.J.
January 2001
Chapter 1
One Approach to Allowing “the Creator to Deal Immediately with the Creature and the Creature with Its Creator and Lord”

In the Fifteenth Introductory Explanation to the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius urges the director to maintain equilibrium with regard to the choices a person making the Exercises faces. At the end of the paragraph, he says,
Accordingly, the one giving the Exercises ought not to lean or incline in either direction but rather, while standing by like the pointer of a scale in equilibrium, to allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord. [n. 15]

In this first chapter, I want to outline how I approach directing the full Exercises in the form commonly called the “thirty-day Ignatian retreat.” In other words, I want to present how I try “to allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” To introduce my approach, let me cite Gilles Cusson.

We shall speak of the “integral” Exercises. This expression does not necessarily refer to the matter of time, that is, to the “thirty-day retreat.” In fact, the making of the Exercises does not derive its value principally from the framework in which they are given, nor from the precision of details and their technical apparatus. Their authenticity is measured, instead, by the quality of the spiritual experience which they foster, by their helping the retreatants to prepare themselves for the salutary encounter with God, in Christ.1

This strong statement echoes my own convictions. The Spiritual Exercises contain a method of encountering God’s action in our universe in an ordered progression. People who have the prerequisites and desires can let God strip them of their inordinate affections so that they can find God’s will and thus become more and more attuned to God’s redemptive intention in creating this universe. Ignatius himself cites the purpose of his Spiritual Exercises as overcoming “oneself, and to order one’s life, without reaching a decision through some disordered affection” [n. 21]. For Ignatius, union with God meant union with a God who is always actively bringing about God’s reign in this universe. Union with God meant ordered desires and action.2
My own practice of giving the full Spiritual Exercises has evolved over a period of about thirty years, so I will describe it here as succinctly as possible. I have directed individuals in retreats of varying lengths, both in the city and in country retreat houses. The clientele has also varied, from Jesuits to Roman Catholic sisters, Catholic and non- Catholic laypeople, ministers and priests. My approach has been honed in peer group supervision with other directors. It has also undoubtedly been affected by my training as a clinical psychologist, by my work as a training supervisor of spiritual directors, and, of course, by my upbringing in the United States of America as the son of immigrant Irish parents. The extent to which this approach fits with the approaches of Jesuits and others from widely different cultures remains to be seen. I present my own approach with the hope that others will find it helpful, if only as a foil against which to test their own ways of proceeding.

The Principle and Foundation

I assume that the Exercises will be profitable for people in proportion to the depth of their desires, a topic that we will take up explicitly in chapter 2. Those who are ready for the full Exercises must, I believe, have strong desires to develop and deepen their relationship with God. Such desires, if they are real, are based on strong, positive experiences of God, experiences that I have come to call the affective Principle and Foundation. This may be better understood if I first describe people who do not have such positive experiences of God. These are the fearful, scrupulous people whose image of God seems to be one of a tyrant. The British psychoanalyst Harry Guntrip notes:
It is a common experience in psychotherapy to find patients who fear and hate God, a God who, in the words of J. S. Mackenzie, “is always snooping around after sinners,” and who “becomes an outsize of the threatening parent. . . . The child grows up fearing evil rather than loving good; afraid of vice rather than in love with virtue.”3

Pierre Favre, one of the founding members of the Society of Jesus, seems to have been in this condition when Ignatius first met him in Paris. It would be four years before Pierre would be ready for the full Exercises, after much patient spiritual direction by Ignatius. What the Favres of this world need in order to desire closeness to God and detachment from their inordinate desires is an experience of the enjoyment of God such as that described by the psychiatrist J. S. Mackenzie.

The enjoyment of God should be the supreme end of spiritual technique; and it is in that enjoyment of God that we feel not only saved in the Evangelical sense, but safe: we are conscious of belonging to God, and hence are never alone; and, to the degree we have these two, hostile feelings disappear. . . . In that relationship Nature seems friendly and homely; even its vast spaces instead of eliciting a sense of terror speak of the infinite love; and the nearer beauty becomes the garment with which the Almighty clothes Himself.4

Such experiences of the “enjoyment of God” elicit the desire to get to know God better and to let one’s life be governed by one’s relationship with God.

Another way to describe this affective Principle and Foundation is to point to experiences of desiring “we know not what,” periods of great well-being accompanied by a yearning for Mystery itself. Sebastian Moore describes such occasions, explaining them as experiences of God’s desiring us into being. These experiences of our creation immerse us in a great desire for the consummation of God’s own intention for the universe and for each one of us.5 C. S. Lewis calls this desire “Joy,”6 an intense longing that is distinguished from other longings by two things. “In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. . . . This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.” Second, we can be mistaken about the object of the desire, as Lewis himself was for a good part of his early life. Lewis concludes,
It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatiotemporal experience.7

I believe that Ignatius spells out the implications of such an experience in the First Principle and Foundation.8

When people have such an affective Principle and Foundation, they desire to be united with God and to know God’s dream for them and for the universe. Before I agree to direct someone in the full Exercises, I try to ascertain whether he or she has had sufficient positive experiences of God such that this desire is present. In the first couple of days of the retreat, I suggest exercises that will bring back to memory these experiences of being desired into existence and kept in existence by a loving Creator who has a dream for that person. Psalms such as 8, 104, and 139 are proposed for prayer. I often suggest a day of prayer in which the person asks God to reveal her personal salvation history. After expressing the desire for such a personal revelation, she recalls a person, a place, or an incident of early childhood and then lets the associations rise freely, trusting that among the influences on her memories will be God’s Holy Spirit. She can concentrate on later periods of her life in other periods of prayer on the same day. The purpose is that she experience anew and in depth God’s loving creation and providence for her and for the whole universe, along with the heartfelt knowledge that she has a part to play in it, and a desire to know what that part is.

No matter how meticulously one tries to screen people prior to beginning the full Exercises, some people begin them without a deep trust in God. In such cases, the time spent on the affective Principle and Foundation can take a number of days. One man, a Jesuit for more than fifteen years, spent about ten days struggling with whether or not he could entrust his life to the God who had, seemingly, let him down early in his life. It was time well spent; indeed, the lack of trust might not have come to consciousness if he had not been making the full Exercises with a director. Without this foundation, however, it makes no sense to try to move the person to the next stage of the Exercises. The Exercises are an ordered progression in which one stage depends on the relatively “successful” completion of the prior stage, and the whole edifice depends on the solidity of the foundation.9 If the foundation is not firmly established prior to beginning the full Exercises, then the wise director has no alternative but to help the retreatant to allow God to build it firmly at that time.

I hope that it is already apparent that the kind of direction I do and encourage in others requires the ability to listen to the experience of the directee and to adapt one’s approach accordingly. The director, in other words, must have developed some of the basic listening skills of a good counselor, such as the ability to help the other to be concrete and somewhat detailed about experience, the ability to respond to the directee with accurate empathy, and the ability to ask questions for clarification in a way that does not imply a negative judgment on the other person’s experience.10 Very often, directors need much help and supervision to overcome their tendency to want to give answers or to help the person to discern before the actual experience of the person is sufficiently explored. Before discernment is possible, they must become sufficiently aware of their own experiences. Directors who too quickly presume that they know what their directees have experienced run the risk of not permitting “the Creator to deal immediately with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord” [n. 15] and thus of leading them astray. Later in the chapter, I will return to the topic of supervision.

The First Week

People who have a profound experience of the affective Principle and Foundation recognize that God is creating this universe so that all men and women might live in harmony with the Trinity and in community with one another. They also realize that each person has a role to play in God’s loving intention for this universe. Such people will want to live out God’s plan, but they also know that the world and they themselves are not in harmony with it. Such felt knowledge leads to the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, in which the desire is to know how both they and the world have fallen short of what God intends. At the same time, they want to know that God has not given up on them or on the world. One can put the desire this way: “I want God to reveal to me how God sees me and my world.”

The novelist Brian Moore captured this desire well at the end of his novel Black Robe. The novel is set in Canada at the time of the French conquest of the Native Americans and poignantly describes the clash of alien cultures as the French Jesuit priests try to convert the Iroquois and the Hurons. The protagonist, Pére Laforgue, has witnessed this tragic clash, has himself been tortured by the Iroquois, and has at times doubted the existence of God. At the end of the novel, he is baptizing people of the Huron tribe, knowing that their baptism will mean the end of their civilization. The novel thus depicts both personal and cultural brokenness and sinfulness. It ends with these words: “And a prayer came to him, a true prayer at last. ‘Spare them. Spare them, O Lord. Do you love us?’ ‘Yes.’”11 That prayer of Père Laforgue and the response to it express some of the desire of the person who enters the dynamic of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises.

In the course of the First Week, I try to help people to look not only at their own sinfulness and sinful tendencies but also at the history of sin in the world. The first meditation on Triple Sin can be given as it is in the book of the Exercises, but they can also meditate on the condition of the world at present and then reflect on the historical conditions that have contributed to the present conditions. The headlines of the day’s newspapers can often supply the opening for such reflection. The seemingly intractable evils of our day portrayed in the newspapers bring home the power of evil and of the Evil One and show how far from the intention of God our world has strayed. Such a meditation can also bring home the sense of hopelessness people may harbor with regard to such social evil and thus lead to the desire to be freed from this. I also suggest that they ask God to reveal their own complicity in this history of sin and evil in the world in a period of prayer that complements the earlier period when they asked God to reveal their salvation history.

During this First Week, I also propose Scripture texts that might help them to face God and Jesus as the sinners they are. Examples are the woman caught in adultery ( John 8:1–11), the Israelites in exile because of their sins (Isaiah 43:1–7), the washing of the feet ( John 13:1–11), and Peter’s triple profession of love ( John 21:15–19). During this time, I suggest that they end their prayer periods by looking at Jesus on the cross and speaking directly to him. It is quite difficult for many people who are aware of their sinfulness to look directly into the eyes of Jesus on the cross, but when they do, they come to a deep realization of his love and forgiveness. During this time, they also pray the triple colloquy suggested by Ignatius, first asking Mary to intercede with Jesus, then asking Jesus to intercede with his Father, and finally begging the Father for a deep knowledge of their own sins and sinful tendencies as well as of the disorder of the world in which they live [n. 63]. This triple intercession indicates the depth of their desire for freedom from all sins, sinful tendencies, and inordinate attachments.

In directing this Week of the Exercises, I have assumed that only God can reveal our sins and sinful tendencies to us. Sin is precisely a blind spot that keeps us from knowing ourselves as we really are. So we beg God for God’s view of ourselves and of our world so that we can repent and try to live out God’s dream for us and for our world in cooperation with God’s grace. Actually, in each of the weeks of the Exercises, the id quod volo, the desire, is for a personal revelation of God, as we shall see in more detail in chapter 3. I shall allude to the object of this desire in each of the weeks.

During this First Week, people who have long harbored the deep-seated fear that some secret sins, some sinful tendencies, or something of which they are ashamed could not bear the light of day, or somehow would not be forgiven by God, can find themselves freed from an overwhelming burden. Let one example suffice for many. Suppose someone has for years feared that he is a homosexual. With his rational mind he can tell himself that God loves him no matter what his erotic attractions may be, but he cannot admit to God exactly what these attractions are because he fears that God will repudiate him. As long as these fears keep him from being open with God, his prayer experiences will be somewhat superficial. God will seem distant, and the director will notice that his description of prayer seems dry and intellectual. There will not be much of the kind of movement that Ignatius expects during the Exercises.

The alert director can help the directee by questioning him about his desires and about how he feels about the way the prayer periods are going. If director and directee have established a good working relationship, the director can point out that the person’s prayer seems dry and overly rational. By judicious questioning and gentle confrontation, the director can help the person to recognize that something is keeping him from closeness to God. He may realize, in the course of further prayer, what that something is. During this Week, he has a chance to pour out to God and to Jesus the content of both his fears and his fantasies and to discover that God still looks on him with love and care. This experience can disabuse him of the illusion that God’s love is conditional and can lead him to the freedom from self-absorption that makes entrance into the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises possible and desirable.

I hope that during this Week, retreatants will also realize that God loves this real world with all its sinful and corrupting social structures. In other words, during this period in the Exercises, people can come to the deep realization that God wants the world itself to be more of a place where men and women can live out God’s dream for them. God has not given up on the world, in spite of all the horrors perpetrated in it, in spite of the injustice and poverty, the murders and torture so easily verified by a casual reading of the newspaper headlines. During this Week of the Exercises, retreatants can come to recognize God’s revulsion at the social injustice in the world while at the same time experiencing God’s tremendous love for our world and for our feeble efforts to live out God’s dream.

The Second Week

I look upon the Kingdom meditation as an exercise that evokes the deep-seated desire in us for the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world. It also evokes our desire for someone to whom we can give our whole selves in order to fulfill that dream. The parable of the earthly king is of a piece with the myths of the hero and heroine that have been a part of world literature since its inception. The prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures that evoke our hopes in Advent are also of this type. The early Christians read these prophecies and then pointed to Jesus as more than fulfilling them. In a sense, the way a person reacts to these myths indicates whether or not he or she has the desire of the Second Week.

Let me give an example using Luke 4:16–21. In this section, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). If, upon hearing these words of Isaiah, a person focuses on herself as one of those in need of healing or freedom rather than on the figure of Jesus who has a mission, then perhaps she is still in the dynamic of the First Week; the focus is still on her need for healing and forgiveness. But if she thrills at the program of the prophet and wants to be with Jesus on his mission, then she has the desire of the Second Week, which is the desire for Jesus to reveal himself to her so that she may love him more and follow him more closely. In chapter 5, we will explore more deeply the transition points to the four weeks.
During the Second Week, I begin with the First Day proposed by Ignatius. The contemplation of the Incarnation, with its reference to the Trinity looking down upon the world, brings back to mind both the Principle and Foundation and the First Week. The contemplation of the Nativity, with its suggestions for the colloquy, looks forward to the Passion and cross. After this first day, I usually suggest a day spent on the first ten chapters of Mark’s Gospel. People rarely read a whole Gospel in one sitting, and Mark’s first ten chapters can be read reflectively in less than one prayer period. During the other prayer periods of the day, they can go back to those aspects of Jesus’ life, ministry, and personality that struck them most forcefully. For the next day or two, I suggest a closer look at scenes from the first three chapters, culminating in the call of the Twelve.

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. (Mark 3:13–15)

For most retreatants, these days lead to the question of whether or not they want to ask to be chosen, as the Twelve were chosen, to be companions of Jesus. They are then ready to take a day to meditate on the value systems of Satan and of Jesus, which is Ignatius’s Fourth Day. Stripped of the medieval imagery, the meditation on the Two Standards strikes a responsive chord in people. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, depicts the progression of temptation. In that movie, an honored doctor comes to the point of hiring an assassin to kill his mistress because she threatens to spill the beans to his wife. Reputation and money are on the line; hence, he assumes the role of God and pays the assassin to kill her. Herod’s banquet in Mark 6 also depicts the same progression. Rather than lose face among his guests, Herod finally kills John the Baptist, although it is something he does not want to do. In this meditation, Ignatius again suggests a triple colloquy, praying first to Mary, then to Jesus, and finally to the Father [n. 147]. This triple prayer underlines the reality that these two value systems square off in battle within the individual heart. If we are to live by the values of Jesus, we absolutely need the grace of God; we need to be put under the value system of Jesus by the Father. The meditation on the Three Classes of Persons finishes this Fourth Day.
For the rest of the Second Week, I usually suggest the section of Mark’s Gospel from 8:22 to the end of chapter 10. This section can be looked at as an inclusio because it begins and ends with the healing of a blind man. Moreover, Bartimaeus, after his cure, “followed” Jesus “on the way,” the way that leads to Calvary. In this section, Jesus predicts his passion three times, and three times the disciples are blind. Jesus also speaks of the costs of discipleship. During these days, retreatants continue to ask to know Jesus in order to love him more and follow him more closely, and they continue to pray the triple colloquy of the meditation on the Two Standards.

The issue before them is how Jesus wants them to live out their lives as disciples. I take the “election” as an issue of God’s election of the person and not, in the first instance, as an issue of the election or choice by the retreatant. This stance is also supported by Leo Bakker.
The exercitant does not stand before a whole row of objects of election from among which he must choose those which agree more with God’s will; rather, according to Ignatius, the exercitant who wants “more” actually finds himself facing only one alternative: a life in which he only desires to take on the likeness of his earthly Lord, or a life in which he may actually take on this likeness. Election—the grace of the Second Week—is, therefore, nothing else than the inner knowledge of the Lord in order to love him more and to follow him more closely.12

In other words, retreatants face the question, Does God want me to live out my life as a disciple of the poor Jesus? If the answer is yes, the concrete details of how to live out this choice can only be worked out after the conclusion of the Exercises.

Of course, at this time of election a person may conclude that God’s election or call to follow the poor Christ includes a concrete way of living, as a religious or as a lay missionary, for example. But the concrete details may not work out. At Manresa, for example, Ignatius himself came to the conclusion that God wanted him to work to “help souls” in poverty. He also wrongly concluded that Jerusalem was to be the venue of his apostolate. Life after Manresa eventually taught Ignatius the concrete way in which God’s election of him would enflesh itself. During the Exercises, another young man came to a profound knowledge and love of the poor Jesus and to a conviction that Jesus was calling him to apostolic work. He also concluded that Jesus was calling him to enter the Jesuits. But the Jesuits, for some reason, did not accept him, and he had to look further to see how to concretize his election. Directors need to be aware of the difference between the election to discipleship and the concrete details of a life of such discipleship, which can only be worked out in a world where many factors come into play.

The Third and Fourth Weeks

The Third Week is ushered in by the aroused desire in the person making the Exercises to have Jesus reveal what his passion and death were like. In the First Week, the retreatant looked at Jesus on the cross, but the desire then was to know that Jesus still looked on her, the sinner, with love. The focus was more on her needs. Now the focus is on Jesus and on what he is suffering. The desire is for compassion for Jesus. Even those who have this desire may be surprised, however, at how difficult it is to stay with Jesus in contemplation of the passion. But it could hardly be otherwise. All of us shy away from pain, suffering, and death. If we find it very difficult to face our own suffering and eventual death, we often find it even more difficult to face the suffering and death of those we love.

We do not easily ask our loved ones to tell us what they are suffering, and we put off mentioning to them the reality of their imminent death as long as possible. When people enter the Third Week, these dynamics are operating even though the desire to share Christ’s sufferings is very strong. Directors need to recognize how deep the resistance is and help their directees face it without getting discouraged. Nowhere else in the Exercises is it so clear that consolation does not necessarily mean feeling happy and content. I have known people who have suffered deeply during this Week as they have felt not only what Jesus himself suffered but also what he still suffers in all the sufferings of the people of our world. Yet painful though it was, they knew that they wanted to stay close to Jesus and found themselves desolate when they pulled away from contemplation of his sufferings.

The Fourth Week arrives with the desire to have Jesus reveal the joy of his resurrected life. Here, too, it may not be easy for the person to stay with the contemplation of the risen Jesus. I believe that one source of resistance here is the hidden hope that with the Resurrection, the cross and death of Jesus will be seen as only a bad dream. But the risen Jesus carries the marks of his passion on him. The past is not undone. The wisdom of Jesus is hard to accept; namely, that he could only be the risen One he now is through the actual life he led and the death he suffered. “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26). The only way to have the joy of the Resurrection is to accept it as a grace on God’s terms.
Another source of resistance, I believe, is a deep-seated reluctance to surrender ourselves totally to God. It is difficult to accept the fragility and frailty of all the best efforts of our lives and to leave Resurrection and the success of the kingdom to the Father. It is very hard to believe in practice that the only way to save our life is to lose it and that the only way to enjoy life is to not cling to it with might and main. Again, retreatants need to be reminded that they desire a grace and that this is not something within their power to bring about.

Often in a thirty-day retreat, not much time is left to spend on the Contemplation to Attain Love. I will have more to say about this in chapter 11. If this contemplation gets shortchanged, I usually point it out and suggest that retreatants might want to continue with it after the retreat is over. I explain that it is a contemplation, not a meditation. We are asking here for an intimate knowledge of God’s great gifts. In Manresa, Ignatius had a number of mystical experiences, which he describes in his Autobiography. These seem to have been the experiential substratum for the Contemplation. Ignatius hopes that the exercitant will experience God’s creative touch, God’s desire and efforts to share with us as much of himself as he can. In effect, Ignatius hopes that the exercitant will experience the whole world and every moment in it as sacred, as “charged with the grandeur of God.”13

Ignatius himself seems to have realized that directors need to be reminded to let the Creator deal directly with the creature. Both in my own practice and in supervising others, I have come to realize that reminders are often not enough. Directors too easily fall into wanting to help with counsel or theology or directions, especially when their directees are experiencing difficulty. In the actual direction session, directors reveal that their faith in the reality of God’s direct dealings with their directees is rather weak. Moreover, in the intensity of the one-to-one direction, personality patterns in them and in their directees are activated. Transference and countertransference reactions often occur. These can be expected to be rather strong in a thirty-day retreat in which the director and directee meet every day and deal with very intimate experiences.

As a result, groups of directors with whom I have worked have tried to engage in some kind of supervision. Most often, the directors gather regularly for peer supervision in a group setting. The focus of such supervision is not on the absent party (the retreatant) but on the experience of the director. The director presents her experience of directing someone, revealing her own reactions and thoughts and feelings. The peer group helps her to examine her experience and to understand why she is reacting as she is. Directors are encouraged to present experiences that trouble or concern or surprise them. In this way, they can learn something about themselves as directors and can also see where they need to request God’s help to become better directors.14


In this chapter, I have tried to show how I approach the direction of the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius discovered in his own experience that both God and he could deal directly with each other and that these dealings had an ordered progression. Perhaps because of my training as a psychologist, I tend to see this ordered progression in terms of an ever-deepening relationship analogous to the development of an intimate human relationship. Any developing intimate relationship between two humans begins with an initial attraction (the affective Principle and Foundation). As the relationship develops, it will gradually erode the egocentric concerns of both of the parties and shift both to a concern and care for the other instead of the self (First Week). Moreover, if such a developing relationship continues to unfold authentically, it will lead the two people to larger concerns than just their own (Second Week). Finally, people in an intimate relationship must come to grips with suffering and death (Third Week) in order to fully enjoy life itself (Fourth Week). The human analogy, however, pales before the reality of what happens when the Creator deals directly with the creature and the creature with his or her Creator.

What People are Saying About This

George R. Murphy
"For over thirty years Barry has listened attentively for the ways God deals directly with God's people through the Spiritual Exercises. God's voice comes through and Barry helps directors pay attention. His book is well worth reading and reflecting on for new and experienced directors as well as for students of the Exercises."
—George R. Murphy, S.J., adjunct lecturer in spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley
George Aschenbrenner
"Spiritual directors will find a gold mine here of help in understanding and giving the Exercises."
—George Aschenbrenner, S.J., director, Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth

Meet the Author

William A. Barry, SJ, is a veteran spiritual director who is currently serving as tertian director for the New England Province of the Society of Jesus. He has taught at the University of Michigan, the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. His many works include Letting God Come Close, A Friendship Like No Other, Here's My Heart, Here's My Hand, Seek My Face, and God's Passionate Desire (Loyola Press), and God and You.

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