Read an Excerpt
You picked up this book. That suggests an interest in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. You must know that they are being given and made by more people in more places and in more ways than at any time in history. And you will have come across the astonishing number of books about ways to give them, ways to make them, purposes for making them, and a lot of studies of their “dynamic.” You can reasonably ask, What else can possibly be said?
This book answers that by saying something that is new in several ways. Its explanation of the Spiritual Exercises does not dwell on their structure or on what experts call the “dynamic” experienced in making them. Instead, it looks into each exercise to find how it shapes the person praying and then asks how that affects your life from now on. This life is not a life of piety within the church. Rather, the life it depicts is a life freed of the secularism of our age to live in imitation of Jesus Christ. This book is not about praying in a cocoon, about what happens when you go to a retreat house in the hills, or join a group praying together though long months. This book is about living out the Exercises in this wonderful, exuberant secular nation of ours.
Our nation’s tendency right now is not only to separate church and state, but also to question any valid role for religion in everyday life and the marketplace. The deeply vexed question facing every serious disciple of Jesus Christ is how—even whether—to live faithful to him in a culture of corrosive secularity. “The second rate superior minds of a cultivated age,” John Stuart Mill argued, “stand always in exaggerated opposition to its spirit.” If conservative and liberal Christians neither oppose it excessively nor live excessively absorbed by the secular spirit of this cultivated age, are there alternatives? This book faces that squarely. It suggests how you can—indeed, that you must—live as an active citizen who is a consciously committed disciple of Jesus Christ.
The book makes the case for this in three ways. First, it explores how the Exercises inculcate virtues, the permanent dispositions of your heart which you enact daily. The Holy Spirit guides you into these dispositions. The same Holy Spirit is shaping you who shaped the little girl in Nazareth to the point at which she was free and willing to say yes to becoming the mother of the Messiah. And the same Holy Spirit shapes you who shaped the boy Jesus of Nazareth as he “grew in wisdom, age, and grace.” How did the Spirit do that to the holy Mother and Son, and how does the Spirit do that in you? Can we have any insight into, and joyfully join in cocreating, the person the Spirit has hoped us to be?
The book answers in the positive and in detail. While you pray the Exercises, the author points out, the Spirit is shaping in you habits of the heart such as compunction, generosity, joy, and love. When you enact those habits of the heart in your everyday life after you have finished the Exercises, you are becoming what the Spirit hopes you will become—that is, you are “doing God’s will.” Enacting the virtues the Spirit pours into you as you pray the Exercises, you become the person the Almighty Creator has been hoping in eternity you will become in time. This book goes beyond talk about techniques and methods; it explores how you lead a real life in Christ.
Second, the book implicitly urges leaving behind a current weakness in giving and making the Exercises. These spiritual activities in the interior of each individual too easily occasion withdrawal from real life. This book, rather than argue about that, simply shows the alternative. It addresses the virtues while keeping in touch with the conditions of belief and holiness actually prevalent in the culture’s new millennium. The author knows people: for decades, he has been listening to, teaching, and guiding young and mature men and women. But he does not make the too common mistake of writing just from “experience,” though his own began with a thirty-day retreat in 1956. No: the author knows about culture, is aware of analyses of modernity such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. This study probed how influential thinkers like Nietzsche and Kant occasioned what John Allen has called “the hollowness of materialist visions of happiness”—hollow because they have no purpose beyond themselves (The Making of Benedict XVI). Fagin also knows the leading thinkers about virtue ethics, James Keenan, SJ, and Richard Gula, SS. He knows and cites serious commentaries on Exercises—by Michael Ivens, SJ, for instance, and John English, SJ.
But Fagin is doing something none of these have done until now. In his realization of the experience of Spiritual Exercises, Fagin has found the way to draw out the habits of the heart that each of the disparate exercises invites you to embrace. Some of the Exercises’ virtues seem plain: praying on God’s forgiveness obviously inculcates the virtue of forgiveness, and the Call of the King inculcates the virtue of generosity. Some are less obvious: the Ignatian consideration on the Principle and Foundation inculcates the virtue of gratitude as well as the virtue of reverence, and those on Two Standards and the Three Classes inculcate the virtue of prudence. So his analysis of each of the major passages in the Exercises opens not only the “will of God” as an objective truth and not only the spiritual effects that you beg God to give you. Fagin reaches beyond that into the burgeoning human heart to see you develop the virtues of each exercise and the mounting coherence of all the virtues necessary to live purposefully in Christ. What happens in the Exercises shapes to a great extent what happens after them, and not in nebulous ways.
This dynamic has to happen in a corrosively secular culture. So be perfectly clear what you will get in this book: an analysis both of what happens during the Exercises and also of what happens in living out the graces offered and inculcated by the Exercises after they are over. Other commentators are content to send you out on your own at the end of the Exercises, convinced that you have put order into your passions and prayer and you’ll figure out what God’s will is. Fagin clearly thinks the Exercises can do better than that. He takes on the urgent question that oppresses not a few retreatants: Now what? How do you go day after day living to “praise, reverence, and serve God”? What does it mean in the concrete to “imitate Christ”?
So the urgent question is not about the Exercises, merely. It is about the stark challenge facing Christians to escape the secular spirit of the age. Put the question this way: In this generous, exuberant American culture, how does the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ differ from the life of a really good person who has little or no belief? Do you give bread to the hungry? So do many wonderful men and women, simply because of their humanity. But experts say that if you have accepted the deepening and maturing of the Exercises, you are doing this as Jesus Christ did and does it. This book tells how. Your generosity to the poor rises as an enactment of a habit of your heart which is the same as the habit of heart that Jesus enacted—a habit you learned in imitation of Christ when contemplating the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a fresh and different appreciation of the Exercises.
There is a third way—a little more technical—in which this book differs from the many current studies of Exercises. The author discusses “the dynamic” of the Spiritual Exercises, as many books do—that is, the interaction of the matter for prayer, God’s action, praying and desiring, and spiritual guidance that flow through the thirty days. But Fagin discusses this dynamic in fresh terms. He is aware that most commentators assign two big purposes for going through the Exercises: first, reaching a big decision in life; and second, as they are currently practiced, a deepening in prayer and in relationship with God. He finds both of these good and his treatment deals well with both. But his interest differs: This book explores how the Exercises transform the one who makes them, not in some true but mystical way, unobservable until the process of beatification begins later on. Fagin tells how the transformation happens in palpable ways that can and must be consciously recognized. Then just how do the Exercises transform you?
The answer here is direct and focused: by giving a new shape to the habits of the heart that determine your big and small daily decisions and finally who you are growing to be. In this book, the dynamic is not merely about the choices faced and made during the Exercises. The dynamic is not mainly about reshaping your religious sensibility or your faith doing justice. In this book, the dynamic of the Exercises is about shaping you as a person to live a holy life, even though you are embedded in a culture in which ordinary people can live without God. If you wonder what that means, consider that The Economist can print a calm description of “summer camp for secular kids” offered in several places in the U.S.—so that agnostic and atheistic children can be encouraged in their life choice.
Ordinary people in America and the entire West live today rather by unchallenged axioms and unreflected convictions than by rationally established beliefs and decisions. Philosophers like Charles Taylor point out that you live in a culture of expressive individualism, which finds meaning in these dicta: “I gotta be me. I gotta do my own thing.” Pope Benedict XVI urges that the church finds itself again in the situation it was in when Benedict shaped the force that preserved civilization through the dark ages. His conviction is that Christians must form “little societies of spiritual concentration.” Fagin has given those who practice Ignatian spirituality a blueprint for achieving that. His book will interest keenly those who give Exercises and those who want to know about them. It will be a fertile help while you are making Exercises.
Even apart from Exercises, the book will prove rich resource for anyone who wonders how to go about offering hope to a world fixed in time and facing death.
Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ
Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House
Lake Dallas, TX
“Love one another as I have loved you” is the most challenging command in the Gospel. We are to love with the same selfless, faithful, forgiving, and compassionate love that flowed from the heart of Jesus, who loved us even when we were sinners. The invitation of our Christian lives is to put on the mind and heart of Jesus. With that mind and heart, we can love God and others the way Jesus has loved us.
The qualities of heart that are embodied in Jesus have classically been called virtues. Virtues shape the kind of people we are and they are the source of our actions . We grow in the Christian life by fostering these virtues and allowing them to direct our lives. We put on the heart of Christ by putting on Christ’s virtues. This is the deepest meaning of the imitation of Christ. We do not slavishly mimic his actions, but rather live in a way that embodies his loving heart.
This book will explore how the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola help us grow in virtue and embody the heart of Christ. The Spiritual Exercises are a process of prayer, reflection, and discernment that help bring a person to freedom in order to hear God’s call and to respond in faith. Commentators point out different purposes for the Exercises. All agree that the Exercises invite one to a deeper experience of God’s love as creative, forgiving, calling, and saving. Some go on to say that the purpose of the Exercises is to discern God’s will for one’s life and make faith-filled decisions. Others focus on the Exercises as a school of prayer: a way of fostering a person’s growth in a relationship with God.
This book suggests another purpose of the Spiritual Exercises: to transform an individual into a certain kind of person with certain virtues or dispositions of heart.
To develop this interpretation of the Exercises, this book mines the insights of a contemporary movement in moral theology called virtue ethics. Virtue ethics contend that the real question of ethics is not “What should I do?” but rather “Who should I become?” It is concerned with fostering the virtues necessary to live a Christian life of love of God, and service of neighbor. For one called to discipleship, this means putting on the mind and heart of Jesus and loving as Jesus loved.
Ignatius wanted Christians to be committed “to love and serve the Divine Majesty in all things.” (Sp. Ex. 234) In the chapters that follow, the Spiritual Exercises outlined by Ignatius will be related to some of the virtues that define this kind of Christian. This does not imply that there is a rigid link between certain exercises and certain virtues. The connections are meant to be suggestive only. My purpose is to provide a way of naming the graces that are at the heart of the movement and dynamic of the Exercises. I also wish to articulate the desires elicited by the Exercises in the language of virtue. “Ask for what you desire” is a maxim of Ignatian spirituality. This book will relate these desires to the virtues so that we live out of these graces and make decisions based on them.
The purpose of this book is not to propose a new way to make or give the Spiritual Exercises. Rather, I hope to propose a new way of understanding the graces of the Exercises and their formative power in a person’s life. I want to show how the Exercises are an invitation to become a certain kind of person: a virtuous person who has taken on the qualities of Christ’s heart and a person who can “Love one another as I have loved you.”
The Spiritual Exercises and the Return to Virtue
Recent decades have seen a surge of interest in both Ignatian spirituality and what is called virtue ethics. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola have for centuries been a widely-used basis for spiritual formation and retreats of all kinds. Virtue ethics is a creative and fertile movement in moral theology. Let’s examine each more closely.
The Many Dimensions of the Spiritual Exercises
The Spiritual Exercises are first and foremost an experience. In their full form, they are an experience of thirty days of solitude, praying four or five hours a day, and a way to encounter God. The Spiritual Exercises are a process intended to lead someone to the freedom of hearing God’s call and following that call in faith. The Spiritual Exercises are a journey of transformation and conversion. They help a person get in touch with the desires of their heart that give voice to God’s desires within themselves. Generosity is necessary to make these exercises because they will challenge one always to do more, to open one’s heart more fully to God.
The Spiritual Exercises are a book that outlines a series of exercises. These exercises include prayers, meditations, contemplations, and methods of self-examination, as well as guidelines for discerning God’s movements in the human heart. They are exercises for discovering God’s will and making decisions. At one level, the content of the book is a set of exercises laid out for the one following them, but at a deeper level, the content of the Spiritual Exercises is what God does within each individual person. It is an exercise book to help one get in touch with one’s experiences of God, to be sensitive to those experiences, and to see how God is working within oneself. The director who is guiding a person through the Exercises wants to know what God is doing in a person’s heart because the movement of God is the content of the Spiritual Exercises. That experience cannot be found in a book, but only in the movements of God in the human heart in prayer and reflection.
A Book for the Spiritual Director
The Exercises are a book for the director, not for the one making the Exercises. The person going through the Spiritual Exercises needs a guide who is knowledgeable of the Exercises and of the spiritual life. The Exercises are adapted to each individual person according to how God is working in the heart of that individual. It is not a handbook or a textbook that one can read, rather something a person must experience. The Exercises are an art form, not a science.
The book was first printed in 1548. Ignatius made 500 copies and he kept all of them. He gave copies to people who had already made the Exercises so that they could direct others.
The Exercises are a journal of Ignatius’s own experience of God, a journal about God moving in his heart. Ignatius spent a year at Manresa after his conversion at Loyola. During that time, he experienced God purifying his dream and making clear that his call was to help souls. Ignatius was called to be an apostolic person, to be a person of the church, and to carry on the work of Jesus. The journal he kept during that year became the basis of the Spiritual Exercises. He refined his journal and adapted it over twenty-five years of directing others through the Exercises. This experience showed him what needed to be put in the book to help the director. But basically the book is the journal of his own conversion experience, a journal about God moving in his heart. As Ignatius talked to other people and led them through the Exercises, he discovered that his journey was really a paradigm of everyone’s journey, both the way God works with souls and the way people respond to God. He discovered that this was not just God dealing with him, but the way God dealt with everyone, even though in each case it was very personal and very individual. That is why the Exercises are adapted for each individual person. They are a paradigm, a model, and a pattern for God’s dealing with people.
Things to Do
The Exercises are not a book to be read or studied, but rather a book to be prayed. They take God’s story, especially as it is narrated in the life of Jesus, and relate it to each individual’s own story and life experience. To simply read the Exercises would be like reading a book on jogging and then wondering why one is not in better shape. The Exercises are a book of exercises, of things to be done.
What Ignatius Said about the Exercises
To clarify the meaning and purpose of the Exercises, Ignatius began with a series of guidelines or explanations. He first defined a spiritual exercise as any means that helps us come into contact with God. Anything that will dispose our hearts and set us free so we can find God’s will in our life such as a prayer, a meditation, a reflection, or a self-examination. Ignatius makes the point that just as there are exercises that one does for physical health, there are exercises one does for spiritual health. His book gives these exercises in a very ordered and structured way.
Ignatius wrote about what he hoped people would derive from these experiences. He hopes people will grow in knowledge, but not just head knowledge. He was more interested in felt knowledge or interior knowledge—the intimate understanding of a truth. It is the difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus, between knowing in our heads that God loves us and experiencing that love in our hearts. This kind of knowledge touches the heart and motivates us to act in an entirely new way. Ignatius is looking for an intimate interior felt knowledge. “For what fills and satisfies the soul consists, not in knowing much, but in our understanding the realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly.” (Sp. Ex. 2)1
Ignatius seeks magnanimity in the one making these Exercises:
The persons who make the Exercises will benefit by entering upon them with great spirit and generosity toward their Creator and Lord, and by offering all their desires and freedom to him so that His Divine Majesty can make use of their persons and of all they possess in whatsoever way is in accord with his most holy will. (Sp. Ex. 5)
One needs openness and generosity, or, as Ignatius expressed it, “great desires.” Ignatius wanted people who were not content where they were, who were restless, and who were looking to give something more. When he sought candidates for the Exercises, he looked for people who wanted to do great things, who wanted to do more.
A very important point for understanding Ignatius is his insistence that God is the director of the Exercises. He believed the Creator and Lord would touch the individual soul. The personal touch of God is the heart of the Exercises and at the heart of Ignatius’s spirituality.
But during these Spiritual Exercises when a person is seeking God’s will, it is more appropriate and far better that the Creator and Lord himself should communicate himself to the devout soul . . . the one giving the Exercises ought to . . . allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord. (Sp. Ex. 15)
God does touch the individual soul through thoughts, desires, imaginings, and all the feelings that go on inside of a person. The director is there only to facilitate that conversation between God and the person making the Exercises. The director does not give advice or teach them, but only facilitates the personal encounter of that person with God. The Spiritual Exercises are about the encounter with God and meeting God in a very personal way.
What Others Say about the Exercises
Over the years, two schools of thought about the purpose of the Exercises have emerged. George Aschenbrenner calls them “Electionists” and “Perfectionists.” The Electionists see the goal of the Exercises as “making a wise choice of a state of life in which to serve God best.” The Perfectionists see the goal as “a union with God most intimate and total.”2
Ignatius envisioned the Spiritual Exercises as a means to overcome ourselves, to order our lives, so we could reach an ordered decision. He saw it as a process of coming to a major life decision. To make such a decision, we must come to a level of freedom so choices can be made out of ordered affections. Put another way, the Exercises help us discover our role in the plan of salvation—God’s will for us. We should ask what is God calling me to do in my life and how do I fit into God’s plan of salvation of the world?
The name of spiritual exercises is given to any means of preparing and disposing our soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections and then, after their removal, of seeking and finding God’s will in the ordering of one’s life for the salvation of our soul. (Sp. Ex. 1)
The Exercises then are about making decisions, but making decisions out of freedom, not out of disordered ideas, not out of pleasure, power, or prestige.
However, many people make the Exercises primarily to enrich their own spiritual lives. They have already made a commitment to a life in priesthood, religious life, marriage, or single life. They have chosen a profession. They are not making new decisions so much as they are trying to live out the gospel more faithfully in their life circumstances. For many, the primary purpose of the Exercises is to develop and deepen their relationship with God, to come closer to God, to become more intimate with God, and to let God work more deeply within their hearts so that they can draw closer to God.
These two purposes of the Exercises—a way to make decisions and a way to grow in the spiritual life—are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Here I am proposing a somewhat different way of looking at the Exercises. I will look at them through the lens of virtue. To grow in virtue is to grow in our relationship with God and with others. To grow in virtue also deepens our freedom to make decisions out of love and generosity. To make this connection between the Exercises and virtues, I will use some of the practical wisdom found in the contemporary return to virtue.3
Virtue Ethics: What Kind of Person Do I Want to Be?
In the last thirty years, attention has shifted in philosophical ethics and moral theology to the place of virtues in Christian life. The focus on the morality of particular actions that has characterized post-Enlightenment thinking has been complemented and, in some cases, replaced by a new emphasis on the human person acting. Action-centered ethics has given way to agent-centered ethics, which is more concerned with the kind of person we are and will become than with what we are to do in a specific situation.4 Some characterize this as an ethics of being in contrast to an ethics of doing.
Richard Gula says that an ethics of being is concerned with “those personal qualities disposing us to act in certain ways.”
[These are] patterns of actions, or the habits we acquire, the vision we have of life, the values and convictions or beliefs we live by, the intentions we have, the dispositions which ready us to act as well as the affections which move us to do what we believe to be right.5
Instead of analyzing the morality of particular actions, such as termination of life support, premarital sex, abortion, or paying just wages, virtue ethics is concerned with fostering virtues such as compassion, justice, generosity, and love. Rather than centering the discussion on the nature and species of sins, the return to virtue centers on the person doing the actions and the person’s dispositions and character.6 The return to virtue recaptures, in many ways, earlier approaches to ethics that had been lost after the Enlightenment.7
Three Key Questions
James Keenan refers to the three questions articulated by Alasdair MacIntyre: Who am I? Who ought I to become? How am I to get there?8
Who am I? Virtue ethics describes a person in terms of the virtues the person possesses and practices. Am I loving, generous, grateful, and just?
Who ought I to become? This is the crucial question. Virtue ethics focuses on the goal of our lives. What kind of person do I wish to become? What virtues do I wish to foster and develop? As Keenan puts it, “for the honest person the virtues are not what we acquire in life; they are what we pursue.”9 The end not only motivates actions. It also shapes the content of the actions. The challenge is to make the transition from who we are to who we can become.
How am I to get there? The final question concerns the means to reach our goal of becoming a virtuous person. To answer this question, virtue ethics looks at the ordinary events of our day-to-day lives. Here the focus is on the virtue of prudence as the means of guiding us to actions that will help us become the person we desire to be.
What Is Virtue?
Virtues deal with the ordinary events of our lives. They are concerned with the interplay between our habits of heart and our actions. Virtues are dispositions of heart that guide our actions. If we have the virtue of generosity, we will spontaneously share with others. If we have the virtue of honesty, we will be inclined to tell the truth even when it is difficult. We call people kind or patient or compassionate by the way they habitually behave. Their actions reveal who they are.
At the same time, how we act shapes the habits and dispositions we develop. We become a virtuous person by performing virtuous actions. Our being is formed through our doing, just as our being informs our doing. Virtues are not simply dispositions. They are ways of behaving. We engage in repeated actions that form certain habits that in turn lead to further actions. When we have a regular practice of daily prayer, we become a prayerful person apt to find time to pray each day. When we regularly give thanks for gifts received, we become a grateful person apt to recognize the giftedness of all things. Parents teach their children to say “Thank you” in hopes they will become grateful people. All human actions are moral actions. These actions effect the kind of people we become.
Joseph Kotva makes five generalizations about virtues that are helpful for appreciating the role of virtues in our lives.10
Virtues are related to the human good. Virtues are “those states of character that enable or contribute to the realization of the human good.”
Virtues encompass the whole range of human activity. They engage not only the rational part of the human person, but also the affective and desiring part of the person.
Virtues are especially related to tendencies to react in expected ways. They are dispositions to strive for particular ends and actions. They “include all those states of character or character traits that influence how we act and choose.”
Virtues are products of moral education and growth. They remain stable aspects of our character that provide continuity in our actions.
Virtuous actions must be done for their own sake. Virtue may help us achieve some good or goal, but ultimately they must be performed simply because they are virtuous actions.11
Why Are Virtues Important for Christians?
Virtues give us a deeper insight into what it means to follow Jesus. Christians are called to be disciples who model our lives on Gospel values and walk in companionship with Jesus. The call of discipleship means following a person, not primarily following a set of rules.
This is the vision Ignatius set forth in the Spiritual Exercises when he calls us to labor alongside Jesus to carry out God’s hopes and dreams for the world, and to bring about the reign of God. The grace we pray for is the grace to know, love, and follow Jesus. Discipleship is not simply about doing certain actions and asking “what would Jesus do?”, but also about becoming a certain kind of person. We are called to be loving persons in imitation of Christ, to become forgiving, compassionate, loving people with a passion to carry out the Father’s will. It is about making the values that shaped Jesus’ ministry our own values. It is about putting on the heart of Jesus and loving as he loved. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5) Jesus did not talk a great deal about specific moral actions and did not give his disciples many explicit moral directives. He was more concerned about the kind of person we are to become. He told stories and parables about what the reign of God is like. Jesus told stories about ordinary, everyday events and occupations—sowers and shepherds and masters and servants. He spoke about banquets and treasures in a field and lost sheep and buried talents. These stories tell us what kind of people would be at home in the kingdom of God.
Where Is Your Heart?
This emphasis is especially clear at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus proclaims the Beatitudes—those attitudes of heart that characterize the Kingdom of God. We are to be poor in spirit, pure of heart, merciful, and passionate about justice. Jesus does not focus on the actions of murder and adultery and lying and revenge. He is more concerned about the anger and lust and lack of honesty and vengeance in our hearts that lead to these actions.12
The scriptural image for this is a new heart. The Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures call us to take out our hearts of stone and put on a heart of flesh. Jesus takes this further by modeling for us the new heart and the virtuous person. Jesus is normative for Christian living not on the basis of a particular teaching, but on the basis of who he was and is. He embodies for us the kind of person we ought to become and the sort of right actions we ought to perform. We are called to live out in our lives the virtues of Jesus by putting on his perspective, dispositions, affections and intentions.13
The Spiritual Exercises and contemporary virtue ethics both offer a vision of a renewed and transformed heart. The focus of this book is to encourage a conversation between them. The graces of the Spiritual Exercises are a call to identify more deeply with the values and virtues of Jesus. The insights of virtue ethics can enrich our response to the invitation of the Exercises to embrace the person of Jesus as leader and friend.
Reflecting on Your Attitudes of Heart
- How would I describe the heart of Christ?
- What dispositions of the heart come to mind when I think of Jesus?
- What attitudes of the heart do I wish to foster in my own life?
- What kind of person is Jesus inviting me to be at this moment in my life?
Scripture Readings on the Heart
Philippians 2: 1–11 Put on the mind and heart of Christ
Matthew 5: 1–12 The Beatitudes
Ephesians 3: 14–21 May Christ dwell in your heart
Reverence: Created in Love
Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.
Sp. Ex. 23
The foundational grace of the Christian life is an experience of the unconditional love of God manifested in Jesus and poured into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. This experience of God’s love is central to the Principle and Foundation located at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises.
Who Is God for You?
To one approaching the Exercises, one must first answer the following questions: Who is God in your experience? Who are you? How do you relate to God? And what is the meaning and value of the world in which we live?
To answer these questions, Ignatius offers a consideration he calls “The Principle and Foundation.” It answers the basic question about the purpose of our lives and why we are here.
Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord. The purpose of life is to praise, reverence, and serve God and by this means to save our soul.
The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings, to help them in the pursuit of the end for which they are created.
From this it follows we ought to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from the end.
To attain this, it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to our free will and is not forbidden. Consequently, on our own part, we ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so in all other matters.
Rather we ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we were created. (Sp. Ex. 23)
Ignatius presents the Principle and Foundation as a “consideration.” It is not a meditation or a contemplation, but rather a reflection on some basic truths that are the foundation of the rest of the Exercises. He says that you have to clarify what God’s plan is and who you are before God. What is the plan that God is creating within you and what is the purpose of the life that God has given you? One commentator says that the Principle and Foundation “sketches the worldview of Christian faith as the background against which everything else in the Exercises and in life should be viewed.”1
At first glance, the Principle and Foundation looks like a philosophical statement, which can lead to an abstract intellectual reflection on the purpose of life. However, Tetlow reminds us that “the sentences of the Principle and Foundation are meant to evoke a religious experience.”2 The Principle and Foundation is rooted in Ignatius’s own mystical experience and calls for a heartfelt response to God’s creative initiative. This religious experience is described as
[T]he experience of my intensely personal relationship with God my Creator and Lord, not only as the One who loves and cherishes and forgives me, but also and even more as the One who is at every moment making me, my life world and my self.3
Ignatius has invited us to have a deeply personal encounter with God that touches the heart.
How Deeply Does God’s Love Penetrate?
The first premise of the Principle and Foundation is that we are created by God. We are creatures totally dependent on God, not simply for our beginning, but for every moment of our existence. We are continually being created by God. This fundamental truth shapes the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. We cannot declare our independence from God or pretend we are autonomous. God’s act of creation sustains us in existence and gifts us with ongoing life at each moment. We are always in relationship with God as our Creator and source of life.
The consoling truth in this reality is that we are created out of love. We exist because of God’s desire for our life and our salvation. We are loved by God in a radical and unconditional way from the moment of our conception. This is the good news proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Isreal: Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine. . . . Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you . . .” (Isaiah 43:1,4). The prophet compares God’s love to the faithful love of a mother “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. . . . See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15–16). We recall too the words of the Psalmist extolling this faithful love of God:
Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love
and the faithfulness of the
Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117)
The challenge for many people is to accept God’s love as unconditional. This acceptance needs to take place in our hearts as well as our heads.4 God took the initiative in loving us long before we were able to love in return. We do not need to win God’s love. We cannot possibly earn it. The love of God for each person is a pure gift that only calls for response. The Principle and Foundation reminds us that God continues to touch our lives and calls us to a deeper sharing in the life of God.
On one level, the Principle and Foundation can be seen as diagnostic. It explores whether a person has truly grasped at an interior level the experience of God’s creative and sustaining love. Many contemporary directors of the Exercises begin by inviting those making the Exercises to pray on Scriptural texts that speak of God’s faithful and tender love for us as individuals. Even those advanced in the spiritual life need to experience anew that foundational experience of God’s love before progressing further in the Exercises. Until people can claim that gift of God’s love on a personal level, they cannot hear God’s words of forgiveness or the call in freedom in the rest of the Exercises. To enter into the meditations on sin in the first week of the Exercises without a genuine experience of God’s love can be a destructive experience. A person cannot come to honest self-knowledge without first knowing they are loved.
Put another way, the Principle and Foundation explores a person’s operative image of God. Most people approaching the Exercises would say that they have a positive image of God and would describe God as a God of love and forgiveness and fidelity. The question is whether this intellectual belief is the operative belief in a person’s life. Do you really believe and act out of a loving image of God, or does an image of God as demanding, punishing, and arbitrary lurk at a deeper level? At a deeper, unconscious level, do you believe that God’s love must be earned, that God has rather harsh conditions to be fulfilled, that God expects more than you feel capable of giving? Do you hear these words of Isaiah at the most personal level: “[M]y steadfast love shall not depart from you. . . .”? (Isaiah 54:10).
These are the questions Ignatius would have us ask. He invites us to get in touch with God’s continuing creative love as a felt experience that is the foundational grace of a person’s relationship with God.
What Reverence Means
The Principle and Foundation introduces us to the wonder and graciousness of creation, to the transcendent majesty of God as origin and source of all creation. Reverence is our response to that majesty and mystery.5 Rudolph Otto speaks of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the mystery that is daunting and majestic, yet fascinating.6 Before the majesty of the Ultimate, we experience fear, yet attraction. We are reluctant to draw near, yet we are also captivated by a power and energy far beyond our own. This reaction to the holy is pervasive in human religious experience. Every religion has some sense of reverence before the Ultimate.
We find this same sense of awe, of fear, and of fascination in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We see it when Abraham drops to the ground and bows his face to the earth (Genesis 17:1–3), when Moses takes off his shoes before the burning bush and covers his face (Exodus 3:1–6), when the Israelites are warned that they cannot look on the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20). We see reverence when Peter falls to his knees after the great catch of fish (Luke 5:1–8), when the disciples are awe-struck when Jesus calms the storm (Mark 4:35–41), and when Peter, James, and John are overwhelmed at the Transfiguration. (Matthew 17:1–8). Yet there’s a paradox in this sense of awe and fear. It leads to a sense of closeness to God. Reverence occurs in the context of the personal love of God that ennobles and enriches the human person. Reverence is an invitation to draw near to God and not be afraid.
This sense of closeness is a reflection of God’s desire for us. The restlessness in our hearts, the desire for union with the divine, our pull to self-transcendence—all of these are our response to God’s invitation to share in God’s life. William Barry speaks of the experience of reverence as “desiring ‘I know not what.’ ” Barry speaks of this desire as an experience “of being touched by the creative desire of God who desires us into being and continues us in being.”7 Desire is a key idea. It is vital to understanding the heart of Ignatius and the dynamic of the Exercises. Ignatius is eliciting our deepest desire for God that haunts our souls and fills us with longing for the divine. We feel this desire when we feel reverence.
Ignatius Loyola’s Experience of Reverence
Reverence was a basic attitude that shaped Ignatius’s relationship with God. It pervaded Ignatius’s way of living in the world. The idea of reverence occurs often in the Spiritual Exercises, his Spiritual Diary, and in his letters. Ignatius used two Spanish words for reverence: reverencia and acatamiento. Acatamiento refers to veneration and awe and reverence, as well as submission. O’Neill describes it as:
a happy consciousness of divine presence, an awe suffused with warm attractiveness and resulting in love. In this communing presence submission flows from an awareness of the utter gratuity of creation and redemption.8
Acatamiento implies a heightened awareness or consciousness of God’s presence. At the same time, it is a loving awe that draws one closer to God. Ignatius refers to it as “an awe which is affectionate.”9
A passage from Ignatius’s Spiritual Diary testifies to the profound emotional character of this reverence:
Before, during, and after Mass there was within me a thought which penetrated deep within my soul, with what great acatamiento and reverence I should mention the name of God our Lord on my way to Mass, such that, steeping myself in this reverence and awe (reverencia y acatamiento) before Mass, in my room, in chapel, and at Mass, with the tears coming, I put them away promptly, so as to attend to the awe (acatamiento), and not seeming as my doing, there came that acatamiento which always increases my devotion and my tears.10
Not surprisingly, Ignatius counseled others to approach God in prayer with reverence. This is a direction from the Spiritual Exercises:
A step or two away from the place where I will make my contemplation or meditation, I will stand for the length of an Our Father. I will raise my mind and think how God our Lord is looking at me, and other such thoughts. Then I will make an act of reverence or humility. (Sp. Ex. 75)
Ignatius also recognized that reverence was especially appropriate when a person was dealing directly with God:
When we are conversing with God our Lord or his saints vocally or mentally, greater reverence is demanded of us than when we are using the intellect to understand. (Sp. Ex. 3)
This attitude of reverence is not to be restricted to prayer. Ignatius wanted to foster a sense of reverence in all of life. The Contemplation on Divine Love at the end of the Exercises calls for a sense of reverence for the God who dwells in all things. Ignatius’s ability to find God in all things is rooted in this pervasive sense of God’s active presence. Ignatius was called “a contemplative in action” because his sense of reverence moved him to action. Ignatius promoted the spiritual practice of daily examination of conscience as a way of fostering an attention to the presence of God in our everyday lives—an attention that leads to a deeper sense of reverence.11
For Ignatius, reverence was a basic attitude and it permeated his life. Reverence is emphasized at the beginning of the Exercises because it is essential and foundational to all that follows in the Exercises and to Ignatian spirituality.
Learning to Live Reverently
Reverence is a virtue to be cultivated and practiced. It is a disposition of heart that leads us to the good in all things and draws us closer to God. Reverence brings us closer to other people and to the world around us. The reverent person notices and responds to the mystery of life and the sacredness of all things. Reverence is an attitude of dependence and humility, an appreciation of the splendor and beauty of all reality, and a longing for something greater. Reverence is a self-effacing virtue, but it implies as well a reverence for oneself as a person created and loved and chosen by God. Reverence gives voice to our desire for God, our desire to find fulfillment beyond ourselves in the mystery that embraces us.
Some will argue that contemporary life and culture have lost a sense of reverence. In an individualized and person-centered world, it is easy to domesticate God, trivialize relationships, and flee from the sacred. Reverence is not a virtue to be found only in traditional settings, formal titles, formal rituals, and attitudes. Each culture must discover its own way to foster reverence. Each of us must find reverence in the world in which we live.
In the end, we must tap into our own experience of reverence by reflecting on contemplative moments of awe. Descriptions of reverence are only helpful if they are measured against one’s own recalled experience of transcending oneself and opening oneself to something greater. For example, I remember standing on the top of a mesa ten thousand feet high overlooking what seemed to be hundreds of miles of fertile land. I had an experience of amazement, of silence, of vastness, of expansiveness, of gift. I felt a sense of wonder that God had almost done too much and thus created out of the sheer joy of creating and sharing goodness.
We feel such things often—in the countless number of stars on a clear night, before a work of art, at the birth of a child, at the moment of dying of a loved one. These contemplative experiences draw us closer to God even as we feel small and unworthy. They are sacred moments that expand the landscapes of our hearts. Ignatius knew reverence when he prayed at night under the stars, but he knew it as well in the busyness of each day. He hoped to elicit that experience throughout the Exercises.
Ignatius believed that anyone who prayerfully considers the basic truth that we are created out of love by a transcendent God of holiness will grow in a sense of reverence. We will have a deepened sense of the sacredness of all things if we think of everything as continually being called and sustained in being by God. We will stand in awe not just before sunsets and mountains, flowers and trees, but also, and especially, before every person we meet. Reverence is a disposition of a heart that allows us to live before the beauty and goodness of every creature and the God who made them. In Ignatian terminology, reverence will enable us to find God in all things.
This first exercise of the Spiritual Exercises begins to transform us into a particular kind of person. Already there is an answer emerging to the questions asked by virtue ethics: Who am I? Who ought I to become? How am I to get there? Reverence is a foundational virtue for putting on the heart of Christ.
Reflecting on the Virtue of Reverence
- Recall and reflect on an experience of reverence and awe in your life.
- Where and how do I experience God being present in my life?
- How can I grow in reverence for God, others, self, and life?
- How can I foster a contemplative heart?
Scripture Readings on Reverence
Psalm 104 God the Creator and Provider
Luke 8:22–25 Jesus Calms a Storm
Luke 9:28–36 The Transfiguration