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Note to the Reader
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were meant to be a pathway to the mystical life. The mystical gifts and graces that Ignatius received are not reserved for a select few, but are available to anyone who follows the Spiritual Exercises. In fact, according to Ignatius, the mystical life seems to be the culmination of any spiritual pathway.
The English translations of the Spiritual Exercises have sometimes done a disservice to the Ignatian experience. This book is an attempt to get to the core of Ignatius’s mystical heart. It also translates good scholarship into a language and method that anyone can follow. This book is an attempt to correct faulty English translations that have prevented people from becoming like Ignatius—mystics in everyday life.
If those who are giving the Ignatian Exercises and those making them are not exposed to the original dynamic that Ignatius intended, these sincere people will continue to invest time and money in the Ignatian tradition and not experience the real effect of the Ignatian pathway—namely, living the fullness of life in peace, joy, and inner freedom.
For anyone who wants to live the fullness of life, I hope that this book offers infinite possibilities. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises greatly benefit the scholar and the beginner. Likewise, this book can be used by individuals and by groups, by directors and by individuals who are looking to deepen their spiritual life, or by those looking to be mystics in everyday life. Groups of people who want to be trained in the Spiritual Exercises—trainers and trainees and those who are committed to spiritual direction—can all profit from using this book.
This book is the result of my forty-three years of studying and experiencing the Ignatian pathway both in my personal life and in teaching, directing, and training others in different parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania, and the United States. My understanding has been tested through workshops, seminars, and keynote talks at different national and international conferences. I am grateful for this opportunity to share with you my perspective and experience of Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises.
Paul Coutinho, SJ
St. Ignatius has been characterized in many different and sometimes contradictory ways. His spirituality has been defined in military terms, and at the same time it is difficult to get away from the fact that he is a man who lives fully on the affective level. He is not afraid of expressing his emotions with tears or heavy sobbing. His language and vocabulary reflect the chivalry, courage, and romance of the knights of the Middle Ages. Ignatius has been accused of contrary heresies: quietism, which fosters total inaction and passivity in our relationship with God; and Pelagianism, where one reaches spiritual perfection by one’s effort alone. For some, Ignatian spirituality belongs to the sixteenth-century Council of Trent where the Catholic Church defined itself against what it considered Protestant heresies, and so Ignatian spirituality is outdated. For others like Karl Rahner, a Jesuit and one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, Ignatius belongs to the future. And that future is now!
The spirituality that Ignatius lived and developed has become a spiritual methodology, and it is also more than a method—it is a way of life. Ignatius developed several methods of spiritual practice through the experience of his own life and he recorded these in his Autobiography (AB), his Spiritual Journal (SpJ), and in his collection of Spiritual Exercises (SE). Ignatius testifies in his Autobiography that “the Exercises were not composed all at one time, but things that he had observed in his own soul and found useful and which he thought would be useful to others, he put into writing” (AB 99). The Spiritual Exercises were not written as an academic exhortation or as a result of academic studies. Rather, they are a result of God drawing Ignatius into intimacy with the Divine. For Ignatius, God was not confined to and defined by any one religion, whereas the Divine and the Infinite expressed the essence of this God. The Divine and the Infinite cannot be defined but experienced.
One of the primary methods of Ignatian spirituality is to be open to experience, to reflect on that experience, and to have the courage to renew our lives in the light of the discerned meaning of our experience. The Ignatian understanding of experience is to find our personal identity in the Divine and the interconnectedness of all of life. Our reflection is not on ourselves or what we have been doing, but rather it is a certain sensitivity and an awareness of God working in us. It is God who is drawing us more and more into a divine union and communion. As a fruit of this reflection we open ourselves more and more to receive God into the depths of our being and allow that divine presence, power, and essence to flow into our relationship with people, our work, and life itself.
Personal experience was paramount for Ignatius. His experience of the Divine became an absolute in his life and everything else was influenced by this experience. He speaks about this in no uncertain words in his Autobiography, which is a testament of his relationship with the Divine: “These things which he saw gave him at the time great strength, and were always a striking confirmation of his faith, so much so that he has often thought to himself that if there were no Scriptures to teach us these matters of faith, he was determined to die for them, merely because of what he has seen” (AB 29). Ignatius considers himself to be a pilgrim on a spiritual journey through life. He understands that his mystical journey is a journey of every human being, and therefore talks about himself in the third person.
Sometimes even the Church’s teaching and practice were subject to Ignatius’s spiritual experience. While writing the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, which is a spiritual pathway for the Jesuits, Ignatius’s first companions would often question him about some of the things that went contrary to the teaching of the Church on religious life. Ignatius would reply, “I saw it at Manresa,” and rest his case. The companions had lived long enough with Ignatius to know that once he quoted Manresa he would not budge from his stand. Ignatius came to Manresa, the center of Catalonia, Spain, in 1522 and spent almost a year near the river Cardoner, which runs through the town. It was here that Ignatius stopped finding God, but allowed God to find him. It was here that he learned to receive all that God wanted to give him. At Manresa his life began to change so radically, and he received so many graces, that Ignatius compared his experience with St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. The Manresa experience became for Ignatius the criterion by which he would live the rest of his life. Ignatius believed that at Manresa he was taught directly by God, who “treated him just as a schoolmaster treats a little boy when he teaches him . . . he thought that any doubt about it would be an offense against His Divine Majesty” (AB 27).
Ignatius was so convinced that God speaks directly with individuals that he strongly advises that those who direct the Spiritual Exercises “. . . should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his Creator and Lord” (SE 15). The role of the retreat directors is to help the retreatant to come into the presence of God, and then to disappear or move out of the way. They point to the Lamb of God like John the Baptist did—God must increase, and they decrease. They are like the matchmaker who does not go on the honeymoon.
Ignatius is comfortable with making our personal experience the criterion for all action because the more we allow ourselves to receive and deepen our relationship with the Divine, the more our soul “is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all” (SE 316).
Ignatian Spiritual Landmarks
I would like us to journey together with the great pilgrim, Ignatius. Our one desire and choice on this journey should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created—namely, to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord (SE 23). We live in intimacy with the Divine, are drawn into greater union and communion with the Divine Essence, and experience interconnectedness with all of life. This, I believe, is the cornerstone of the Ignatian pathway and the Spiritual Exercises.
As a hospital chaplain, I was once called to the bedside of a man who was afraid of dying. I saw his family around him and thought he was afraid to leave his family to fend for themselves. I would have understood his fear if he were afraid of dying because he had things to do and places to go, but that was not the case. This man was afraid of dying because he was afraid of meeting God. And the astounding thing was that this man had made forty-five retreats at a Jesuit retreat house. I often wondered what kind of a God was talked about that, after forty-five retreats, the man was afraid of meeting God!
When I share this experience with priests and religious it is amazing to find how many of the senior men and women identify with this man. They are afraid of dying because they are afraid of meeting God. They are afraid because they hardly know God.
If the way we relate with God and our prayer has not changed in the last few years, then maybe, just maybe, we might not know God, nor have a relationship with God. Perhaps we have a theology, a concept, or some idea that has been passed down to us, often riddled with fear, anxiety, and guilt. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius will introduce us to a relationship with the living God, and help us grow into mystics who live the fullness of life in peace and freedom.
What does it mean to have a relationship with God and see the face of the Divine? One way to understand this is to discover our fundamental grace. Each of us has one fundamental grace. Sometimes this grace is revealed through a foundational experience. It is important to recognize our foundational experience because all the other graces in our life will be a deepening or an expression of that one grace. That grace will give us the authority for the life that we live and the things that we do. In times of crisis, when everything seems dark and hopeless, we will fall back on the grace of our foundational experience to find our purification and enlightenment, to see what is real and what is not. Our foundational experience is often expressed as the meaning and the message of our lives and keeps us connected in continual relationship with God.
Ignatius gives us a method of discovering our fundamental grace. He invites us to go over our lives year by year, period by period, to become aware of our experiences at different places we have lived and reflect on our relationships with people and our work. We will see the pattern that sustained us and kept us alive and moving ahead in life. In that pattern we will discover our fundamental grace. Ignatius will show us how to name that grace and make it the focus of our life and the source of our inspiration and strength at all times.
Ignatius recognized his fundamental grace when he had his foundational experience at Manresa. He had found his absolute in God. During the battle of Pamplona, Ignatius was wounded by the French while he was defending a fortress for the honor of Spain. While he was convalescing in his home, the castle of Loyola, he reflected on the flow of his life, and he was deeply affected by reading the Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints. He frequently read passages from these two books and experienced a deep affection for what he read. He spent a long time reflecting on the experience, soaking it in, and then letting the experience permeate every aspect of his life. In this process he was assimilated into the Trinity through Christ, and through the Trinity found himself in the Divine Essence. Ignatius’s way of relating with God helped him live a life of continual consolation.
Ignatius had the habit of keeping a journal of his experiences. He also kept notes of things that helped him and which might help others later. When he set out as a pilgrim on a spiritual path he carried these notes with him. He decided to spend a few days in Manresa to finish writing his experiences. The few days turned into eleven months, and the few notes into the Spiritual Exercises.
At Manresa the eyes of his understanding began to be opened, and the consciousness of the Divine transformed him. Ignatius expressed his foundational experience as the magis—the ever greater. The experience of the magis was the meaning, the message of his life, and gave his life power, authority, and efficacy. The magis is not measured by what Ignatius does, but by the ever-deepening relationship with the Divine. The magis then, is a divine relationship of infinite possibilities.
The Ignatian Graces are not a Privilege but a Right
Ignatius believed that all the graces he received are available to anyone following his pathway. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, reminds us that we are sons and daughters of God and therefore heirs. And so the graces of God are not a privilege, but our right. All those graces that Ignatius received are ours by the very nature of our pathway to God.
Let us examine some of the graces Ignatius received at Manresa (AB 28–30) that we need to make our very own. The first grace that Ignatius talks about is an insight into God, who is Trinity. He sees the Trinity as a musical chord, three notes but one sound. This is an affective experience through the senses, and not a theology reflected by three musical notes on a music sheet. He noticed that, at this time, he made four prayers to the Trinity without understanding why. The significance of that fourth prayer will unfold as Ignatius pursues his spiritual quest.
Ignatius’s spiritual journey brings him to La Storta. Ignatius always looked for companions with whom he could share his rich spiritual experiences. He had gathered a group of men, like Francis Xavier and Peter Faber. After they were ordained priests, they decided to offer themselves to be at the disposal of the pope. After he was ordained, Ignatius spent a year in preparation for the celebration of his first Mass. During this time he also prayed constantly to Mary to deign to place him with her Son. Ignatius wanted to be one of Jesus’ knights and be part of establishing the kingdom of God here on earth. On their way to Rome, Ignatius stopped at a little chapel in La Storta, just outside the city of Rome. While Ignatius went in to pray, the gifts and graces of Manresa came alive and his relationship with the Divine deepened as he saw in a vision how Mary had answered his prayer.
In this little chapel Ignatius had a vision where he saw God the Father asking Jesus, who was carrying his cross, to take Ignatius as his companion. Jesus then turned to Ignatius and accepted him to serve them. This experience was very Pauline. Like Paul, Ignatius is conformed to the Son. Like Paul, he has the consciousness of the Son. Like Paul, he has become one with the Son and can exclaim, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Each time that Ignatius believes he has reached the ultimate or peak experience, something even more wonderful occurs. It happens because he is open to receive the experience and because he believes in a spirituality of infinite possibilities. God, who is limitless, continues to do great things for him and draws him into a deeper relationship with the Divine.
On February 27, 1544, Ignatius makes this very profound entry in his Spiritual Journal, “. . . and going into the chapel and praying, I felt or rather saw beyond my natural strength, the Most Holy Trinity and Jesus presenting me, or placing me, or simply being the means of union, in the midst of the Most Holy Trinity” (SpJ, I–26). Following this spirituality of infinite possibilities, Ignatius, who was placed with the Son at La Storta, now becomes one with the Most Holy Trinity.
Can Ignatius’s relationship with the Divine go deeper than the Trinity? Yes. On March 6th, in that same journal, Ignatius shares his experience of being lost in the very being and essence of God: “I felt and saw, not obscurely, but clearly and very clearly, the very Being or Essence of God, under the figure of a sphere, slightly larger than the appearance of the sun” (SpJ, I–34). The “felt and saw” of Ignatius is an experience of the deepest or highest contemplation. Ignatius “felt and saw” not with his head, nor in his heart, but through pure consciousness. On March 6, 1544, being lost in the very being and essence of the Divine became an expressed reality for Ignatius. Ignatius died in 1556. One begins to wonder where these infinite possibilities finally took him in his relationship with the Divine.
The second grace that Ignatius received at Manresa is his experience of creation. He saw the whole of creation coming from God, going back to God, and the whole of creation in God. Ignatius’s response to this experience of creation is one of reverence. This reverence is an expression of spiritual repose and a sign of being contemplative in action.
Reverence, that is, acatamiento, which is a self-emptying process in order to be filled with the Divine, becomes the Ignatian attitude. This acatamiento can be expressed as devotion, which is a means of total commingling with the divine presence. If we read his Spiritual Journal, whenever Ignatius talks about acatamiento, or reverence, he loses his power of speech, his hair stands on end, and he has chemical changes in his body. Ignatian reverence, then, is a physical experience in this union and communion with the Divine.
On March 14, 1544, Ignatius will write in the Spiritual Journal that God was giving him a gift that was of more value than all his other gifts. That was the gift of reverence. “When the tears came I repressed them . . . I was persuaded that a higher value was placed on this grace (acatamiento) and knowledge for the spiritual advantage of my soul, than on all those that went before (SpJ, II–2).” This is Ignatius’s experience of creation, which is reflected in the Spiritual Exercises and becomes a very effective means of deepening his union and communion with the Divine Essence. If there is one attitude that distinguishes a follower of Ignatius it should be acatamiento, or reverence.
This was followed by the experience of how Jesus is present in the Eucharist (AB 29). From then on the Eucharist becomes the center of Ignatius’s spirituality, his spiritual life, and his prayer. It was also the occasion of his many visions and mystical graces. In fact, when Ignatius writes to Francis Borgia, the Duke of Gandia who later became the Superior General of the Jesuits, he tells him that the Eucharist is the surest and most direct way to union and communion with the Divine. The Eucharist will become an effective means for us on the Ignatian pathway.
Next, Ignatius talks about his insight into the humanity of Jesus. Ignatius sees the humanity of Jesus without distinguishing members of his body. For Ignatius, Jesus is neither masculine nor male. Jesus is a divine person—and in the humanity of Jesus Ignatius experiences the whole being of God. He experiences Mary in the same way. And so, in the humanity of Jesus, Ignatius experienced what he experienced in creation and the Eucharist—the very being or essence of the Divine. As we go through the mysteries of Christ in the Spiritual Exercises we need to make sure that we contemplate Christ as Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Ignatius thus found his fundamental grace, the core of his being, at Manresa. All the graces that preceded Ignatius’s foundational experience are available in the Spiritual Exercises to help us to find our fundamental grace.
The Spiritual Exercises: The Ignatian Pathway
Ignatius always reflected on his life and experiences, and those things that he found useful he put down in writing so that others might also profit from his personal gifts and methods. This method is spelled out in the Spiritual Exercises. These Exercises are the surest and most direct gateway to all the graces that Ignatius received. We develop an intimacy with the Divine and experience the interconnectedness of all of life.
The Spiritual Exercises begins with a section that clarifies the goal of all that is to follow, the strengths and the obstacles that we will encounter on this spiritual adventure (SE 1–22). This section culminates in the Ignatian “Principle and Foundation” (SE 23) of all his spirituality. He states the goal of our lives, the role of creatures, and our attitude of indifference that will ultimately help us make the “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God” our way of life (SE 230–237).
Ignatius divides the Spiritual Exercises into four weeks, but these are not literally four weeks of seven, twenty-four-hour days. These are four progressive stages that take us deeper and deeper into an intimacy with God, the Divine Essence. The First Week focuses on our relationship with God. It climaxes in “a cry of wonder with surging emotions” (SE 60) when we experience God’s total and unconditional love for us personally. In the Second Week we continue to deepen this experience and our relationship with God by contemplating the hidden and public life of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the Third Week, as we contemplate the passion and death of our Lord, we identify with the heart and spirit of the suffering Jesus. In the Fourth Week we find ourselves totally lost and found in the Divine. We experience this same essence in every creature.
These Exercises can be made either in thirty consecutive days in a secluded place and in complete silence (SE 20), or they can be adapted to a weekend or an eight-day retreat (SE 18). There is also a third way to experience the graces of the Ignatian pathway. We can stay at home in the midst of our daily lives, spending many months tasting and savoring the gifts of God’s life and love as we go through the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises (SE 19). This book is intended to help readers make the Spiritual Exercises in this third way.
Prayer in the Spiritual Exercises
Prayer for Ignatius is not an end in itself, but a means to deepen our relationship with the Divine and experience the many graces that Ignatius himself experienced. Ignatian prayer can be divided into three major levels: meditation, which is the prayer of the mind; contemplation, the prayer of the heart; and the “Application of the Senses,” which is the prayer of consciousness. In meditation, one receives revelations, and ends by making resolutions. In contemplation, one opens oneself to the mystery, and allows the mystery to fill and transform the one praying. The “Application of the Senses” is the prayer where neither the head nor the heart comes in the way of pure consciousness. It is through the Ignatian prayer of consciousness that one is on the road to making contemplation a way of life.
The Method, or Way of Proceeding
It is very important to be familiar with the text of the Spiritual Exercises, and it is necessary to find a good English translation (the one by Louis J. Puhl, SJ is preferred). Remember that the numbers referred to in the text are not page numbers but divisions within the Spiritual Exercises.
We need to set aside about an hour each day to take in all the gifts and graces that are available to us in the Spiritual Exercises. We begin by spending ten to fifteen minutes in preparation for prayer. Then we read the matter for the day from this book. We pray for an ever-deepening experience of the Divine in our relationship with God, and for the grace to empty ourselves of all distractions. We make ourselves available to God so that God can work wonders in us.
We find a prayerful place, either in our own homes, or in a church, or even in some peaceful place in nature. It might be helpful to use the same place every day and create our sacred space. We take a comfortable, prayerful posture and begin by focusing on the air we breathe. When we breathe in, we imagine breathing in the divine energy and presence. When we breathe out, we let go of our tension, anxieties, and all negative energy. We can do this breathing exercise for about five minutes, or until we find our hearts and minds composed and ready for divine presence.
We spend about a half hour praying over the mystery or the theme for the day. Remember the aim of our prayer is not to find God but to allow God to find us. We open our minds and hearts to the mystery we are contemplating. We listen with our hearts and allow ourselves to be confirmed in the things we already know, to clarify those things that we are curious about or struggle with, and to be challenged to go beyond sacred boundaries seeking new horizons. We let our prayer experience and insights seep into our innermost being and crystallize into a way of being.
After our prayer, we spend another ten or fifteen minutes reflecting on how God was affecting our lives in our prayer. We keep a journal of this prayer experience. Our prayer experience becomes the background of our day and permeates everything that happens to us. At the end of the day we are grateful for this experience and pray for a deepening of this grace.
At the end of every Ignatian week, or stage, we write out a summary of all our experiences. We might want to make this summary material our prayer, to savor and relish the presence and love of God until we are sufficiently satisfied.
It will be very helpful to find a spiritual director. This person does not have to be a priest or a religious, but one who has a deep relationship with God. It will be good to talk to this director either once a week or when we are ready to share the fruits we have gathered.
Once we have gone through the whole dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises as spelled out in this book, we can use our prayer journals to deepen our experiences. At least once a month read through the overall summary of the experience of the entire Spiritual Exercises. On weekend or annual retreats, take the summaries of every week of the Spiritual Exercises and deepen the prayer experience. We pray over those parts of the book where we found consolation, when we were drawn towards God, or desolation, when we were drawn away from God.
We follow this method from one stage to the next, ever deepening our love and our relationship with the Divine. Like Ignatius, we will find our identity in the Divine and experience the interconnectedness of all of life.
Days of Preparation
The Goal of Life
For Ignatius the finality of all of life is in the Divine Essence. The preparatory prayer that Ignatius suggests we pray before all that we do reflects this “Principle and Foundation” (SE 46). We pray that all our intentions, actions, and operations may be directed wholly to the praise and service of the Divine Majesty.
Our intentions are formed by an awareness of our deep inner longings. Our hearts were made for God and they will be restless until they rest in God. This is what St. Augustine believed; and this is also reflected in Ignatius. The preparatory prayer is a way for us to harness this inner drive and channel it into every moment of our lives.
We are made to experience intimacy with the Divine.
The Whole of Creation
The whole of creation comes from God, goes back to God, and is in God. Creation finds its identity in God and the interconnectedness of all of life. This is the principle and the foundation of Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius believed that those who grow in the spiritual life will constantly contemplate how the Divine is present in every creature. (SE, 39)
The Bible begins by introducing us to the Divine breath that hovered over the chaos and darkness. This breath was then poured into all of creation. God breathed this breath into humans and we became alive. We are made in the Divine image and likeness. The Divine breath gives us our identity and connects us with the rest of creation. All will pass away, but the Divine breath will remain forever.
The Divine breath of God is the very air we breathe.
The Journey, Not the Destination
Ignatius tells me that I am a pilgrim on a spiritual journey. I come to see that the orientation or the disposition of my life is more important than the final outcome I seek. The patterns of our lives are more important than the details of our personal history. The process of discernment is more important than the decisions I reach.
That’s why Ignatius is more interested in the why of things than the what. He wants to know why we sin rather than the list of our sins. Ignatius wants us to spend our energy living our lives well rather than straining to figure out why we are in the situations we find ourselves in.
Ignatius called himself a pilgrim. I am a pilgrim. You are a pilgrim. And so with Ignatius we need to put on the mind of the pilgrim and set forth on a journey.
Keep moving. The moment the pilgrim decides to settle down, the pilgrim dies.
Dancing with Your Shadow
Ignatius believes that every person has just one root sin and all the other sins are an expression of that one sin. Similarly, we have just one grace and all the other graces are a deepening of that one grace. What is amazing is that the root sin and the root grace share the same energy. When we come to this realization we will be able to use the energy of our root sin to deepen and bring to life our root grace.
In the life of Ignatius we find that his root sin, or his shadow, is vainglory. He begins the testimony of his life by stating that during the first twenty-six years of his life he was a man given to the vanities of the world (AB 1). This shadow stayed with him until the end of his life. But Ignatius made vainglory work for him when the ever-greater glory of God—ad maiorem dei gloriam (AMDG)—became his principle and driving force for doing everything. This AMDG later became the motto of the Society of Jesus, which he founded.
Ignatius offers us the method that worked in his own life (SE 56). He wants us to find our way of proceeding in our sinful life (el proceso de los pecados). He suggests that we determine the dynamics of our root sin by going over our life year by year and from period to period, looking at our experiences with the people, places, and work that we were involved in. This dance and romance with our shadow brings us to our root grace with an exclamation of wonder (SE 60) and climaxes in a life of growing inner freedom as we move toward total immersion in God (SE 237).
Power is made perfect in weakness.
Getting Rid of Our Baggage
Pilgrims travel light. The travel kit becomes simpler as it is emptied, little by little—material things, theological doctrines, spiritual experiences, and even our present relationship with God. As these clouds go away we get a glimpse of what is beyond—the sun, the moon, the stars, and the myriad galaxies. I think this is what St. Paul meant when he said that those special blessings he had in his past life now count as mere dung compared to the surpassing worth of knowing the Risen Christ, the Divine and the Infinite (Phil 3:7–11). Jesus refers to the kingdom of God as a person who is looking for a fine pearl or a treasure hidden in a field, and when these are found one is ready to sell everything for that pearl or treasure (Matt 13:44–46).
The pilgrim is totally focused on the pearl and the treasure: deepening the relationship with the person of the Divine and the Infinite. The pilgrim keeps moving, not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Just as a river keeps fresh by flowing, a holy person keeps holy by steadily moving along the path.
Thoughts, Feelings, Prayers
The beginning and the end of the day affect our spiritual and psychological life in a very significant way. Ignatius warns us to be very careful about the thoughts and feelings that we have while we fall asleep (SE 73). These thoughts and feelings that we entertain will sink deep into our subconscious and unconscious selves and affect our waking lives in a significant way.
Before we go to sleep, Ignatius wants us to sum up the prayer that we will make when we awake. We think about the grace that we expect to experience in our prayer. Like our last thoughts at night, our first thoughts in the morning are also important. And when these two moments are connected, the time in between is very influenced by these thoughts and go deep into our subconscious and the unconscious. In fact, our first conscious moment of the day will often decide how the rest of the day will flow.
Ever since I was a kid I have always gone to bed thanking God for the gifts and the blessings of the day, and I begin my day with the sign of the cross. Before any other thoughts and feelings, the sign of the cross sets the stage for my day. This prayer is now an automatic action; I do not even have to think about the words that go with it. The day begins with God, and will flow with God, and come to a spiritual end of a wonderful day.
Our thoughts and feelings are intertwined.
Preparing for Prayer
Ignatius takes great care over the setting of his prayer. For Ignatius, prayer isn’t something you just do. You approach it carefully. Ignatius does not want us to rush into prayer. Our preparation for prayer is as important as the prayer itself. Ignatius wants us to empty ourselves of all selfishness so that we are able to receive all that God wants to give us. Ignatius suggests that we make an act of humility and reverence as a physical sign of our inner self-emptying and our preparation to receive God into our innermost selves.
Just before we begin our prayer, we look at God and God looks at us. We look with the eyes of our hearts and our souls. God takes the initiative and God is the achiever in all that we do and all that happens to us.
God is waiting to find us, work in us, and become an integral part of our being.
Reflecting on Our Prayer
Ignatius emphasizes reflection. We are to make a consciousness examination twice a day. Every week we are to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation. We are to reflect after prayer. If there is no reflection then our experience will be lost.
But what does Ignatius want us to reflect on? Ignatius wants us to focus not on what we did or achieved but what happened to us. Ignatius is interested in what God was doing in our prayer and in our everyday lives, not what we were doing. Ignatius is interested in how God was affecting us. Ignatius wants us to find God’s pattern of acting in our lives. Ignatius wants us to focus on how we are achieving the goal of our lives, namely, finding our identity in the Divine and the interconnectedness of all of life. Ignatius wants us to live like Mary in the Gospels—to let go and allow life to happen to us.
Ask yourself, Is God offering me something that I don’t choose to receive?
Thinking Makes It So
Ignatius insists that we master our thoughts. In the first week of the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius wants us to bring to mind thoughts in keeping with how wonderful God is, and also keeping in mind our own sinfulness. The prodigal son, far away from his loving and compassionate father, thought about how miserable his situation was. It was this kind of thinking that made him feel nostalgic about his father’s house and motivated him to return home. We too need to entertain similar thoughts that would arouse similar feelings, cause us to experience a radical transformation, and create in us a desire to return home to God our Father.
Thoughts are powerful. A good psychologist, Ignatius knew that our thoughts produce our feelings, which trigger our behavior. Happy thoughts produce happy feelings and we behave in a joyful and happy manner. With sad thoughts we feel sad, and act as sad persons. So it is with our angry thoughts and our life-giving thoughts.
Our thoughts and our perception of life govern our behavior.
A Way of Proceeding
Ignatius has a way of proceeding. Ignatius’s focus is always on our ever-growing and ever-deepening relationship with God. For this we need to prepare and dispose ourselves so that God draws us more and more into the ocean of Divine life and love.
Disposing ourselves means becoming aware of the Divine presence waiting for us. It means offering ourselves to this Divine energy to work its wonders in us and through us. The more we empty ourselves of our thoughts, words, and deeds, the easier it is for the Divine to fill us with its presence and power that overflows into our everyday lives. At the end of our prayer or work, and at the end of the day, Ignatius wants us to reflect and become aware of how God acts in our lives.
In the Ignatian method the focus is not on me, but on the Divine presence and power around and within me. Slowly but surely this way of proceeding becomes not just a set of exercises we do, but instead—a way of life.
Learn the Divine pattern and allow yourself to flow with that pattern.
Clear, Critical, and Creative
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius typically asks us to focus on just a small area of a mystery and go as deep as we can. If we follow the Ignatian pathway we excel in a field where we develop and use our God-given gifts. We don’t ignore our other gifts, but our focus is on the depth rather than the breadth of our gifts and talents. We develop our strengths, knowing that this will carry us forward.
We constantly watch ourselves critically, trying to become aware of obstacles that come from within and without. In my experience, it’s particularly important to be careful with selfishness—that we’re attentive to not operating from our smaller self. We must strive to overcome these obstacles so that we might experience greater depth in our spiritual journey and in all of life. We strive to see things as they are, and not as we are.
I believe that we know we are on the right path on our spiritual journey when we give creative expression to what we experience. The pilgrim is often drawn beyond sacred boundaries and exposed to new horizons. Every peak is the beginning of a new adventure and growth.
Every new vista on the spiritual journey is an opportunity for our creative growth.
To Savor Is to Know
I learned from Ignatius that the food that transforms my life is the food I relish. The thoughts that make a difference are those that become an experience. The people who touch my heart are those whom I truly enjoy. The only God that I truly know is the one I have savored interiorly.
Jesus says that unless we eat his Body and drink his Blood we will have no life in us. Unless we savor God, we exist but are spiritually dead. When we do not taste God, we have a theology, not spirituality.
An experience of God is difficult to express in words, but our lives become the expression of that experience.
True knowledge is that experience where we find our identity in the Divine.
A Union of Hearts
Ignatius suggests that when theology becomes an experience of the heart it evokes greater reverence. It is in the heart where life decisions are made and transformation takes place. The heart is the sacred ground where we truly encounter and experience the Divine.
To me, this means that in my day-to-day interactions with people I should strive for a union of hearts more than a union of minds. With our hearts in union, Ignatius believes that even when we disagree with another, or with their understanding of life and truth, we will always listen with greater reverence and respond with greater respect.
We can always listen to the other with great reverence and respond with great respect.
Prayer of the Heart
I’ve experienced a great difference between meditation and contemplation as modes of prayer. Meditation uses the qualities of my intellect—namely, my memory, understanding, and will. Contemplation opens my heart to mystery and allows me to be transformed into that mystery. Meditation is the prayer of the mind; contemplation is the prayer of the heart.
In the Bible the heart refers to the core of a person. The heart is also our emotional center and the seat of tender affections, especially kindness, benevolence, and compassion. The heart encompasses both our spiritual and psychological experiences.
When we relate to people, life, and God with our hearts, we enter into an atmosphere of tremendous reverence. When we relate with our minds we experience the world dualistically, we sit in judgment of the other, and there are always winners and losers.
There are only winners in heart relationships.
The heart is the source of our life energy.
Be Gentle in Desolation
The spiritual life never moves forward in a straight line. Growth comes in waves with ups and downs, and in a spiral movement going ever deeper. As we keep growing in our spiritual life, our downs are never as low as they were at the beginning.
When we are low, Ignatius does not want us to be discouraged and beat up on ourselves. He wants us to be gentle with ourselves; better still, we should have a sense of humor. We’re to have a sense of flowing with the ups and downs of life while we maintain our inner peace and joy. To encourage ourselves while we are under a cloud, we can prepare ourselves for the sun to shine again.
Being optimistic and full of hope is an effective way to live the pilgrim life.
I am the sky. Clouds both bright and dark continually flow by.
Ignatius reflected deeply and constantly on his spiritual journey. Those things that he found useful to grow in his spiritual life he put down in writing. Ignatius had bouts of desolation, agonized over scruples, was lead by false spiritual illusions, and was tempted to suicide. He learned how to recognize and overcome these temptations.
St. Paul had similar experiences. He confesses that the things that he would like to do he does not do, but the things that he hates doing are the very things that he finds himself doing. St. Paul was convinced that there were opposing spirits within him. He learned to surrender to God. When he battled his “thorn in the flesh,” he realized that God’s power is made perfect in weakness and was convinced that when he was weak, he was strong (2 Cor. 12:1–10).
Just like St. Paul, Ignatius recognized the inner struggle. With the help of God, he learned how to prevail in the inner battle. The Spiritual Exercises is the fruit of Ignatius’s experience.
In times of trouble, draw on the wisdom of those who have already gone that way.
People are often tempted under the guise of apparent good when they are making progress in the spiritual life. This is certainly true for me. Good, challenging, or spectacular thoughts and desires give a passing thrill but soon leave me empty, depressed, and listless. We need a good spiritual director. We need to watch these apparent spiritual experiences more closely and deal with them effectively.
Ignatius recounts with us one of these experiences in his Autobiography (AB 26). At that time in Manresa he would spend seven hours in prayer. He also offered spiritual direction to those who came to him, and spent the rest of the time with the things of God. When he went to bed at night he would receive so many spiritual insights and consolations that he could not fall asleep.
Ignatius realized that even though these thoughts were holy and good, they were affecting the quality of the next day in a negative way rather than in a good way. He put a stop to these bedtime thoughts.
Carefully examine exciting spiritual experiences when you are progressing well in the spiritual life.
The Principle and Foundation
When I first encountered the Spiritual Exercises, I thought that the “Principle and Foundation” was a philosophical statement. In time I learned differently. It describes a way of life. Ignatius uses the rhetorical device of doublets, and sometimes triplets, to express the same reality in different ways. “Praise–reverence–serve” in the “Principle and Foundation” is an example. For Ignatius, praise, reverence, and service all mean the deepest possible union and familiarity with the Divine. These are not things to be done, but rather a way of being.
All created things are given to us to help us to attain our life’s goal, namely, deepening our relationship with the Divine. We can use these gifts of creation to help us, or let them become an obstacle on our spiritual pathway. We’re here to experience equanimity in any situation: health or sickness, wealth or poverty, honor or disgrace, a long life or a short one.
The goal of our lives is to choose only that which will deepen our communion with God.
Be still and know that I am God.
Being with God
Good students receive from their teachers. When Ignatius realized that God was his schoolmaster, he decided to surrender to God and allow God to direct his life. When he did this everything changed. He learned how to receive God’s love and the tremendous mystical gifts that flowed with it. Living with God, Ignatius began to grow not only in his spiritual life, but also in his inner psychological freedom and mental peace.
This attitude of openness to receive God’s gifts and God’s love led Ignatius to a significant mystical experience in the little chapel at La Storta. In this chapel he saw God the Father addressing Jesus carrying the cross with these words, “I want you to take this man as your companion.” And he saw Jesus turning to Ignatius and saying, “I want you to serve us.”
In this very simple and subtle exchange we are given a profound insight into the Ignatian concept of service. Ignatius is now convinced that service does not entail doing great things for God, but being in an ever-deepening companionship with God. Of course the test of this companionship is the love that flows out spontaneously into the world without counting the cost, keeping a record, or expecting recognition or reward.
Being with God allows our love to flow to God and others.
False Dreams of the Kingdom of God
When Ignatius was in Barcelona to study the beginnings of Latin grammar, he was misguided by distracting spirits. During the time he set aside for study, he experienced and relished new spiritual insights. But this fleeting thrill boosted his own selfish ego. He could not concentrate on his studies. With great determination he decided not to give any attention to these holy thoughts that came to him during his time of study. He made a promise to his Latin master that he would give full attention to his studies. He was a knight who honored his word. Eventually the temptations left him.
He had a similar experience while studying in Paris (AB 82). He could not listen to the lectures because he was plagued by many spiritual thoughts that came to him while in class. He delighted in these new thoughts, and would dream and fantasize how he would do great work in the future for the kingdom of God. Once again he promised himself that he would ignore these thoughts completely and stay focused on his studies.
Ignatius found his studies difficult because he began them when he was much older, and because his spirit was restless. He wanted to get out into the world and win it for the kingdom of God. But this time of study was also a time when he deepened his relationship with God.
Focus. Give your full attention to the task at hand. Temptations and distractions will eventually fade like the mists of morning as the sun rises.