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John A. ColemanJanuary 15, 2013
The sculpture "Saint Ignatius Loyola," by Juan Martinez Montanes and Francisco Pacheco.


I am often asked by people to help them understand and/or enter into Ignatian spirituality. It would be a mistake for most people to go directly to a copy of The Spiritual Exercises to try to simply read them. As they exist, the Exercises essentially are the retreat notes Ignatius himself took, after pondering on his experiences of prayer and temptation in the cave of Manresa, and were never meant essentially to be readbut rather enactedby a companion to a fellow pilgrim. Ignatian spirituality is a pilgrim’s spirituality. We are on a journey and on our way.

But it does help to have useful guides to enable us to enter the practices of Ignatian spirituality (spirituality is always about practice—doing things; undergoing meditations; reflecting on our life experiences; noting our moods and motivations). Two such guides stand out for me: James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (Harper One, 2010) and Margaret Silf’s Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living (William Eeerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).

I want to help us taste a little better the Silf book that she herself, rather modestly, refers to as “a taster journey into Ignatian spirituality.” Silf, an English laywoman and columnist for America, has long experience in spiritual accompaniment and directing Ignatian retreats. Appropriately, as the sub-title of her book, “Ignatian spirituality for everyday living” indicates, the book fits for liturgical “ordinary time.” As Silf suggests, if we can’t find God in our everyday life, we may be unlikely to find him any other place either.

One practice of Ignatian spirituality, the review of the day (often called the examination of consciousness) tries to find God in the narrative of our everyday, even in the disappointments and disillusionments of our everyday living. Ignatian spirituality is deeply experiential. As Silf notes, it involves “drinking deeply from the wells of our own lived experience and sharing the living water with each other and the world.”

The review of the day ties in closely with the Ignatian principle of the discernment of spirits. In such discernment we both encounter God and meet and confront our own demons. Ignatius knew our amazing capacity for self-deception. He also knew, as Silf puts it, that “what is destructive can very easily appear in the guise of something wholly life-giving.” Ignatius suggests for us several clues to help us know if a spirit or a mood or feeling comes from God. Clue #1 is to try to touch our deepest desires (not superficial wants but deep desires). In the deepest well of our heart-felt desire God can be found. Clue #2 points to God’s bias in favor of life. So we look to what gives us life, makes us flourish as opposed to what impedes our flourishing. Clue # 3 points to our own desires to make God’s dream for the world (what Jesus called the Kingdom of God) come true. Key to Ignatian spirituality, found in a central meditation on Christ the King, is tying ourselves closely to Jesus’ pursuit of that kingdom.

Clue #4 points to our moods and feelings during any given day. Are these movements basically creative or destructive? If we are faced with making choices, other clues point to us weighing the options; testing our choices; letting the best in us move us to decision. There are two symbolic tests for choosing the better option. If we were on our death bed, which would we have wanted to choose? If we were asked to advise someone else who consulted us on the choice, what would we advise?” Clue # 5: Before any of our choices, try to sit lightly. This involves what Ignatius called detachment—sitting lightly because we do not want really to sit lightly in our choice about our deepest selves and what God is calling us to do. In every examen or review of life, the point is not to beat the self. As Silf notes, for Ignatius “ We will not be liberated by the stick of punishment or guilt but by the carrot of the greater vision.”

Ignatius’ God was completely active. We can find God in all things ( and all things in God) because God is active and present in all things. Ignatius saw us “as co-workers, those who labor with God, enabling God’s dream to become incarnate in our personal circumstances, our own time and place.”

Ignatian prayer can and does take many forms. But one unique form, Ignatian contemplation, calls on us to enter a passage of scripture with vivid imagination: “to get right in there, as if we were personally present to the events that are described.” As we take that prayer deeper, we can ask ourselves whether there is anything we want to say to Jesus or Mary or any of the other figures in the gospel scene. We can ask if there is anything we feel Jesus may want us to do or we feel we want to do? We also probe any personal connections between the scene we are praying and our own lived experience and relationships. Ignatius often suggested we repeat a gospel contemplation. The point of such repetition was to achieve a deepening down, letting some primal image sink into our being and stick there. Ignatian spirituality deeply engages our imagination!

But important as contemplation is, it is tied to action in the world. If the God we are contemplating is an active God, we must turn it into action, into a prayer which works. In a chapter entitled, “Prayer that works”, Silk talks about the Ignatian formula about the faith that does justice. “Faith means being faithfully alongside those who are suffering. It means solidarity. It means carrying the hope for those who life had rendered hopeless. Justice does not mean judgment, either human or divine. It means actively seeking real and practical solutions to the injustices that brought about the suffering in the first place.”

In the end of undergoing the Spiritual Exercises or practicing them in everyday life, “there is no graduation ceremony. We go on learning all our lives. We remain disciples –ones who learn—because there is always more to learn” and because God is always bigger than our imagination, concepts or creeds.

Silf ends her helpful introduction to Ignatian spirituality with again a desire for a practical everyday set of concerns: “Jesus was a man for everyone. He didn’t have favorites. He didn’t cultivate the rich and powerful, though he didn’t shun them either. I want to leave you a way of journeying with Jesus that is accessible (whether you are an academic high flyer or someone who never even made it through primary school) and inclusive (whether you are ‘a pillar of the church’ or an off-the-wall rebel). I want the way to be something you really understand; something that captures your imagination and inspires you to invest your energy in it.”

Silf helpfully outlines for us the key practices of Ignatian spirituality. Tasting their strength and helpfulness will depend on our making them our own practices. The proof is in the enactment. In the end, we may learn that being grateful to God involves less paying God back (we never really can) but paying our gratitude to God forward to our fellow pilgrims on our shared journey of discovery.

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