James Martin, S.J.November 02, 2020
(Composite image/iStock)

One of the most important parts of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola is called “The Election.” In this section of the retreat, one looks at how to make a good decision with God’s help. Often a retreatant finds that he or she is being invited to make in a prayerful way an important decision—say, changing careers, getting married or entering religious life. Just as often, however, there is no “big choice” to be made at the time, and the retreatant is encouraged to “elect” to follow Christ in a deeper way.

This is not the “Election” I am speaking about here, though all of us in the United States have had to make a big decision this month. Rather, I am speaking about the focus of that big decision: the presidential election, certainly the most consequential (and therefore stressful) election in recent memory.

Every single person I know has told me that they felt an enormous amount of anxiety not only about the outcome of the election but also about dealing with people on the “other side of the aisle.”

Not only does God want us to make good decisions, but God will help us do that. And often that “help” comes by paying attention to our interior life.

So now that we’ve brought up St. Ignatius, is there anything in his spiritual practices that can offer to help us make it through the aftermath of the lower-case election? Yes.

Let me suggest three Jesuit and Ignatian practices that can be of enormous help in navigating the rough emotional waters over the next few days, weeks and perhaps months or years.

Discernment of Spirits

First, discernment of spirits. Immediately after being injured by a cannonball in 1521 in a battle in Pamplona, Spain, Ignatius found himself recuperating at his family’s castle. (Always nice to have a family castle to recover in.) As it turned out, there was nothing for him to read except for a couple of books about the lives of the saints and the life of Christ.

As he rather grudgingly leafed through these books, Ignatius realized that when he thought about returning to his former life as a soldier and his desire to impress people, he was initially excited but was left feeling dry afterward. But when thinking about emulating the lives of the saints and following Christ more closely, Ignatius was not only initially excited but also felt at peace afterward. “Little by little,” he said, he realized that God was inviting him to make a good decision.

This is the first insight of Ignatian spirituality: Not only does God want us to make good decisions, but God will help us do that. And often that “help” comes by paying attention to our interior life.

How does that help us in the 2020 post-election season? Ignatius said that for those of us on the right path, the spirit that moves us toward God will be experienced one way, while the spirit that moves us away from God will be experienced in another. Simply put, the “good spirit” will be one of calm, uplift and encouragement. The “bad spirit” will cause “gnawing anxiety” and throw up “false obstacles.”

Even if you are infuriated with the other person, can you try, for a few moments, to give him or her the benefit of your doubt?

In essence, the good spirit gives hope, the bad spirit despair.

So whenever you feel hopeless or despairing, you can be sure that is not coming from God.

How often have we felt that in the last few weeks and months? But it is a great help to know any time that you feel interiorly (or hear exteriorly) these voices—“It’s hopeless,” “Things will never get better” or “We’re doomed”—that it is not coming from God.

By contrast, any time you hear these voices—“You’ll get through this,” “Things are never lost” or “You have many resources to help you”—know that this is coming from God.

In short, hope comes from God. Despair does not. So pay attention to those voices. Listen to the voice of hope, not despair.

Presupposition

The second tool is known as the Presupposition, with which Ignatius begins the Spiritual Exercises. One might suspect that his opening lines would be something about God or Jesus or Mary or perhaps regarding some form of prayer.

But instead they are about a key aspect of human relations. One should always be more eager to put a positive interpretation on a person’s words than a negative one. And, Ignatius counsels, if it is not clear how someone means something, one should ask for clarification. Essentially, it means giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Give them, as an old Jesuit used to tell me, “the plus sign.”

You do not need to let the hatred, craziness and contempt inside of you.

This is essential if you are to make it through the next few weeks. Maybe you cannot understand why the other person voted that way, but can you at least give him or her the benefit of the doubt? You have no clue what is going on in his or her mind or life. Even if you are infuriated with the other person, can you try, for a few moments, to give him or her the benefit of your doubt? After all, imagine how you look to him or to her.

The “plus sign” will help you weather the storm with more equanimity and with less danger of jumping down the other person’s throat.

Detachment

Finally, there is detachment. Ignatius invites us to be free of any “disordered attachments.” In other words, can you be free of things that prevent you from following God? It is one of the chief goals of Ignatian spirituality: freedom, detachment or what he often called “indifference.” Now, that does not mean, “I don’t care about anything” or “Who cares?” or “Whatever.” It means an interior freedom that allows one to live a healthy, stable and emotionally balanced life.

You care about important issues and follow your conscience in responding to pressing social needs, but you are also able to step back in order to live more sanely and even be more productive in the long term.

What does this mean, practically speaking? Well, can you be free from the need to enter into every single political argument in your family? Moreover, can you be free of the need to win those arguments? Can you be free of the need to obsessively watch every news program about the election and its aftermath? Can you be free of the need to answer every barbed comment online?

Overall, you do not need to let the hatred, craziness and contempt inside of you. You can “detach” yourself from that to focus on the more important issues in your life and in our country. Again, it is not “Whatever.” It is having an interior freedom to allow you to function—and to act.

We will get through this election season—and its aftermath—with God’s help and with tools from St. Ignatius Loyola.

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