In some ways I am an old-school Jesuit. In a succession of assignments and apostolic responsibilities, I have lived by St. Ignatius Loyola’s perplexing maxim that he preferred a man of self-denial to one of prayer. I am scandalized, but only slightly, by some young Jesuits’ need for the spiritual satisfactions of direct pastoral experience. One of the first lessons Ignatius learned during his hermit period at Manresa was to forgo what he called the consolations of prayer and to reduce his physical austerities for “the good of souls.” Ignatius, one of the great Spanish mystics, loved prayer; but he encouraged detachment from its satisfactions and even advised sacrificing time from prayer for the sake of uniting oneself to God’s will in bringing spiritual progress to others.
I learned that lesson in a different way early in my Jesuit life, as a novice at Calvary Hospital for the Cancerous Poor in the Bronx. The first patient I was assigned to look after was a big-boned Irishwoman known for her cheerfulness, who was suffering with a brain tumor.
Veronica was everyone’s favorite patient. But for the two weeks she was in my care, she was ill and sedated. It was as if she were comatose. She sipped her water, swallowed her food, but uttered not a word. The first response I received from her came the day I introduced her to my replacement. She said, “I know you. You have taken care of me. Thank you.” It was as if she arose from the dead with words to pierce my soul.
That experience of the value of an emotionally unrewarding task stayed with me afterward, sustaining me in difficult tasks and hard times. Doing God’s work serving humanity is often without immediate satisfaction. It does not require spiritual consolation to sustain it. Mother Teresa, after the vision that led her to found the Missionaries of Charity, is said to have prayed in desolation the rest of her life. She once said, “When I meet Jesus, I will say, ‘I loved you in the darkness.’”
I thought about spiritual consolation and its absence recently as I read Karen Armstrong’s autobiography, The Spiral Staircase (2004). A prolific writer on the history of religions, Armstrong spent seven years as a nun in a community whose rule was inspired by St. Ignatius, our Jesuit founder. The version of Ignatian spirituality imparted to Ms. Armstrong focused on breaking the will, but without “the mysticism of service,” Joseph de Guibert’s description of Ignatius’ apostolic charism. Such a spirituality is bleak enough; but in addition, Armstrong reports, in the course of seven years in the convent, she did not enjoy one moment of spiritual consolation.
I do not have a particularly vivid prayer life, but I cannot imagine what it would be like to be deprived of all spiritual consolation. “I never felt caught up in something greater,” Armstrong writes, “never felt personally transfigured by a presence that I encountered in the depths of my being.” She could not even still herself, she reports, “to wait on God.” Only 20 years later and after a life filled with disappointments, did she have her own metanoia, as she wrote her well-known History of God (1993). Then she understood “true religion” as a practice that opens the heart to others. “The habit of empathy,” she wrote, “had to become part of my life, and it had to find practical expression.” Her transformation had begun. She experienced what Alfred North Whitehead describes as one of the fruits of prayer, “the love of mankind as such.” Her most recent book, The Great Transformation (2006), an interpretation of the origins of the world religions, has as a key theme the primacy of compassion and nonviolence in the growth of religious consciousness.
Over the years, I had some memorable moments of prayer: when, for example, after a personal crisis I rediscerned my Jesuit vocation, or when, as I prayed in a mountain meadow over “the lilies of the field,” I felt God’s providence at work. But mostly my consolations have been unspectacular, what St. Ignatius describes as “every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
That said, I am all the more in awe of those, like Mother Teresa, who do beautiful things for God deprived of even these everyday sorts of consolations. My respect for Ms. Armstrong’s often inspiring scholarship is all the greater knowing how her insight was wrested from her own peculiar darkness. And I wonder at God, who gives light to some and not to others and accompanies us all in darkness as well as light.
America’s editors are pleased to welcome Margaret Silf as our newest columnist. Her essays will appear monthly under the banner Reflection Place. An internationally known spiritual writer, she will also bring a British and European perspective to our pages.