The Ignatian Year X: Dealing with Desolation

St. Ignatius recognizes that there will be times when we are in a state of spiritual desolation, that is where we are feeling a lack of faith, of hope and of love.  When we feel separated from God. Here is how Ignatius describes desolation:

 I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described [as spiritual consolation], as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love.  The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.  For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation. 

The Rules of Discernment contained in his Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises include some good advice for dealing with such times of desolation.

First: Don’t panic and don’t make any changes.  Ignatius encourages us to remain firm and strong and dependent on God’s grace even when we do not have a felt sense of God’s presence.  We do that, he suggests, by remembering our moments of consolation.  And importantly, he advises us not to make any major changes in our lives. This is important: in desolation the enemy spirit has a greater chance of being the guide, and “[f]ollowing his counsels,” Ignatius says, “we can never find the way to a right decision.”

Second, Ignatius advises us to try to move against the desolation.  So not panicking does not mean just go with the flow.  Rather it means to keep praying.  If you experiencing dryness in prayer, don’t stop praying, keep praying.

Third, Ignatius reminds us that we can resist the pull of desolation with the help of God.  That we are not alone in fighting against the desolation. Thus we need to remind ourselves that God is in control. 

Finally, Ignatius counsels patience. Hang in there – This will pass – Remember who God is.  Be patient.  Do not give up.  David Fleming’s translation of this rule says,

Patience can mitigate the frustration, dryness, or emptiness of the desolation period and so allow us to live through it a little less painfully.  We should try to recall that everything has its time, and consolation has been ours in the past and will be God’s gift to us in the future.  Patience should mark even the efforts we undertake to work against the desolation which afflicts us.

What else have you found helpful in dealing with periods of desolation?

Note that this is a the tenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

We Cannot Serve Both God and Mammon

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples

 No servant can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon. 

What does Jesus mean here?  Although we understand the term “mammon” to refer to material possessions and greed, I don’t read Jesus as saying here that we have to give up all or our money and possessions – that unless we sell our iPhone, our laptap, our books, and other belongings (my nice Italian dishware or my accordion or whatever is your favorite possession) we will be serving mammon rather than God.  Nor do I think Jesus intends to imply that the world in which we exist is not important or that we should ignore it.

Rather, Jesus is talking about maintaining a proper relationship with this world and the things of this world.

If we call ourselves Christians – and mean something by that – then our lives are oriented by God’s love made manifest in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And that orientation has consequences for who we are in the world.  The central focus of my life becomes, not what do I want, but what does God want of me?  How do I live a life consistent with my creation in the image and likeness of God?  And how does Christ’s life, death and resurrection teach me what it means to live a fully human life?  That orientation also means that this human life is not all there is – that we live now in preparation for ultimate full union with God at our own resurrections.

That doesn’t mean not enjoying the things of this world – God wants us to enjoy the things of this world.  God did, after all, create everything that is here and, for all of its faults and defects, the world bears the mark of God.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in one of my favorites poems.  Someone once described C.S. Lewis as possessing “a delicate blend of embracing the world while not idolizing it.”  I think that is a good way of putting it.  God doesn’t have a problem with you owning a new iPhone if that helps you perform your tasks more effectively.  God doesn’t have a problem with my going out and having sushi for dinner, even though rice and beans would be less expensive.  By all means, enjoy what we have.  But do not let it become something we idolize, something we serve.            

So when Jesus talks about our not serving God and mammon, he is talking about not letting our attachment and desire for things of this world get out of balance.  The question we each need to ask ourselves is: What is our mammon?  What are the things of this world that run the risk of becoming our second master and interfere with our proper relationship to God as we go about our tasks? 

The Ignatian Year IX: Spiritual Consolation

What St. Ignatius calls Spiritual consolation is always a movement toward God, always a movement toward greater faith, hope and love towards God, others and the self.  Spiritual consolation is always a movement to the communal, always a movement out, a movement toward, and it carries a sense of confidence in God and God’s love for me.  When we are in spiritual consolation, we are most ourselves, most capable of living, most capable of making good decisions and choosing life.

Here is how Ignatius puts it in the Spiritual Exercises:

I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it 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.  It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God.  Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.

That does not mean that spiritual consolation is always accompanied by pleasant feelings or experiences;   consolation might flow from a painful experience as well as a good one.  For example, I could be feeling sadness for some sinful act, but experience consolation because I recognize presence of God there. Or I may be mourning the death of a loved one, but in that pain, be consoled by God.  Spiritual consolation can be found whenever we experience hardship and the cross, but at the same time have hope and optimism that God is with us.  So it is marked by the presence of hope in the midst of turmoil.

Ignatius suggests a few things in his Rules of Discernment in the Spiritual Exercises that can be helpful when we are experiencing consolation.

First, we should savor the moment, allowing ourselves to enjoy it. (One of my instructors in the Exercises said “party with God”) We want to store the moment in our memory to return to in times of difficulty.  We know there will be periods of desolation (more on that in my next Ignatian Year post) and it makes an enormous difference if during those periods we can clearly call to mind our moments of consolation.

Second, we should use periods of consolation as an opportunity for growth in humility.  Ignatius encourages us to acknowledge with gratitude the gifts we have received. I cannot create consolation for myself; it is always gift from God.

Finally, when in consolation, it is good to look at our patterns of desolation, to look at what can get me hooked and think of how I will want to respond.

Note that this is a the ninth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.

Love Your Enemies

Today’s Gospel contains a command that is not easy for us. Jesus says to his disciples

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.

That is a tall order. Especially so since we live in a society obsessed with giving people what they deserve, what we believe is their due.  It is a quid pro quo way of thinking that says: If you are good to me, I’ll be good to you. Or, if I determine you are worthy, I will give you something. (Our entire welfare system is premised on determining who is worthy of being supported). And in that way of thinking, loving your neighbor and hating your enemy makes sense. Giving people only what they deserve seems logical.

Yet, Jesus calls us to something more. As Matthieu Ricard writes in his contribution to The Sunflower Symposium,

True compassion must embrace all things and everyone: the worthy and the guilty, the friend and the foe. No matter how bad someone is, we believe that the basic goodness remains. A piece of gold, after all, is still gold, even if buried in the ground. Once the dirt is removed, the true nature of the gold will be revealed.

Here are some of the questions I invite retreatants to reflect on in connection with Jesus’ command. Perhaps one or more will be a source of fruitful reflection for you today.

What happens in me are I hear Jesus speak his words about love and forgiveness?

What interferes with my ability to love as expansively and indiscriminately as Jesus does?

Where am I tempted to treat love and compassion toward others as a quid pro quo?

Are there situations (or people) that lead me to hang onto resentments?

The Ignatian Year VIII: “But I Don’t Have Time to Pray”

We lead very busy lives, and sometimes busy is an understatement. So it is not surprising that people sometimes say some version of “between work, family, etc, it is so hard for me to find time to sit and pray.”

St. Ignatius understood that we are sometimes in a situation where sitting down to prayer with our Bible (or other prayer material) and journal at our side is not always feasible.  Anxious as he was to encourage people to continue to develop their prayer lives outside of a retreat setting, the Exercises contain a note in the Supplementary Material that outlines some simple directives that can be used when ordinary methods might not be so easy, such as when one is tired or traveling or when one is generally left to her own resources.

Ignatius suggestions for those times focus on things you already carry with you.  Thus, for example, he suggests prayerful contemplation of prayers we know by heart, like the Our Father, the Hail Mary or the Anima Christi.  (That last, the Anima Christi – Soul of Christ – was a favorite prayer of St. Ignatius.  He encouraged its use a number of times in the text of the Spiritual Exercises.  Most printed editions of the Exercises include the prayer at the beginning.) 

He suggests taking an hour to pray one of those prayers instructing that when a word of two of the prayer occupies our full attention with relish and consolation, we do not hurry on.  Rather, in David Fleming’s words, “we remain where we find devotion even though the full time for praying elapses in this way.” I am reminded of Teresa of Avila,  who used to instruct her sisters in a similar way, suggesting they engage in extended meditation of each line of the Lord’s prayer.

Similarly, Ignatius suggests extended periods of prayer with the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly sins.  With respect, for example to the First Commandment, Fleming’s version of this instruction explains: “It is good to reflect upon how we have been faithful and how we have failed in our observation of the first commandment.  In the brief time that we center our attention on the first commandment, we may become aware of our failings and so we ask pardon and forgiveness of them from God.  Before moving on to the next commandment we will pray an Our Father.  And so in the same way, we take up each commandment for consideration and for prayer.”

You get the idea: Ignatius wants us to get into the habit of using time we might not otherwise think suitable for prayer.  We all lead very busy lives and sometimes our schedule is such that perhaps we don’t have time for our normal morning or evening daily prayer period.  But we all have occasions when we are waiting for a phone call, sitting in traffic, waiting for an appointment – What difference might it make if we resolve to use those periods  Ignatius gives us some suggestions for how we might do that.  I’m sure you can come up with others.  But it does require some intentional planning.

Note that this is a the eighth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.

Pushing Back Against Privatizing Tendencies

Twenty years ago, William Byron, S.J., wrote in his book Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Friends and Colleagues,

With the rise of affluence in [many] parts of the world…there has been a proliferation of socially atomizing appliances. We think it not at all unusual to have a private car, a single-family home, a personal phone (on your desk, in your car, and in your pocket), a stationary or portable fax, computer, radio, television set, and iPod. Most of us have ready access to a freezer, a microwave oven, and a host of other appliances. An automatic washer and dryer are ready and nearby. We rarely have to ask anything for anything to meet our daily needs. Without a conscious choice on anyone’s part, we are no, for all practical purposes, sealed off from the human interaction previous generations enjoyed at the village well, the general store, the daily food market, the bus or train depot, and the public gathering places for recreation, worship, and communication. Not so very long ago, these points of contact were routine – even indispensable – parts of ordinary life. Now, in their absence or diminished presence, a commercially sanctioned culture of loneliness, isolation, and alienation has set in.

The privatization and atomization of which Byron speaks has only intensified in the last two decades – with the proliferation of online ordering of good from stores and an increased number of technological devices at our fingertips – even before Covid sent us all indoors.

This current time – when we are slowly emerging from our Covid precautions – is a good time to ask ourselves how we might push back against the isolation of which Byron wrote.

Byron suggests that the best way to do that is to take opportunities for service to others, which might take the form of assisting neighbors and others or might take the form of some other kind of volunteer work.

We might also consider less online purchasing (which I confess I love the convenience of) in favor of more excursions to our neighborhood stores.

We are never going to go back to the village well or the general store, but while many of us might not yet be ready for large indoor venues, surely we can come up with creative ways to enhance our point of contact – and not just with our friends and family, but with our broader community.

The Ignatian Year VII: Beginning our Prayer

St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises contain some wonderful suggestions for how we should begin our prayer period. 

First, for Ignatius, all prayer begins with what he calls a preparatory prayer in which we call to mind (in David Fleming’s words) “the attitude of reverence with which I approach this privileged time with God.”  Ignatius speaks of having the desire that all I do be in service and praise of God.

Ignatius further elaborates on this in his “Additions” (which appear in the material relating to Week One of the Exercises):  When you are beginning a prayer session, stand for a few moments where you will pray, consider that God is already there waiting for you, and make some act of reverence.  What we are doing here is simply preparing the place and our heart and becoming aware of God’s presence – recognizing the space as sacred and reminding oneself this is sacred time.  (For me, by the way, it is helpful at home to have a designated prayer space – the place I go for my prayer that is different from where I sleep or where I work or where I have my morning coffee.)

It is helpful to remember that we are not inviting God someplace God is not already present; God is already here waiting for me.  With that awareness, we consider how God is looking at me.  (This could be an entire prayer period: When you look at me God, what do you see?) 

We want to know we are held in eternal gaze of God and that God gazes at me. This is very important: If I don’t know God gazes like this at me, I can not know that he does for others and I can’t do for others.  I can’t look at anyone else with that love if I don’t see God’s gaze on me.

Second, Ignatius tells us “to ask God our Lord for what I want and desire.”  Asking for a grace is a basic dynamic of Ignatian prayer.

Why do we ask for a grace?  I think Ignatius would say that asking for a grace is to create a disposition of openness, making me more available to receive God.  Asking for a grace opens oneself to experiencing God in a personal way.  Asking for a grace also helps us get in touch with our deepest desires.

Asking for a grace also helps us to be humble in the best sense; we know we need help and only God can give it to us.  That is good way to enter into retreat and into our daily prayer.  Recognizing my need for God makes me available to receive God.  We are most strong when we ask for help.

Jesus so often, when he met people, asked them, “What do you want?  What can I do for you?”  So as you sit down to pray, spend a minute to reflect on what you need from God at that time.  What is it the grace you seek?

Note that this is a the seventh in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.

Modeling our Lives on that of Jesus

I am at my “happy place,” directing a number of retreatants on their 8-day directed retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh. I offered the reflection at one of the Masses yesterday, for which the Gospel was the opening of the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes.

I can think of no better way to understand what it means to model our lives on that of Christ than living our lives in a way that reflects the Beatitudes.  And I’m not unique in thinking that.

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate emphasizes the universal call to holiness, reminding us that being holy is not only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to live secluded lives of prayer.  Rather, we are all called to be holy.  As to what that means, he says this:

There can be any number of theories about what constitutes holiness, with various explanations and distinctions. Such reflection may be useful, but nothing is more enlightening than turning to Jesus’ words and seeing his way of teaching the truth. Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.  In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.

So the Beatitudes are not intended as sweet platitudes, but as ways we orient and live our lives – lives lived in imitation of Christ.  They provide direction.  But having said that, the directions are a little more complicated than the IKEA directions for putting together a bookcase.  They don’t say “do x” or “don’t do y.”  Rather, they illuminate the stance we adopt in everything that we do. 

One of the reasons I often suggest the Beatitudes to retreatants and directees as a focus for prayerful reflection is that I think we don’t always take them seriously as an instruction for how to live our lives.  We hear them and are struck by their poetic beauty, but we don’t always view them as speaking to our lives.  Perhaps that is because we fear the implications of putting into actual practice a stance that is so counter-cultural.

For if we are to live as Jesus, then:

  • In a world that celebrates my talents, my achievements, we aim to embrace a poverty of spirit that acknowledges that all we are and all we have is gift from God.
  • At a time when it is so easy to close our eyes and ignore the suffering around us, we keep our eyes open and to see and mourn the injustice and exploitation we see.
  • In a culture that often rewards those who push themselves to the front of the line, we strive to walk with a meekness that says it doesn’t always have to be about me and I don’t have to win every argument,
  • At a time when it is so easy to distract ourselves in so many different ways, we never lose sight that our ultimate concern – what we deeply thirst for – is God.
  • In a world obsessed with giving people only what they earn or what it felt they deserve, we commit ourselves to mercy, love and compassion to everyone, without regard to desert.
  • And in a polarized society where it is so easy to act in ways that heighten discord, we look to promote peace.

None of that is easy.  There is no question the Beatitudes are challenging, even costly.  Living in that stances doesn’t advance you far in worldly terms, and likely will set you back.  But it is what we are called to if we are to live our lives in imitation of Christ.

And we know it is possible, and not just for Jesus.  We can all think of examples like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived lives that exemplify the spirit of the Beatitudes.

 I once read a book about the efforts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi against Hitler.  Both undertook their efforts knowing the potential cost – and both lost their lives in concentration camps.  For Bonhoeffer, it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that inspired his activities.  He wrote:

I believe I know that inwardly I shall be really clear and honest only when I have begun to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously.  That is the only source of strength that can blow all this stuff and nonsense sky-high, with only a few charred pieces of the fireworks remaining.  The restoration of the church will only come from…a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ.

“Uncompromising adherence to the Sermon of the Mount in imitation of Christ.”  That is what our Gospel invites us to.

The Ignatian Year VI: Becoming Completely Available and Willing to Serve God

One of St. Ignatius’ primary aims is helping us to grow in the interior freedom necessary to make good life decisions. But that statement alone is an insufficient explanation of what Ignatius is concerned with, as it doesn’t address the obviously question of what it means to make good life decisions.

The context in which life decisions are made is key.  For Ignatius, the context is established by the First Principle and Foundation consideration, which I wrote about the other day.  The first line of the Principle and Foundation, recall, states the human purpose: we are created “to praise, reverence and serve God.” 

The Kingdom Exercise that opens Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises, provides further content as to what it means to serve God, that is, by hearing and responding to God’s invitation to us to participate with him in his plan of salvation, to co-labor with Christ in the building of god’s kingdom.

The aim of the Ignatius, therefore, is not helping us to make good decisions in accordance with our own goals, or our personal articulation of values, but rather in accordance with God’s will and God’s standards.   Pedro Arrupe once observed that Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises provide “a method that does not limit us to any particular option, but… opens up for us a sweeping vision embracing many possibilities, to the end that God himself, in all his tremendous originality, may trace out our path for us.” 

In other words, they seek to equip us to discern how we are being called to follow Christ.  Thus, understanding and embrace of call – and the movement to response – is the central feature of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  Everything else is in service to helping us to develop the interior freedom to respond as God is calling us to respond – and to respond from a place of freedom, not out of compulsion. 

What we are looking for is a state of mind of being completely available and willing to serve God; Ignatius wants to help move us toward that ability – to more and more respond, as Mary did, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  To more and more respond as Jesus did, “not my will but yours be done.” To respond as Samuel did when he heard God calling him, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

You might take some time today reflecting on what inhibits your ability to answer God’s call as Mary and Samuel did.

Note that this is a the sixth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.

The Destiny of the Whole Universe

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi, the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. In his book, The Mystery of Faith, Michael Himes talks about an antiphon that originated in the Middle Ages that describes the Eucharist as a pignus futurae gloriae, that is a down payment or first installement of future glory. Thus he suggests that the eucharistic bread and wine are “the tip of the iceberg, the point at which we see what the whole universe is destined to become.”

I have alway loved his way of talking about Eucharist. He writes

The eucharistic celebration centers on bread that we believe becomes the body of Christ and on wine that we believe becomes the blood of Christ. Consider that bread for a moment. There is no intrinsic difference between the bread which becomes the Eucharist and the bread that we popped into the toaster at breakfast or that we will use for sandwiches for lunch. There is no intrinsic difference between the wine that will become the Eucharist and the wine that we drink with friends at dinner. If this bread can become the body of Christ, why not all that other bread? If this wine can become the blood of Christ, why not all wine? If bread grown from soil and nurtured by sunlight and watered by rain, if grapes tended by vine-dressers and grown with the help of sun and soil and rain, can become the presence of Christ then why not the sun, the soil and the rain? Why not the vine, why not the wheat? In fact, if this tiny fragment of the material world can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point.

As we celebrate this feast of Corpus Christi, it is good to reflect on how the Eucharist points to the holiness of everything.