The Ignatian Year IV: Types of Persons and Spirits

There are two types of persons from Ignatius’ point of view: one he describes as moving from good to greater good and the other he describes as going from sin to sin.  He also identifies two kinds of spirits; Ignatius calls one the angel of light (we could as easily say voice of God or pull of the Holy Spirit), and the other the evil or enemy spirit.  And each of the angel of light and the enemy spirit produce a certain movement and those movements are different depending on which of the two types of person we are dealing with.

If you are reading this blog, I am guessing are in the category of people Igntatius describes as people who “go on earnestly striving to cleanse their souls from sin and who seek to rise to the service of God our Lord to greater perfection” (in short, someone going from good to greater good – someone growing in the spiritual life such that God’s desire is a priority). 

That is not to say that any of us are perfect – we all miss the mark at times.  But we are generally people trying to find what God wants for us and to live up to that.

For people trying to do that: The enemy spirit disturbs, causes doubts, encourages weakness, makes person feel unworthy, creates anxiety. You know the voice of which I’m speaking: “You can’t do it.  Why even try.”  “You’re not worthy.  Stop pretending you are.”  “Why would God be interested in you.” Or “think of what you will have to give up if you do this thing God wants you to do.”

In contrast, the angel of light encourages and supports those moving in this direction with confidence, joy, delight.  Brings courage and strength.  The angel of light (Holy Spirit) gives delight and joy, and the sense that any obstacle can be overcome with God’s help.

 In the case of those who, in Ignatius’ words “go from one mortal sin to another,” that is, their orientation is away from God and the enemy spirit is at home in person: The angel of light stings conscience, pricks conscience.  It pricks one to look at what she is doing, trying to shake up the person, making him uncomfortable.  This is God trying to help the person. In contrast, the enemy spirit works to encourage such a person to stay in sinfulness.  Ignatius says that in the case of one moving from one sin to another, “the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures.  He fills their imagination with sensual delights and gratifications, the more readily to keep them in their vices and increase the number of their sins.”

Ignatius speaks of moving from sin to sin.  But it is useful to understand that this may operate in the case of, for example, someone going through a difficult transition or something else is causing a movement away from God. 

So for us a more useful phrasing is to recognize how both the angel of light and the enemy spirit operate at times when we are moving toward God and times when we are moving away from God.

 This teaching of Ignatius is helpful whether or not one literally accepts as “real” the spirits Ignatius speaks of.  Whether it is spirit or impersonal force, we all intuitively recognize that there is a counter to the pull of God.

For Ignatius, it is so important that we learn to distinguish the feel of the enemy spirit from the feel of God or the angel of light.  The feel of God always brings us to greater faith, hope and joy and brings us out of ourselves.  The enemy turns us inward on ourselves.

This is one of the things I often say to people when they have an experience, eg., in prayer, and want to know how they can be sure what they heard was the voice of God.  One of the questions is precisely – does it lead to a sense of greater faith, hope and joy and bring us out of ourselves or turn us inward on ourselves?  Or, does it reflect the glory of God or me?

Recognizing the difference doesn’t mean you will never hear the voice of the enemy spirit.  You assuredly will.  (And in fact, Ignatius tells us that the enemy spirit tends to attack the weak point of our defense, at places where we are most vulnerable.  And can be quite tricky.)  BUT, recognizing means you don’t have to follow that voice.  You can let it go.  This is not God.  The voice you want to listen to and respond to is the voice of God, Ignatius’ angel of light.

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

The Ignatian Year III: Being Contemplatives in Action

Ignatian spirituality is an apostolic one, that is, a spirituality that in Brian McDermott’s words “gives pride of place to the experience of being sent forth by God to act and, at times, to suffer on behalf of the neighbor in witness to the Gospel and in imitation of the pattern of Jesus’ ministerial life.” In contrast to more monastic or contemplative spiritualties, an apostolic spirituality puts primacy on growing in intimacy with God in order to empower a dynamic service of God out in the world.

Ignatian spirituality, thus, not a “just me and God” enterprise. Those formed by Ignatian spirituality are thus often described with the phrase “contemplatives in action.”  Ignatius and his Exercises aim at an engagement with the world that is simultaneously active and contemplative.

Contemplatives in action unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world.  So time in retreat is important and it is important to spend time – lots of time – in prayerful reflection with God, but we do that so that we may be deeply involved with God’s work in the world.

This is important because this sense of an active Christianity means that Ignatian spirituality is suitable for people of any lifestyle.  Igntian Spirituality is about being “men and women for others,” a phrase used to denote a deep commitment to social justice and a radical giving of oneself to others.  Pedro Arrupe, S.J., once described this as being “men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.”

The heart of this self-giving is the radical generosity expressed in this prayer of generosity that is often attributed to St. Ignatius:

Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are designed precisely to help individuals discern how they are being individually invited to labor with Christ for the building of the Kingdom.  We need to know that each of us is called to play a part.  So, God doesn’t sit back and leave us to do all of the heavy lifting.  But neither is Christianity a passive faith where we sit back and wait for God to put all things right.  We are participants, co-laborers with Christ for the building of God’s Kingdom.

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

The Ignatian Year II: Personal Encounter With Christ

Central to Ignatian spirituality is the understanding that we need to encounter Christ in a direct way.  St. Ignatius encouraged believers to foster a deep personal relationship with the person of Jesus Christ in how they prayed with scripture and how they lived their lives.

This is something of central importance: It is not enough to learn about Jesus Christ. To read about him.  To think about him.  (To listen to homily or another talk about him.)  Instead, we need to encounter Christ.  To be with Him.  We need to see Jesus not as a “topic” within Christianity, relegating him to someone or something we express beliefs about, but as a person with whom we are in a relationship. 

Ignatius believed that without a personal encounter we will never deepen our own conversion.  And, if we pass up opportunities to help others experience that personal encounter, we miss an opportunity to facilitate their conversion. 

The corollary to the importance of personal encounter is an emphasis on religious experience over doctrine.  To be crystal clear, I am not saying doctrine is unimportant – experience and doctrine inform each other.  But, Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises direct out attention not to doctrine but to Christian religious experience.  In the language of Fr. William Reiser,

[religious] experience holds a certain priority over conceptualization, that is, over doctrinal formulations, for several reasons.  First, the process of understanding often starts at a pre-conceptual level.  Secondly, human language has its limitations – limits that become particularly evident when talking about God.  That means that interpretations of texts, as an ongoing challenge and responsibility for the church, constantly brings us back to the experience that gave rise to them in the first place.  And thirdly, the religious truths that we profess need to be confirmed in terms of what happens in our daily lives; in other words, through practice and ‘experience.’  Otherwise beliefs remain at the level of abstraction and the assent we give to them remains merely cerebral or notional.

Reiser’s articulation resonates with my own experience.  A Catholic Christian today, I was born and raised Catholic, but abandoned that faith before graduating high school.  I subsequently practiced Buddhism for twenty years (including spending some time as an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun) before returning to Christianity.  What I realized during the early part of making the Spiritual Exercises – realized in a time-stopping moment of awareness – was that my rejection of both the Catholicism of my youth and Buddhism (specifically in its Tibetan strain) was the same – a rejection of what appeared to be externally imposed rules from the outside that did not resonate with my internal experience of God. 

This emphasis on religious experience helps to explain why taking time for retreat is so important, and why many of us steeped in Ignatian Spiruality go on retreat every year.  For some of that means an 8-day directed retreat each summer, for others it may mean attending a weekend preached Ignatian retreat.  We do that because, although we can encounter God anywhere, retreat affords uninterrupted time for us to just be with God, to experience God, to deepen the personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

Maybe it is time to consider when your next (or first) retreat will be.

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

What We Celebrate at Pentecost

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the culmination and completion of what began with Christ’s Incarnation, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his physical departure was not the end of God’s active presence in the world. We will hear in our first Mass reading the account in Acts of Pentecost, which filled Jesus’ followers with the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel, it is Jesus who breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples.

It is important that we not let these accounts give us the impression that this was a one time event. Rather, that same Spirit that we record the coming of in our readings today dwells in each of us. Today’s feast is our reminder of that reality.

The Spirit of God dwells in each one of us. What difference would it make if we remembered that? Imagine the difference it would make if always had it in mind:

We would know that we don’t need to go someplace to find God…

We would know that we can never be separated from our God, no matter what…

We would know that we are all brothers and sisters, connected at the deepest levels…

We would know that through the power of God working in us we can (in the words of Ephesians) “accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine.”

We would know that though our bodies will one day pass away, we will live in oneness with our God forever.

That all seems to me worth remembering. Blessings on this celebration of Pentecost!

The Ignatian Year I: Finding God in All Things

Today begins the Ignatian year. As part of my own celebration of that year, I thought I would post, over the coming weeks, a series of reflections on various elements of Ignatian Spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises. As regular readers of this blog know, my spirituality has been formed by Ignatius and his Exercises, so the themes of many of these posts are ones I have explored here at various times. Nonetheless, their value is such that any possible repetition does no harm.

When people talk about Ignatian Spirituality, it is common to hear the phrase “finding God in all things,” a phrase meant to capture a vision of how God operates in the world. 

Ignatius’ conception of God is not a “wind ‘em up and watch them go” God, who, having completed the task of creating the world, simply sits back and observes it (or who passively calculates our virtues or our vices for future reward or punishment).  Rather, his vision is of a God who is always active in human lives and in the world, a God who desires relationship with us, and who can be experienced anywhere and everywhere. Joseph Tetlow phrases this understanding of God by saying that we are always “being created momently by God and Lord in all concrete particulars.”

Ignatius’ vision of God actively operating in the world has some important implications.  Perhaps most importantly, finding God in all things implies that we can experience God, not only in those times we designate as times of prayer or meditation, but in every moment of our existence, in everything we do and encounter in the world, however nonreligious or nonspiritual that activity may seem viewed through an ordinary lens.  Gerard Manley Hopkins captures God’s presence in all things in the opening line of one of my favorite of his poems, writing: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” 

If God is present in all things, then part of our task is learning to develop an awareness of God’s movements no matter what activities we are engaged in.  This, at least in part, explains the emphasis Ignatius puts on including in our daily prayer the Examen, a technique for prayerfully reflecting on the events and movements of one’s day.  Ignatius viewed the Examen as a gift from God and includes a technique for that prayer in the Exercises.  However, its value is not limited to its use during retreat, and those formed in Ignatian Spirituality include the Examen as part of their daily prayer.  It has been part of my own daily prayer for over fifteen years, and it has made an enormous difference in my awareness of God.

Doubtless some of many of you already make the Examen part of your day. For those who don’t, a great explanation is provided in an old article by Dennis Hamm, titled Rummaging for God, which you can find here. There is also a terrific app titled Reimagining the Examen, based on Mark Thibodeaux’s book of that name. A description of that can be found here.

Jesus Had to Ascend

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Ascension of the Lord, and we will hear accounts of Jesus’ ascension both in the first reading from Acts and in our Gospel.

Jesus told his disciples he had to leave but that they would receive the power of the Spirit. Why did he have to leave for that to happen? Here is how Karl Rahner explained it in one of his Ascension sermons:

Because he wanted to come close to us definitively, he has gone away and taken us with him.  Because he was lifted up (on the cross of death and to the right hand of the Father) he and everything in him have become near.  The reason for this is that his Spirit – the Spirit in whom Christ is near to us, the Spirit upon whom Christ from eternity in eternity bestows the eternal fullness of life from the Father, the Spirit over and above which there is nothing that Christ could give in all eternity – this Spirit is in us now.  He is in us as the basis of the nearness of eternal contemplation, as the basis of the transfiguration of the flesh.  We notice nothing of this, and that is why the Ascension seems to be separation.  But it is separation only for our paltry consciousness.  We must will to believe in such a nearness – in the Holy Spirit…..When we are apparently estranged from the nearness of his earthly flesh, then we are the more united with him…..He takes on our semblance only to give us his own reality – the eternal, inexpressible reality that he received from the Father, that he gives us in his Spirit, and that we can receive because he, returning home with all that is ours, made it possible to share in God’s own life.

Happy feast of the Ascension of our Lord.

What is Your “Cannonball” Moment?

May 20, a mere nine days from now, begins the worldwide celebration of the Ignatian Year.  As announced by Father Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the year is being celebrated as a way to remind us of our daily opportunity to experience conversion. The Ignatian year begins on May 20, 2021 and ends on July 31, 2022.

The end date coincides with the 2022 feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. But why May 20 as a starting date?

Up until the age of twenty-six, Ignatius described himself as “a man given to worldly vanities, and having a vain and overpowering desire to gain renown, [finding] special delight in the exercise of arms.”   He became a soldier, and found himself in 1521 defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona against the French. On May 20 of that year, Ignatius was wounded by a cannonball.

When the injury healed, one of his legs was shorter than the other, with a visible lump where a bone protruded. This was something of a problem for Ignatius.  Joseph Tylenda writes that “Ignatius still burned with the desire for wordly renown, but with one leg shorter than the other, and with a ugly bone protruding, how could he wear the close-fitting boots then in fashion?  How could he project a dashing knightly image if he had a limp?” 

Ignatius solution was to instruct the doctor to cut away the offending bone and to attempt to lengthen the shorter leg.  Ignoring the advice of both his doctors and his brother, he was determined to undergo the incredible pain of this plan.

His long recuperation at the family castle in Loyola, Spain was the beginning of Ignaitus’ process of conversion. Rather than longing for riches and worldly exploits, he began to imagine a life lived in imitation of Christ and of some of the saints he read about.

While the prompting of Ignatius’ conversion was a dramatic one, we have all had cannonball moments – experiences where we can look back and say “something happened here”, something that turned me more toward God than I had been before. Indeed, during our lives, we all have many moments of conversion.

So, as we move toward the beginning of the Ignatian year: What is your cannonball moment or moments?

The Beloved of God

This post channels Bill Nolan channeling me. Bill is the pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle parish in Minneapolis. He shared the below in a newsletter to parishioners there. Given recent events, I thought it was worth sharing here as well.

5 years ago, as part of our speaker series celebrating the “Year of Mercy,” my dear friend Susan Stabile spoke on the relationship between wisdom and mercy. Recent events have led me to feel an inexplicable, yet painfully difficult urge to review my notes on that presentation. Mercy has not been the first thing on my moral compass. Justice is what has been called for. Justice. JUSTICE!

But that annoying little voice in my soul wouldn’t give up. So I did a computer file search for “Susan Stabile on Mercy” and there were my notes:

 * Wisdom teaches us that justice – understood as “giving another their due” – is not enough. We are called to temper justice with mercy – giving to another in the spirit of agape love.
* The wisdom that calls us to mercy is not simply understanding, knowledge, or counsel. It is a discernment, a way of coming to experience not only what Christian love is, but how to love rightly. It reminds us that justice is “the right ordering of relationship.”

That would have been plenty. But then, as my notes reminded me, Susan upped the ante. She challenged us to accept that the ultimate correlation between wisdom and mercy lies in always trying to see the other as the beloved of God.

This is hardly a foreign concept in our faith tradition. In the beginning, God made humankind in the divine image, the writer of Genesis tells us. We are the very image of God, in our humanity. Thus, to see the other as also being the image of God ought to be the most authentically human experience in the world.

So…it ought to be an equally authentically human experience to say and believe the following:

Neighbor who fails to clean up what his dog left in my yard, you are the beloved of God… Driver who believes the stop sign at the corner is merely a suggestion, you are the beloved of God… Shopper who takes the last item off the shelf that was my sole purpose for going to the grocery store, you are the beloved of God… So much for the generic ones.

Brianna Taylor, you are the beloved of God… Daunte Wright, you are the beloved of God… George Floyd, you are the beloved of God… So much for the easy ones.

Brett Hankison, you are the beloved of God… Kim Potter, you are the beloved of God… Derek Chauvin, you are the beloved of God…

I have to be honest. I’m having serious trouble saying and believing all those statements. Does this mean I am lacking in the wisdom that leads to mercy? Well…in a word…yes. It does. I am.

But it doesn’t mean I quit trying. It doesn’t mean I give up on trying to separate what a person does from who a person is. The wisdom that leads to mercy does not condone sin; it acknowledges the sinner as beloved of God. The wisdom that leads to mercy does not mean that I should ignore the evil that is done in the world; it calls me to see every human person as capable of redemption, precisely because they are the beloved of God. The wisdom that leads to mercy does not ask me to turn a blind eye; it calls me to turn the other cheek.

Will I one day be able to say and believe all those statements as well? I don’t know. But I have to keep trying. So thank you Susan. And all the other voices that challenge me to love others as I have been loved and to see others the way God sees me. As Beloved.