Contemplation on the Love of God

Last night was the final session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I have been offering through St. Catherine’s University this year, Now What? Deepening Your Ignatian Retreat Experiences.  The program was aimed at people who have had some experience with the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius through a weekend preached retreat, a retreat in daily living or some other format and designed to – as the title suggests – help them deepen the insights and experiences of those retreats.  Over the year, we’ve reflected on desire, individual and social sin, discernment and some of the core meditations of the Exercises.

Our topic last night was the Contemplation on the Love of God that ends the Spiritual Exercises. The Contemplatio provides what one author called “ in highly condensed form the very kernel of the Exercises,” a “kind of coherent synthesis with, simplified and in a concise form, may be used in daily life as an ideal containing various elements scattered here and there in a hundred and one particular truths.” One author called it not only a summary of the Spiritual Exercises, “but of perfection itself.”

The idea of the Contemplatio is that the culmination of all the divine actions is gift. The culmination of the divine actions lies in the love they draw from humans. Importantly, love cannot be forced. It is not that we can simply tell ourselves to love like God. (We’ve said this before: this is not just a question of will. “Tomorrow I will love like God all day long.” It doesn’t work that way.) Yes, we can work to overcome the challenges that make it hard for us to love like God. But the Contemplatio wants us to realize that love emerges spontaneously from consciousness – one realizes what God is doing to love him or her and that realization itself enables us to do what otherwise would be impossible – to be so caught up in God, to be so attracted and drawn by what God does, that we love. Love is not forced, it is evoked.

I was reminded as I spoke last night of something Archbishop Flynn said at the racism panel at Lourdes on Sunday.  When someone asked what steps one can take to remove racist attitudes, the Archbishop said that the key was more deeply internalizing God’s love for us.  If we truly understand to the depth of our hearts how much God loves us, we will more naturally love others – regardless of their race or other circumstances.  That is precisely what Ignatius is trying to help us understand in this meditation.

You can find an online version of the Contemplation on the Love of God here.


Everything is Held in Stewardship

As I’ve said before, every day my prayer includes St. Ignatius’ Suscipe: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”

This morning as I prayed it, I heard more deeply than ever the truth that EVERYTHING – all I have, all I am, everything – is gift from God. Not mine to do with as I will, but mine only in trust to use for the benefit of all.

We use the term “stewardship” a lot. For many people stewardship is just about how we use the goods of the earth (sustainable farming, etc.). But while that is certainly an important part of it, my stewardship of my self, of what I have, of the gifts I have been given, is at least as (if not more) important.

Earlier this week I sent to those who had participated in our UST vocation retreat this past weekend an excerpt from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island. Given my reflections on the Suscipe, it is a fitting quote to share here:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others?

Total stewardship over all is easier to understand when we realize our deep interrelationship and interdependence. My use of my gifts can be no “for me” separate from “for others” or “for others” separate from “for me.” It is all “for us.”

Ignatius and His Exercises

There are certain feast days in the calendar of the Catholic Church that are very special to me. Today is one of them: the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

One of the (if not the) most life-changing experiences of my life was doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

A description of the Exercises by Hans Urs von Balthasar describes perfectly what I experienced. von Balthasar write:

By their relentless practicality, the Exercises shove the searcher into the center of the Gospel and leave him alone there with Christ, with the triune God who speaks to him. In this way the book sweeps away the hundreds of pious “manuals for perfection” that abounded during the high and late Middle Ages. I used the word shove deliberately, for, in order to be sure to arrive at the center, one must first be stripped of his illusions about himself, his fantasies and sins, so that “naked he can follow the naked Christ,” so that God’s Word – Christ – can confront him personally, nose to nose. This happens not somewhere at the enges but int he center of his existence, so that the call becomes a turning point in his life.

The stripping away process is not easy. As I said to my director at the time, our illusions may be illusions, but they are our illusions and we grow accustomed and comfortable with them. Stripped bare was exactly how I felt as I was forced to confront various illusions about myself and the ways in which I am most vulnerable to attack by what Ignatius calls “the evil spirit.”

But the result of the process was profound. As von Balthasar says – the call becomes a turning point and I came away from the Exercises with the conviction that my life belongs to God and that I am called to labor with Christ.

I always tell people who ask me about the Spiritual Exercises: if you don’t want to change, stay far away from them, for they will change you. But if you are a regular pray-er open to a radical change, the Exercises may be something you want to consider.

Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus and author of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a course of prayer that has been so formative for so many of us.

Ignatius was changed by an understanding of God’s continual working with creation and inviting each of us to labor with Jesus. His spirituality was based on deepening a personal relationship with God and coming to see ever more deeply how God loves and works in our lives. What Ignatius realized was that not only the intellect, but also the emotions and feelings help us to come to a knowledge of the action of God in our lives. And he understood that affective knowledge is the key to conversion. As I’ve expressed it in numerous talks and in my writing, Ignatius understood that conversion is an experience of the heart, not of the head.

Based on his experience, St. Igantius wrote the Spiritual Exercises. That is something worth underscoring because from the very beginning, Ignatius talked with people out of his own experience. At the time he launched the Spiritual Exercises, he was neither a preacher nor a priest, but a relatively uneducated layperson writing about his experience of God. Joseph Tetlow wrote that Ignatius “seemed to have hoped almost from the start that he would be able to lead others through what he had experienced while reading and meditating on…the life of Christ. He kept looking for men and women to guide through his Exercises.”

This is something I understand well – it was my own experience with God, especially during the time I did the Spiritual Exercises that led to my desire to train as a spiritual director and retreat leader – the desire the help others have the same experience that I did.

St. Ignatius, prayer for us. And for all of my Jesuit friends, Happy Feast Day!

Health v. Sickness

This has not been a banner month for me physically. Although I have not suffered any serious illness, October has featured a stomach infection, root canal, quite painful tendonitis for which I’m currently undergoing physical therapy and a bad cold. I can’t think of one morning this month when I’ve woken up feeling good physically.

In moments when I grumble about the situation – and there have been more than a few of those – I bring to mind St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, a meditation that is an early part of the Spiritual Exercises.

In one translation, the Principle and Foundation reads:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only that which is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

The first three paragraphs are easy enough. But, sigh, then comes the prescription to active indifference, and therin lies the rub, at least, in this case when it comes to not preferring health to sickness.

I can quite easily give verbal assent to wanting only that which is most conducive to the end for which I am created. But I confess I find it hard not to whine when I am feeling physically miserable. Moments like this are humbling, and all I can do is hold them up to God, praying for the grace to grow in active indifference.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

When I visualize the Communion of Saints, there are several saints who stand out front and center. St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis, John the Baptist, to name a few, along with the saint whose memorial we celebrate today, St. Ignatius of Loyola. So it is with particular delight that I find myself on this day at St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, NY (where I served as a staff associate before our move to the Twin Cities).

St. Ignatius has been a very influential figure in my spiritual growth. His vision is contained in his Spiritual Exercises, which so very many people have done over years, either in the form of a 30-day retreat or in the form of the 19th Annotation (the form in which I did the exercises), which involves a “retreat in daily living” lasting for approximately 9 months.

A foundational element of the Spiritual Exercises is a reflection called the Principle and Foundation, which is prayed with very early in the exercises. I decided there is little better I could offer on this day than an invitation to spend some time reflecting on something Ignatius believed we could profitably spend much time with. Here is David Fleming’s translation of the Principle and Foundation:

The Goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God, who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life
to flow into us without limit.

All the things in this world are gifts from God,
Presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
Insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
They displace God
And so hinder our growth toward our goal.

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
Before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
And are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
Wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
A deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads
To God’s deepening his life in me.

I’m here at St. Ignatius to give an 8-day guided retreat (The Gift of an Awakened Heart), which begins with dinner this evening. I would be grateful for your prayers for me and my retreatants.

A Short Form of the Examen

Part of my daily prayer is to engage in an examen of consciousness, a prayer in which we try to find the movement of the Spirit in our daily lives. This was a prayer that was very important to St. Ignatius and he encouraged all of his followers to make it a part of their daily prayer. (In fact, he asked his Jesuit companions to pray it twice each day.)

I have been including this as part of my daily prayer for at least eight years. There are many methods of doing this prayer; the one I generally do is the one described in this article by Dennis Hamm, S.J., which originally appeared in America magazine. I find it a very helpful part of my day.

During the closing liturgy of a day of retreat and reflection I gave the other day, the priest explained to us a short form of the examen that he uses with his high school students. They do this just before lunch each day. I share it because it seems to me that whether or not one includes a longer examen at the end of each day, this would be a worthwhile exercise to engage in during a break in the middle of our day. His short-form examen has three parts:

Step 1: How do you feel right now? Get in touch with what the feeling is and give it a number from 1-10.

Step 2: Why do you feel that way? What are one or two things that are contributing to the way you are feeling right now? The priest described this as “putting flesh on the number” given in step 1.

Step 3: P&P – praise and petition, or simply – prayer. Pray whatever prayer seems right, whatever you want to say to God given what came up in Steps 1 and 2. Perhaps gratitude…perhaps a plea for some help. Whatever it is, share with God what is going on in you and what you need.

That’s quick and easy enough to work into a mid-day break. Try it.