Aspiring to holiness often seems a never-ending project. One step forward and two steps back, right? So many things seem to interfere, to get in the way, to draw one away from the goal; at least that’s the way it frequently feels to me.
Which is one of the many reasons I turn to St. Ignatius, whose feast we celebrate today. Many saints had struggles with conforming their lives to the Gospel, but some of Ignatius’ struggles truly resonate with me. (I love the word resonate: it feels like a chord has been plucked somewhere and you feel its vibrations in your soul; that’s how I feel when I read about Ignatius.)
Ignatius didn’t just decide to lead a holy life and then quietly do so. In fact, he did many things we would consider altogether un-saintly! He once allowed his donkey to determine whether he should follow and kill someone he thought had insulted the Blessed Virgin Mary—and while insulting Our Lady is indeed grievous, the response should probably not be murder. He had a police record for brawling and inflicting grievous bodily harm. He was so horrified at the thought of women becoming Jesuits that he appealed to the pope to block their entry into the Society (though, it should be noted, he failed on one occasion and Juana of Spain lived the Jesuit life until she died). He hated the way his leg looked after it had healed poorly from an encounter with a cannonball, and was vain enough to subsequently engage in the 16th-century equivalent of plastic surgery, having it re-broken so it would look better.
Ignatius’ secretary wrote, “Although attached to his faith, he did not live his life in conformity with it, nor did he avoid sin in his early years. He was particularly given to gambling, female matters, as well as to brawling and the exercise of arms.”
And yet it’s that very human side to Ignatius, that excessively human side, we might even say, that attachment to the things of the world, which made him into the inspiration he has become to millions of people throughout the centuries. He knew his own weaknesses, and in a sense his legacy—the Spiritual Exercises—are a blueprint for navigating those weaknesses and coming into closer union with the crucified Lord.
The Exercises, a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices, are organized into four “weeks" (not seven-day weeks, but stages on a journey to spiritual freedom and wholehearted commitment to the service of God). Ignatius’ spirituality challenges us to encounter God in all things, witnessing to the joy of the Gospel. It enables us to move forward through our lives and into the world as contemplatives in action, discerning God’s desire for our lives here and now, and acting on God’s invitation.
We need the Spiritual Exercises now more than ever, with the world in an uncertain and disquieting place; they provide balance and ballast to us as we navigate the way forward. Starting with a simple examen at the end of the day is a good place to begin if you’ve never tried the Exercises before. The Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.
1. Become aware of God’s presence and ask for light.
2. Offer a prayer of gratitude for the blessings of the day.
3. Review the day and pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
Want to go deeper? Consider an experience that blends the retreat of the Spiritual Exercises with a meditation on the Songs of Songs: Fr. Gregory Cleveland’s Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat on the Song of Songs. While the Spiritual Exercises have had a tremendous impact in the history of the Church, the Song of Songs is, in turn, the most sublime book of Scripture describing mystical union with God in prayer, and as Fr. Cleveland brings them together you'll feel an outpouring of love—from God to you, and from yourself to God.
And this will help you take your holiness… one day at a time!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir