by Rev. Brian O. McDermott, S.J.
These days many folks living in the United States are wracked by fear and anxiety. They may be undocumented immigrants; they may fear that they will lose their medical insurance; they may be concerned that they will lose the modest home in which they presently live. The reasons for fear and anxiety can be as varied as the people who carry these tough emotions.
Some of these people Ignatian Lay Volunteers are accompanying in schools, homeless shelters, community centers, and many other sites of care and compassion.
What are some of the resources which Ignatian spirituality offers the volunteers, and, through them, the people with whom they walk?
I would like to draw on three deep dimensions of our spirituality which can be of particular service these days: growing in contemplativeness, learning how to discern spirits, and becoming anchored in God’s passionate desire for our struggling world. I am going to focus on the volunteers, for they can help those they accompany to the extent that they themselves appropriate these spiritual practices.
Ignatius spirituality places a lot of emphasis on developing a contemplative attitude. What does this mean? This is an attitude that encourages us to be present to another person, or situation, or element in nature, in such a way that we allow that other reality to speak to us on its own terms. We gently suspend our pre-judgments, our desire to pigeon-hole people and situations, and we let the person or situation communicate to us what he, she, or it desires to communicate to us on their own terms. We make ourselves a bit vulnerable by not trying to control, or filter, the message from the other. In prayer, this means letting the Risen Jesus affect us as he desires to, as we grow in our trust in him. In conversation with others, it means learning how truly to listen to the other, as other.
A second meaning of contemplativeness relates to something Jerome Nadal, one of the early Jesuits, said of St. Ignatius: that he was gifted with the ability to be “contemplative likewise in action” (contemplativus simul in actione). This means that Ignatius was able to grown in union with God, find God, and live and act in God (all meanings of contemplativus here) not only in formal prayer periods but in all the activities and passivities of his life. This is a grace all members of the Ignatian family may ask for, not just Jesuits. We grow in being contemplative in action by regular “wasting time” with God or Jesus in prayer, and by allowing God and life whittle down our false self.
It’s something simple but revolutionary: learning how to move, within ourselves, from being embedded in our fear, anxiety, distress, worry, to making those troublesome inner states the object of our awareness. From embeddedness to relationship. This is basically a psychological move, but it can be a first step in a very spiritual move. When we are able to “objectify” our feelings, especially the tough and disorienting one, we can then learn from them, we can decide whether to act on them or not, and we can choose to share them with the Risen Jesus in prayer, as an act of intimacy with him, and ask for what we desire from him in relation to those feelings.
This move from embeddedness to relationship with our inner “stuff” is crucial for all those who are accompanying others who are being tossed and turned by negative feelings. How can we listen well to (be contemplatively present to) others in their distress if we are roiled by our own stuff or by their stuff as we listen empathetically to them as they tell us their stories?
This interior “move” or shift in our relationship to our inner stuff is an important moment in the discernment of spirits. Sometimes our feelings are spiritual ones, that is to say, they are being caused within us by a good or bad spirit, acting through our true or false self. St. Ignatius offers guidelines for learning how to relate to many of these feelings when we experience them as consoling or desolating and when we experience them as encouraging or discouraging us on our journey to God (which is what “spiritual” means here). We need always to act contrary to spiritual desolation because it always guides us away from God. We can trust spiritual consolation when we are able to discern that it is authentic, that is, when we experience it in its beginning, middle and end, as orienting us to God and the things of God.
Finding God’s Will
Expressed in the most general way, God’s will or desire for us human beings in all of life’s circumstances is that we choose those courses of action which contribute more to God’s glory than other possible, good choices. God’s glory here is God’s external glory, that is, creation, in its relationship with God and in all the mutual relationships among creatures. But when we move from the most general understanding of God’s will or desire for us to God’s will for us in relationship to particular moments in our lives, it all gets more interesting. I like to think of God (very inadequately but with a touch of truth) as the great improvisational jazz player who, out God’s eternal now, works with whatever choices we offer to God. God seeks to bring the best out of those choices, because God desires that all creation keep growing, increasing as God’s glory until all of the cosmos is consummated in God. God wants creation to come to its goal (its “Omega point”) infinitely more than we do. But we are called to use the evidence God gives us to make choices that always contribute to the “greater glory of God,” that is, the choices that contribute to ever expanding flourishing of creation in union with God and their interconnections.
For Ignatius, the evidence can be an intuitive religious certitude about a course of action, where, in the moment, we are unable to doubt that this course of action is inspired by God.
Or the evidence can be a spontaneously arising impulse to a course of action which arises out of spiritual consolation, or out of spiritual desolation. We need to be leery of acting when the latter evidence is given. We can consider the spiritual consolation as giving evidence that the spontaneously arising impulse is God’s will when two conditions are fulfilled: (1) the spiritual consolation has been discerned to be authentic (see above), and (2) the evidence is given to me a number of times, not just once.
Or, finally, I might be in a state of relative tranquility and relatively free from bias (Ignatian “indifference”) and ask the Holy Spirit to guide my reasoning as I consider the cons and pros of various courses of action. When I have determined (with the Spirit’s help) which course of action will likely contribute more to God’s glory, I take those reasons to be God-given evidence for choosing that course of action.
Growing in contemplativeness, learning how to discern spirits, and seeking God’s will can aid us in troubled times to partner with God as we accompany folks who are being “moved by various spirits and feelings.”
This brief essay is something like a “teaser,” inviting you to grow in appropriation of these fundamental dimensions of Ignatian spirituality.
On contemplativeness: books by William Barry, S.J. and Richard Rohr, O.F.M.
On discerning spirits: Timothy Gallagher, O.V.M. Discernment of Spirits and Spiritual Consolation (2 books)
On seeking God’s will: Jules Toner, S.J., Discerning God’s Will and Timothy Gallagher, O.V.M., Discerning the Will of God.
Rev. Brian O. McDermott, S.J. is Special Assistant to the President of Georgetown University.