If you are a Christian who goes to Mass most Sundays but see that you’re not quite living up to everything that your faith professes, how about asking yourself a couple of useful questions before the summer is over? “Do I have a thirst to imitate Christ?” “Does my heart ache to live without anything contrary to Christ in my life?”
If your answers are “yes” — even just a little — St. Ignatius of Loyola might just be the saint for you. In fact, he may just be the saint for our times.
“Prayer is simply getting in touch with God’s thirst for us and our longing for him,” writes Father Gregory Cleveland, OMV, in his new book, “Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat with the Song of Songs” (Pauline Books & Media, $20). In other words, prayer makes what can sometimes seem impossible in our busy, noisy world, feel a lot more doable. It’s not reliant on us — it’s God’s work.
Bruno Lanteri, the late 18th- and early 19th-century founder of Cleveland’s religious community, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, once wrote: “In order to facilitate prayer, to know what it is to pray, what is really necessary is neither strength, nor study, but only a word, a sigh, a desire ever so light, a desire in its birth, a desire that we feel has not yet developed in the heart; this same disposition of the heart to pray has already passed into the heart of God.”
The existence of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary has a lot to do with Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, who we celebrate on the last day of every July. At the heart of the Oblates’ charism is spiritual direction and the spiritual exercises Ignatius composed from his own prayer experience.
In his book, Cleveland credits Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” as a school of prayer through which we prepare ourselves to receive the divine gift of prayer, the kiss of God.
“Saint Ignatius offers many forms of prayer exercises as ways to dispose ourselves to receive God’s grace. As we ponder these exercises, a combination of prayer and Scriptures, we use the powers of our soul — the memory, intellect, will, and imagination. God works through our faculties to reveal himself to us in prayer.”
The temptation that threatens this work, Cleveland writes, is believing that “prayer flows from our own efforts.”
This is how close God is to us and how strong his longing is for us to rely on him, trust him, and be strengthened and healed by him.
That “kiss” Cleveland talks about is in the context of his book, which draws from both the rigorous spiritual exercises and the beautiful Song of Songs.
If the latter is too much of a love story for you, remember that this is what salvation history is: the story of God’s love for us. While loneliness and even suicide are societal plagues, the spiritual exercises stand out as a way of leading people to understand God’s love for all of humanity in the most intimate of ways.
We’re so confused. These days can be crushing to the human will. Memories can be clouded or crowded with pain. Our imaginations can be utterly exhausted. Just like reading the lives of the saints while convalescing started to bring Ignatius to new life in Christ, Ignatian spirituality is meant to kindle the fire in our souls that God already put there.
His exercises are about being who we are meant to be and believing in a divine plan for each one of us. They’re about uniting our lives to the will of the Father for us. That’s the kiss Cleveland talks about: God the Father’s gentle, eternally rock-solid love for us. That’s a game changer for most of us, living in a world of such uncertainty.
Speaking of confusion, there’s that and anger and sadness, even despair. It’s ubiquitous, it seems, when it comes to politics and culture. Triumphalism, dismissal, derision — the near universal cynicism people used to have about politics seems so quaint in comparison.
It’s in the Church, too. People wonder and worry what the Church will look like in years to come. Will it be there for their children? Will their children care?
A big part of the answer lies in prayer, in taking it seriously and being clear and decisive about identifying what comes from God and what doesn’t, and resting in and running with the first and always rejecting the latter.
Ignatius talks about consolation and desolation in the soul and in our lives. One major consolation is the gift of the first Jesuit pope. I was reminded of this when earlier this month Pope Francis popped up in my Twitter feed.
A young Jesuit had a selfie video where he showed us with some astonishment the unexpected visitor he encountered in his Jesuit residence in Rome. The Holy Father was making the stop in honor of it being Ignatian memorial month.
In many ways, in his homilies and witness of his pontificate, Francis is a Jesuit spiritual director to the world guiding people through spiritual warfare.
In his more than 20 years of experience writing about and practicing spiritual direction, Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV (another Oblate of the Virgin Mary), has come to the conclusion that Ignatius “provides an unparalleled resource for overcoming what is generally the major obstacles faithful persons encounter in their efforts to grow spiritually: discouragement, fear, loss of hope, and other troubling movements of the heart.”
“I was struck to see how often, at the end of a retreat or seminar, such persons would say that Ignatius had supplied them with an invaluable set of spiritual tools for overcoming discouragement and fear,” writes Gallagher in his book “Discernment of the Spirits.”
“They sensed that Ignatius had assisted them in the struggles of the moment and equipped them with the spiritual means to conquer similar trials in the future. With this learning came new hope.”
In his translation and commentary of the exercises, Father Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ, makes the case that we live in a time not so different from that of Ignatius.
“We are anxious. … We live in an age when limits have been broken and boundaries have been leveled in every dimension. … We feel a keen need for order and for a way to find some meaning in human life beyond the mere consumption of goods.”
And so, with Ignatius we take up the same gift he gave to his 16th-century contemporaries who “felt keen concern for their personal redemption in a world that appeared dyed deeply with sin.”
With the help of Ignatian spirituality, Tetlow writes, “We can always know what we are to do for love of God; we can always know best by imitating Jesus Christ.”
In the midst of headlines and frenzy and fury, God may just be offering us new hope and tools for renewal, the kind of renewal work any and each one of us can take up.
Whether Ignatius winds up your go-to saint or not, the spiritual tools he left us are at minimum a reminder that God does not leave us alone. They may just be our school for a new faithfulness — to be contemplatives in the world, seeing and knowing and showing and loving in union with the heart of God.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us.