A CLOUD OF WITNESSES: Prayer And The Christian Way Of Life (Part Two), by Claire E. Wolfteich

From Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility


The Spanish soldier and founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola, lived in a very different time and place.  Yet he too came to an understanding of prayer as central to the Christian life.  In many ways, Ignatius lived quite opposite to the way the desert ascetics did.  The early monks and nuns retreated to the desert; Ignatius brought his mission to the cities – to Barcelona and Rome, to Jerusalem and Paris.  Many desert elders lived in solitude; Ignatius traveled with a band of companions, fellow visionaries and missionaries, who would become the “Society of Jesus,” or the Jesuits.  They would work actively to serve the church in a tumultuous time – a time of massive ecclesial corruption and the challenge of the Reformation – through evangelization, education, and spiritual guidance.  Like the desert ascetics, though, Ignatius left behind a witness to the importance of prayer, humility, and discernment.  For Ignatius, prayer guided one to perceive one’s purpose in life, make right choices, and act generously in the world.

Ignatius of Loyola led a carefree, nobleman’s life until about the age of twenty, when he was wounded in a battle against the French in Pamplona.  As he spent long months recuperating from a serious leg injury, he began to reflect on his life, which he would later describe as “given to the vanities of the world.”  During this time of slow recovery and immobility, he did not have access to the books of chivalry he enjoyed and instead was given a copy of the Life of Christ and a book about the saints.  He began to feel torn, alternately absorbed in his usual worldly fantasies and drawn by a new desire to live as the saints did, in service of God.  Gradually he noticed that although he took a surface delight in thinking about resuming his former life, indulging in chivalrous fantasies, those thoughts eventually left him feeling tired and dry.  On the other hand, when he contemplated going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and following the saints in an ascetic life, those thoughts left him feeling joyful.  This was the beginning of what he came to describe as the “discernment of spirits.”  Ignatius believed that as we make decisions and choices, careful attention to abiding feelings of “consolation” and “desolation” point us to what is of God and what is not of God.  Consolation is a deep feeling of rightness, joy, and peacefulness.  Desolation, on the other hand, is marked by feelings of anxiety, disorder, despair, and turmoil.  Ignatius started paying attention to these deeper feelings, which he believed were prompted by good or evil spirits.  He decided to make a major change in his life.

Once he was well, he set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  He stopped along the way in the Spanish mountain town of Montserrat, where he exchanged his fine clothes for beggar’s sackcloth and laid down his arms before a statue of the Virgin Mary in an all-night prayer vigil.  He continued to the town of Manresa, where he expected to stay only a few days.  He ended up remaining for nearly a year, living a hermit’s life in a cave, praying deeply, experiencing mystical gifts, and drafting what became known as “The Spiritual Exercises.”  The Exercises were intended to guide others in serious, prayerful reflection on their lives, helping them to enter imaginatively into scripture and offer themselves to God in a generous and free act of decision.  Ignatius saw his work as a kind of guide to retreat leaders who could use the Exercises flexibly to help others grow in their faith and make major choices about their purpose in life, their vocation.  Ignatius and his companions gave the Exercises to many people; their own discernment process led them to go before Pope Paul III to offer themselves as new order in service to the church.  The art of discerning the spirits was central to the Exercises, which continues to serve as a popular retreat guide for spiritual seekers today.

Ignatius found it essential to cut through dispersion of our thoughts and inclinations, to focus our choices on our ultimate purpose in life.  Thus, he writes in The Spiritual Exercises: The eye of our intention ought to be single.  I ought to focus only on the purpose for which I was created, to praise God and to save my soul.  Everything we choose should be chosen to further that end.  This is the “principle and foundation” of all discernment.  Ignatius was keenly aware of how we deceive ourselves, allowing our own desires to rule, telling ourselves that what we want must be what God wants.  Pause, he says, step back: I should find myself in the middle, like the pointer of a balance, in order to be ready to follow that which I perceive to be more to the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.  Ignatian spirituality invites us to use our reason, imagination, prayer, and reflection on scripture to determine how best to use the goods of creation in furthering the end for which we are created.  The idea of doing “all for the great glory of God” continues as the Jesuit motto and guide for communal and individual discernment today.

To aid in our growth as persons of freedom and discernment, Ignatius also strongly encouraged a daily “examen,” or what has been described as an examination of consciousness.  This practice is a kind of daily checkup, a time of prayer and reflection on the day, where we ask God to help us to know our failings and take an “account of my soul.”  Contemporary writers have suggested that one ask of oneself two questions every day – such as, Where have I been most loving today?  Where was I least loving today?  Over time, one comes to see patterns – which activities and relationships draw one closer to God, which leave one feeling dispersed and decentered.  With prayer, one gains the freedom to choose those things that draw one closer to God and say, no, to the others.  The examen, then, is an aid to discernment.

Ignatius understood discernment as a process, a practice honed over a lifetime.  His deliberations were marked by both uncertainty and points of clarity, with resolutions offered up humbly in prayer: When that election or decision has been made, the person who has made it ought with great diligence to go to prayer before God our Lord, to offer him that election, and to beg his Divine Majesty to receive and confirm it, provided it is conducive to  his greater service and praise.  Ignatius believed that one can find God in all things and that prayerful discernment must be woven into all kinds of action.  Ignatian spirituality does not offer certainty, but rather a way of living into the questions prayerfully and attentively.


3 Comments on A CLOUD OF WITNESSES: Prayer And The Christian Way Of Life (Part Two), by Claire E. Wolfteich

  1. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:


  2. ORT-ORT-ORT-ORT…(a “SEAL” of approval)! 🙂


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