If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit — Galatians 5:25
One of the greatest conversion stories in the history of the modern church is that of St Ignatius Loyola.
Iñigo was a soldier.
Not Inigo Montoya. Iñigo López de Loyola.
Iñigo’s conversion began after a cannon ball crushed his leg at the Battle of Pamplona (Pamplona is where they celebrate the annual “Running of the Bulls” — Spaniards are tough! Iñigo was a Basque; Basques are crazy). Sitting around bored all day in a hospital bed, Iñigo had plenty of time to read. The only books they had on hand at the hospital were lives of the saints.
Iñigo would have never picked up a book on saints were he not completely bored out of his skull. Providentially, these books changed his life. Headstrong Iñigo was determined to become a saint.
The man we now call St. Ignatius Loyola went on to found one of the most influential religious orders of priest in the Church, namely, the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits.
Perhaps St Ignatius’s greatest contribution to the Church, in terms of spirituality, is the Spiritual Exercises. During a personal retreat in a cave in Manresa, Spain, where he spent several days in prayer purifying his soul of “inordinate attachements” and seeking God’s will for his life, Ignatius conceived the Spiritual Exercises as a method of contemplation and discernment. The exercises are divided into four weeks of guided meditation: Principle and Foundation (meditations on the Eternal Truths); The Life of Christ; The Passion of Christ; Resurrection of Christ. He called them exercises, because:
For just as strolling walking, and running are bodily exercises, so spiritual exercises are methods of preparing and disposing the soul of all inordinate attachments, and after accomplishing this, of seeking and discovering the Divine Will regarding the dispositions of one’s life, thus insuring the salvation of his soul.
According to this approach, two key principles for finding God’s will in one’s life are purification and discernment. Purification is necessary to free the soul from attachment to sin and to be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit in order to allow Him to work more effectively in one’s life. Once the soul is purified, it is in a better state to listen to God’s voice and discern his will with clarity.
Seek and you will find: whoever does the spiritual exercises in a spirit of freedom, openness, and generosity will hear God’s voice — it’s guaranteed. Anyone who has done them well will tell you that it is one of the most profound spiritual experiences and life changing events of a lifetime.
Are there risks?
Yes. If you are not prepared to do them properly — for any reason — you could end up wasting your time. If your are not disposed to be completely honest with yourself and with God, you could end up hurting yourself and damaging your life, in the longrun. That is why it is important to do the exercises with an expert spiritual director schooled in discernment of spirits. One of the principles I find most helpful in discerning spirits is the following. Not every inspiration is from God.
St. Ignatius warns us that the devil does not always tempt us to do evil things. He knows better than to tempt us, out of the blue, to rob a bank. His aim is to distract us or keep us from doing God’s will. If we are seeking to do what is right, he will present us with several appealing options, though not the ones God wants for us. Jesus had this experience while praying for 40 days in the desert and he found out that even the Devil can quote scripture.
Let not your hearts be troubled!
The secret to outwitting the tempter is not to outwit him but to pray well (though sometimes you just have to tell him to go to hell; Ignatius explains that too). According to Ignatius, we have to pray with the whole person: mind, will, and affections, i.e., with the heart. At the end of a meditation, we have to take note of the “movements of the soul,” in order to reap the fruit of the prayer. Afterward, we have to discuss these movements of the soul with a spiritual director, who will often recommend that we reconsider these “movements” in prayer again, as a sort of repetition of the prayer.
If the prayer is done well, there will be moments of joy and moments of sadness, consolation and desolation. For discernment purposes, life affecting decisions should only be made when the following 3 conditions are met:
- The soul must be at peace;
- In a state of consolation;
- Having received some recognizable form of confirmation in prayer.
In short, the prayer should bring us certainty. If that does not happen, we need to keep praying until God gives us the certainty we are seeking. Once we have that certainty, we must commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s will with absolute confidence.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act — Psalm 37:5