Finding God in All ThingsThroughout much of the world, the Jesuits are best known for their colleges, universities, and high schools. But in a time when many are searching for greater meaning, another aspect of Jesuit life is attracting wide interest. And that is the unique spirituality introduced nearly 500 years ago by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
Ignatius was a Spanish soldier and aristocrat who discerned his calling after suffering nearly fatal wounds on the battlefield. He established the Society of Jesus in 1540, instructing the early Jesuits — to go out and "find God in all things." That is the signature spirituality of the Jesuits.
Ignatian spirituality is grounded in the conviction that God is active in our world. As the great Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: "God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — and my heart and my thoughts." The spiritual path laid out by Ignatius is a way of discerning God's presence in our everyday lives. And doing something about it.
The Jesuits have a handbook for this search. It is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, composed by the saint before he was even a priest. Often described as Ignatius's greatest gift to the world, these exercises unfold a dynamic process of prayer, meditation, and self-awareness. The basic thrust is to make us more attentive to God's activity in our world, more responsive to what God is calling us to do. Ignatian spiritual directors accompany or guide people through the exercises in retreat houses, parishes, and other settings.
One of the most popular Ignatian exercises is the Daily Examen. It's a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. The Examen is concrete: It focuses your mind on segments of time (no more than a day, preferably), and the feelings that stirred within you, at those specific moments. Walk through the five steps of the Examen here. There are a number of outstanding resources devoted to Ignatian spirituality. Sacred Space is a popular prayer site run by the Irish Jesuits, and Jesuitprayer.org was created by the Chicago-Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus to provide daily online prayers and facilitate prayer requests. In addition, The Jesuit Post, founded by a group of Jesuit scholastics (those in the process of religious formation), provides a contemporary look at Jesus, politics, and pop-culture in our secular age. Ignatian spirituality is not merely an inward journey, much less a self-absorbed one. It aims to bring people closer to God and more deeply into the world — with gratitude, passion, and humility — not away from it. Ignatius called on the Jesuits to be "contemplatives in action." Today, Jesuits and their lay collaborators work with people in many walks of life, such as education and business. They help nurture "men and women for others."
The Daily ExamenSt. Ignatius Loyola included in his Spiritual Exercises a prayer called "the Examen," which derives from the Latin word for examination. It is a meditation with roots not only in Ignatian spirituality, but also in the spiritual practices of the ancient Stoics. There are many versions of the Examen today, but all have five steps. Here is a simple rendering of some key elements:
1. Place yourself in God's presence. Give thanks for God's great love for you.
2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life.
3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.
4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?
5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God's plan. Be specific, and conclude with the "Our Father." Some versions of the Examen place a special emphasis on gratitude and feelings. A detailed example of such a meditation is offered by IgnatianSprituality.com.
"God is in it"
The heart of the Examen is the third part: reviewing your day.
"Think of it as a movie playing in your head," writes James Martin, S.J., in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. "Push the play button and run through your day, from start to finish, from your rising in the morning to preparing to go to bed at night. Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you be more loving. Recall everything: sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, textures, conversations. Thoughts, words, and deeds, as Ignatius says. Each moment offers a window to where God has been in your day."
And remember that no experience is too trivial for spiritual investigation.
"Nothing in our lives is so insignificant that it doesn't deserve God's attention," notes Jim Manney in A Simple Life-Changing Prayer, a book about the Examen. "In fact, the mundane and the humdrum parts of our lives give depth and texture to our relationships with God. Washing the windows and cooking dinner are as much a part of the relationship as graduation day. If it's part of our human experience, God is in it."
Ignatius was emphatic about the Examen. He told the early Jesuits that if they for some reason did no other spiritual exercises, they should do this one. Then as now, the Examen is a spiritual tool for sizing up your days — and planting the seeds for a more purposeful life.
The Spiritual ExercisesDuring the 1530s, St. Ignatius Loyola began writing about the emotions that took hold of him — feelings of gratitude and anguish, consolation and sadness — while encountering the scriptures. Those meditations eventually became the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, first published in 1548.
The Spiritual Exercises is a compilation of meditations, prayers, and other contemplative practices. It is not like other classics in Western spirituality that are typically read from beginning to end. It is more like a handbook, especially for use by spiritual directors who accompany and guide people through this dynamic process of reflection.
And while the Spiritual Exercises is a book, it is also a series of exercises developed by a man who believed that stretching oneself spiritually is as important as an athlete's conditioning routine.
The object is to help people develop their attentiveness, their openness, and their responsiveness to God. In other words, the exercises embody the characteristic themes of Ignatian spirituality. They are organized into four sections or "weeks." These are steps along the path of spiritual freedom and collaboration with God’s activity in the world.
Here is one helpful summary of those stages, offered by Ignatian Spirituality.com, a service of Loyola Press in Chicago.
First week. The first week of the Exercises is a time of reflection on our lives in light of God’s boundless love for us. We see that our response to God’s love has been hindered by patterns of sin. We face these sins knowing that God wants to free us of everything that gets in the way of our loving response to him. The first week ends with a meditation on Christ’s call to follow him.
Second week. The meditations and prayers of the second week teach us how to follow Christ as his disciples. We reflect on Scripture passages: Christ’s birth and baptism, his sermon on the mount, his ministry of healing and teaching, his raising Lazarus from the dead. We are brought to decisions to change our lives to do Christ’s work in the world and to love him more intimately.
Third week. We meditate on Christ’s Last Supper, passion, and death. We see his suffering and the gift of the Eucharist as the ultimate expression of God’s love.
Fourth week. We meditate on Jesus’ resurrection and his apparitions to his disciples. We walk with the risen Christ and set out to love and serve him in concrete ways in our lives in the world.
Jesuits do the exercises in literally four weeks, during what is known as the 30-day retreat or simply "The Long Retreat." And they do so typically at a retreat house with a spiritual director. But with the growing interest in Ignatian spirituality, many people are practicing the Exercises in other ways.
One popular version is known as the "Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life," which someone can do while continuing his or her daily responsibilities. This approach (which Ignatius spelled out in his manual) often involves an hour a day of prayer and reflection for several months, with regular guidance from a spiritual director.
Part of his Spiritual Exercises is the five-step reflection, the Examen, designed to help people discern God's activity during specific moments of their lives. Ignatius believed the Examen was so important that even if Jesuits neglected all other forms of prayer, they should never miss a day without spending a few minutes praying the Examen.
Imaginative PrayerAmong other forms of prayer, the Spiritual Exercises presents an imaginative way of placing yourself within the biblical stories.
"We see the fishermen hauling in their nets on the Sea of Galilee, hear the smack of waves against the boat’s hull, feel the sunshine on our skins, smell seaweed and brine, taste the water we scoop up in our palm," Santa Clara University literature professor Ron Hansen has explained. "With all five senses wholly engaged, we become part of the scene and can be as shocked and happy as Peter was when he recognized that it was the risen Christ who was roasting a fish on a charcoal fire on the shore and plunged into the sea to wade to him."
All of these techniques are geared to nurturing the habits of spiritual discernment — among those who are ready to see God at work "in all things."
VocationGod has a dream for each one of us. We are uniquely loved and called by God. God only wishes good for us as a human race and as individuals. God’s dream is that we in our own unique way will join Christ in building a better world and so experience ourselves fully. “’I know the plan I have in mind for you… plans for peace, not disaster, reserving a future full of hope for you… When you seek me you shall find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me,’ it is the Lord who speaks.” (Jer. 29:11-13) Some persons experience being called by God as an invitation into the desires (dreams) of God for the human race, for the church, and for ourselves as we live out our lives. Vocation comes from the Latin word for call or calling. It implies that there is an action God who is beyond ourselves that is beckoning and calling to us. In a sense, we cannot deny this activity. We respond to it by answering yes or no. To ignore it is to answer no. Our belief is that God calls each one of us to do some good in this world. We are called to be concerned for other human beings, to be instruments of his love, peace and justice.
Prayer for VocationsLord Jesus, I come before you to reflect on life, on others, on myself, and on the many things that I cannot grasp about you, the world around me, and myself. I would like to do great things for you and for others, so that my part in history will not be in vain. I know that Life and Truth abide in you, so I come to drink from the only Wellspring capable of quenching my thirst for truth, goodness and beauty.
Today I pray in a special way for those who are young like me and hear in their hearts your call to the priesthood or consecrated life. It mustn’t be easy for them to leave everything to follow you. They must find it hard to leave family, close friends, others.
Yet I understand perfectly those who are capable of leaving everything to follow you; you are the treasure for which it is well worthwhile to sell everything so as not to lose you. They will walk the world preaching your Gospel, soothing the bitterness of many human lives with your Word, and giving some hope to many people, to the thousands upon thousands of young people who have nothing to live for, no sense of transcendence and do not know true love. They will spread the perfume of your message of joy, peace and hope throughout a world that seems condemned to bitterness and hatred. They will console those who endure sorrow, strengthen the weak, spread your grace and forgiveness. I even envy them. I do not know what answer I would give if I felt your call. The only thing I would pray for then is what I now ask of you for the young people who can hear you now: generosity, courage, boldness, and faith.
You are truly capable of filling a life, giving it meaning, and making it bear fruit. Grant us priests after your own heart. Move the hearts of young people so that they will not hesitate to leave their nets when you stop at the shore of their lives, look on them, pronounce their names which you have held in your heart from all eternity, and say gently but firmly—with your powerful WORD that created heaven—"Follow me." AMEN.
(Prayer taken from Pray to the Lord of the Harvest)
DiscernmentDiscernment is a seeking of God’s will in my life through the inner movements of the Spirit of Love. We are all called to discernment because a Christian life (vocation) is precisely a response to God’s will and call to discipleship. “Be it done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1,38) This response to God’s call is the only source of my real happiness in this life and hereafter. It is an act of deep gratitude on my part for all that the Lord has done for me—and how he has loved me.
The steps in Discernment
1. Knowing and Loving Myself.My personality and personal history are part of my call. It is therefore important that I learn to be in touch with myself and get to know myself better.
a) I recall experiences and events in my life history that brought me to where I am now.
b) I write these in a personal journal and reflect on them.
c) I reflect on the things and activities that bring me life, my likes and dislikes, joys and fears, abilities and limitations, etc.
d) I reflect on my work patterns, leadership qualities, and the structures and routines in my life.
e) I reflect on the various relationships I have with people.
In all these, I try to see God’s active presence in my life history, especially how He has loved me. I also consult with a spiritual director to guide me in getting to know myself and to help me experience myself as the Beloved of God.
2. Knowing and Loving Jesus Christ.I try to develop a regular life of prayer, devoting 15-30 minutes daily to personal prayer. I pray over the life of Christ, his words and actions as presented to me in the Gospels. I read and ponder the accounts given in the New Testament. My hope is that his spirit will come into my being. I pray, “To see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly.” I seek the help of my spiritual director to find the form of prayer best suited for me. Through this growing personal relationship with Jesus, our Lord, I slowly grow into the Mind and Heart of Jesus Christ.
3. Making a Decision.a.)I gather accurate and adequate information on the point of decision. Perhaps this information is about the congregation or order I am considering, its charism, its apostolates, its way of life, and its requirements for application.
b) I surrender myself to the Gospel value system. The beatitudes in Matthew 5 might be helpful to consider in doing this.
c) I propose the option to myself, the pros and cons of the option. I write these down. I allow all this to sink in prayer. I remain with this in a disposition of complete surrender.
d) Then, I propose the opposite option to myself, following the same process as in the previous paragraph.
e) At a certain point, a gripping conviction comes to me toward one option and I make this my temporary decision.
4. Confirming my Decision.After making the temporary decision in step 3, I allow some time for inner confirmation. An experience of inner peace is a sign of God’s will in my decision. I confer with my spiritual director regarding the process and confirmation of my decision.
ExamplesThe first is an example of a person who wished to discover the basic state of life God wished for him. In searching out the dream of God for him he came to a conviction that the Lord wished him to be a priest. So he took this choice to prayer asking the Lord to confirm it. At the beginning there was a sense of peace with the choice. Later, however, there was much disturbance in his inner being: zest for life was disappearing, his mind was concentrated on himself, he experienced sleeplessness, life was becoming a burden and there were other interior experiences. In discussing this with his spiritual director, he indicated that the only way open to someone who wished “to live all perfection” was in the priesthood. When the director suggested to him that it was possible to live the life of perfection in whatever state the Lord called him, he replied quite spontaneously that his deepest desire was to be married and have children. Then he spent some weeks of further prayer and checking out his inner experience while considering the married state of life. The results were the opposite of those mentioned above: a lightsomeness of being, zest for life, an excitement at new possibilities and a recognition that he could serve other men and women in the married state. He is now a happily married man with three children and much involved in promoting a lay spirituality in everyday life.
We might consider another example almost the opposite of the above. This person fell deeply in love and through much reflection came to the conviction that she was called to the married state. As the time of marriage approached she was much agitated by the thought of her future life. Upon inquiry, it became obvious that these were not just the normal fears of a bride-to-be. In her uncertainty she did not want to hurt the man she loved so much. Still, this question persisted: “How might I best serve the Lord?” In her being, she sensed a great attraction to be present to and serve many persons. Although she did not feel certain that this meant a call to the religious life, it did indicate to her that she needed more confirmation about the married state. A weekend retreat led her to decide to spend some time in a religious order and experience this other state of life. She entered a house of formation and about a year later was surprised to experience the grace of freedom with respect to both states of life. She realized that she could be happy in either state and serve the Lord well in both. She knew that she was free to choose either and that she was to choose the one that almost fulfilled her deepest desires. She chose religious life and still feels, after twenty years, that this is her vocation in life.