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Simple Ignatius

January 12, AD2017

Since my first encounter with Ignatian Spirituality years ago, I have spent a lot time both intrigued and mystified by it.  As is often the case with Catholic prayers, much of the material explaining these spiritual exercises retain the language originally used by Ignatius.  While this may be appreciated by those who already understand Ignatius and his Rules for Spiritual Discernment, I suspect that the arcane nature of the language makes it difficult for most to benefit from this powerful work.  Yet Ignatius, and his 14 Rules for Spiritual Discernment, have had a profound effect on the entire Church, and form the spiritual background that influenced our Holy Father.  Thus, considering a few highlights from his Rules that are simple and easy to put to work in our own lives, will help us also grow in holiness as we prepare for this new year.

From Sinner to Saint

Ignatius’ life story is, by all accounts, fascinating.  Ignatius was born in Spain one year before Columbus sailed for America. Belonging to Spanish nobility, he grew up with the privileges of education and a desire to be a soldier.  As a young man, Ignatius had a reputation for being prideful. One story provides the perfect snapshot of his life prior to conversion.  He broke his leg in one of the battles he fought as a soldier.  His leg, poorly set, began to heal in a way that he thought unattractive.  Later, in 1521, he was seriously wounded in battle and spent months confined to a bed.  In his vanity, he had doctors saw away a part of a protruding leg bone that had been broken when hit by a cannon ball.  

But that was also the year that his life changed forever, and his time in the hospital caused him to consider his life on a deeper level, which ultimately led to his conversion.

Think, Believe, Feel

During his long recovery, Ignatius began to look at his life.  He examined his experiences and began to see that his actions were regularly motivated by what was happening within him.  He realized that both sinful and virtuous actions were based on what he felt (emotions), what he thought (imagined or contemplated), and what he believed (about himself or others).  This revelation became, in a sense, the lynchpin for much of the spirituality he would eventually gift to the Church.

Ignatius had formerly lived his life “from the outside – in”.  Events and circumstances were either unconnected, or dictated his interior life- his thoughts, beliefs and feelings.  In a world filled with sensual stimulation, they seemed to be the driving force.  His interior life – thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, were driven on the winds of life’s circumstances.  During his months of convalescence, he discovered that this was not true.  He realized that life is actually lived “from the inside-out”.  He began to see how his thoughts, beliefs, and feelings were the primary motivation for his actions.  They influenced the decisions he made and the actions he took, for better or for worse.

Why I Do What I Do

As Ignatius looked at his life from this new “inside-out” perspective, he began to wonder what kinds of things influenced his thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.  In a sense, he was pursuing the same question that St. Paul addressed when he said, “I do the things that I do not want to do.”  Why is it that I want to do one thing, but actually do something completely opposite?

Ignatius realized that there were three spiritual influences at work in his thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.  His ‘inside” life was constantly influenced by holy spirits (things of God), unholy spirits (things of the enemy), and his own spirit (himself).  Each of these influences was constantly at work, and oftentimes it was hard to tell which was which.  These spirits either affected his thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a way that moved him toward sin or toward goodness.  Unfortunately, as many of us have learned,  Ignatius realized that all of this is a lot easier to see in the past, but hard to see in the middle of daily life.

Fulfillment and Emptiness

Lying in a hospital bed, Ignatius looked long at the experiences in his life.  As he replayed memories from his life, he discovered that memories of sinful activities in his life were often fulfilling while he was recounting the memory.  But, when he came back to it later, he would find himself feeling empty.  The shift from fulfillment to emptiness was an indicator of sin and the enemy’s influence.  He also discovered that the memories of godly things would be fulfilling, both when he thought about them, and when he came back to them later.

Ignatius next began to apply this simple tool to his daily life.  Paying attention to his thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about daily life, he would simply imagine the outcome of his activity.  If the activity or outcome led him to immediate pleasure, but longer term emptiness, he realized that he was making a decision that did not bring him closer to God.  As an example, sexual sin might provide immediate pleasure, but later on the experience of emptiness paired with shame or condemnation.  On the other hand, a time of prayer or doing good works would leave him with a long term sense of fulfillment.

Getting Started

Ignatius has much to teach us about living a life that is closer to God.  The spirituality he developed, including his Rules for Discernment, is far more rich than a single article can contain.  But, Ignatian spirituality is amazingly practical and applicable.  Getting started requires that we take time to contemplate what is going on inside us, but after we discern this, this approach is perfectly suited to the rough and tumble of daily living.  By simply paying attention to whether our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings move us to fulfillment or emptiness, we can begin to know the movement of God in our own lives.  

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Ken is the Executive Director for the John Paul II Healing Center, based in Tallahassee, FL. He is a frequent speaker at Center events and his extensive ministry experience includes teaching apologetics, retreat presenter and volunteer youth ministry. Ken holds a Bachelors in Psychology and a Masters in Counseling, both from St. Louis University.

Ken has been married for more than 25 years to his wife Sharon. They have two children.

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  • joebissonnette

    a very timely article. I teach religion at a Catholic high school and of course high school aged kids are the canary in the coal mine, revealing in bold colours the temptations and pathologies that affect all of us. More than ever before teens are perpetually distracted and in need of circumspection – as we all are. As we head toward end of semester exams I’ve begun Ignatian reflections – and they are reflective and hungry for The Lord in a new way.

    Please write more about this.

  • Guy McClung

    Ken-Thanks for the hard work and all the insights. Something St Ignatius says at the very beginning of his Exercises applies today. Guy McClung, San Antonio

    In his “Rules”:

    First rule: “All judgment laid aside, we ought to have our mind ready and prompt to obey, in all, the true spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy mother the church hierarchical.”

    Ninth rule: “To praise all precepts of the church, keeping the mind prompt to find reasons in their defense and in no manner against them.”

    Thirteenth rule: “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see is black if the hierarchical church so decides it.”

  • james

    ” All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Buddha