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.
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.