Finding God in all things.
I first encountered the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola when I did eight-day retreats as a convert to the Catholic Church. The dynamics weren’t easy for me to grasp but I began using the Daily Examen to help structure my prayer life and develop some awareness of how God might be at work in my life and how I was responding to what I perceived as the presence or absence of God.
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.”
I began to work with spiritual directors, not always easy, and also benefited from problem-solving therapy. The more clearly and unsentimentally I could see myself, the more I became aware of the subtle movement of Grace in my psyche and daily life.
A book that influenced my understanding of how the Spiritual Exercises help us grow closer to God was The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A Barry and William J Connolly.
- Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.
- Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.
- Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?”
- The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.
For some years I was involved with my local Christian Life Community, a troubled organisation at that time, but that involvement taught me a great deal about Ignatian discernment, the motivations, awareness and choices that lead to greater freedom in Christ.
Discernment is the God-focused intuitive and experiential skill of recognising the motives attracting or repelling us toward or away from any given option. Ignatian discernment then isn’t so much about what to do but about who to become. It’s about becoming a person in tune with the movements that lead one closer to God. The doing will flow from the becoming and being.
On day-long retreats and longer times away, I kept journals and sketchbooks, drew the journey of the mustard seed that became a tree, stayed with object meditations, myths and dreamwork. The conflict with a certain director, the tensions within the group, the brokenness in my own life and the lives of many in the country at that time were hard but fertile times in which to reflect on God’s loving will for us there and then.
In years to come I would find myself drawn away from actively imaginative modes of prayer towards more contemplative wordless prayer, but the groundwork of Ignatian understanding has stayed with me for decades.