This is the third in our series of sermons led by Ali , Christine and myself that are designed to lead up to the Week of Accompanied Prayer that we’ve planned for the parish beginning on Sunday June 10. We still have a few spaces left if you’d like to join in. But even if you’re not able or interested in joining, I’d like to give you a glimpse of the spirituality behind the week, and to do that I’ll re-cover (but hopefully in greater depth) a few things that Christine mentioned a fortnight ago about the origins of Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit movement and how we might take them into our daily lives.
Let’s begin by time-travelling. On May 20th 1521 a rather arrogant, rakish, womanising twenty-six-year-old knight from the Basque region of Spain was hit in the legs by a canon ball while defending the fortress of Pamplona against the French. His name was Íñigo López de Loyola, or as he is better known: St Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius became the founder of the Roman Catholic missionary order the Society of Jesus or as they’re popularly referred to the Jesuits, of which the current pope is a member. Ignatius’s appointment with that canon ball, nearly 500 years ago was to have an astonishing spiritual significance, first for him as I’ll share in a minute, but also for the world as his insights into the spiritual life shaped and motived generations of missionaries. So astonishing were these insights that within 26 years of that unfortunate incident, the first followers of Ignatius had been inspired by his insights to travel as far as China and Japan to share their faith.
What was at the heart of this spiritual revolution? While recovering from his injuries in bed, because sixteenth-century Spain was sadly lacking in hospital radio, Ignatius took to reading. Unfortunately for him there was only two books available: a devotional book about the life of Jesus and another on the deeds of the saints.
These were not really to Ignatius’s taste because although conventionally religious what Ignatius really enjoyed was what at the time were call romance novels. These told of the courtly tales of deeds of knights and their conquests. Without any of these to read, Ignatius started to spend time day-dreaming about them instead sometimes for up to three or four hours at a time. Eventually, though, during the long months of his convalescence, he was reduced to reading the religious books, and he started to day-dream about these, too.
It was during this enforced period of being still that Ignatius made a discovery, and it’s a discovery that ought to have led him becoming known as the founding-father of psychology. What he noticed was that something within him changed according to which kind of fantasy he had. When it was a day-dream about being a heroic knight, slaying his enemies, and above all impressing his imaginary Lady, Ignatius would get a sugar-rush of elation and excitement but, as he dictated in his autobiography many years later, “afterward he found himself dry and sad.” But when he day-dreamt about copying Jesus and the saints (and I quote again): “he found pleasure not only while thinking of them, but also when he had ceased.”
We have his account of his first observations about these contrasting experiences following his two types of fantasy, and I’ll read you his words:
This difference he did not notice or value, until one day the eyes of his soul were opened and he began to inquire the reason for the difference. He learned by experience that one train of thought left him sad, the other joyful. This was his first reasoning on spiritual matters. Afterward … he was enlightened, and understood what he later taught his followers about the discernment of spirits … gradually he recognized the different spirits by which he was moved, one, the spirit of God, the other, the devil…
Ignatius had discovered what he called the discernment of spirits, by which he meant consciously noticing the kinds of inner responses we have as we go through life, as we read texts, as we day-dream. He noticed in himself two directions of movement. One he called “Consolation” the other “Desolation”.
Consolation, he said, was often the work of the good spirit in him calling him into life. He could hear the good spirit’s call when he paid attention to feelings of lasting, wholesome, deep joy, feelings which encouraged him to move towards a greater openness, love and trust in God.
Desolation worked in the opposite direction: when his day-dreams became brooding, when his responses to events or scripture left him listless, dry, hollow and unfulfilled, and when his feelings led him to be closed, defensive and resentful toward God and others.
Of course, Ignatius was aware that not every experience of Consolation lasts. Nor indeed does every good feeling come from the good spirit: we are incredibly skilled at fooling ourselves. It is not the feeling per se that we are to seek, but whether it leads us to say yes more often to God, to let Jesus’s life guide us more. Similarly, Ignatius realised that the feeling of Desolation wasn’t something to be avoided. On the contrary, to listen carefully for the source of why we might be feeling low and empty and defensive might be incredibly helpful in uncovering a spiritual misstep than can lead up back towards being open once more to God. These are the tools of Ignatian Spirituality that we might choose to take up and use in our daily lives.
Let me give you a concrete example. A few years back I was asked to host a Q&A session with some trainee RE teachers. Although very nervous, I led the session and massively enjoyed it (as, indeed, did the students). I noticed how alive I became as I spoke, I was filled with enthusiasm and joy: there was an ease and a fluidity about the whole thing, and it seemed that in that hour something greater of God had been allowed into the world. Later, as I reflected on this Consolation, I consciously decided to seek out other opportunities for working with RE teachers and, though I was rather nervous about it, this drew me in to schools work, writing a chapter in a book on teaching RE, and then joining a committee designing the local RE curriculum. Several years on, I had rather grand ideas about overhauling the system, and it was just then that I began to notice myself getting frustrated in meetings by others, short-tempered, and quite judgmental. Things didn’t seem to be moving so easily anymore; I began to feel very low about the whole thing and wanted to walk away from the whole thing in a huff. After a while I realised I was experiencing Ignatius’s Desolation. Being able to name this experience led me to reflect on whether what I was doing was still focused on God: I realised it wasn’t anymore. Somehow I had got side-tracked into my own little ego-project. My awareness of desolation became a kind of revelation. Like my earlier awareness of consolation, it gave me the tools to make another choice: not (after all) to pull out of RE work altogether but to approach the project once more with a little more humility, and above all with God’s horizon in mind again.
Recognising consolation and desolation can be very difficult, and knowing how to respond to them even more so. Because of the subtlety of these movements, Ignatius designed a programme lasting 40 days teaching techniques that could then be continued for life. The book this programme is recorded in Ignatius called the Spiritual Exercises. Alongside this he counselled the daily assistance of a guide, who would be a wise reflective voice helping to discern what God was really doing.
Most of us, though, don’t have the luxury of spending 40 days doing this. And, indeed, Ignatius allowed for his programme to be split up into bite-sized chunks and delivered in the midst of everyday life. Today that’s often how people experience the Exercises and what we’ll be offering here in the parish.
I’ve been involved in hosting Weeks of Accompanied Prayer for 10 years at the University and what I’ve found time and again are two things that are reflected in two phrases in the Gospel reading we’ll hear in a moment: one is the verse “abide in me” and the other “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends”. To abide in Jesus, to abide in God’s presence is to spend time there. In our Week of Accompanied Prayer here in the parish, each participant will be invited to commit to spending half an hour a day in prayer and journaling, and then another half an hour reflecting on that prayer with a guide.
It’s quite a serious enterprise, and it begs the question: how often do we actually abide, rest, tarry, shack up with, put down roots with God (you can pick the metaphor that works best for you). How much time do we give to simply being with God? Some of us may do much, others little. For those of us who do little (and I can sometimes count myself in that group), it might be because we’re not quite sure how to pray – or indeed what prayer might be for, beyond simply asking for things. In my most recent University experience of running the week one of our students spent her time in prayer dancing – abiding with God in the Tango; another rested in God in art; a third while walking in nature; others were more conventional and spent time abiding with God in scripture…
Much of the first while spent with a prayer-guide simply involves finding one’s own way of abiding with God – being given permission to waste time with Jesus in our own way (for there are as many ways of praying as there are people: more, indeed, for we may have several styles in different situations).
I wonder if a second reason we might be reluctant to abide with God might be that we’re a little bit afraid of what we might hear. Can I really trust God? Perhaps God will make me do the thing I don’t want to do; perhaps God will ask me to give up the thing I really love. One of our staff participants started the week nervously saying: “I hope God won’t force me to do something I don’t want”, and one of our guides shared how as a young man he’d entered earnestly into work with the homeless, believing it must be what God wanted him to do, even though he hated it: it wasn’t. It was built on a false image of a demanding God and left him burnt out. I know personally the fear that God might want to rob me of my self. But over my ten years of participating in our weeks of prayer, and in listening to God in the style of Ignatius, I’ve learnt that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
For, as we’ll hear in the Gospel reading in a moment, Jesus actually says: “I no longer call you servants (or indeed as the Greek really says: slaves), I call you friends.” The truth of those words is a truth we may need to continue to listen to before we really believe it. But ultimately, God is not out to get us; God is not our slave-master; God is not a kill-joy; God is much more interested in seeing us flourish, as one friend rejoices in the joy of another. For it is out of the joy of abiding with God, of experiencing God’s friendly love, that our lives become creative, and yes, at times sacrificial as we’ll also hear in the Gospel. But none of this involves God robbing us of our selves, of our gifts, of our interests and forcing us to do what we don’t want. God isn’t out to get us, and I have learnt from experience that it is safe to abide with God.
Ignatius practised the discernment of spirits that listening for consolation and desolation in two main ways, and even if one doesn’t participate in the Week these tools are available to us all. One is a routine he called the Examen that many of us will be aware of: it’s a daily practice, often undertaken in the evening, of looking back over each day and reflecting: where did I experience consolation or desolation today? Where was I most alive, where was I least alive? What might I learn from this? I shan’t say more of this technique: there are plenty of resources about how to do the Examen, including some great phone apps (e.g. Reimagining the Examen).
Ignatius’s second field for applying his ideas about the discernment of spirits was in prayerfully reading scripture: and that’s what we’re going to do for the last 5 or 10 minutes. I’m going to read our Gospel a couple of times, and I’m going to invite you to notice the movements in yourself as you hear the words: where do you find consolation: the good spirit of life, joy, peace moving in you; and where do you find desolation: fear, harshness, disturbance. Afterwards I’ll give you a little time to talk with Jesus about this, and with one another. To get into the mood for reading Scripture, there are some useful techniques which I shall first.
[Preparation for prayerful reading: Begin with adopting a posture of openness; notice the workings of your mind; any sensations of the body; any emotions; take 3 deep breaths into the nose, slowly exhaling through pursed lips; invite God to see you and ask for God to speak to you in the reading.]
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
If you’d like to be involved in our week of Prayer, do have a word with me after the service, but even if you don’t consider whether holding on to the ideas of Consolation and Desolation and seeking them out in the Examen (perhaps with an app on your phone); or prayerfully approaching Scripture could be for you.
Mark Laynesmith, 27 May 2018.