A Poem and Reflection on Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises

“Hold the course both straight and true!”
Winds buffet. We pitch and roll.
“Everything will be fine!”
The tiller snaps off…

“A Seaborne Dodoitsu”
The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Paperwork for our Annual Meeting is completed. It is now time to focus on the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which takes place towards the middle of next month. One of the greatest challenges I have found in the Academy is taking a lot of superb material and authentically engaging. I have read too many books and have great things go in my eyes, bounce in my brain, and eject themselves at the first distraction. Long time readers of the blog have noticed that this blog is one place I try to engage the material.

Today I was reading several of the “Rules” from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In particular, we were asked to focus on sections 314-336. These rules deal with moments of consolation and desolation. We were assigned to read the version translated by Jules J. Toner, but as I have my own copies of the exercises, I thought I’d interact online with versions and resources I own. I generally interact with “Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” by David Fleming, S.J and “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women” by Katherine Dyckman, et. al. To be honest, “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed” is better commentary than translation. Translation is primary for this conversation, but you should still check out that very interesting book.

“Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” Ignatius of Loyola as translated by David Fleming, S.J., pgs. 251-252.

In Fleming’s work, the section is entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul” in the literal translation and “Guidelines for Discerning Different Movements, Suitable Especially for the First Week” in the contemporary translation. In all three translations, the conversation revolves around consolation and desolation.

Consolation, in my words, is when one’s spirit is aflame with the love of God in joy, drawn to the love of God is sorrow, or in any way grown in the faith, hope, and love that comes from God (and referenced in 1 Corinthians 13). Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Hence, it is when the soul’s love of God is smothered, the soul feels stripped away from the presence of God in sorrow, or circumstances arise in which faith, hope, and love are diminished in experience or (hopefully not) reality.

What drew my eye was the section referred to as Rule 5 and Rule 6, which can be found in sections 318 and 319 respectively. I think when we look at these rules, we find something that is a bit challenging. I will draw on Fleming’s contemporary translation for our discussion.

“5. When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or to come to a new decision. The reason is that in desolation the evil spirit is making an attempt to obstruct the good direction of our life or to change it, and so we would be thwarted from the gentle lead of God and what is more conducive to our own salvation. As a result, at a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us.

6. Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be. And so we might try to intensify our prayer, we might take on some penance, or we might make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith.”

“Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” Ignatius of Loyola as translated by David Fleming, S.J., pgs. 251-252.

In many ways, I understand what Loyola is driving at in these rules. I also acknowledge that these rules have done a great deal for the church over the centuries. I also believe they have value going into the future. In many ways, I am an outsider commenting on something which does not come from my own denominational tradition and mean no offense to those who hold these rules and experiences dear.

I also see a challenge in these rules for the modern church. For many churches, the American attendance pattern of worship has led people to enter deep periods of doubt and desolation. We are faithful to what we once found fruitful. Certain hymns, certain ways of acting, and certain patterns of life consoled and blessed us.

Life has changed. We who are still in the pews can end up facing the desolation of the spirit that comes with lower attendance numbers, people skipping once integral Bible study, or even quitting the church altogether. It can be a heavy blanket on the soul to find empty seats that were once brimming. We can find these words in our desolation to be wise words of advice. We choose to keep at the decisions made during seasons of consolation! What is more, we double down on commitment! We may not have formal penance in the Protestant church, but we could order twice as many tracts, invite that neighbor twice as often, and intensify our prayer.

The dodoitsu I put at the beginning of this blog summarizes the situation quite nicely. The waves are crashing, the wind is howling, the tiller is snapping, and the response can be to stand there saying “Everything will be fine!” In moments of doubt, we might call out to Jesus like the disciples! “We will drown! Don’t you care?”

I raise these concerns because I believe one concept of the sixth rule is integral. Sometimes we need to make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith. We may need to ask questions like:

  • Was my faith grown by the hymns or the fact I was singing about my faith with others?
  • Did that memorial item in the sanctuary grow my faith or was it the person who inspired it? What would the original person have wanted? Would that line up with our purpose?
  • If relationships helped grow my faith, are there places I can help others grow in their relationships? What if those places look different today than five years ago?
  • Would changing something small make a big difference? Would that small change affect everything or just cause discomfort for a while?

Occasionally, when we take time to examine ourselves and faith, we find that the things that consoled us were something different than we remember. It can be helpful to remember that things are not always how they once seemed.

There are times when the call is to stick to what you planned in a time of consolation. If you struggle with alcohol, a bad day is not the time for the drink you swore off in better days. If you struggle with anger, perhaps this is the moment when you should go walk off your frustration instead of face the person who is aggravating you. Struggles do not mean you should change your plan.

Still Loyola pointed out that some difficulties exist not as desolations but as consolations. When things go wrong it can be a reminder of how blessed we are to have God in our corner despite our struggles. When the boat is pitching back and forth, it can be a good reminder of how grateful we are for flotation devices.

In my 22 years as a committed Christian after my “heart-warming” experience, I have learned that few experiences are black and white. Some situations seem dire but end up being blessings. Some blessings seem wonderful but lead to challenging situations. Discernment is never easy, but there is wisdom in these words from Loyola. I have learned the value of holding the tiller with a loose hand. I have also learned the value of steering through the storm.

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