My spiritual director (who is probably off somewhere directing an 8 day Ignatian retreat right now) will probably cringe at this attempt to condense the richness of Ignatian spirituality to a blog post, but then again, he probably isn’t reading. St. Ignatius is a household favorite thanks to CCC’s “Francis Xavier and the Black Pearl” featuring a heavy supporting role by the original SJC himself, so it’s not uncommon in our house to see a kid running by holding up a giant plastic crucifix from the dress up box yelling “let this be our weapon!”
I was first exposed to Ignatian spirituality by my now husband while we were dating. I was in an emotional and spiritual tailspin after being cornered by a young priest after an innocent ice cream run one night with a group of visiting Nashville Dominicans. He urged me to continue discerning religious life since it seemed like I could be “running from a vocation.” Meanwhile, I’d been dating Dave for all of 4 weeks and sent him a frantic email (probably from a hotmail account) something along the lines of OH MY GOSH WHAT IF I’M SUPPOSED TO BE A NUN WE SHOULD COOL IT MAYBE?
To which he sanely, sagely responded with my first taste of St. Ignatius: follow the peace.
He said (and I paraphrase), when a soul is seeking to please God and do His will, the enemy will frequently act upon that soul with violence and unrest, trying to use anxiety as a tool to divert, distract, and destroy. But the Lord doesn’t work on our souls in anxiety, but in peace. God’s will beings peace, even when it is difficult, and sometimes even when it is excruciatingly painful.
As a person prone to anxiety in general, the idea that God’s will brings peace was a revolutionary concept. Because on some level I knew this, but on another level I was pretty sure that God’s will = whatever is most arduous and unpleasant. Don’t make me unpack that bad theology for you, just suffice it to say I had the wrong idea about the Big Guy.
After learning about this little nugget of Ignatian discernment, I was hooked on wanting to know more. I have yet to make an 8 day silent retreat (something about kids, responsibilities, etc.) but I’ve read his Spiritual Exercises, and there are some profound truths that are particularly applicable to the office of motherhood, namely, that the purpose of the Exercises, in Ignatius’ own words, is “to conquer oneself and to regulate one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.”
If I could live my life based on that solitary concept, all my stresses and daily struggles would melt away. Melt, I tell you.
Because what is the problem most days living with a rowdy crew of small humans? It’s that I have these desires to regulate my life based upon, say, hours of daylight and a progression of productivity and pleasure while the small ones I have care of are continually presenting alternate routes involving bodily fluids, cuts, scrapes, and very distressing situations involving fidget spinners and stuffed animals that cannot be resolved at any other moment before bedtime.
In other words, I am inordinately attached to my plans. And therein lies the heart of most of my vocational struggles. I want to get a certain amount of sleep, achieve a certain level of cleanliness in the home, whip out a certain number of pieces in a set amount of time, heck, just plain drive places and show up at the time I said I’d be there.
Expectation, meet reality.
Ignatius says that in making his Exercises, it becomes possible “to conquer oneself.” I would settle for conquering even a small part of myself, say, my temper or my appetite for the internet.
The Exercises are divided into four “weeks” of varying length with four major themes: sin and God’s mercy, episodes in the life of Jesus, the passion of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus together with a contemplation on God’s love.
This last bit, the part about contemplating Jesus’s resurrection and God’s love, is kind of the summation of Ignatian spirituality: to find God in all things.
The tricky thing about the Exercises, as I found when reading them for myself, is that they’re really not designed for me to read, but for a director to read and then apply to me. The Exercises are not really a DIY thing, but the Examen prayer, on the other hand, is a super handy tool that can readily be applied by viewers at home.
The Examen of Consciousness is a simple prayer directed toward developing a spiritual sensitivity to all the ways God approaches, invites, and calls. Ignatius was big on a spirituality of presence: of being present to one’s life as it is actually unfolding, and to what God has put into your path each particular moment.
Ignatius recommends that the examen be done twice a day, suggesting the following five points:
Recalling that one is in the presence of God (even if someone is screaming softly in the background)
Thanking God for all the blessings one has received (yes, even the mixed blessings that were kind of cross-shaped)
Examining how one has lived the day (air that dirty laundry)
Asking God for forgiveness (and make a note of any little humans whose forgiveness you need to ask)
Resolution and offering a prayer of hopeful recommitment (ah, the sweet relief of the bedtime fondness one has for all one’s children)
See? Basically custom tailored for motherhood. (Or fatherhood. Just, I’m a mom so, you know, write what you know.)
Today being the feast of St. Ignatius, I can’t think of a more appropriate habit to take up than printing out an Examen to tuck into your Bible or prayer journal or tape to your bedside table and give it a go.
And someday, somehow, I’m going to make that 8 day retreat. Maybe in another decade or two 😉
St. Ignatius of Loyola, patron of soldiers and educators (alternative titles for “parent” if ever I read them), pray for us!