Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. (Confessions)
Reflection: Those are the words that St. Augustine of Hippo used to describe his conversion. He sought beauty, love, truth and joy everywhere, but only found them when he looked within. I have always found comfort and solace in those words. They disclose the journey of a soul as it learns to truly love and accept True Love.
The parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), chronicles such a journey—the quest of a wasteful man, through the misery of his own ingratitude, to the joy of restored communion with his father and the members of his household. The tale begins with the prodigality—the extravagant wastefulness—of a son who asks his father for his share of the inheritance. The son, who I have always called Marty, is wasteful because he fails to understand that everything is grace. He has lived with plenty his whole life. He benefited from his father’s wealth but was never truly grateful for it.
Reflection: At the end of several meditations in the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends having a “triple colloquy” (see SpEx #62-63) to conclude the prayer period. Here he invites the retreatant to have a conversation in his imagination with Mary, begging her for the grace to be placed with her son beneath the cross, indifferent to one’s own comfort for the sake of following Christ. Ignatius asks the retreatant to speak to Mary in his or her own words and then conclude with a Hail Mary.
Rather than ending the prayer there, Ignatius then invites the retreatant to have two further conversations about the same topic. He asks the retreatant to repeat the same conversation with Jesus, begging more insistently for the same thing and ending with the Soul of Christ prayer. Finally, he instructs the retreatant to go to the Father Himself, begging with all of the passion one can muster and ending with an Our Father.
Reflection: I was away on a retreat this weekend at a retreat center in a rural area where there must be a high mineral content to the water. Disturbingly, for the retreatant who desires to take a shower at this locale, the water has a rather eggy smell and leaves the skin feeling slimy and soapy, even after all the soap has been rinsed away. Other amenities, such as beautiful, peaceful grounds and a lovely chapel tend to compensate for this annoyance and, as far as I know, all of our students had a splendid retreat in spite of the stinky water.
What does any of this have to do with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola? Interestingly enough, in the fifth exercise of the First Week of the Exercises, St. Ignatius invites us to spend a little time contemplating the bitter smell of sulphur—using the interior sense of our imagination. This is one of the first instances in the Exercises of the method of prayer that St. Ignatius calls the application of the senses. An application of the senses is when our contemplation takes on a deeper richness through the application of our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste to the material being contemplated. In this case, the application of the senses is employed in order to help us to meditate on hell.
At the start of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius provides a series of Annotations—instructions for the director and retreatant on how to give and make this retreat. In his Fifth Annotation, St. Ignatius advises the retreatant “to enter into [the Exercises] with great courage and generosity.” At the end of this week, the reason for the spirit of courage becomes all too clear. We have reflected upon some very uncomfortable truths about ourselves. But, like the soldier in the midst of oncoming fire, we know that we must press on.
We have reflected on our sins, and on where they emanate from. We know that what we do is not only because of the negative influence of those around us but also because of our own wayward wants and desires. Moreover, our sins do not simply arise out of a malice to be eradicated, but worse, from a lukewarmness to be heated. The excuses we have made about our actions no longer hold. We must press on.
Reflection: Some years ago, a few days after Christmas, I happened to be at a funeral where the priest, during his homily, took out a shopping bag and began by saying, “These days we see many people looking inside these bags and eagerly taking out their Christmas presents. But what do we finally take with us on the last journey? Jim, whom we will bury today, what did he put into the bag to take with him?” I don’t remember much else about the homily other than those two questions, but even today, they continue to make me think about the certainty of death. Death will come for each and every one of us, and when we do die, what will we place in our gift bags or suitcases to take with us? What will the Lord look inside to find and how will he ultimately judge us, based on the lives we have tried to live?
We should not live our lives constantly pondering the prospect of death. That would place us, many times, in a permanent stasis, and might even lead to depression. The young, certainly, do not like to think of death and prefer to think that it is something that they can forget about until they grow old. But regardless of when death may come—and sometimes it can come unexpectedly—we must remember that we will eventually die and come before the Lord, the just judge. He will look at our lives and judge us for our thoughts, words, and actions. In the Gospels, Jesus tells us Himself that He is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and we profess our belief in His coming, every time we recite the Creed.
Reflection: There are two aspects we need to examine as we ask for a deep-felt knowledge of the consequences of sin in our lives. First, this meditation is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves about what sin does in our lives. We cannot accept the relief of what Jesus did for us in taking our sins on himself without first having to experience the agonizing truth about our sins. Secondly, we need to realize that there is no need to dwell on guilt and shame. The meditation on the consequences of sin in our lives is a meditation on the mercy of God the Father. Sin is a turning away from God and as we meditate on what it does in our lives, we are called to turn to God and fix our eyes on his liberating mercy. We ask for a healthy sense of shame, a heartfelt knowledge of the effects of pride, envy, lust and greed in our lives.
In “The Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe tells the story of the young wife of a prominent member of congress, who is erroneously pronounced dead and buried alive. She revived shortly after her burial and struggled within the coffin in a futile attempt to escape her ghastly prison. Poe features cataleptics – people who fall into death-like trances – who are buried alive in some of his other stories: “Berenice,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Being a narcoleptic – a condition he deemed similar to being a cataleptic – Poe feared being buried alive. As he expressed in the voice of the narrator of “The Premature Burial,” “The true wretchedness is to be buried while alive.”
Reflection: Past writers on this blog have described spiritual tepidity as a type of sluggishness, particularly in prayer, that is caused in our souls by an excessive attachment to things other than God. But tepidity in our personal spiritual practices is undoubtedly less scandalous to non-Christians than tepidity in our public worship. For Catholics, one salutary goal during this Lenten season could be to “give up” liturgical tepidity, which manifests itself in many different ways.
In Revelation 4, the Bible offers a vision of heavenly worship that is as striking as lightning and more transcendental than any drug trip. But in Lent, our American parishes may frequently offer a vision of worship that feels more like a living room social, and hardly distinguishable to the casual observer from the liturgical seasons that precede and follow it. Here is matter for self-reflection on the tepidity that we bring, both personally and socially, to our public worship.
Reflection: St. Ignatius of Loyola describes the point of spiritual exercises as follows: they are meant “to conquer oneself and to organize one’s life without the influence in one’s decisions by any inordinate attachment.” Just as God’s first act of creation was drawing order out of chaos, Ignatius invites us to take an unsparing look at our own lives, to see that they have an element of chaos and disorder about them, and to set to work straightening things up.
One of the first steps that we must take as we begin to put our spiritual house in order is to recognize the sheer ugliness of sin. In the City of God, St. Augustine famously describes sin as “love of oneself even to contempt of God.” It should shock us to think that we could ever reach a point where we would love and prefer ourselves so much that we hated or disregarded God. How could such a scenario possibly come to be? The way that we usually arrive at such a spiritual morass is through a slide into what theologians call venial sin, rather than through a willing rejection of God in one fell swoop.
Reflection: From an early age, most Catholics are taught the that there are two different types of sin (mortal and venial) and that a mortal sin leads to the complete destruction of God’s life within the human soul. But what exactly constitutes this sort of sin? And what does it mean to have the divine life completely destroyed within a human soul?
The answer to these questions can be found in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The first humans are created by God out of love. They are given full knowledge of God, but this does not mean that they see God face to face, for God moves about in the garden during the “breezy time of the day” (3:8). God is unseen but fully present, and the first humans simply enjoy being in His presence. They are still human, but fully living in the presence of God, a God who is the “most concrete reality, whence all that is substantial in the world receives its equally certain and unquestionable rightness, obviousness, and nameability” as the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes. All that Adam and Eve experience in their humanity is viewed through the eyes of God. They are completely in tune with God, even though they are human. Thus, God’s plan is their plan.
Over the course of Lent, each post during the week will provide new material for us to bring to prayer, but weekends are dedicated to repetitions, to looking again at the material we have covered thus far during our Lenten journey towards the Cross and Easter Sunday.
The first week of that journey has so far concerned the greatness of a God who chooses to be mindful of us and who desires for us to know not only the smallest of our own sins but also the grandeur of His whole creation. Only God could be, as St. Augustine says,
most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden and yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. …You owe us nothing, yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby. (Confessions I.4)
This daily Spiritual Exercises blog seeks to present meditations in the spirit of Saint Ignatius Loyola. It is brought to you by a group of Jesuits from across the United States and Canada interested in offering Ignatian Spirituality to those seeking Christ through Scripture and prayer.