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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Ignatian exercises (a chapter in my next project)

Ignatius of Loyola was a Basque soldier in the Spanish army. At the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, his leg was seriously injured by a cannon ball. While recuperating, he read the lives of Catholic great souled ones or saints. He retreated to a cave in Manresa where in solitude he entered on the spiritual journey that changed his life. This was the source of what is now called Ignatian Spirituality practiced and promoted by his followers who formed an association called the Company or Society of Jesus now known as the Jesuits. He wrote down his spiritual exercises in a manual that has been studied and used to the present time.

Jesuits today participate in and lead retreats using the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. The full retreat modeling the experience of Ignatius at Manresa is 30 days divided into four weeks. But there are also three, eight, and ten day retreats where the retreatant in silence and solitude, under the direction of an advisor-guide, meditates on the themes that Ignatius and his followers set forth.

I am citing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius because of my own familiarity with and appreciation of them, but also because they embody many practices for expanding the soul in many traditions. I do not pretend to provide some definitive assessment of these exercises. There is a large literature by scholars and practitioners for those who want. (For example, go here.)

As a sixteenth century man in a Roman Catholic Europe transitioning from feudalism to monarchy, prior to the Enlightenment and just at the beginnings of the Protestant Revolution, much of his language, imagery, and ideas are quite strange to me and to the community in which I interact. I find many of the studies and practices, to which I referred above, fundamentalistic in relation to Catholic dogma and foreign to our emerging postmodern culture. But taking that in consideration, the Ignatian exercises can provide insight into methods for strengthening our souls.

Here are some of the elements of these exercises which I personally find most useful when interpreted into our present context.

The Ignatian exercises consist in progressive and courageous decision making including 1) a willingness to set aside time to consider, reflect, and face the truth about oneself and one's world as it is, 2) opening the mind to new ways of thinking, of shifting paradigms, and being led by experience and imagination, 3) joining in solidarity with the suffering, those left out, the poor, the less esteemed and powerful and then seeing things from their point of view, 4) taking responsibility to act to achieve a better world.

These correspond to the four weeks in which we 1) consider evil in ourselves and in the world as we are (e.g. Sin), 2) sojourn with a great-souled-one (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth) to experience a new style of behavior, another way of looking at the world, 3) experience the suffering (e.g. of the Christ) in others and proclaiming one's union with them, 4) joining the community (e.g. the Church or religious society) to act to achieve the world as we would like it to be (e.g. the kingdom of God, Christ the King). In the parentheses I used the Christian idiom as did Ignatius Loyola. However, I believe this can be translated into many traditions and even secularly.

[Incidentally, these four weeks correspond to cognitive therapy in contemporary psychology which I will demonstrate a bit later.]

What is notable in these exercises is the role of imagination. Ignatius incites what we call today thought experiments. He has us imagining ourselves in the company of the great-souled-one (Jesus) to experience the activity, to enter into the style, and to take on the mind and character of that person. It is an exercise of inter-subjective engagement with, not merely objective observation of the great-souled-one.  (St Paul said: the "putting on of Christ" or "assuming his Spirit.")

What is also notable in these exercises is the role of decision-making. The exercises all lead to a choice of vocation: who I want to be and what I want to do. It culminates in personal action and action with others--which, by the way, is the definition of politics.

To facilitate the decision-making, Ignatius offers meditations on 1) detachment, 2) the two standards, and 3) the discernment of spirits.

Detachment is a state of freedom from external control of mind and behavior. It is a process of gaining freedom by first acknowledging all the ways in which my mind and behavior are being influenced. These include the values to which I have been socialized even by loved ones, the institutions into which I have been born, the attractions to which I am genetically predisposed. Detachment is not necessarily to reject these values, habits, and attractions, but to know that they are there and that I can use them or be used by them. The first week of the exercises confronts through meditation all my attachments, all my desires and fears, all my likes and dislikes, all the ways that I am not free.

Kung fu, ninja, and jedi knight films portray accomplished spiritual warriors as impervious to pain, fear, and death in pursuit of their mission. I doubt that I can achieve that level of detachment until I exhale my last breath. I see detachment and the mental exercises that achieve it as a lifelong pursuit. Nor do I believe it to exclude, but actually to enhance, the enjoyment, pleasure, humor, and fun in living.

The mediation on the two standards is a thought experiment to clarify the standards or metrics I choose to guide my life. I imagine two leaders: the first who would command my total allegiance, the second who might be admirable but unworthy of total allegiance. Perhaps it is Jesus the Christ who was focused on a higher power and even died before his movement conquered an empire over against Alexander the Great who focused on earthly gain and conquered his empire and then died. Who was the winner and who the loser?  Perhaps it is the great-souled-one like Ghandi or Martin Luther King in distinction from a weak or no-souled one like King Richard or Andrew Jackson. I see it as the difference between a transcending existence and a fixed, mundane existence.

In a state of relative detachment and with clearer standards, the retreatant reviews and revises his choice of vocation. But how do I know if my choice is correct? Here Ignatius offers an exercise in the discernment of spirits. How do I know if I am being prompted by my angel or my demon? Or, in Star Wars language, the good side or the dark side of the Force?

Ignatius first suggests the rules of rational judgment. List the pros and cons and see what comes out on top. But, more important, he urges the retreatant to select what feels right. When I am in a calm mind, if I imagine myself in a certain profession or taking a certain course of action, do I feel happy or sad, in consolation or in desolation. This exercise tries to catch and probe the fundamental consciousness of my body acting in the world. This goes beyond and perhaps against corporeal pleasure, dominant cultural values, and the esteem of others.

Can I ever be sure? No. But this is why I must continue to discern, to question, to examine my consciousness in every situation and moment, every here and now, every present. No guarantees except the openness to change itself. In medieval Christian language, this is "discerning and following the Will of God." But here is a God that is present within, not just in the worldly bureaucracy of the Church or Nation.

One might argue that Ignatius and his early followers were not merely strong defenders of the (Reformed) Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy, but were also among the first Protestants, as was Jesus the Zealot in relation to Palestinian Judaism in his time and place.

(Later--what is the examination of moral consciousness, e.g. conscience? how does this connect to the contemporary exercise in mindfulness?)

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