God meets us at the centre of our lives
It can be very easy for critics to portray religion as sad, and life-denying, and to see religious people as necessarily living small, stern and diminished lives. Sometimes even we ourselves can feel that in our following of Jesus we are turning away from much, or even all, that we find precious in the world. Some of the more “pious” portrayals of Ignatius seem to reinforce such a sense, showing us a grim and stern-faced man.
But the readings we have just heard point us to something different, something central to our Jesuit heritage: the insight that in following Jesus in poverty, chastity and obedience we develop the freedom to discover God’s world anew – precisely as God’s world – and to live the fullness of life.
I think Ignatius helps us experience this, deeper, truer insight in our lives, so that we know it to be true not just by others’ teaching, or even by others’ example, but with the conviction that comes from experiencing its truth in our own lives. God calls us to life in its fullness.
He meets us in that space where he wants to love us
Michael Holman puts it like this:
God meets us in the centre of our lives: he meets us in that space where he wants to love us. And such is that experience that we want to go out and do something in the world: we want to serve him in the world; we want to build the kingdom in the world.
We know the story of Ignatius – how after his injury at Pamplona he spent weeks as an invalid in Loyola, with nothing to read save some lives of the saints and accounts of the life of Jesus lent to him by his sister-in-law Magdalena. It wasn’t the reading he wanted – he would have preferred courtly romances and chivalric tales – but it was all there was. So he read, and day-dreamed about his reading, and day-dreamed about the tales he didn’t have to hand to read. What happened next he tells us in his own words, words that are foundational to Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality:
When he was thinking about the things of the world, he took much delight in them, but afterwards, when he was tired and put them aside, he found that he was dry and discontented. But when he thought of going to Jerusalem, barefoot and eating nothing but herbs and undergoing all the other rigours that he saw the saints had endured, not only was he consoled when he had these thoughts, but even after putting them aside he remained content and happy. He did not wonder, however, at this; nor did he stop to ponder the difference until one time his eyes were opened a little, and he began to marvel at the difference and to reflect upon it, realising from experience that some thoughts left him sad and others happy. Little by little he came to recognise the difference between the spirits that agitated him, one from the demon, the other from God.
God had met him in the centre of his life, speaking to him through what he thought were his deepest chivalric desires, through what he felt was most precious to him. Inigo began to see that he could recognise what truly were his deepest desires, what was most precious to him. He began to trust that he could know what came from God and drew him to God, and what led away from God. He knew, too, that he wanted to respond to this awareness of God’s loving and active presence in his life, although it took some time and some serious struggle for that response to find a mature shape. Out of his particular experience of awareness and struggle to understand, Ignatius fashioned a guidebook for others to reach their own awareness and struggle towards their own understanding.
Where the fulness of life is truly to be found
As Jesuits, you and I know that the Exercises help you, help me in finding where God is drawing you, is drawing me, in the midst of the world; that the Exercises help each of us recognise where the fullness of life is truly to be found; that the ministry of the Exercises enables us to help others to recognise the God who is lovingly and particularly at work in their particular lives. Life lived in the tradition of Ignatius is neither shut away nor diminished, but life lived to the full in a world which is always and everywhere God’s world.
So when we hear in the first reading that “the command of God is not up in the sky, or across the sea, but very near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts”, when we hear in the letter to the Ephesians that “the Father has blessed us in Christ”, we are hearing words that describe our own experience, and the experience of those we accompany in ministry. And when we hear in the Gospel the response of Jesus to the two disciples, “Come, and you will see”, we remember that the central experience of the Exercises is the experience of being with Jesus, and of staying with him as he stays with us.
As Jesuits we know that the Exercises are not a set of abstract ideas, nor a moral code, but a way of growing in friendship with Jesus, grounded in the experience of Ignatius, the experience both of the transforming friendship of Jesus, and of the guiding presence of the Spirit of Jesus.
The reality of the human heart
At the heart of the Exercises is an insight, an audacious belief about the reality of the human heart: that a person who is fundamentally turned towards God can learn to listen to the deepest stirrings of their heart, with utter confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work there. A modern English Jesuit, Michael Ivens, who was deeply influential in my life and who is buried at St Beuno’s, put it like this:
In the last analysis, consolation ‘consoles’ because whatever its form, whether unambiguous or implicit and discreet, it is a felt experience of God’s love building up the Christ-life in us. And what characterises every form of spiritual desolation is a felt dissonance which is the echo in consciousness of an influence tending of its nature to undermine the Christ-life, and hence in the case of a person who remains fundamentally Christ-oriented to contradict their most deep-seated inclinations.
Without being blind either to the evil or to the stupidity and self-deception of which we are capable, Ignatius had a profoundly optimistic view of human nature, as constantly being worked on, constantly being worked in, by the Holy Spirit. He trusted in the power of the Spirit so to touch people’s hearts with an awareness of the love that God has for each of us that they – that we - would want to do everything possible to respond to that love. We want to build the kingdom, and the Spirit will show us the steps we can take to do that in the setting of our particular lives.
How can we not smile?
God meets us at the centre of our lives, and draws us to the fullness of life, life lived at the heart of God’s world.
Jesus is there with us – here with us – as our brother and our friend, and delights in us (as any friend delights in us) as we grow in love and service.
The Spirit works within us – God’s love and life transforming each of us into who we really are.
The confidence that Ignatius had, we are offered, too. And it will show in our lives in great ways and in those that are apparently small. My own favourite description of Ignatius tells me, I think, of how his love of Jesus and his confidence that he was held in God’s love, was visible simply in his face. A man who knew him – not a Jesuit – spoke of him after his death as “that españolito pequeño - that tiny little Spaniard with a bit of a limp and sparkling eyes”. Or as another version puts it: “that small Spaniard with a limp, who smiled a lot.”
At the centre of our lives we are touched by God’s loving delight. How can we not want to share that experience with others? How can we not smile?
A homily given at the Novitiate in Manresa House on the Feast of St Ignatius by Brendan Callaghan SJ
Image credit: Stained glass from the church of St Ignatius of Loyola by Lawrence Lew OP