Grace: To have a deep desire to know the will of God for my life and the freedom to be able to do it.
Text for prayer: Ps 139
Reflection: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a great treasure for the Church, and those seeking to walk more closely with God have drawn upon their riches for five centuries now. Through the course of St. Ignatius’ conversion, he kept notes about how it was that the Lord was leading him closer to Himself. Over the years, he steadily gave shape to these notes and created a kind of program of prayer for others to follow which would open them up to the grace of conversion and a greater ability to discern the will of God for their lives, as well as the interior freedom required to then respond to that Divine Will in greater generosity.
The Exercises, as the Saint writes himself, are about “disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will” (Annotation 1). In other words, the Exercises are about detaching ourselves from all that might hold us back from knowing and seeking God’s Will in our own lives and then helping us to learn how to make better choices that will lead us to God and genuine happiness.This overcoming of disordered attachments is a key component of the Exercises. In the course of this retreat then, we come to know the mercy and love of God only by first encountering the nature of our own obstacles that stand in the way of that relationship, whether they be our own sinfulness or attachments to old wounds and forms of slavery in our own life.
In the course of this encounter, it is also possible to come to greater clarity about a major decision we might have to make about our “state of life”. The Exercises have been a great gift for the Church in this regard, also, in terms of being able to learn how to “discern” the will of God for our own lives, that is, how we might best make a gift back to the Lord of our own life in response to all of his generosity to us.
One might be intimidated by the thought of performing spiritual exercises—that is contemplative prayer—as St. Ignatius proposes. The use of the term exercises may be off-putting to the person unfamiliar with contemplative prayer. But we must remember to trust in the work of God, that can at times appear to be rather slow, and that God is always ready to meet us where we are, provided we first acknowledge where it is that God needs to meet us. Sometimes getting to this starting point, asking the challenging questions about where we are with respect to our relationship with God, can take a great deal of courage. We don’t always want to be generous with our time or feel that it might be too difficult to simply allow ourselves to enter into God’s presence with trust. But the one who immerses himself in the Exercises, Ignatius writes, “will come to feel and understand what is best in this life so that he can benefit himself and to gather fruit to help and benefit many others” (Letter to Dr. E. de Miona, November 16, 1536).
To begin to pray according to the method of the exercises, one should prepare a quiet spot, free from any distractions. Preparation here involves more than just finding a chair or arranging a seat cushion, but actually gazing upon the spot as a place where one might encounter the living God by sitting, kneeling, standing, or lying down. Then, one should place himself in this spot, ask for the grace that one is seeking, and then bring to mind the various points for prayer, which might take the form of a passage from scripture followed by some questions for consideration. The prayer period is comprised of the careful consideration of these points. There is no set time limit as it may vary from person to person, depending on how God wishes to move one during prayer and how the person wishes to respond. Of course, one wants to avoid praying too much or too little, and during the course of the exercises, one is able to get a better sense when is the right moment to continue with or walk away from prayer.
Before immersing oneself in the Exercises and the various contemplations contained therein, however, it is often best then to begin by first evaluating one’s relationship with God. The start of Lent is a good time to begin to ask challenging questions and the following questions can serve as a guide.
Questions: What is currently blocking me from greater love for God? What blocks me from receiving God’s love for me? What do I most deeply desire in my life at this point? What does the Lord desire to give me at this time? How much time do I devote to God on a daily basis? How do I spend this time? Am I easily distracted? If so, by what? Am I willing to give a little more time to God or is something standing in the way? Why do I want to spend this time with God?