Number one on my list of Tough Guys for Jesus: St. Ignatius of Loyola (c. 1491-1556). His leg was smashed by a cannon ball when he was a soldier. He endured surgery to set the bones — long before the day of anesthetics. Here’s where the tough guy points rack up: The bone didn’t set right so he had them break it and operate again.
“During the operation, as in all he suffered before and after, he uttered no word and gave no sign of suffering save that of tightly clenching his fists.”
Today is St. Ignatius’ Feast Day, and the breviary’s readings reminded me of one of his insights that I most admire. As well as being a tough guy, he was the founder of the Society of Jesus — more commonly known as the Jesuit order. And more important than that, or at the core of that, he was a great spiritual director.
When he was recovering from those surgeries he had a bit of time on his hands. He couldn’t get hold of the novels he enjoyed, so he began to read about Christ and the saints. That set his mind to pondering the heroic acts done for Christ by folks like St. Francis and St. Dominic.
His imagination began to go back and forth:
- Sometimes he thought about his old worldly ambitions.
- Sometimes he envisioned a different kind of life for himself, doing what the saints did.
The great insight came when he prayerfully considered his inner reactions to those two imagined lives.
“When he thought of worldly things it gave him great pleasure, but afterward he found himself dry and sad. But when he thought of journeying to Jerusalem, and of living only on herbs, and practising austerities, he found pleasure not only while thinking of them, but also when he had ceased.”
God’s Spirit was working within him if he would only listen to how he reacted to what went on in his life.
- His old ambitions seemed to bring good feelings — but when he kept listening he found himself empty.
- His newly imagined life following Jesus (in a 16th century Catholic way) continued to give life long afterward.
This became the core of what he called “discernment of spirits” and was crucial to his work as a spiritual director.
He taught people to listen for two kinds of movements inside themselves:
- “Desolations” were the things that eroded their love for God, trust in God, and hope in God.
- “Consolations” were the things that increased their love for God, their faith and their hope.
God is here, wanting to guide us. Ignatius’ gift to us is a whole range of tools to better hear what God is saying.
Listening to your life every day, discerning the desolations and consolations is one such crucial tool. It is one key to what he called the “examination of conscience” or “examen.”
I hope you’ll give it a try. It is not a one-time thing. You need to keep it up for a week, a month, a season. Write down what you find each day. Listen for patterns in what draws you close to God and what corrodes your love and trust and hope. The Spirit is speaking to those who have ears to hear.
What helps you better hear what God is saying about your life?
You can read more about Ignatius and his approaches to prayer in my book, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity, 2012).
I’m going to give a free copy of the book to one of the next 25 email subscribers on my blog. Just click the link at the top right of the page!