As I See It

by Fr. Howard Gray, SJ

Ignatius's Method for Letting God Shine through Life's Realities

There are two key questions in any spirituality: Who is your God? How do you come to your God? Within the Catholic tradition, God is the Father proclaimed by and revealed within the sonship of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

But God is also the Spirit, the humbly accommodating and yet surprisingly inventive God of Pentecost fire and wind and inspiration.

Consequently, discipleship, the free decision to follow Christ's teaching and example, is the radical choice of every Christian. Called within and because of baptism, women and men are also empowered to find God through their own relationship to God. In other words, we share a baptismal vocation but fulfill it in our own ways.

Howard Gray, SJ

Fr. Howard Gray's career as a Jesuit, which began in 1948, has taken him to Chicago, where he taught at St. Ignatius College Prep; to Detroit, where he worked at the province office and the novitiate in nearby Berkley; and to Cambridge, Mass., where he was superior of the Jesuit community at Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He served as Detroit Province provincial from 1983 to 1989 and directed the tertianship program at the University of Detroit Mercy after that. He is currently in Chestnut Hill, Mass., directing Boston College's Center for Ignatian Spirituality.

Ignatius lived and taught others to live within this Christian relationship to God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Within that general relationship of Christian call, Ignatius articulated a strategy to find God, a way to walk toward God not only in explicitly religious moments like formal prayer or the reception of the Eucharist but also in the buzzing, demanding reality of everyday life. For Ignatius, God was simply to be found in all things and in all places.

In Ignatius's Autobiography we possess an important testimony about how God worked, first within Ignatius's conversion from a life of self-absorption and then within his reorientation into a man of the Gospel intent on helping other men and women to find God in all things. The Autobiography is an older man's story dictated to a younger Jesuit chronicler during a series of interviews. While episodic in form, the Autobiography is an engaging narrative of spiritual development. What is particularly striking throughout is the way God led Ignatius through misguided, severe penance to a balanced sense of seeing creation as a gift to be used to find God. As he reviewed this time of learning by trial and error, Ignatius described the process in these words: God was dealing with him the same way a schoolmaster deals with a child while instructing him.

In a series of mystical illuminations Ignatius came to understand that within his experience there could be moments in which the overwhelming presence of goodness, peace, and clarity were so secure that only God could be their author.

At other moments, less intensely mystical, God's presence and direction were more elusive. Only over time, by noting patterns of attraction and repulsion as he reflected on his life, could Ignatius discern what God was saying to him.

At still other moments God spoke to Ignatius through the experiences of other people and their narratives of struggle and peace, sinfulness and forgiveness, courage and fear. In brief, Ignatius learned to find God within human experiences and within the kinds of affections that these triggered within his own heart and imagination.

The instances of intense spiritual insight gave him the conviction that God deals directly with people; these are privileged times. There were other times when God dwelt so deeply within an event or a person that it took time to understand where God moved and what God intended. There were still other times when these human experiences were mixed; Ignatius's spirit and consciousness had to deal with conflicting emotions.

In these moments Ignatius had to sift through the events to determine where the different feelings and emotions had originated, how they had affected him, and where they led. In this discernment of movements, Ignatius learned that his interior life could sometimes be a battleground of forces. Some of these movements led to death, fear, disbelief, and estrangement, while others led to life, courage, confidence in God, union, and peace.

For Ignatius there was also a growing appreciation of how God revealed not only values and life directions but also God's very self within the center of these human experiences. Throughout these experiences, the commanding self-revelation of God to Ignatius was of unfailing goodness and immanent self-donation. Consequently, Jesus Christ became the climactic instance of God's goodness, the supreme gift given in order to help people know God within the human. The Spirit became the accompanying God, laboring within every human event to bring creation to its fullness and illuminating within the concrete details of a person's life the way that Christ could be followed.

What emerges from a careful reading of the Autobiography, then, is a structure of finding God within human realities through the direction that these realities take. For example, Ignatius began to see that God called him to help people, to be generous and godly in trying to make the Gospel present to the minds and hearts of others.

But if Ignatius was to do this, then he had to become approachable, trustworthy, and competent. This in turn meant that he had to modify his asceticism and his lifestyle, dress like everyone else, and avoid excesses in fasting and penance. If people were to believe that he wanted only their good, then Ignatius determined to avoid any sign of avarice or self-seeking. Consequently, he refused to accept any money for the good he did, and he begged for alms and backed off any self-promotion that might have made his efforts to help people suspect.

Finally, he realized that in his times and culture the kind of pastoral work he felt drawn to -- the preaching of the Word and the spiritual care of men and women -- demanded the priesthood. So he returned to school and started all over again, learning the rudiments of Latin and grammar that would eventually take him to the University of Paris and a master's degree in theology.

In the Spiritual Exercises, and later in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius gave a pastoral and social codex to his highly personal experiences. He structured a way in which others might find God within their life experiences and communities. In what I believe to be the best, most succinct description of how to live a life attuned to God's presence, Ignatius counseled his young novices to do the following.

First, bring focus to your life by taking the time to listen to others and to see what lies before you. Bring yourself to a self-possession before reality. Then give your attention (maybe attentiveness is a better word) to what is really there. For example, let that person or that poem or that social injustice or that scientific experiment become as genuinely itself as it can be. Then reverence what you see before you. Reverence is giving acceptance to, cherishing the differences of, holding in awe the uniqueness of another reality. So, before you judge or assess or respond, give yourself time to esteem and accept what is there in the other. And if you learn to do this, Ignatius urged, then you will gradually discover devotion, the singularly moving way in which God works in that situation, revealing goodness and fragility, beauty and truth, pain and anguish, wisdom and ingenuity.

Attention, reverence, and devotion establish the process for finding God in all things. Sometimes this process is easy. For example, when I talk with my grandnephews and grandniece, I find it a joy to pay attention, to give myself to what they want to share with me. I love the youth and sense of self-discovery that is part of their learning. I reverence them as they struggle to express their ideas and feelings, as they come into their own personalities and character. And when I take the time to do this, I find the joy and peace and excitement of God's love and care for them too. It is not some additional piety I have imposed on the moment but something within the experience itself, embedded in their language and images and emotions. It is finding God in them, not adding God onto them.

There are other encounters in which I have to struggle to find God. For example, at school meetings, I find it hard to trust someone who does not listen to others and seeks to manipulate the group. Being attentive and reverent and looking for devotion is hard for me in cases like these. But I have found that when I check myself, when I look beyond the aggression and try to see something of the masked fear and deeper hurts that may well be part of that person's history, then I can listen and try to include him or her in my attention, reverence, and devotion. I do not pretend that this finding of God in all things is easy; it isn't. But I know that God has no enemies and neither should I. That makes the effort worthwhile.

The other contributors to this issue of Company offer their unique purchase on how each has lived the Ignatian wisdom of finding God in all things. What I have sketched here is simply how it began for Ignatius and how he shared a method for letting God shine through life's realities.

I would add a caution. To find God is not simply to find a God who brings me peace and joy and contentment. It is also to be free enough to find a God who might challenge my comfort and unmask my prejudices.

Finding God in all things requires us to pause a bit to give our lives some focus, some frame of reference. That is probably the reason Ignatius emphasized taking time to look back on a day, to see where you were led, what moved you, what were your surprises. It need not be long; God is smart and knows what has happened to us. All we are doing is giving God a chance to have a word, too.


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