Posts filed under 'Spirituality'

Teaching Spirituality?

Ignatius, looking up

Ignatius, looking up

I am sitting here fruitlessly trying to write something for The Way. The October issue is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Heythrop College by focusing on the teaching of spirituality. That’s something I have spent a lot of time doing and thinking about but I am struggling to find a way in right now — something specific rather than rambling. So in the good spirit of procrastination (or maybe I am seeking inspiration) I’ve been looking over some of the things I have written for The Way before. The first thing I wrote, ten years ago, is in some sense foundational for me: Looking at God Looking at You. In a way, all I believe about teaching spirituality is built on the insight of Ignatius that all spiritual exercises are best begun with a moment asking how God is actually looking at me, then and there — and the confidence that an answer is to be expected — which says something about God and something about human being.

I suppose I believe that the teaching of spirituality is an experiential affair and that God is the best teacher. One phrase became a sort of mantra for me during my theology studies in Berkeley: how would we do this if we believed God were real? By ‘this’ I mean do theology, do spiritual direction, give the Exercises, teach spirituality, be a Jesuit — anything. And by ‘real’ I mean here, present, available for real interaction, really real.. More than that — initiating, acting, relating, desiring, responding — pick your verb.

There’s a kind of teaching of spirituality that deliberately takes a distanced stance — in theory you could study spirituality in this way as an atheist — and I can see its necessity. But I suppose what interests me is studying spirituality from the inside and teaching from that place. There’s a nest of activities that sort of stack together and influence one another. There’s spiritual accompaniment in all its range from giving the full Exercises to chatting at the bus stop with the central focus on exploring that question ‘how is God here, now, with me?’. That focus imposes a congruence between way one ‘learns’ and the way another ‘teaches’ — because both are listening and looking for the signs of God getting in there first. Half the things I have written for The Way have explored that focus and its relationship to the text and practise of the Spiritual Exercises.

Then there’s another level to the stack: how would we teach spiritual accompaniment if we believed God were real? Again the focus invites a congruence or exposes its lack. We start with inviting trainees to be always looking for God looking at them — and not just notionally but in spiritual exercises, then in demonstrations of spiritual accompaniment, and in observed practice. There is of course some theorising too, some looking at texts, some model-guided thinking — but the core skill we ‘teach’ is that of recognising God looking back when you gaze at God — and sniffing that out when the same thing is going on in others. In our way of seeing things that is the core Ignatian skill too — discernment of spirits.

Discernment of spirits — and getting better at it — also forms the focus of supervision as we see it. There are approaches to supervision that are agnostic about the kind of practice being supervised — therapy, direction, ministry, pastoral care, etc. But I believe in congruence — supervision of spiritual accompaniment best applies the focus of spiritual accompaniment to the practice itself. God doesn’t disappear when we move to a meta-level. We use discernment to bring discernment to the focus and see how God is acting in our accompaniment. And when we teach supervision too, the same congruence imposes itself.

Now, of course, we do not live in a society or culture particularly prone to respecting the possibility or worth of that central question. Indeed that initial paper for The Way was mainly spent exploring four ways that modernity leads us to ‘mind-blindness’ about God and how Ignatius, in this practice, resists each. Ultimately, it is experience that convinces. The spiritual director’s part (or the supervisor’s or the trainer’s) is to make some space — experiential and maybe theoretical — so that they can discover the real God looking back when they look God-ward. In this sense discernment is epistemologically basic, being its own way of ‘knowing’.

Why do I trust this focus myself? For three reasons (like the Spanish Inquisition the number keeps rising!). First, because I had a spiritual director who kept asking me the question and expecting me to be able to answer. At first I thought she was nuts but then surprised myself by being able to grope towards an answer, which she was able to teach me to trust and follow. Secondly by then using my theology studies to understand how what I could experience was possible! Thirdly by trying to articulate both those experiences to a groups of practitioners and trainers and finding it effective and teachable.

I guess I have found something to say, however cursorily. I wonder.

Add comment July 15th, 2014


The following talk was given to a weekend retreat group. I begin by referring to a session the previous evening where I’d shown a couple of clips from the film American Beauty in which the central character, at the point of death, reflects on his life and finds himself moved by gratitude and beauty. I asked the group to do their own reflection:

  • What would you like to flash before your eyes in that last second, that ocean of time?
  • What are you grateful for–really, spontaneously grateful for?
  • Where is the beauty in your life and where is it leading you?

Called to Discipleship

I deliberately didn’t pretend last night that I knew what was meant by ‘Called to Discipleship’—it could mean all sorts of things—in general or specifically for this group or individually for me or for any one of you. I deliberately started of our working with the topic last night from what seems to me a particularly Ignatian angle. You start with experience, with life, with memory, with imagination and you let God show Godself there—in beauty, in gifts given, in attraction felt, in desires that grow and deepen.

In a section of the Spiritual Exercises that deals with making discipleship decisions one of the questions St. Ignatius asks—or one of the imaginative exercises he presents—is the one from last night: he says tersely, ‘consider, if you were at the point of death, what procedure and guide you will at that time wish you had used in this present decision’.

You’ll see I’ve already taken a position on our title: being called to discipleship is—at least in part—about making decisions. But before I go any further I want to get your sense of what might fit under our theme this weekend, both in general and for this group specifically.

So for a moment think or re-think about that:

  • What does discipleship mean?
  • What would it mean to be a disciple today?
  • What about the calling part—what is it to be called?
  • And what do these two terms leave out that also feels important?

We did some exchange of experiences and ideas at this point…

I hope we’ll get into most of your concerns and ideas in one way or another this weekend… For now I want to keep going with looking at how discipleship is handled in the Spiritual Exercises. I’ve already spoken about one of Ignatius’ major orientations: discipleship is about making a decision—or about continually making decisions. But what kind of decisions and how are we supposed to make them?

If we took his death-bed perspective—or did another thing he suggests and imagine ourselves before God on Judgement Day—if we took that vantage point on our decisions it could feel like we have a tough and threatening God looking over our shoulder ready to ruin us if we get it all wrong. But that isn’t how Ignatius wants us to go about it. The very first time he raises that question of choice he does so in the context of gratitude and of grace. What are you grateful for in your life? How do you feel you have been gifted—even among the pains and problems of life—how do you feel the thread of grace running though your days? It’s in that context—the context of redemption—that Ignatius asks us what kind of response we want to make: what will I do for Christ who has saved me and continues to save me?

Discipleship only makes sense out of an encounter with grace and an experience of real and spontaneous gratitude. And discipleship as a response of gratitude only makes sense if it is freely entered into.

So alongside decision we have to add gratitude and grace. Ignatius’ next word is probably attraction…
There’s an imaginative exercise he entitles the Call of the King—it all gets a bit Lord of the Rings here—the call of the king. He asks you to imagine a king—bring it forward 500 years and make it any kind of person who has a vision and a dream—imagine the kind of person who could inspire you to respond generously, even heroically. Imagine what kind of vision or dream would be worthy of you. What kind of project could catch your imagination? And more—what kind of person could catch your imagination and get you to reshape your life so you can help them do what they are burning to do? Ignatius wants you to do this imaginatively and not just abstractly: what would he or she look like, their manner, their clothing, their look? What would their friends be like? What, in fact, could so attract you about someone that you’d change your life for them?

Got any ideas? … Ignatius does a ‘bait and switch’ at this point and says ‘well how much more worthy and attractive is Jesus and his living out of God’s vision and dream’. Discipleship is about letting ourselves be attracted, letting ourselves desire and need to be disciples—not just in some abstract sense but disciples of this man with his crazy dream for this personal corner of the world. Attraction and desire awake in us a need, a need to be alongside this man—a desire and a need that go beyond the practical. Not just sharing the same project, or putting my money in the same pot, or casting my vote as he would vote, but taking up the same lifestyle: doing what he does, eating what he eats, sharing his hardships, enjoying his victories, mourning his setbacks. ‘What would it take to make you a hero?’ is the discipleship question. Who would it take?

Ignatius roots discipleship in relationship—and relationship that is mutual. Most people praying this exercise only experience an inkling of attraction in a dark and tangled mass of ifs and buts and doubtful maybes but insofar as they feel any desire they discover their vulnerability. I might desire to be with this man but he might not desire to have me with him. We have to be chosen, called. There’s an agonising echo of that schoolyard moment of picking teams— pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me. We need the call. Not just abstractly—we need to feel our desire met and kindled. Discipleship is only grown in the dance of mutual desire. God and I desiring together.

OK the list is growing: decision, gratitude, grace, attraction, desire, relationship and call.

Ignatius’ next move is to switch viewpoint—or viewpoints—he goes all split screen. He asks us to imagine three scenes. First of all imagine the Trinity in heaven having a conversation… Give it a try … What are they talking about? You have to follow their gaze to find out. They are looking at the face of this round world. So imagine scene two: the world. What do the Trinity see? They see people, they see people in all their diversity, their sorrows and joys. They see us loving and laughing; they see us hurting and hating. They see violence and they see tenderness; care and callousness. They see discrimination and oppression and misery. They see all we see when we open the newspaper or turn on the TV: AIDS and Iraq and climate change and polonium 210. What do you imagine they see, they hear, they feel? What moves the Trinity when they see this planet’s condition?

Back to scene 1. The Trinity is moved to come to our aid. ‘Let us work redemption’, is what Ignatius puts into God’s metaphorical mouth. Which brings us to scene 3: Mary in Nazareth and the mutual risky endeavour entered into by one person and their God. That’s discipleship for Ignatius—both what transpires between Mary and God—the ‘let it be to me as you say’—the asking and the answering—but also what happens ‘before’. The Trinity sees need and chooses to respond. Discipleship always arises from the choice to answer concrete need. Discipleship is always a response to reality, the way something will punch us in the guts with its injustice, its wrongness, its need that things be different. The gospels are always saying Jesus ‘took pity’ on someone or other. It’s a bad translation of a Greek word that also gets rendered as ‘felt anger’, ‘had compassion, etc. But it’s a word to do with spleen. It means feeling that churning in your guts at the wrongness of things that won’t let you rest until you do something even if it’s only weep or rage. The first disciple in the Spiritual Exercises is God, the Trinity. Or from another angle it is Jesus.

Jesus offers an easier way to study the discipleship of God—and to learn our own discipleship. Ignatius urges the person praying to ask, day after day, for a particular gift: to know Jesus better. To know him with the kind of knowledge that is very like falling in love. To know him better, to love him more, and out of all that to follow him. To know, to love, to follow. There’s discipleship.

How’s our list looking? Decision, gratitude, grace, attraction, desire, and call. But also: need and spleen. And, finally, the following, what used to be called the imitation of Christ. This imitation is more than mechanical reproduction, or following a set of maxims, or espousing certain values. It’s not quite ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ But it is about knowing Jesus. It is about knowing Jesus in a way that transforms us—that simultaneously makes us more like Jesus and more like ourselves. That’s discipleship: falling in love with God, with Jesus, so that we can respond to the planet’s need the way he did and does and would do through us.

Pedro Arrupe, the General Superior of the Jesuits before the present one, used to speak about us having a planet to heal. Grand, that! But it’s true. He had another favourite topic too: falling in love and the difference it makes to our lives. Both are about the call to discipleship.

7 comments December 2nd, 2006

Eros, Attraction, Beauty, Desire

The “October” issue of The Way has just been published including my article on the Spiritual Exercises, “Id Quod Volo: The Erotic Grace of the Second Week”. I wrote briefly about the core idea a little while ago and if you are interested you can access the full version free, gratis, and for nothing at The Way online.

3 comments November 29th, 2006

‘Firefly’ and Finding God’s Will

I used the following reflection on story and discernment a few weeks ago with a group trying to reflect on their own life and ministry together and discern a possible way forward. I’m posting a slightly edited version here…

A little while ago I was given the DVDs of a science fiction show I’d wanted to see but missed called ‘Firefly’ — think Cowboys and Indians in spaceships — and it’s a lot of fun, and very well written, with 8 or 9 well-drawn characters that over the short series grow and take shape and show their stories and change each other in all sorts of ways and hint at secrets and stories yet to be told. Because it was a series that was cancelled part way through. A story with no ending. With loose ends. A dozen stories still waiting to be told. And my intense curiosity about each character and what they still had left to tell, and about the group, the whole, and their collective story which seemed to be going … somewhere, having some significance. I hate not knowing what happens to Inara. I really want to know who Shepherd Book really is and where Simon and his sister are headed. And I never will. Unless I make it up myself. And that doesn’t really work. Because half the pleasure is not in making up, but in appreciating the reality of the characters and the sense that behind them there is an author with a hope.

Continue Reading 8 comments June 21st, 2006

Spiritual Direction: Finding a Way

Just published in the January 2006 edition of The Way is an article of mine “Receiving and Rejecting: On Finding a Way in Spiritual Direction”. Thanks to the publisher it is available for download at no charge. Have a look if you are interested.

It is a reflection on how we, as spiritual directors, navigate: what we look for, what we pay attention to, what we receive and what we reject. And on what lies at the heart of the art of spiritual direction.

I was sitting with my spiritual director a while back, bemoaning the recent drabness of my spiritual landscape, when she asked a question that split me in two: ‘If God were here now, what would you say?’

Two spontaneous responses rose to the surface more or less together. One was ‘Pull your socks up!’–a slightly irritated demand to God to tidy up my life and fix some of the health problems that have been besetting me. The second was ‘Hey, buddy!’ Now, I’ve called God many things in my life, including friend and lover, but this was the first time I’d used buddy, and I felt rather embarrassed by it.

I narrate this because it illustrates a question that is both practical and theological: to which of two spontaneous movements should a spiritual director give more attention? Which thread should they follow?

The issue often surfaces for directors once they have mastered the art of attentive listening. So much arises in a spiritual direction session and offers itself for exploration. The knack that we all struggle to acquire is that of winnowing the wheat from the chaff. How do we, during a session, encourage and develop those strands of a directee’s experience that are leading somewhere good, and how do we let go of those that aren’t? In this case, which way to go: socks or buddy? Do we have a rule of thumb? And do we have a rationale for our instruction and practice?

Download as a PDF file.

2 comments December 9th, 2005

Looking at God Looking at You: Ignatius’ Third Addition

I’ve just been wrapping up an article for the British Jesuit’s spirituality journal The Way. The paper is about spiritual direction and the choices a director makes to follow one thread and set aside others. It should appear in January 2006.

Some time back (October 2004) I published another paper in The Way, this time on a relatively neglected suggestion found in The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. The suggestion in question is this:

A step or two in front of the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the length of an Our Father, raising my mind above and considering how God our Lord is looking at me, etc., and make an act of reverence or humility.

I try to show that buried in this rather dry injunction is a rich spirituality of personal relationship with God. You can download a PDF version or read on…

Continue Reading 2 comments November 6th, 2005


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