A Faith That Does Justice engages The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola1 (Exercises) to discern how to live faith in action on behalf of God’s people. When appropriately adapted, they offer a way for all people of good will to do the same.
For Christians, the Exercises are a prayerful retreat experience of personal transformation through a series of contemplations and meditations on the life of Jesus of the gospel stories, and on several religious beliefs and dogmas. They intend to help us put aside all inordinate attachments in order to seek and find the will of God, and then, from the actual disposition of our lives, to participate in God’s ongoing plan for the creation and salvation of this world. It is from the latter commitment that our personal salvation is realized.
Stated even more practically, the contemplative and meditative prayer of the Exercises serve as a means to transform the one engaging them, from an intellectual ascent to faith to one that is also lived in active discipleship with Jesus and his mission on behalf of the unfinished work of the kingdom of God – a reign over creation where God’s love, compassion and justice are experienced by all.
Contemplations usually engage a gospel scene from Jesus’ life, beginning with his birth and early years, then his public ministry, Passion and death, and finally his resurrection appearances to his closest disciples. Ignatius asks us to experience each scene we contemplate multiple times, both as an observer and participant, being ever vigilant to any feelings that arise in our consciousness and noting whether they move us towards increasing identification with Jesus and a desire to walk with him in solidarity among the suffering people of this world. In truth, prayerful contemplation is an effective exercise that helps us come to know, love and then commit to the following of Jesus in our time.
Meditations usually engage a religious belief or dogma, including human sinfulness in the context of God’s infinite love, final judgment as a prelude to heaven or hell, and human freedom and the choice between following the way of Jesus or the way of this world. Ignatius asks us to use our intellect and reason in these meditations to understand the religious belief or dogma at hand before deciding whether to change a previously held stance, establish a new one, or in the case of a lifestyle choice to make an informed decision as to how we will live in the future.
The outcome of contemplative and meditative prayer is variable and often expressed as either a time of consolation, or its converse, desolation. The former leads us to deepening relationship with God, while the latter tends to stifle that relationship.
We usually experience consolation as a deepened awareness of God’s love for us. It is often recognized in feelings of interior peace, joy, a desire for the things of God, and, even union with God. Ultimately, it is a sign that the “good spirit” 2is encouraging us to proceed forward and deepen our commitment to the subject matter we are considering.
On the other hand, we usually experience desolation as a diminished awareness of God’s love for us. It is often recognized in feelings of self-interest, darkness of soul, disinterest in the things of God, and even isolation from God. Ultimately, it is a sign that the “bad spirit” is at work in us to undermine our efforts to seek deepening relationship with God. Our response to desolation should be to act against it and make no changes to any previous commitments we made prior to the time of desolation.
As each week of the Exercises unfolds, the prayerful exercises they contain ought to lead us to a desire to live, as Jesus did, beyond the “Temple” in humble service to all God’s people, and especially the most vulnerable among us. However, making a commitment to actually engage and then live by the Exercises is not for the faint-hearted. The Exercises challenge those who would embrace them to move beyond a faith grounded in dogma and liturgical practice to one that accepts the disdain of others for one’s standing in opposition to the status quo and for following Jesus into the midst of human suffering. Ironically, though, it is among the poor, oppressed and marginalized of this world that God’s presence in history and in daily life can be palpably felt, and the horizon of a future that will be lived in the fullness of God’s love forever can be glimpsed.