Ignatian Quietude

quiet plants

Ignatian spirituality is very action-oriented. We name desires. We engage our senses in prayer. We respond to the Call of the King. We converse with Jesus. We discern. In contrast, as I’ve studied the Eastern religions and taught them to high school students, I’ve noticed an important element that’s often too hidden within the Christian spiritual tradition: inaction.

Taoism embodies a virtue called wu-wei, which means “actionless activity.” Its paradoxical nature says that we can accomplish our tasks better when we avoid the tendency to act. To put it simply, it tells us to go about our daily tasks but not to obsess about doing them. My tendency, for example, is to spend more time obsessing about my to-do list and all the things that I have to get done than actually doing those things. A Christian spirituality like that of the Benedictines does not obsess about work but instead naturally incorporates work into the daily rhythm, simply going about it.

Another translation of wu-wei is “creative quietude.” In between the Ignatian contemplations and rules for discernment is perhaps where most of their fruit takes place: in the quietude where God appears most creative. In our colloquy with Christ we must quiet ourselves and listen. As we grapple with our interior desires and emotions we must pause and let them settle. At some point we must stop focusing on doing and let God do the doing! Angelus Silesius, a Catholic mystic from the 17th century, said “the more we reach for [God], the more [God] will escape.” Sometimes our over-acting can make us feel further from God. Sometimes we obsess about different prayer methods or “perfecting” our prayer, and we end up frustrating ourselves more. Can’t we just…pray?

I once asked someone how he spent his time on a silent retreat, a place where many try to focus on what they are going to “get done.” “I had no plans. I might listen to music or sit there and pray,” he said. “And if thoughts came to mind I’d just ponder them. And if I fell asleep then I fell asleep.” He was not obsessing over action, but instead allowed God to be creative in his quietude.

As an Ignatian practitioner I am always trying to squeeze more and more out of my relationship with God, obsessing about how to pray, and trying to find God in all things all the time. While we should try to find God in all things, perhaps it’s time for me to practice a bit of wu-wei and discover how much growth can happen in the quiet, when I put aside my plans and let God do the acting.

About Andy Otto 54 Articles

Andy Otto credits his relationships for a strong and ever-growing faith in God. After spending nearly three years as a Jesuit, he came to a deep appreciation for the practical application of Ignatian spirituality. He currently lives with his wife in California, where he works as a high school theology teacher. He is the author of God Moments and holds a master’s degree in theology and ministry from Boston College.

10 Comments on Ignatian Quietude

  1. To me, his methodology is exactly what I practice – I do come away refreshed and, after all, following the advice of Jesus himself can’t be all that bad (Mk 6:31).

  2. Andy, Is not prayer a two way conversation with God. Is not part of that prayer process listening? Since God knows our inner most thoughts and feelings do we need to tell Him all over again? I agree with you we need to listen more and say less. I know it is not easy or what we are used to doing; we are always keener to fill the silences with words. Let us just listen and learn.

  3. Andy I am new to Ignatian Spirituality coming from a Baptist background. Your posts are life changing in my relationship with Christ. I am learning to cease striving and Ignatian spirituality is teaching me how to live differently. This post was especially timely as it showed me there is a flow in God and all I need to do is join Him. God will do the rest.

  4. Since I can barely walk in my own home without assistance, I am pleased to see that there are folks who can walk in the footsteps of the saints. I wish I could be there, walking, meditating, seeking the Lord. Since I am not and will never in this lifetime be able to do that, I can move from my kitchen to the family room with the same intentions. Walk while you can! Enjoy the movements of the body. But for those of us who cannot ambulate, the Lord has the same blessings as you seek Him. Be not discouraged!

  5. This was a great reminder for me to find quiet before action. I’m so quick to respond sometimes – to be in action and then I’m leading the way instead of letting God go first. In my daily actions I need to remind myself that I let God go first and anything that happens after “God is there already”. Even in the daily frustrations of life.

  6. Prayer is a two way conversation and I know tha God knows what I am feeling but I still think He wants to hear it from me. He is my best friend and that is what best friends do but I also give the time to listen. I will be attending an eight day Ignatian retreat in Sept. and I have no plans but to led God lead me.

  7. It was good to read this. I am Ignatian and have been for years. I now practise Centering Prayer and find it expresses the spirit of the Suscipe, in that I am leaving God to do what God wants in me, without my having any preconceived ideas.

  8. A Hindu meditation teacher was asked a question from an individual from a predominately Judaic/Christian group if prayer had any value. His reply, if I remember correctly, was something like…”When you pray you talk to God, when you meditate you listen to God.”

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