With rapt attention, I watched the rescue of the boys’ soccer team in Thailand. The boys were stranded by rising waters in a cave. People from all over the world came together in treacherous conditions to pull the boys back from the brink of death into the light of day. When all of the boys finally emerged safely, it seemed the whole world breathed a sigh of relief. Joyful prayers of gratitude arose from around the world.
I can’t help but see the parallels to St. Ignatius’s spiritual journey. Early in his journey, Ignatius found himself “trapped” in a cave at Manresa by a constant and torturous barrage of memories of his sins. He undertook an extreme regimen of penance in which he tried to atone for, as Fr. Timothy Gallagher puts it, “probably breaking all of the Ten Commandments by the age of thirty.” Despite the fact that Ignatius had already confessed all of his sins, he still conceived of himself as a wretched sinner hardly worth saving.
While Ignatius was beating himself up, God was laboring at pulling him back into the light of day. When Ignatius finally did emerge from the cave, he stared into the water from the banks of the Cardoner River and had a mystical experience that would forever change his life:
While seated there, the eyes of his soul were opened. He did not have any special vision, but his mind was enlightened on many subjects, spiritual and intellectual. So clear was this knowledge that from that day everything appeared to him in a new light. Such was the abundance of this light in his mind that all the divine helps received, and all the knowledge acquired up to his sixty-second year, were not equal to it. From that day he seemed to be quite another man, and possessed of a new intellect. (Autobiography of St. Ignatius)
In that moment of divine enlightenment, Ignatius understood just how precious he was to God. After that experience, the obsessive thoughts of sinfulness that had plagued him in the cave never returned. They were replaced by an overwhelming gratitude for God’s love. Thereafter, Ignatius lived to tell of God’s love for every person and of the gifts that God is continually bestowing upon us. He saw God everywhere—not just in that moment by the river, but in the people, places, and things he encountered throughout each ordinary day, and it all drew him into greater praise of God.
In the Ignatian sense, then, gratitude is a response to encounter with the Divine. Ignatius tried to facilitate this encounter for others through the Examen and the Spiritual Exercises. In the first step of the Examen, he asks us to imagine God’s love for us. In the second step, he invites us to review our day and recognize all of the times when we encountered God and express our gratitude for them. We might see God in an affirming interaction with another, a beautiful piece of music, or in nature. God, Ignatius taught, works in countless and concrete ways in our lives every day.
Ignatius’s gratitude toward God for his generosity led him to respond, in turn, with radical generosity. All that he had, his entire person, he returned to God as an offering in his Suscipe:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.
This type of response can only come from a profound trust in a God who loves us more than we can imagine, who would move heaven and earth to bring us out of darkness and into the light.
And so, in the spirit of St. Ignatius, we pray:
open my heart
to understand how precious I am to you,
how loved I am by you.
Open the eyes of my soul,
to see the gifts you have put before me this day.
Give me the grace to recognize each encounter with you.
Teach me to respond in gratitude, to grow in gratitude.
Teach me to be generous, as you are generous with me,
and to collaborate with you in serving my sister and my brother
for your greater glory.