I’m three weeks into a new semester of teaching a course on Ignatian Spirituality at Boston College. It’s an absolute delight, both for the subject matter and the smart students with whom I share it. I’ll be posting some reflections on our conversations as time goes on.
This week, what sticks with me from last evening’s class is Ignatius’ absolute confidence that God is acting at all times, in so many ways, to get our attention and to move us, through grace, to remove the barriers which keep us from truly knowing God. We were reading one of Ignatius’ letters (of which there are over six thousand extant; and no, we are not reading them all) in which he was reassuring a woman named Inés Pascual who had lost a friend. His manner was direct, saying in essence that she had a tough road ahead and that in her sorrow she was vulnerable to losing focus on the end to which God was still calling her.
Ignatius’ tone in the letter suggested a need to keep moving; I suggested an image from his own days as a soldier, in which the experience of a comrade’s death on the battlefield cannot be an excuse for losing sight of the mission. It’s a somewhat arresting tone to modern ears, accustomed to the well-intentioned but often vacuous pieties like “so sorry… God’s taking care of her…know that I’m praying for you….” Ignatius reminds her that the work of the spiritual life does not stop because we are sad; in fact, it become harder, precisely because sadness may distract us from recognizing the always-present action of God’s grace.
My students raised poignant questions. What did he mean about grief? About suffering? Was he denying the reality of suffering? (Thoughts of Haiti were lurking in the background there.) Answers, in short: grief is real, but God’s grace is greater. Suffering is real, but God burrows through to our hearts in the midst of it. God is always acting. We may be saddened; grieved; broken; but God seeks to offer comfort, shelter, hope. Of this Ignatius is absolutely certain. He wanted Inés to share that confidence and maintain her commitment to God in her time of difficulty.
I find that attitude compelling. Grief can slide into a kind of selfishness; one uses the experience of pain to draw attention to oneself and elicit from others shows of sympathy. Ignatius’ counsel is to maintain a focus on God, a focus rooted in the First Principle and Foundation—that God has created us for a purpose, and that grief must not get in the way of our seeking it if we are to find freedom and joy.
Great example: Dan Jansen. You’ve probably seen the credit-card commercial recalling his awesome story: favored to win gold at the Olympics; sister’s death just hours before the race; a tragic fall in the race; trying again in the next games, falling again; trying a third time and winning gold with a world record. I nearly cry every time I hear his name. But what an example of keeping focus in spite of grief. What a compelling analogy for considering the contours of the spiritual life. God is acting; we must let nothing get in the way of our responding; that is our joy.
One beauty of Ignatian spirituality is that it trains us to be in touch with what’s happening within us–spiritually, emotionally, and so on. This is a great help during times of grief and sadness, because it helps us face and embrace what is happening while inviting God to help us with it. The Ignatian practice of indifference is helpful, too, because grief has a life of its own, and we can’t control how or when the feelings ebb and flow. Indifference allows us to let go of a need to control that. Thanks for this post, Tim.