Among Ignatius’s insights into the dynamics of spiritual life is that God leads primarily through encouragement. In his rules for the discernment of spirits, Ignatius says that for people who are already trying to live lives of virtue, God leads primarily through “strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This He does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good” (#315). While the good spirit acts differently on souls living from one mortal sin to another, for those attempting to live well, God does not deal with our shortcomings aggressively. Instead, God’s action takes place mostly through attraction.
God’s attention to what is good in us is also a helpful model for us to bring to our relationships to others. For example, we can pay attention to the wonderful little gestures of care that our spouses offer daily, or thank a colleague for good work and not only criticize him when a project has gone wrong!
St. Catherine of Siena uses an image that is harmonious with this Ignatian insight. She writes that a good approach to others in the midst of difficulty is not to confront them with their specific sins, but rather to “lovingly and kindly plant the virtues [in their place]” (The Dialogue [ed. S Noffke, OP], 193-194). Her idea is to focus on the cultivation of virtue first by being present to others, and then by focusing on what is already going well with a person’s desires and actions.
This attention to the nurturing of “good seeds” makes sense to me as a gardener. While in late summer, gardening columns advise being vigilant about pulling weeds, I was lately noticing their relative absence in areas of the garden where I’ve planted hardy perennials over the years. Where the hostas, butterfly bush, and echinacea grow, there are fewer weeds to pull. Even the most vigilant weeding cannot replace the effectiveness of cultivating plants through tending to water and soil, and then letting sunshine and God do the rest!
God tends to us like a divine gardener who encourages what is good within. Jesus tells us of the wheat and weeds that must grow up together until harvest; we all have some of each within. Yet Jesus also uses images such as yeast in bread, lilies in the field, and the multiplication of loaves to show God’s desire for us is to keep growing us in Christ.
We, too, can tend to the complexity and sometimes messiness of ourselves and our relationships by cultivating what is already loving and good rather than just avoiding the bad. Then we may find that as we tend to the growth of love, there is less and less room for the weeds.