A friend and I were recently together during Adoration and she said to me, “I…
To my dear sisters in Christ,
I wish I had had it in my power to whisk you all to the “student” seats at the Theology of the Body Institute at Black Rock Retreat Center here in Eastern Pennsylvania last week to absorb with me the riches of the course, “The Theology of the Body and the Interior Life.” You know how it is to drink in ongoing treasure, and yearn to share it with those as hungry and appreciative as you… Well, there I was, imagining you beside me!
Father Timothy Gallagher was the main presenter, inviting us all week into “living the ‘discerned life,'” and providing us St. Ignatius of Loyola’s ever so reliable “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” as the path. The “discerned life”–these very words suggest the difference between unexamined living, driven by whatever forces strike us, and a knowing understanding of ourselves and the enemy’s tactics. Ignatius’ fourteen Rules provide such magnificently practical ways of recognizing the voice of the Holy Spirit versus the voice of the “prowler.” Armed with that awareness, we are at far less risk of succumbing to the swirl of murk, confusion, self-doubt, discouragement, shame, etc., we can at times, almost without warning, feel encompassing us. St. Ignatius refers to this state as “desolation,” and to its opposite–the experience of God’s love, confidence in Him as my sufficiency, a serene spirit within, etc., as “consolation.” Whether the “desolation” seeps in as a slow drip or comes as a punch, how do we maintain our peace, ever aware that, as Father Gallagher said continually, “our loving God will see us safely through”? When “consolation” comes, how do we treasure the treasures, remaining aware of them as graces and fortifying ourselves by these gifts for those times when God seems to disappear?
With Father Gallagher, “the medium was the message.” His very presence was the “Theology of the Body” lens through which we were invited to see Ignatius’ Rules. His voice was soothing and tranquil, yet always vital, his body peaceful, his gaze steady and serene. He was calmly aware of the clock and of his listeners’ capacity and would humbly stop mid-topic to honor the schedule. Every example of a real-life scenario expressing a particular need for one of the “Rules” was prefaced by his gentle, “With reverence…” For instance, “With reverence, ‘Joan’ woke up on the second day of her retreat, after her first very rich day, feeling down and discouraged…” He repeated “with reverence” so sincerely and so often that suddenly it hit me– this is the very way Jesus approaches our humanity, “with reverence.” If Jesus approaches my humanity with such reverence, then so must I!
Father Gallagher very much conveyed the spirit of the founder of his Oblates of the Virgin Mary Order, the Venerable Bruno Lanteri, who said so movingly, “Strive to do well all that you do, but do it with respect to your humanity.” The Oblates were founded to promote spiritual formation according to the Exercises of St. Ignatius, and certainly this respect of our humanity permeates the Rules. Rule 13, for instance, warns us not to isolate ourselves in times of desolation, but to bring whatever we are experiencing into the light with a spiritual director, confessor, or spiritual friend, because the enemy delights in the downhill slide of “I’m the only one going through this”/”I’m back to square one in my spiritual life” etc. As surely as Father Gallagher prefaced his sample scenarios with “with reverence,” he ended his descriptions with the reassuring “no shame, no surprise.” This acceptance of our vulnerable humanity comes straight through from the Venerable Bruno and Ignatius himself. I loved our priest-chaplain, Father Ryan Mann’s, honesty–“isn’t there something inside us that is always afraid we’re about to get maybe a ‘B,” or even an ‘F’? “No shame, no surprise” stops this devilish thought in its tracks.
Our dear Lord has permitted me this week to have quite the opportunity to put the Rules into practice, as I came home from Black Rock not only full of Ignatian/TOB treasures but with a positive Covid test. I have a fresh light on being that fusion of body-soul person which the Theology of the Body so emphasizes…so difficult to be compromised in body and not in other departments as well! Tough to read, pray, concentrate–and the physical wobbliness makes me easy prey: “Is this the beginning of old-age infirmity…you’re really capable of downsizing this year?” “What am I doing, taking on more ministry responsibility?” The parade of imaginings begins… Boom. Rule 5 kicks in: “In time of desolation, never make a change.” “What you decide in the light,” St. Ignatius adds, “do not change in the darkness.” His threefold maxim for living the “discerned life” comes to my aid: BE AWARE, UNDERSTAND, TAKE ACTION (i.e., accept or reject disturbing thoughts). Remember a hallmark of desolation: the enemy is a master of discouragement, with special emphasis on presenting the future as looking bleak. Okay–rejecting!!! Comes immediately Father Gallagher’s steadying voice, “The Lord will see me safely through.”
A sudden peace descends, despite my Covid-y body. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). I think of Rule 12 which regards “standing firm,” and includes Ignatius’ metaphor of the “snowball effect”–if we stop the snowball at the top of the mountain, it can’t collect momentum; if we don’t, it becomes an avalanche and can swallow us. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for intervening with that snowball!
Rule 14 crowns my Covid week. Ignatius exhorts us here to be aware of our weakest point, because it is here that the enemy, just as in a military campaign, will attack. Where do I feel that familiar “Here we go again…this will never change?” Where does discouragement most often find a landing place within me? Ever so clear, this weak week… But St. Ignatius assures us that “this” can change, that stubborn patterns can break. He gives us practical means of fortifying our most vulnerable place, keeping firmly in mind that the area of our greatest weakness has the potential to be our greatest strength. I love the translation of 2 Cor. 12:9 which says, “In my weakness your power is at full stretch.” Or as St. Therese would have it, “What pleases Him is that He sees me loving my littleness and poverty (no shame, no surprise!)–the blind hope I have in His mercy. This is my only treasure.” Father Gallagher shared with us how Kathy Kanavy, a consecrated laywoman and spiritual writer, envisioned the famous Russian icon of the Trinity by artist Andre Rublev: there they were, in all their magnificence, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, gathered around her weakest spot, protecting it, blessing it, redeeming it. What supreme comfort to a Covid-compromised body/soul patient!
Ignatius’ Rules were not new to me, but I am in a different place enroute “up the mountain” so my view is new. Father Gallagher made the strong point that these “Rules for Discernment” are, of course, not the only way of living our Christian life, and certainly, as I in that classroom, there were continual resonances with so many riches of our spiritual heritage. But, he affirmed, you can’t beat them for accomplishing their main purpose–to have off-putting voices lose their hold on us. Hope’s Garden attunes us, in union with the whole Church as Bride, to hear the “I thirst” of the Bridegroom on the Cross for intimacy with us. With St. Elizabeth of the Trinity our hearts cry, “He is in me and I am in Him. I only have to love and to let myself be loved every moment; to wake in love, to act in love, to sleep in love, my soul in His soul, my heart in His heart.” Ignatius’ Rules help us stay right there! What powerful helps they were to me in this Covid week to sharpen my awareness of exactly how the enemy connived. We can never have too many arrows in our quiver to identify swiftly the evil one’s snares, the movements of our own hearts, and the necessary holy remedies.
Thank you, dear, generous Savior, for all the gifts of your Kingdom, such precious facets of your love. Thank you for the joy of sharing this taste of Ignatius’ tried and true structure with my dear sisters in You. Wise St. Ignatius, pray for us, and God bless you, faithful Father Gallagher!
With thanksgiving for each of you in my life, and for our Beloved’s never-ending treasury,
For a blitz tour of the Rules, see Christopher West’s interview with Father Gallagher here: https://youtu.be/mhBDA49xD-s
Copyright 2022, Bonnie West