Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Spiritual Exercises

Today is the feast day of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and it is also the 44th anniversary of my arriving in Nelson to stay.
The founder of the Society of Jesus has always been big in my adult life, beginning with a fairly short period in the spring of 1958 when I was for a short time convinced he was my worst enemy. My mouth got really ugly about a thing or two that he had written, although I think only in Shawn's company, and it was about that time that she had begun to think that because I was so headstrong, in whatever direction I was aiming at the time, she would have to tell me to get lost unless I became a Catholic. She wasn't going to have all that blather upsetting her children. Or herself, for that matter.
I had been reading something about Ignatius and his directions in the Exercises about believing that black was white if the Church said so. The something was no doubt from an author who felt that such a principle was an assault on the autonomy of the intellect and the search for truth, and for the moment I felt the same. But I also felt humiliated in every bone in my body, after the argument and my outburst, as I rode away from Shawn's house on her borrowed bicycle, and thus had a mental experience similar to the kind Ignatius himself underwent, during his convalescence after the siege of Pamplona, whereby the discernment of spirits operated to some degree and he began to get his reading habits in order.
Yet even here there was a peculiar irony operating, because I had in fact already made a kind of Ignatian retreat, although totally unaware of such a title applying to any decision of mine, two years earlier, when I had left the parental home to live in a fraternity house on the campus while I worked for the Sun, studied a little philosophy and read a number of short stories by Ernest Hemingway set in Catholic Spain, the land of Loyola's birth, education, and conversion. This contradiction shows how widely, and wildly, my imagination could roam. Moreover, the retreat was no weekend, nor merely an entire month, because it lasted for a third of a year, was a predominantly solitary affair in so many ways, and accomplished enough changes in my view of myself that it unquestionably reached precisely some of the objectives a retreat and a run through the Spiritual Exercises hope to achieve. I later knew a bishop who spent an entire 30 days, under a retreat master, and in the company of other bishops, yet returned home worse than when he left, so I have no ear for any arguments against my conclusions on the subject.
To consolidate those advances, two months later I again took a month out of the world, after I left law school. The routine was similar: I read well, I spent an enormous amount of time alone, putting my mind to good use, and in the second case I did no outside work and was fully content and fully occupied with things of the mind and spirit, recreating my nature so that later on grace could have a swift and permanent effect.
But of course, without the scientific language of theology, especially spiritual theology, I did not at the time of these withdrawals understand my choices or the results in these terms, I only thought of myself as a writer making the choices that were appropriate to growing into my vocation.
Fortunately, my antagonism toward Ignatius was short lived, probably not a month passed before I knocked on the door of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The priests there were Redemptorists, the sons of Alphonsus Liguori, and had little to say about the Jesuit, but he showed up again after I was about three months in the fold and had begun, with Lent of 59, to go to daily mass. Through my constant reading of all sorts of Catholic writers I had become aware of the Spiritual Exercises as a process and a text, and once again rode off on a bicycle. This time it was my own, a three-speed that was by then carrying me all over the city, and one morning it carried my to the Immaculate Conception rectory and the eminently genial and warm Father Leahy, SJ.
We had a number of useful conversations, including a joke significant of the rivalry between Jesuits and Redemptorists, but he insisted that I was too young and too new to the Faith to make the Exercises, and I dropped the inspiration. There was no harm in this. By July, I was a regular student of John of the Cross via the incomparable Ascent of Mount Carmel, far and away the best spiritual writer for a little brother of Elijah.
But the Exercises turned up again, a full decade later, this time for their final, and incomparably most useful, employment.
By 1969, with all those misapplications of Vatican II in full flood, the nuns in a certain West Coast convent were zealously purging their library of "old-fashioned" books. From a family friend once a student at Notre Dame of Nelson, we received an entire box of these "rejects", including a nice little red-bound hard cover version of the Exercises. I was delighted, but not yet able to make full use of it, and stuck with my habitual texts, fully aware that I was not yet in the seventh mansion, and confident that it was only keeping on with the Carmelites that I would get me there.
Nonetheless, I dipped into Ignatius from time to time, at one point especially feeling some genuine contact with the book and a practical reason to be scouting it. This was during the Easter holidays of 1971, when Marianne was back from the Catholic high school in Kelowna for the holiday and could drop in for a chat with her director. In the fall she would return to Nelson for Grade Twelve, and year later, join our family and monastic environment forever. I would have told her that I was starting to make some sense out of the red book, although I most certainly had no interest in her reading it and insisted she keep on with Poulain and Saint Teresa, whenever her teenage mind felt the need of the most profound depths of the spirit. Also, with her living for a year two hundred miles away, the old correspondence that had done so much to create her vocation in the first place was back in operation.
When she finally joined the house, at the beginning of November, 1972, she was enrolled in a full academic course load at NDU, and quite busy at her school work. Nonetheless, the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, and all our favourite and most influential saints and angels cranked up the spiritual life, so that by Christmas, the Seventh Mansion had been constructed and Christ, in person, had really begun throwing his weight around the premises. And at some point I took up the Exercises and found them eminently clear, eminently applicable, part of a whole new level of understanding of the Scriptures, of Thomas, of the Carmelites. We followed Ignatius' scheduling as closely as a household could, albeit employing the 90 minute rule of section 19, given that Marianne had to put in a full day at the college, and I found that I had to resort to the text on a daily basis from November to Easter, at which point the Spirit advised me that I would one day have to share my appreciation with the rest of the world, and this is now happening on line.
Our new bishop has a lively, quite co-natural, relationship with the saints. He put in a three day stint of morning masses this mid-week, filling in for our regular pastor, and this triduum concluded on today's feast, where he spoke, making an interesting comparison between Ignatius and the founder of his own order, Saint Francis of Assisi. It was, to me, like an Alpha and Omega sign of my own spiritual journey, and seemed like a blessing on the process at hand.

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