Ignatius remains one of our Christian tradition’s greatest teachers of discernment, that is the art of recognising and naming attraction and resistance in our life with God.
I offer this reflection and encouragement on his feast day (31 July) for anyone who is, like me, trying to follow Jesus more whole-heartedly.
ATTRACTION & RESISTANCE IN LIFE WITH GOD
In every moment, any human is motivated by attraction, or by resistance. Too often we settle for surviving life rather than living life as we settle for an existence on auto-pilot, flowing with attraction and acting against whatever (and whoever) we don’t like.
The prisoner of this behaviour lives compulsively by the motto: if it feels good, do it, if it feels bad, avoid it.
We ignore our feelings at our peril. However the feelings that are uppermost in human consciousness are simply a starting point for discernment. Feelings, especially those that we notice, are only the raw material with which we discern movement towards or away from God. It’s important to know this otherwise we will fall victim to the simplistic feels good do it feels bad avoid it mentality.
At this conscious level it may be that God is calling me to do what feels difficult, even painful, at least on the surface of my heart.
Or that the evil spirit is shrewdly enticing me to evil by attracting me to something that feels good.
THE SUBTLE TEMPTER
As Ignatius highlights in his rules for discernment, the evil spirit can be a subtle tempter. If I am beginning a life of faith, the evil one does not have to try too hard to derail my efforts and confuse my desires. But as one becomes more aware of the subtleties and intimacies of life with God, the technique of the evil spirit also becomes more refined.
As we practice the presence of God, we begin to see with the eyes of the heart. Now we see false advertising for what it is: so much of what the world offers, fails to deliver what it promises.
At this ‘wake-up’ moment, we begin to grow in awareness. We notice that when we follow our deepest desire, we are never disappointed. The heart is satisfied. What appears to be the ‘hard road’ can pave the path to joy beyond my imagining.
I begin to realise that my feelings, at first glance, appear to impel me towards what promises everything, yet fails to deliver.
This is a painful and wonderful moment of awakening. I begin to ask questions that lead me beyond my previous limited existence. ‘There must be more to life?’ ‘What do I really want from life?’ ‘What am I created for?’
IMPULSES & FEELINGS
Unfortunately most people equate feelings with impulses. An animal responds instinctively and does not ‘feel’ in a human sense. An animal behaves impulsively. An animal cannot savour the life of the heart. This life of the Spirit of God is a gift of God reserved for humans.
Human happiness can never be found by instinctively satisfying our animal instincts and impulses. The human heart is created for much more. As St. Augustine proclaims: ‘you have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’.
At the deepest level of the human heart, our longing and desire is for God, and for all that God offers us. This unfulfilled desire is an intrinsic part of the human condition. It is not a flaw. Longing is the characteristic of the human heart. This desire is planted in us by God, to direct us to the purpose of our human existence, that is, life with God.
ORIENTATION TO GOD: THE FRUIT OF TRUE DESIRE
Our deepest desire is our personal compass. This compass is a divine gift. It is our heart-experienced desire that orients us to God. Understanding this desire is the key to human purpose and happiness.
I might think that my desire is for money, for food, possessions, for sex or even for good wine. These gifts of God are all good in their time and place. But none of these gifts, (or even all of them together on a busy evening) can deliver the satisfaction they promise.
At the surface, our impulses are formed by fashion and fear. Most often these urges are little more than the product of our culture and upbringing.
DELAYING PLEASURE – A STEP ON THE PATH TO MATURITY
A healthy child learns that it is not a bad thing to delay pleasure.
The cake looks attractive. But it will taste even better if I spend (at least a few moments) looking forward to eating it. The anticipation has a pleasure all of its own.
Then fear kicks in. If I do not eat the cake now, perhaps someone else will grab it and I will miss out?
As the child grows, she also learns the pleasure of sharing. I do not need to eat all the cake to be happy. I give some of the cake to my friend. Now I have some cake, and my relationship with my friend is also strengthened.
As I grow I become more aware that, at its best, the cake can bring happiness only momentarily. While I feel attraction to the cake and I want to eat it, this is not my deepest desire. There is something else at work. I realise that I am being held in the loving embrace of the one who will see that I have the cake, and eat it too.
My greatest maturity is reached when I seek opportunities to give all I have and possess, to another. In this decision of the will my superficial feelings are transcended and I relax in the embrace of Jesus.
When I leave this embrace, and grasp at whatever appears to offer satisfaction, I am left feeling empty and lonely.
When I relax into the embrace and provision of the one who loves me more than I could ever dream, then I experience all that I have ever desired.
THE TENSION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
To be caught in the tension between attraction and resistance, is a mark of our ‘fallen’ human condition. We all share this reality but most of the time we don’t give it a thought. We simply move through the day responding to the demands we experience. We like to do what attracts us. We try to avoid what we do not like.
THE FORCES OF LOVE AND FEAR
But take a moment to think about it: in every moment, I am motivated by attraction or resistance.
Let’s put it another way. The forces of both love and fear (the opposite of love) are acting upon me in every moment.
So what am I to do? Is every decision I take to be determined by these inevitable forces? Faced with the strength of such pressures, what freedom do I really have?
Well, for a start I need to acknowledge that my idea of what constitutes both love and fear is severely distorted.
At times I fear love. In other moments I seem to hold on to the motivation of fear. I can be uncontrollably motivated by the fear of failure and vulnerability.
There are times when I resist love. In other moments I am trapped by resistance. In these moments thoughts of anger and revenge flood my consciousness.
In the midst of this human condition, what does it mean for me to be a disciple of Jesus?
This is where the good news meets our human experience. Yes, we do live with these tensions, but Christ offers us another way. He offers us a freedom that transforms and transcends the snares of sin.
If I seek to follow Christ, I am choosing not to be slave to fears and fashion. Neither am I opting to follow a path of moral guidelines and religious practices. This is a commonly held, and ultimately fatal misunderstanding of the Christian life.
In choosing Christ I am seeking to live in relationship with Jesus. Like the first disciples, we choose to follow an attraction. No doubt fears floated in the minds of Andrew and John. But they had encountered the ultimate relationship. They felt at home in the loving gaze of Jesus. They had found the relationship that they had spent their lives seeking. And when he said “come and see”, they could not resist.
THE ART OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
And this is the heart of human existence.
Too often when we say that we are accompanying pilgrims on their journey of faith, we are doing little but supporting their superficial attractions and fears. This happens when we seek little for ourselves but the gratification of our own compulsions.
A spiritual director is one who themselves has a greater attraction to the objective reality of the life of God (as reflected in the life of the directee), than to the establishment and maintenance of a positive relationship with the directee. By the grace of God there will not be a tension, since the pilgrim will (ideally) also be aware of their own deepest desire for God.
By God’s grace the directee will be grateful for the critical encouragement of a spiritual companion.
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.
St. Ignatius of Loyola
St Louis Jesuits singing “Take Lord Receive” at this link