Week 3 Prayer Exercises
Share your feedback with us! Send us a comment on Week #3.
1 I will find a place each day where I can pull aside for a 15-minute space of contemplative rest and reflection free from technology’s distractions.
2 I will review my decision on whether I will take one 15-minute prayer break or two 15-minute prayer breaks a day.
3 During my 15-minute quiet prayer periods this week, I will gradually read through Part Two of St. Ignatius’ conversion story. Reading reflectively, I will take my time. I am reading for spiritual insights about Ignatius’ Sacred Story and my own. Prayerful reading, known in the Catholic Tradition as lectio divina (holy reading) is done slowly. Resisting the efficiency pressures of the modern age, I realize Sacred Story is not about going faster, but deeper.
I will not read ahead.
I will awaken to the present moment.
I will take each day and each exercise as it comes.
I cannot do Sacred Story better by going faster.
Welcome to the third week of our pilgrimage. The exercises for this week continue with the conversion story of St. Ignatius. As you listen to St. Ignatius’ history, reflect on your own. As you read, recall that Ignatius woke up to the fact that there were two plots in his daydreams: Plot “A” entailed the goals and fantasies rooted in his wounded heart and following narcissistic dreams. Plot “B” entailed fantasies of a heart rooted in Christ and discovering healing and peace by following holy dreams. You are invited to search your own daydreams and fantasies for signs of these two plots. Consider your life as you listen to Ignatius’ story. God used him to guide us. Each person has the same challenge of finding the narrow path that leads to our true human nature.
You have two options for how to pray with this week’s text. Some like to read during the 15-minute periods, while others prefer to read the whole text on Sunday and then focus on smaller sections during the 15-minute prayer periods for the rest of the week. Do whatever is best for you. Your goal is to listen to Ignatius’ story and be attentive to any issues that seem important to you. Listen to Ignatius’ story and pay attention to whatever stirs in you, be it hope and peace or anxiety and fear. Doing this sharpens your spiritual radar for things that make your heart say: “Pay Attention!” Thank Christ in advance for the blessings and insights you will receive.
Part Two: A Journey to the Heart
Ignatius in Control
Ignatius’ decisive and enduring commitment to his conversion launched him directly into the center of his heart’s brokenness and the pride masking those wounds. After leaving home Ignatius traveled to Montserrat and spent three days reviewing his life. It was at this time that he made a general confession of all his past sinful deeds. This first life confession initiated an enduring habit of weekly confession and communion. In this written confession Ignatius consciously detailed his sinful attitudes, behaviors and passions: gambling addiction, sexual self-indulgence, arrogance, and violent outbursts of temper. It took all three days to write the story of his past life.
Yet he discovered that simply detailing and confessing his sinful habits and addictions did not disarm them. That would require going deeper, to their source in his heart and history. Only in these deepest recesses could he confront the pattern of spiritual and psychological dysfunction that was most responsible for eroding his freedom and distorting his authentic human nature.
It is this inward journey that fully awakened his conscience. It was only at this depth that he discovered his authentic human nature and regained the creativity of childlike innocence. We do well to understand the tipping point of Ignatius’ life from his root vices and narcissism to his new life of wakefulness, light, peace and hope. This is how his story unfolded.
Ignatius’ new, pious habit of regular confession evolved into a destructive obsessive and compulsive torture. He confessed and re-confessed past sins multiple times, never feeling he had gotten to the bottom of his immoral deeds. This excruciating spiritual and psychological torment lasted for months. He was so anguished by his obsessive guilt that numerous times he wanted to commit suicide by throwing himself off the cliff where he prayed.
Well aware of the emotional damage caused by this obsessive confession habit, he still could not let it go. Instead he initiated new, harsher physical disciplines and spiritual regimens. His goal was to gain complete control and self-mastery over his immoral and dissolute past. He wanted to remember every detail of his past sins so he could be perfectly cleansed. But nothing worked!
Finally, exhausted and disgusted with his efforts, he realized he intensely despised the spiritual life he was living. Ignatius had an urgent and compelling desire to “stop it!” This thought alarmed Ignatius, and his spiritual radar went on high alert. Ignatius discerned the inspiration came from another source but what could it be? He discovered the inspiration’s origin and author only by understanding where the inspiration was taking him. It occurred to him that the inspiration was leading him in the same direction as the menacing fear he had previously experienced. Inspired to abandon his newly awakened life, Ignatius was being tempted to abandon the peace, the service to others, and the virtuous life of his Sacred Story. But how did this counter-inspiration succeed in gaining control? Ignatius’ decision to stop re-confessing his past sins reveals the enemy’s strategy.
Surrendering Control to Embrace Powerlessness & Innocence
Ignatius’ decision to stop his damaging confession habit appears inconsequential. But the choice was the most significant spiritual decision in his entire life. It was also the most difficult, because that one choice meant fully surrendering his life to God. It meant admitting his powerlessness over his sins and in humility allowing God, not himself, to be the source of his holiness.
Reflecting on the temptation to walk away from his new Christian life, Ignatius received an insight that the burdensome, destructive habit of re-confessing past sins was rooted in a pride to try and save himself. This pride forced him to his knees. On seeing this he “awoke as if from a dream,” and was given the grace to stop the habit.
Looking at his life spiritually and psychologically, it appears that behind the sexual misdeeds, addictive gambling, and violent temper, there was a controlling, narcissistic pride and a broken heart. Our narcissistic control is solidified by the searing spiritual and psychological pain of lost innocence: the pattern of sins we inherit from the Original Sin, along with those sins committed against us early in life, and later those sins committed by us.
Our narcissism, if you will, godifies us, severely restricting our ability to respond to the true God. We fill the void of our wounded, broken hearts with self-centered strivings for attention, power and control. It is a false identity, an anti-story. Our narcissism blinds us to our authentic human nature and the deepest desires of our heart. It blinds us to our Sacred Story.
Ignatius’ first life confession at Montserrat documented the visible manifestations of this deep distortion in his human nature. The Divine Physician next led Ignatius to the source of those visible sins. It was his wounded human nature that fueled the controlling, narcissistic personality. The pattern of visible sins, vices and addictions was only the tip of the iceberg. It is vital to remember that Ignatius’ weaning from the narcotics of aggression, addictions, and dissoluteness opened a portal to his broken heart — his wounded human nature — where he could fully confront his powerlessness and brokenness. It is here that he finally meets Christ face to face. It is here, in accepting Christ’s forgiveness, that healing love begins. It is here that Ignatius admits his powerlessness to save himself and surrenders control of his life to God. This is the spiritual paradigm of powerlessness.
Ignatius’ struggle with the obsessive habit of re-confessing past sins was the symbol of his hidden root sin of pride. Christ labored hard to meet Ignatius right where he was, in this harrowing place. Ignatius’ frenzied, damaging re-confessing of past sins was only the latest manifestation of the same hidden narcissism that distorted his first thirty years of life.
The same sin was in full view on the battlefield at Pamplona when Ignatius forced his will on the commander and all the other knights, to engage a suicide mission against a far more numerous and well-armed militia. Ignatius’ pride earned him a shattering defeat and a shattered leg. Fortunately his defensive pride was shattered by God’s grace awakening him “as if from a dream.”
From that moment of surrender at Manresa, Ignatius acknowledged his powerlessness and surrendered control of his life to God. Since Ignatius was very young, God had waited to transform his deepest desires into a Sacred Story whose legacy would endure to eternity. This surrender defines Ignatius’ second set of foundation discernment principles:
|Ignatius’ struggle with scruples hiding his vainglory →
|The initial confrontation with one’s root sin ↓|
|Ignatius’ constant re-confessing to seek salvation by willpower alone →||The effort to control one’s root sin ONLY by personal effort or force of will ↓|
|Ignatius’ suicidal impulses, disgust and the desire to walk away from his new found faith →
|Despair and desire to give up faith when human effort alone fails
|Ignatius’ tracing the spirit of disgust to a demonic source →
|Insight that desire to reject the spiritual journey is a temptation
|Ignatius abandoning his compulsive confessing of past sins →
|Admitting powerlessness to save oneself and surrendering prideful actions ↓|
An outpouring of mystical grace flooded Ignatius at this point. More importantly a humble and obedient spirit was beginning to emerge which enabled him to respond to the slightest movements of God’s grace in his thoughts, words and deeds. In this humility and docility he discovered a life of service that changed the Church and the world. Later in life he reflected:
The proud narcissist, the man who was master of his own universe, became a humble and obedient servant of the universe’s true Master and Creator. To arrive at this point, Ignatius had to admit his powerlessness. He had to surrender control over his life and the distorted aspects of his human nature that had evolved over the years. He had to learn how to live out of his newly emerging authentic self, his true and free human nature, a true nature that was hidden behind his wounded heart. Because of this, Ignatius had to also learn how to dismantle the narcissism that had evolved over the first thirty years of his life. The counter-inspirer, the enemy of his human nature, had cleverly concealed his true human nature and Ignatius had to begin life over again, this time allowing God to reveal his authentic self. This was why, after the resolution of this greatest of his life’s crises, Ignatius experienced himself being taught by God. It was, he said, exactly like “a child is taught by a schoolmaster.”
The Divine-Inspirer and the counter-inspirer
This harrowing crisis taught Ignatius a most vital lesson about counter-inspirations. The willpower and resolute commitment to live virtuously for the rest of his life could be manipulated and turned against him by means of subtle inspirations. What seemed like a holy, pious, and noble practice — a serious approach to confession — devolved into a damaging habit that made him loathe his spiritual life, and in frustration, inspired him to abandon it. He learned that the counter-inspirations of the enemy of his human nature could act like “an angel of light.” These inspirations appear holy but when followed, they end in disaster, distancing one from God and from one’s authentic self.
Ignatius gained clearer knowledge of the two spiritual forces that inspire and seek to guide the evolution of one’s story. Ignatius gathered what he had learned from “speaking truth to power” to the enemy of human nature, and what he had learned from surrendering control of his life to God, into guidelines for discerning these different inspirations. For now it is sufficient to say that the Divine-Inspirer is the author of one’s original innocence, that is, one’s authentic and free human nature. The Divine-Inspirer works gently in and through every situation, especially the misfortunes associated with the damaging spiritual and psychological ordeals of life.
It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to offer forgiveness and provide shelter from the enemy of human nature whose sole purpose is to destroy innocence. As St. Luke so clearly articulates, the Divine-Inspirer forgives sins, restores lost innocence, mends broken and wounded hearts, releases captives, sets the oppressed free, and illumines one’s Sacred Story and true human nature (Lk 4:18).
The counter-inspirer works through all the events of one’s life and relationships. His work is evident in the distortions of spirit and mind, the deep wounding caused by the evolution of sin from the Original Sin and also sin inherited from one’s family and culture. The counter-inspirer works to corrupt innocence and deform one’s spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological nature — one’s true human nature. Jesus condemned the violation of the innocent and the child-like. No human being can escape the machinations this evil breeds in one’s body, mind and spirit. Since the Original Sin, this evolutionary force has infected every person and consequently all of human history.
The counter-inspirer conceals our original wounds, counseling and guiding our steps to build a false identity, an anti-story, characteristically identified by a distorted ego and defended by narcissism. Our narcissistic pride rationalizes the habits, vices, addictions and lifestyles that form our anti-story. The counter-inspirer renders us unconscious to our Sacred Story and to our true Divinely shaped human nature.
God led Ignatius through this distorted evolution back to the lost innocence of his true human nature. To get there Ignatius had to confront his pattern of spiritual and psychological distortions signified by his narcissistic pride. It was a mighty castle that he had built on the shifting sands of a child’s wounded innocence, on a child’s lonely, broken heart. God provided Ignatius the inspiration and grace to allow that castle to crumble. The shattering of his powerful defenses and the unmasking of his prideful, narcissistic pattern proved to be the tipping point of Ignatius’ entire conversion process.
Wakefulness, Holiness and Heightened Consciousness
Ignatius’ conversion from his anti-story and his full awakening to his Sacred Story was not a single event but rather a gradual process. His full evolution from a vain egomaniac to a saint took the rest of his life. This is evident in his Autobiography. In three linked narratives recounting personal near-death experiences, Ignatius reveals his growth in holiness, a process that evolved over a long, twenty-eight-year period.
In the first account he is filled with fear of judgment because he understands that pride is still a strong temptation for him. In the second account he is no longer afraid of death but instead, he is filled with sorrow for his delayed response to God. In the third account, grace floods his heart and he is filled with an intense devotion and desire for eternal union with God. These three episodes mirror the three classical stages of mystical growth: purgation, illumination and union. The three episodes also convey the reality of Ignatius’ patience with the process of his spiritual growth:
|Ignatius, justifying himself, anxiously recoils and focuses on his sinfulness →
|Panic over one’s salvation due to weakness and sinfulness →||PURGATION
|Ignatius, no longer fearful, regrets not having responded sooner to God’s graces →
|Sadness at slowness of one’s response to God’s love and invitation to intimacy →||ILLUMINATION
|Ignatius’ intense joy at the thought of dying and being with God →||An ardent, all-embracing love of God and desire for complete union with the Trinity →||UNION|
A Life-Long Commitment to Christ in the Church
It took Ignatius the remainder of his life to develop into the saint we know today. His was a gradual, steady evolution from a sinful narcissist in control of his own life to an innocent, obedient servant of God. He discovered and embraced the power and energy of living in the holy trinity of his authentic human nature — spirit, body and God’s grace working in unison. Growth in holiness requires desire, patience and daily effort to awaken to our authentic human nature. It takes time for grace to penetrate the influence of our anti-story so that our Sacred Story can more fully emerge. There are no short cuts to holiness, not even for saints.
If you desire to surrender your anti-story and open to your Sacred Story, grace will awaken you, like Ignatius, to places in your heart’s memories you might not wish to visit. The awakening will begin like Ignatius’. It starts with an honest identification of the visible manifestations of those spiritual and psychological distortions in the particulars of your human nature. These distortions disclose your lost innocence and a heart broken by the Original Fall and the cumulative sins of your family, clan and culture. Ignatius started this process with his life confession. He truthfully identified the habits, addictions, sins and compulsions characteristic of his lost innocence and broken heart.
Open yourself to the graces of God that will illumine the distinctive narcissistic elements fueling your sinful, compulsive behaviors. Ignatius needed much grace to overcome his defenses and unlock this hidden truth about his life. Everyone who embraces this invitation to walk this path can confidently rely on the same grace to navigate this vital part of the process.
Finally awakening to your Sacred Story will take you to the places in your heart where your innocence is wounded, your true human nature is distorted, and your heart is broken. Awakening to your Sacred Story will reveal the outlines of your anti-story. You will need to honestly evaluate the narcissistic pattern in your own life, identifying the pleasures, powers, and habits that act as narcotics, blocking the pain of your broken heart and lost innocence.
This pattern that masks your authentic self and your true human nature is the pattern of your false self. It is the deceit of the anti-story that hides the radiance of your authentic human nature and the sacredness of your life story. This was Ignatius’ experience. By divine inspiration he discovered his false-self masquerading as a pious, conscientious penitent.
Once he reached this point, Ignatius awakened, “as if from a dream,” to his Sacred Story. By so doing, he was graced to unite mind and spirit, action and contemplation, the eternal in the present moment, and so to see the Divine Presence in all people and in all creation. His new consciousness of God so energized him that he could daily enter the stream of his Sacred Story, enabling him to reengage life’s duties and obligations with a serene heart and with clarity of purpose. He courageously allowed God to write his Sacred Story over the remainder of his life—hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.
The vitality of Ignatius’ personal relationship with God, in Father, Son and Spirit, was possible through the grace and gratitude he experienced in the constant encounter with his personal sinfulness and disordered passions. These graced encounters always brought illumination, insight, energy and hope, never discouragement, fear or despair.
A proud, dissolute, insecure narcissist finally found serenity and security in God’s full love, acceptance, mercy, and forgiveness. Interestingly enough, this happened in and through Ignatius’ powerlessness and weaknesses and perhaps even because of them! That which so marred his early life became the very source of his strength and sanctity. Ignatius discovered, like St. Paul, that in his weaknesses and sin, he was strong in Christ (2 Cor 12:10). It will be the same for you.
1 Paul Doncoeur, SJ, The Heart of Ignatius, (Baltimore: Helicon, 1959), 34.