Ignatian Spirituality and Images of God
February 25, 2013 § 6 Comments
Dave Gregory, my friend and colleague, today provides the first guest post for The Ignatian Educator. Drawing upon his classes at Xavier Prep in Palm Desert, CA, Gregory discusses a few of the incomplete images of God that his students carry and explains how Ignatian spirituality can fill in the picture.
Posted by David Gregory
As a soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola had probably killed enemies in battle. Lust, aggression, and vanity marked his early years. But following his conversion, and for reasons we cannot entirely understand, Ignatius felt the need to subject his body to excruciating corporal mortification. He tied a belt around his thigh in order to cut off circulation. He starved himself. He wore the soles of his shoes through in order to bloody and batter his feet. And yet, the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Montserrat helped Ignatius to free himself of his scruples. Spending ten months in Manresa’s cave brought Ignatius to understand – and more importantly, feel – that God did not desire Ignatius to punish his body in order to compensate for his sinfulness. Ignatius came to believe that although penance could be fruitful, the most beneficial penitential acts did not scar the body permanently. When Ignatius met Peter Faber, who would later become one of the first Jesuits, Ignatius recognized within him this same tendency toward scrupulosity that once held Ignatius captive.
It is remarkable how our images of God affect our attitude toward religion. These images are so subtle, and can be so insidious and so embedded within our unconscious, they often require attentive reflection in order to understand how they affect our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the divine. It is for this reason that Ignatius required his “exercitants” (those who make the Spiritual Exercises) to undergo “days of disposition” prior to going on the retreat. Ignatius believed that time, prayer, and reflection were required so that the exercitant could prepare properly and come to a deeper understanding of who he understands God to be. Faber, for example, waited four years to make the retreat, and Jesuit novices nowadays do not make the retreat immediately upon entering the novitiate. Quite simply, misguided images result in a hindered experience of the Exercises.
My students’ recent reflection papers on their “healthy and unhealthy” images of God have revealed to me that teenagers often hold one of two primary “unhealthy” images of God. In times of need, they pray to the “Aspirin God,” the God who fixes and cures everything that causes pain; when things are not fixed, when their parents’ unstable marriage ends in divorce, when a loved one’s body succumbs to cancer, or when their closest friendships deteriorate in the midst of lies and gossip, the Aspirin God image fades away and our students are left with nothing.
On the other hand, a student might view God as so foreign, as such a complete and utter mystery, that praying to the “Mountain-Top” God does nothing. And so, seeking religion as a source of meaning is abandoned. Or they might view God as little more than really, really nice; after all, a nice God would never interfere with our lives or challenge our sin. These images of a God who only serves to heal or who exists at an unreachable distance posit a deity who remains largely uninvolved with human existence. In contradistinction, one might view God as deeply involved with human affairs, but in a way that does not genuinely harmonize with traditional Judeo-Christian perspectives. Take the late Christopher Hitchens for example. A prominent anti-theist, Hitchens was of the (obviously twisted) opinion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in a deity who cruelly exercises control over his followers in some sort of twisted game of schadenfreude.
So-called “false” images, as understood by St. Augustine, are therefore not so much wrong as they are incomplete; they are distortions of some truth. Yes, we should pray to God when engulfed in suffering, but we should also hope that suffering points to the Resurrection. So even though grief may persist, we have reason to avoid despair. Despair will inevitably result if we only seek a relationship with the Aspirin God in our sufferings, because not all sufferings end in a way we find satisfactory. Yes, the Judeo-Christian tradition holds that our God is complete mystery, hidden within an infinite nature. Although God spoke to Moses from a mountain top, He came down from the mountain and revealed Himself to Peter, James and John in the Transfiguration. In these certain illuminating moments of (sometimes blinding) clarity, God reveals God’s self to us. God is both far and near, infinite and immanent. We look to the Gospels for the divine immanence; God’s divinity, after all, is not found around Jesus’ humanity, but straight through it.
A true image of God is one that invites us into relationship with Him. Love transforms and challenges. Similarly, a genuine encounter with God leads to a fundamental transformation of who we are. It does not leave us complacent. One need only look at the lives of the saints – or the lives of students, colleagues, and loved ones whom we consider saintly – to see this principle at work.
So the question remains: how do we re-orient our students’ dis-oriented images of God? The answer lies, I think, in the same way that Ignatius dealt with himself and with Faber: time. We pray with them. We show them that the most often repeated phrase in the Gospels is some iteration of “Be not afraid,” sung by the angels and stated by the risen Christ. Above all, though, we wait with patience. We provide those opportunities in the classroom for genuine questions and explorations. We let them know that God does not want us to fear Him. We witness to the faith as joyful and humorous followers of Jesus in sincere humility. We offer them times of retreat, in which we have one foot on earth and the other foot in the eternal. Most importantly, however, we must remember that we alone do not undertake this task. In the frenzied and monotonous routine of school, we do nothing more than leave God room to work His work.
Perhaps the entirety of high school, for students and teachers alike, can be seen as a period of “disposition days,” years throughout the course of which our hearts and minds ready themselves for the wildness and wilderness we cannot even begin to predict.
Dave Gregory graduated from Manhattan’s Regis High School in 2006 and from Georgetown University in 2010 with a double major in philosophy and theology. Prior to coming to Xavier in August of 2012, Gregory was in the Jesuit novitiate in the Maryland province. Gregory’s interests include Ignatian spirituality and the practical implications of the Spiritual Exercises for secondary education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org