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.

“Disposition Days”

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 GregoryDave 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 dgregory@xavierprep.org


Tagged: , , , , , , ,

§ 6 Responses to Ignatian Spirituality and Images of God

  • Thank you David! You pose so many thought filled ideas so eloquently. What were those Jesuits thinking! Lucky Xavier kids! You have a lot to share. Glad to know you.

  • Val says:

    Ages and ages hence, JB. Phillips wrote a book — Your God Is Too Small — which then reflected some of the false/incomplete views of God outlined here, and a few that have become somewhat obsolete with the passing generations as we’ve moved from “Why God?” to “God who?” It’s a book well worth reading for its insights, and a book that asks questions that sorely need revisiting from a modern (post-modern? post-post-modern?) perspective. Incidentally, the J.B. Phillips The New Testament in Modern English still holds as one of the best modern paraphrase translations of the Bible ever written. I preface this to say I was raised haphazardly Catholic, and briefly passed through Baptist before arriving at Presbyterian (where I intend to stay). As solid as Reformed theology is, one criticism I would have with some of my Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ is that the mystery of God’s nature and holiness can sometimes be lost for trying to button-down God too logically. I agree with Augustine’s and your perspective and your perspective…and sometimes when even I get bogged down in the rationale of God and theogical matters need to take pause to remind myself that to let God be God, he is “allowed” to be mysterious (humans, historically, do not like this answer, however).

    One thing I would add to your assessment of how to re-orient ourselves to the nature of God (one that used to be implicit in Christian circles, but nowmaybe not so much) is to also seriously study scripture. For God’s two primary revelations of himself to us are the special revelation of Christ Jesus, and the general revelation of creation and nature. While I in no way discount the revelation of the Holy Spirit (in prayer or otherwise), I would argue that scripture needs to be the measuring standard against which to test potential revelation for its truth (e.g., perhaps an extreme example, if God is telling you to kill your mother, testing that against scripture wouldn’t hold up). Thus a comprehensive knowledge of scripture is invaluable (and it also prevents us from being led astray down the theological half-truth heresy bunny trails of life; Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress and C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce provide some graphic and chilling perspectives on the dark places some of those bunny trails can end up).

    And yes, sanctification is a beautiful thing.

  • Hi Val! Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I am in 100% agreement with you, that immersing oneself in Scripture is of extraordinary importance; the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this attitude. Catholicism, being a creedally- and sacramentally-based tradition, had previously not really emphasized widespread study of Scripture for the laity (in large part due to the fact that the vast majority of laity were illiterate). But now, I hope we’re on a better track. This, I think, is one of the greatest attributes of Ignatian prayer, as it is a Gospel-centric means of coming to know Christ on a personal, felt, affective level. More on this will come…

    The Great Divorce is certainly in my top 5 favorite books; it’s influenced my imagination on Heaven and purgatory/hell more than any other piece of literature. So, props.

    • Val says:

      Yes, the world is a much better place thanks to the fact that Pope John XXIII happened to be an expert in the Council of Trent. Now if the average Protestant knew that or had half a clue about anything the world would be a better, more ecumenical place. I agree with you on Ignatian prayer, but you have to “hide” its Catholic roots to sell it to Protestans (which is quite frequently done).

      If George MacDonald meets me as my tour guide for heaven I will question why he didn’t bring all my resurrected pets with him. Hope of the Gospel is one of those books that starts off brilliantly, but by the end you wonder (A.) what the dude was smoking, and (B.) did whoever published it ever finish reading it? I quite frequently use his argument/analysis against a concept of grace that is something like parking validation for sin — I think he’s right on with the idea that God isn’t so much obsessed with the bureaucratic model of sin forgiveness but what he’s really after is the sinfulness; MacDonald is on his own to argue much of the later chapters. Trying to explain why MacDonald as Virgil is hilarious to people who know nothing of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Virgil, George MacDonald, or the Inklings just leads people to look at you strangely to mention it, but I’m sure that little tongue-and-cheek move by Lewis was well-received by the Inklings.

  • […] the gilded road to perdition could be illusorily construed as the road to heaven. As I mentioned in my last post, it was only when Ignatius spent time in solitary prayer that God released him from unhealthy […]

  • […] Ignatian Spirituality and Images of God (by David Gregory) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Ignatian Spirituality and Images of God at The Ignatian Educator.


%d bloggers like this: