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To the greater glory of God

10 October 2014

Daniel Wolpert presents the spiritual examen of St Ignatius Loyola


Ride on: Giotto's,The Entry into Jerusalem(1304-6)

Ride on: Giotto's,The Entry into Jerusalem(1304-6)

THE year was 1521. A "dapper young Spanish courtier" named Íñigo de Loyola had been wounded in battle, and, as he "lay in bed, his thoughts alternated between the prospect of worldly glory and the following of Christ" (Spiritual Exercises). What should he do?

We have all experienced such times of uncertainty and doubt. Which way should the path of our lives lead? How is God calling us? When St Ignatius of Loyola faced his moment of indecision, in a gift of sheer grace he made a stunning realisation. Surveying his options, Ignatius noticed that "the secular romances left a certain dryness and restlessness in their wake, whereas the sacred scenarios left him peaceful and contented" (Spiritual Exercises).

The latter set of feelings, Ignatius observed, were similar to the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23), whereas the former were not. He recognised that God had designed his being in such a way that it gave him hints to which choice was from God and which was not. This understanding formed the core of Ignatius's masterful work The Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius's prayer of examination (the "examen", as it has come to be called) is a prayer practice that seeks the immanent - meaning close-by, near, or indwelling - aspect of God. This is the God who is with us always. Yet even in this nearness God remains hidden, and so we need a method of prayer that brings the light of God clearly into focus; this is the point of the examen.

At every moment, millions of bits of sensory data bombard us, and with them we make sense of the world around us. We organise these data in a coherent manner, and the pattern of this organisation depends on our habits and dispositions. One person sees a sunset and appreciates beauty; another curses the sunset because it is getting dark too early. The sunset is the same, and yet the observers interpret it differently.

The power of this process is so great that we are not even aware of it. The examen seeks to answer the question "Where is God in all this?" Whereas silent prayer seeks to move us beyond this world, the examen helps us find the God who is reaching into our world to save us.

It is important to realise that at the core of the examen is the notion that individuals engage in actions that move them either towards or away from God. But - and this difficulty lies at the heart of finding God in the present - movement in either direction can appear "good".

In modern-day language, we use the word "denial" to describe being involved in activities that are bad for us while convincing ourselves that these behaviours are not a problem.

To find God in the present, Ignatius begins by looking at the past: how did his thoughts and feelings unfold over time? What were the results of his desires and actions? Ignatius sees that, although in the mind of the beginner the evil spirits can hide in the moment, they cannot conceal their purposes for ever. At some point, they reveal that they are leading a person away from God.

By looking back at his experience, Ignatius is able to review any part of his life, and notice whether this review gives him a sense of "consolation" or "desolation".

Whatever the chosen period, take a while to review the whole experience. What were your feelings during that time? What are your thoughts now?

As you perform this reflection, you may begin to see patterns of consolation and desolation emerging. These patterns represent the flow of good and evil spirits that Ignatius described. At first, they may be hard to see clearly; as time goes on, however, you will develop a sense of which experiences are "of God", and which are not.

This is the second of four edited extracts from

Creating a Life with God: The call of ancient prayer practices by Daniel Wolpert (BRF, £7.99; CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-85746-244-2.

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