We often make reference to the need to “change my attitude,” recognizing that the circumstances may not change, but I can certainly change. I can bring a different self to the table with a little interior wrestling as I recognize my contribution to the scenario that agitates me. This is what it means to be “free.” Rather than the freedom to do whatever I want, I have a certain freedom to be whom I choose, or at least to act as if I am this person I would like to be. Moving past my immediate reaction to a situation necessitates being honest about where I really am, how I am feeling about the situation. The truth will set us free in that, acknowledging where I am, this allows me to navigate wherever else I need to go.
For Ignatius, it was important to identify the real feelings and interior “disposition” of the one who stands before the Creator needing assistance. If we do not know who or where we are, we cannot be intentional about what we ask; we must know our starting place. But we must also know where and who we would like to be. This is the imagination is a gift. Holy Scripture offers us a model of the person we would like to be in Jesus Christ, humanity par excellence. We often hear, “What would Jesus do?” How will we know unless we immerse ourselves in the stories left to us, and enter into the story as our own? We often cannot make ourselves do or be anything, but we can dream and cultivate our deeper desire. God hears our hearts and responds. God knows what we want before we do, but God also wants us to know what we want so that we are in dynamic relationship. When we ask as notice that God answers, our trust grows over time.
The Church has also offered us through the ages the example of the saints whose lives speak the Gospel in their own times. Their lives too become part of our story as we meditate on the possible implications in our own lives and in our own time. Ignatius’ conversion was spurred on by his long hours of convalescence reading and pondering the two books at his disposal: Lives of the Saints and the Imitation of Christ. St. Francis of Assisi spoke to his imagination in such a way that Ignatius could see another way of being in the world “for the glory and honor of God” that radically differed from his own path up to that point.
So let’s use our imaginations in the spirit of St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises in order to determine just how committed we really are to God’s dream. In helping us to discern where we are and where our desire lies, Ignatius uses imaginative scenarios:
Before me is the person of Jesus who is humble, poor, compassionate, downwardly mobile, meeting the lowest and most marginalized in society exactly where they are. What might this look like in my time and in my personal life?
The alternative is also before me. The forces that clamor for my attention include the lives of the rich, the beautiful, the young and the famous, the successful, the honored, the powerful, the comfortable and safe.
What do I really want?
Be honest, but without self-judgment (the great “should”). Who is this Jesus and what is he asking? Who do you know who is most like him? Whom do you admire who is most like him, as far as you know him? These two realities are not always exclusive of one another, but when a decision really matters, what will you choose? What has more of a hold on you? How comfortable are you with this tension? The point is not to guilt or to shame, but rather to invite one to honesty before oneself and God. We need to know for what to ask.
To further unpack this self-examination, Ignatius suggests another meditation that gets to the level of discipleship.
What holds me back from responding wholeheartedly to this Jesus whom I wish to follow?
What are my stumbling blocks? Whatever we are capable of handling, God is going to provide.
Three people have significant money. Each of them recognizes that the money is not an end in itself, and each of them wants to be free enough to give it away for the glory of God. In other words, they want to remove any attachment that keeps them from following God. It does not necessarily have to be money but that is a powerful pull on people in general; it brings home the point. They all want to remove the obstacle. But there are three types of persons:
The first person wishes to detach but never acts. (Remember the suggestion to act as if?). The intention is there, but there is not the follow-through. Often the perfectionist is waiting for the perfect opportunity, for instance, which never emerges. Does this sound familiar?
The second wishes to detach but “helps” God with the distribution of the wealth by controlling the assets, albeit for the good of the Kingdom. There is a need to control, to administer, all in the name of the good one is doing. What does this look like in your own life?
The third class of person is so detached that he discerns with God what to do with the wealth, giving up any control; all that matters is that the resources go for the glory of God and his work. This person is truly “indifferent” and therefore free. This is truly spiritual discernment, making God’s dream the center of the project. Have you had the consolation of knowing that you have participated in this way?
While this meditation gets to the material and emotional attachments to this world, the next meditation gets to the issue of pride, a dogged need to get my own way, even from God. These three people are on a similar scale. When we are in love, we rush to do the will of the other, even when the action is repugnant to us on a purely natural level. These three ways of being humble could be considered three ways of loving.
The first person is concerned with obedience to the law (“I will never violate commandments; I follow the rules”). This can be an act of sheer will that does not allow for surrender to God’s grace, good as this is.
The second person does have interior freedom, indifference, is unattached to the outcome, and open to God’s will, as well as has a repugnance for all sin, all that breaks the relationship of love with God and others. This person accepts what may come, but does not necessarily seek the deeper path.
But the third person actually runs to the lowest place, desiring poverty with Christ, contempt and humility (that which more breaks one’s pride and self-importance). This level of commitment is the greatest freedom because there is nothing that hinders me from following Christ perfectly.
So where do I stand? What are my attachments that draw me away from love and honesty? THEN I ask God to heal what is broken or limited in me, that which is clinging and fearful, self-serving and blind. Letting go of attachments are not ends in themselves. The freedom to follow Christ and to help do the work of the kingdom is ultimately the point. It is not just the freedom from that which binds us, both rather the freedom for the vision beyond ourselves, the deepest truth that we seek.
When making a choice, when discerning the movement of the Spirit, every person must do the interior examination, and be honest before God and self. The more authentic the self-examination, the more authentic the prayer for grace, and the greater the freedom in the Spirit.
Sometimes in a group discernment, we recognize that we are lacking sufficient freedom to really be available to the question at hand. This is where the group discernment helps to purify the intention of all. Each participant makes the intention to be as free as she may in this discernment, and then trusts that God makes up what is lacking.
Pray the meditations above once in a while when you are faced with a decision in which you wish to include God’s guidance. Determine where you stand, and ask God for what you need in the moment. Often we need to ask for what we do not yet truly desire, but want to desire eventually.
“Lord, I want to want to want to forgive. But not right now. It is too hard.”
(Eventually) “I want to want to forgive.”
(Perhaps in time…) “I really do want to forgive. Help me”
Prepare for a group discernment by attending to ways in which you perceive you are not really free around the question. Perhaps you note you have a deep hurt or prejudice or agenda that keeps you from being open to whatever outcome may arise. Place this resistance in God’s hands and ask for enough freedom so that you can be in integrity in this instance, for the sake of the group. Remember to revisit this prayer to not how it turned out.
Spend enough time before a shared prayer in silence and in directing the group to the shared intention, that not only the individuals but also the community itself will have the freedom to hear God’s lead.
Witness to any one of these imaginative prayers or other examples of how God gets us ready to hear his voice, despite and even through, our human resistance.
This article is also available as a PDF handout: Developing a Disposition