In an essay I once wrote when training to be a director in the Ignatian tradition I said that I see the Exercises as reflecting the existential journey every soul must make to move towards union with God. To do this, we must, with God’s help, let go of all the things which impede our path. John English titled his book on the Exercises “Spiritual Freedom”, and I like to hold this aspiration in my mind as I accompany people on the way.
So, what is meant by spiritual freedom, and how can we, as spiritual directors, help people to work towards it? Ignatius’ life gives us some clues. It is true that he was born into a very privileged family, after all they owned a castle! But external appearances can be deceptive. For starters he was the youngest of thirteen children. How much time can his mother and father have had to nurture him? Next, his mother died when he was seven. Lastly, he was sent to live in the household of a relative when he was fifteen. I get the impression that he, like many other children both then and now, was encouraged to get out of childhood as quickly as possible, to reach the higher state of adulthood.
The downside of all this is that many adults, including me have learned to suppress their personal hurts to create a façade of being adult even when they have little confidence that they are. This damage to ourselves need not be from direct cruelty but can arise from events beyond the control of both ourselves and our parents. In my case the death of my father when I was a toddler was one such event. We need also to remember that our parents may have been just as subject to these forces as we have been. I remember a few years ago listening to a talk back program where people, usually in their early adulthood, rang up to complain about their parents. Being somewhat older than they were, and being a parent myself, my immediate thought was “Just wait another twenty years and tune in to hear your own children on the line complaining about you!”
So how can we use the Exercises to help others mend the scars of childhood and move into greater spiritual freedom? When we look at Ignatius’ vision at La Storta we can see the elements needed for resolution. In this event Ignatius found that he was placed by God with his son, Jesus. This was such a formative experience for Ignatius that he called his emerging little group the Society of Jesus. If you look at the meaning of a society, it includes the notions of a community of people living together and having shared customs. Hence relationship is at its core. It’s no accident that Ignatius called the others in the group companions. It is this longing for close relationships which is at the heart of most of our lives.
I think the early parts of the second week of the Exercises are key to helping resolve this longing. The Nativity Contemplation starts this process. It is very important to note that Ignatius says we are to place ourselves in these scenes as a “little” person. This mirrors our own childhood experiences as being relatively powerless observers of an adult narrative. The Godhead reveals itself as a helpless infant. No less God but born in a manger. I find it very useful to ask my directees to imagine themselves as this little helper beginning in Nazareth and as Ignatius says being there to “serve them in their needs with all possible homage and reverence.”
If you like, this is the first step on the way to the Standard of Christ which is to recognise our own poverty. The next step is to ask my directees to hold the baby Christ, gaze at him and ask, “What do you need from me?” and, “What are my feelings as I gaze into your eyes?” The answer is obvious the need is for love and the desire is to love! Surprisingly, the same needs I had as a child and still have now.
Thus begins the journey of getting to know Christ and growing up with him, in effect creating a new narrative of ourselves as loved companions of Jesus. In this narrative we can accompany him through the hidden years, maybe he has a special name for us as a childhood friend. Perhaps it is a name we were given affectionately as a child. Maybe we can play with him, go home for morning tea at Mary’s house, spend time with Joseph in his carpentry shed, talk to Jesus about our fears and triumphs. At later times we can travel with him as our friend to the Temple, stand with him for baptism by John. It is important to note that in this narrative there is no shame in being a child. No authoritarian God demanding things of us. As Ignatius says we are desiring “an intimate knowledge of our Lord who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.” The key to the relationship is love and unlike the narrative of “I did but see her across a crowded room” this love is borne from mutual knowledge, not just appearances.
In my own experience of the Exercises this mutuality between me and Christ was sealed at the end of the Second Week. As Jesus was coming down the hill on his donkey on Palm Sunday, I was a little child peaking out from behind my mother’s skirts. He caught my eye and said, “Why don’t you come up here with me?” I sat in front of him on the donkey his hands clasped around my tummy. People were throwing flowers and palms in front of us and sometimes on us. “Why don’t you throw some flowers back?” The whole scene became one of joy, security, and a mutuality of love between me, Jesus, and the whole crowd. I sat secure in the knowledge that he loved me not only now but through all the stages of my life.
How wonderful if we can pass on to our directees that same security of knowing they have always been loved just as they are and just as Ignatius was when he was placed with Jesus as a companion at La Storta.