How grateful I am to that well-known bon vivant St. Augustine, who declared in his hard-partying days, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”
How encouraging those words sound to those of us who’d love to be better disciples, too — but we aren’t ready yet either.
Midway through The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which I’ve been studying with 30 others since October, that’s where I am. The spirit is willing. The rest of me? Not so much.
Happily, I am not alone in my little prayer group.
In Week 15 of the Exercises, the rubber meets the road. If we’ve followed the prescription, we’ve prayed daily on psalms and scriptures, imagined ourselves in gospel scenes, and even conversed with Jesus for 30 to 45 minutes per day. We’ve met with our spiritual directors. We’ve done the daily examen, a 10- to 15-minute review of the day focused on gratitude and attention to feelings and emotions.
That brings us to 5,250 minutes of prayer, more or less. And now we’re asked if we’re willing to open our ears to hear Christ’s call to us and to do whatever he asks us to do.
Well, I answer, nervously, that depends on what he asks.
Unfortunately, Ignatius says he’s asking us to stop prioritizing what most of us, instinctually, prioritize: maintaining health over sickness, wealth over poverty, success over failure, a long life over a short one. As if that’s not enough, he wants us too to bear all injuries and affronts, and spiritual as well as that aforementioned material poverty.
Oh, Ignatius. Surely you jest.
Who can do that? Not me. Not the prayer buddies I’ve quizzed. We’re not even close.
Not to care when I keel over or waste slowly away? Or whether I can pay the bills until I get there? To stop craving love and approval, security and esteem?
Yet here’s the paradox.
Jesuit Kevin O’Brien, who’s written our Ignatian study guide, says that when we live for the reasons we were made — to praise, love, and serve God — we become truly happy, fulfilled, and free. When we allow self-preoccupations and disordered loves (money, success, our neighbor’s wife) to become what matters most, we find ourselves out of balance, unhappy, and miserable. We’re forever craving, clinging, competing, scheming, sneaking, worrying, demanding more and more. Will we get the job, the raise, and the right decorator who’ll pick the right color scheme for our newly remodeled and very expensive kitchen?
I read what O’Brien wrote.
I get it.
I even think I believe it. Christ was, after all, a counter cultural radical.
But achieving that state of “holy indifference,” as Ignatius calls it, well, that’s a different matter.
On the other hand, last October, when I began the exercises, I couldn’t even understand the concept, to paraphrase Matthew, of losing my life to find it. I hadn’t paid attention to Luke’s brilliant line (12:25) on the uselessness of worrying. “Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life span?”
Now, they make sense to me. That is progress. And as the great saints and spiritual writers say, that’s also the result of perseverant prayer, all 5,250 minutes of it. “The kingdom is open to those who beg, by prayer, to enter it,” says Thomas Merton. Or as one of my favorite spiritual writers, the mystic Evelyn Underhill, has said, the soul that puts no limit on its correspondence with God, through the power and love it develops in prayer, “becomes transfigured.” And eventually that soul moves, she says, “from narrow hard intensity to gentle irradiating generosity.”
In fairness, Ignatius himself understood that few would give up the 16th-century equivalent of granite top counters and flat screen TVs to pick up their cross and follow Jesus Christ. But all of us can pray. If you cannot honestly say yes to Christ’s call today and do what he asks of you, writes Kevin O’Brien in “The Ignatian Adventure,” just keep praying for the desire to get there. Let God work on you. Be patient. Keep the faith. See what miracles can happen.