Most of us are not going to have a beatific moment like that in our lives. And such moments are generally understood to be a gift of the Holy Spirit, so there’s no way to stage one even if we wanted. Fortunately, there is a less inspiring but, in some ways, far more usable second part to this story.
Just after this dramatic gesture on the mountain of Montserrat came a year long spell in which Ignatius’ heady epiphanies dried up. There’s no more purposeful or glamorous way to put it than that. In fact, most biographies are pretty sparse on this period of his life because there is so little to say. He had this dramatic conversion-type experience, felt a few days worth of extreme hopefulness and peace in his soul, felt inspired in his spirit to evangelize the world with that same feeling, and then…nothing. No more revelations. No more dreams. No further instruction on what to do next.
Like many spiritual novices, he tried to make up for the feelings he felt he was supposed to be having with piety, assuming it to be his own fault that he wasn’t “connecting with God”—that he wasn’t getting the spiritual dance steps right. He tried fasting for days, praying until his knees were raw, and even letting his physical appearance and basic hygiene go in an effort to avoid the vanity of his youth. Nothing. For all of his efforts, he could not work himself back into that same spiritual frenzy. It made him nearly suicidal.
Then, not nearly so sudden as the original ecstasy but much more steadily, an insight began to dawn on him, one that may very well have saved his life and has saved countless other young enthusiasts from plucking out their eyeballs and cutting off their hands. What if the life of faith is more of a marathon than a sprint? What if God doesn’t want to be wowed by spectacular feats of spiritual asceticism but would rather see, in Eugene Peterson’s contemporary words, “a long obedience in the same direction?”
Gradually, Ignatius’ mental state began to level out. And he got to work writing out a spirituality that still has legs today, thanks to the grace and realism that undergirds it.
On almost every subject that Ignatius wrote, there is some kind of gentle concession to the human realities that most of us face. You don’t have all day to pray? Pray for an hour. You don’t have an hour? Pray for five minutes. You don’t have five minutes? Pray for two. Sure there will be those who don't know what to do with grace and say, "Great, I choose to pray for a second. Done." But for those who are serious about their practice but also have a kid screaming in the next room, this spirituality presumes that the feeling of achieving some spiritual baby steps will get you much farther than feelings of frustrated inadequacy.
Real people with jobs and families in the real world can be spiritual too. We can be contemplative on the move. We don't have to retreat to a lifetime in a monastery.
Ignatian spirituality is founded on the bizarre supposition that setting an impossible goal for oneself and then inevitably getting burnt out on trying to reach it is not nearly as helpful as going easy on yourself and starting with what you can do.
If you are interested in our Castle Church small group life together, where we explore these and other topics, don't hesitate to contact us.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.