Inclined Toward Love: Notes While Doing the Spiritual Exercises

Morgan Zo-Callahan


This essay is dedicated to the memory of two men who played a major role in my understanding the Ignatian exercises: my great friend and mentor, Bob Holstein, dancing away in Peace, still-inspiring-us here on ever-more-connected Earth, and my dear friend, Curtis Bryant, S.J. May they Rest in Peace.


Iñigo was always rather inclined toward love; moreover, he seemed all love, and because of that he was universally loved by all.—Luis Gonçalves de Camara, a close associate of Ignatius


I might think about a tiny bug or flower, and imagine how many other living and nonliving things conspired to bring it to life and sustain it.… I consider that all the good that I see and know comes to be as a share in the divine good.—St. Ignatius, “Contemplation to Obtain the Love of God.”


We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you, your ideas mature gradually—let them grow; let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.


            This study covers the following topics:

·                     Nineteenth Annotation retreat

·                     The Principle and Foundation

·                     Examen of Conscience (Examination of Consciousness)

·                     The Call of the Temporal King

·                     “Application of the Senses”

·                     “Three Kinds of Humility” and Curtis’s story

·                     The Election and the Discernment of Spirits

·                     Consolation and Desolation, “Interior Movements”

·                     Exercises that adapt to the needs of each individual


Situating Myself in the Universe

Making the Spiritual Exercises according to the Nineteenth Annotation, 1998


            In July of 1998 my dear friend and mentor, Bob Holstein, gathered together a small group of men, most of whom were former Jesuits, to do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in the long form that is described in the Nineteenth Annotation of Ignatius’ final text.

            When I read the actual text of the Exercises, I am amazed that they have withstood the test of time. This thin volume has been printed more than four and a half million times over more than four centuries, making it one of the most influential works about prayer and meditation in the western world. It is not a self-help book, and Ignatius’ directions for the retreat director are as precise, detailed, unembellished, and as dry as any instructions that have ever been written.

            Among Jesuit “best practices” have been to create spiritual retreats, sermons, and teaching materials in other languages, for other cultures and times, yet based in the Exercises. A good result would be that these adaptations lead to a prayerful, intense, and experiential connection with the Lord Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection, and his teachings. The Jesuits have met with some success with these projects all over the world. I have attempted to record my own meditations, prayers, and reflections during this nine-month period and final summary weekend at the Loyola Institute of Spirituality in the same open, innovative, and creative spirit. I bow with reverence to Jesus and Ignatius for the life-enhancing principles imparted to me, even though I find myself at this stage of my life more in tune with Buddhist practice informing an Ignatian one.

            The intensive thirty-day retreat Ignatius lays out in his manual, requires five hours of spiritual exercises each day in a setting of silence and separation from the day-to-day world. He himself added the Nineteenth Annotation retreat for people who want to do the Exercises, but have active lives they cannot leave for such an extended period. It takes thirty-four weeks with at least an hour of prayer and meditation—much listening—and the Examen of Conscience each day. Here’s what he himself writes about the Nineteenth Annotation:

            Nineteenth Annotation: A person of education or ability, who is taken up with public affairs or suitable business, may take an hour and a half daily to exercise himself.

            Let the end for which man is created be explained to him, and he can also be given for the space of a half-hour the Particular Examen and then the General and the way to confess and to receive the Blessed Sacrament. Let him, during three days every morning, for the space of an hour, make the meditation on the First, Second and Third Sins, pp. 37, 38; then, three other days at the same hour, the meditation on the statement of Sins, p. 40; then, for three other days at the same hour, on the punishments corresponding to Sins, p. 45. Let him be given in all three meditations the ten Additions, p. 47.

            For the mysteries of Christ our Lord, let the same course be kept, as is explained below and in full in the Exercises themselves.


[All quotes from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius cited in this essay are taken from the translation of the Autograph of the Exercises prepared by Fr. Elder Mullan, S.J. I have left each section cited exactly as it appears in its entirety.]

            Holstein called me, and said, “Come on, take this retreat; I know you’re studying a lot of Buddhism, but maybe they can interplay.” It had been some thirty-five years since I had undertaken the discipline of an Ignatian retreat, and I had more than a few misgivings about re-emerging in already-rejected ideas of original sin; the guilt that my personal sins caused Jesus to be crucified; absolute, eternal Hells; the put-on “spiritual enthusiasm” of wanting to be a soldier who fights bravely, even fanatically, in the service of the Lord Jesus.

            Holstein said that the man who would be “directing” our retreat, Don Merrifield, S.J. had a very open approach to the Exercises; Holstein said Merrifield thought that the Exercises could be given to Jews, Buddhists, and other religions as well. He was into creating new and relevant expressions of the Exercises that weren’t to be based primarily in the counter-Reformation theology of Ignatius’ time. OK I thought, I’d at least go talk with Merrifield, and read something about his approach.

            Merrifield told me that he was “playing around” with Magana’s Liberation Theology approach, “Because our times behoove us to enter the politics of oppression, to connect prayer and meditation to the poor.” He said that he had been studying nature mysticism, and was very simpatico with Pierre de Chardin. He assured me I didn’t need to take as the truth that I personally caused Jesus’ sufferings, or, really, believe all of Ignatius’ theology, time bound in the sixteenth century, or from my early training in the post-World War II, 1950s catechism.

            We would do the “four weeks” of the Exercises over thirty-four actual weeks; we would generally be on our own though some spiritual direction would be available if we requested it; there would also be some group meetings at Loyola Marymount University; and our group inter-e-mailing would serve as a kind of self-generated spiritual direction.

            There was to be one final weekend training at Loyola Institute of Spirituality in Orange, California. Holstein and the Loyola Institute of Spirituality wanted to train men and women who had completed the Exercises to lead prayer groups, retreats, or counsel using the principles of the Exercises. Bob felt that spiritual direction was not only for the ordained—lay people might be equally as gifted spiritual directors as the ordained and should be recognized as such.

            Before we actually began the Exercises, we each set goals with Don that determined the logistics for our retreat. We each wanted to adapt the experience to our unique selves as well as to our American cultural lives. Some of us, myself included, chose to ask for some spiritual direction.

            Each day I would do an Examen of Conscience and a contemplation from the Exercises—putting myself into a story or “scene” from Christ’s life; for example, Jesus healing the sick and the lame; speaking directly to the abuse of religious power that burdens people, confronting religious leaders and religious hierarchies who create fear, and fall prey to the negative human proclivity to have power and dominate over other humans. I wanted gustare et sentire res internum, to taste and feel the inner communications of the Spirit, by making myself present through imagination and fantasy to events in Jesus’ life. I would open myself to affections, feelings as I came to know Jesus interiorly, immersing myself in the stories of the New Testament. Then I would let my understanding be applied responsibly and intelligently to how I was living my life. Sometimes, I would just imagine being out in a solitary desert, quietly sitting in meditation and prayer with Jesus, feeling a Presence. I contemplated Jesus’ appeal for us to love each other, even the most down and out, contemplating Jesus in prison today, in the hospital, living on the street, among those alone, forgotten and hurting. I would also do metta meditations, praying that all of us be happy and without hatred and conflict. (I usually spent almost one to two hours a day doing the Exercises, but sometimes there was only enough time to do the Examen of Conscience.)

            The eminent scholar of the Spiritual Exercises, Joe Tetlow, S.J. says the Spiritual Exercises could be fruitfully given to non-Catholics and non-Christians. In many of the great traditions, there are “transcendent” (Impersonal, Unknowable, Uninterested) as well as “immanent” (Loving, Personal) and, according to some sages such as Ramakrishna, one can come to full life by surrender to either a personal God or an impersonal God, or even just to the sense of the wonder of being. So, I was enthused by the possibility of doing the Exercises without over-emphasizing its theistic/creator/original sin theology. I told Don Merrifield I’d like to start without any religious preconceptions of what I was supposed to learn and know about Jesus. I’d do exercises to really try to understand who Jesus was, flying in consciousness, in the stark desert, being tempted, fasting, being transformed, being with women, the poor and rich, angry at religious exploitation of people, saying the Father is greater than he, teaching, being fierce, being a son, being a critic of religious tyranny which oppresses people, saying there’s no love unless we love ourselves and all others equally.

            I’d examine my conscience each day—much like doing a simple observation of mind, body, feelings, emotions, afflictions, joys and “re-ordering” my intentions when I see clearly my “inordinate attachments,” usually for money, sex, power, wanting to be popular and rich. I would check in with a spiritual director to talk about and get feedback on what I most truly desire for my life. The director helped me get in touch with my own heart and feelings and how to discern which feelings and yearnings were coming from my connection to my purest mind and heart. So I discriminate between the genuine and a put-on self; I re-order my life as my Buddhist friend, Dr. Eng Moy, so often says to “be a loving, caring, sharing, understanding human being.”

            The flow of the Exercises is moving from disordered, attached, selfish living to seeing in Jesus’ life a model of a loving life, and practicing compassion for all, identifying the suffering with Jesus in our world today, and finally to live all as joy and gift, making individual elections, modifications/adaptations in our lives/reformations/personal transformations, as the inevitable changing, suffering, and happiness come and go.

            The first week considers the examination of one’s conscience, thoughts, words, deeds; our sins and personal hells. We begin the second week with a meditation on the spiritual kingdom of Christ and then move onto contemplate Jesus’ life, his infancy and hidden life, his contemplative and prayer life, his public life. We also do meditations about choices we make in our lives based on imitating the qualities of Jesus; in the third week, we contemplate Jesus’ suffering and death and consider rules for how we nourish ourselves, how we formulate rules for eating and healthy daily living skills; in the fourth week, we contemplate the resurrection of Jesus, and we make the contemplation to “attain the love of God.”

            During the nine months, I discovered Ignatian and Buddhist approaches are very complementary. I even reflected on similarities of the individual six year period of spiritual seeking of the prince Buddha, putting on the monk’s robe and seeking true happiness and the proud knightly warrior-lover Ignatius, donning coarse clothes of a monk, seeking and finding the true Lover. They both had temptations and mystical experiences, as well as learning that extreme asceticism hurts the body and the spirit. They both completed their spiritual seeking, and founded religious orders based on spiritual practices, which continue to this day.


The Principle and Foundation

            The Exercises begin with an examination of what Ignatius calls “the Principle and Foundation.” These are Ignatius’ exact words:

            Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

            And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

            From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid him of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

            For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.


            The Principle and Foundation is not what Ignatius would call contemplation. It is more a “thought-experiment.” Given this principle, what follows? This is not living one’s life based on a private revelation but rather on certain principles that are open to discussion, verification, interpretation, disagreement and, even rejection. However Ignatius has also laid the foundation for perhaps the most famous and insightful of his principles: that love is best expressed in deeds and not words.

            When for example, Ignatius next says that all on the “face of the earth” are for men and women to help attaining the goal of saving one’s soul, it is open to an understanding that I don’t agree with: the implication of a superiority of the human animal and a right, almost an obligation, for us “to subjugate” the natural world. Re-orienting the principle that states our relationship to all the rest of creation is essential to humankind’s survival on earth.

            We are all part of the natural world; barefooted, grass walks us. We’re all the living rain forests in the world, as fellow-retreatant Bob Brophy said. Brophy suggested we be aware that “a clear difference between our present perceptions and those of Ignatius’ day is the demand that we de-center mankind—we have lost confidence that humans are the unique purpose of the kind of cosmos that we see through the Hubble telescope. Among the ‘many mansions” possible on other planets, there may be races who have reached Teilhard’s point of noösphere (the calling forth of evolved mind) long ago .… And in our day of ecological awareness, we are being taught by nature and its God to respect and wonder at the kinds of creatures, at our entire living universe, a humbling of this human-centeredness. All this is God’s goodness exploding in beauty .… Finally we have shifted our sin-consciousness or consciousness of “disordered” acts partly from “personal” sins of lust, pride, anger, laziness, etc., to an apprehension of “systemic” sin. It is almost impossible in life not to cooperate in evil by taking advantage of and allowing structures to remain that systematically exploit the poor, the earth, even in rain forest and oceans, air and soil … this is the world as God gives it to us now.”

            I’m making these Exercises with no emotional feeling that Jesus loves me and cares for me as an individual; I don’t think so. I think Jesus just gave us the message to love each other in our present lives. For me God is really ineffable, yet there’s a profound presence within life on our earth speeding sixty-seven thousand miles an hour around the Sun. Einstein, like Spinoza, said God is remote, uninvolved with our human world. Though God isn’t necessarily as involved in our world as we like to project, Einstein’s idea of God was full of awe and wonder, a deep respect for an impersonal mystery. Some colleagues and friends share a similar view of God.

            Three bows to wonderful unknowing! I feel more respect for ambiguity, chaos, imperfection and paradox, obviously as much a factor in life as are clarity and the notion of an ordered universe. I reflected on a Vedic text: “That in which all these worlds are fixed, of which they are, for which they all arise, for which they all exist, because of which they all come into being and which they truly are—That alone is the real, the truth. May we adore That at Heart.” Could the Exercises be of benefit to me to realize this? Could the Exercises make some sense to our contemporary world? My first indications are definitely positive.

            And finally in the Principle and Foundation, Ignatius wisely concludes we should give up inordinate, clinging, harmful preferences in the world, whether we’re famous or not, rich or not, whether we’re enjoying spiritual consolations or not; and concentrate on being who we are, understanding the purpose for which we have been created, and finally to be happy through giving and receiving love within ourselves, for others, and for our world.

            I feel that this is not an ontological statement that in order to reach God, a man or a woman ought to be detached from a world that is inherently evil. Rather I think that the entire emphasis here is on spiritual practice. Listen to what Ignatius writes in the twentieth annotation:

            From this isolation [imposed by the Exercises] three chief benefits, among many others, follow.

            The first is that a man, by separating himself from many friends and acquaintances, and likewise from many not well-ordered affairs, to serve and praise God our Lord, merits no little in the sight of His Divine Majesty.

            The second is, that being thus isolated, and not having his understanding divided on many things, but concentrating his care on one only, namely, on serving his Creator and benefiting his own soul, he uses with greater freedom his natural powers, in seeking with diligence what he so much desires.

            The third: the more our soul finds itself alone and isolated, the more apt it makes itself to approach and to reach its Creator and Lord, and the more it so approaches Him, the more it disposes itself to receive graces and gifts from His Divine and Sovereign Goodness.

            Merrifield wrote the following as his adaptation of the “First Principle and Foundation of Ignatius.”

            “I begin by situating myself, as best I can, in the overall scheme of life. I sense myself alone before the mystery of my existence and the mystery of the existence of the entire universe. Turning from all immediate consideration, all busyness of mind and spirit, I focus on the wonder of it all, even on the wonder of being able to wonder. Reflecting on the Genesis accounts of creation, I find my self, like Adam, newly sprung into being, clay of the earth into which the Shaper of all has breathed spirit and life. I am formed through the clay from which I came, one with the earth and all its wonderful panoply of living things and mountains and seas, rhythms, cycles and beauty. Shaped from the same stuff as all these, over eons, I am amazingly made, a delicate and yet strong bio-system, living in a balance with all else and surviving through all the myriad of interactions with all creation, including of course, my fellow human creatures. But I and my fellows are somehow strange amidst all these other creatures, sprung from the same clay. We have had a life breathed into us from another realm that adds another dimension, spirit. In us this clay becomes open to limitless horizons.”

            I begin the First Week of the Exercises. I agree not to have any expectations about what the process will be about. I agree to let the Spirit lead as she may. I begin to practice my daily Examen of Conscience (some today call Exam of Consciousness) where I pay attention to my thoughts, words, actions, my real, most basic motives.

            This is perhaps the right time to say something more about the Examen. Traditionally the “examen” has been used as way of trying to remove the imperfections of character, if not the outright tendency towards sinfulness. Each day, for three periods of approximately fifteen minutes at set intervals, a person doing the Exercises or a person who is using the examen outside the context of a retreat, makes a thorough inventory of all his or her thoughts, words, and actions since the time he or she last made the Examine to scrutinize all behaviors in the light of his intention to break a specific bad habit or avoid sin.

            I found this form, this context for self-examination, to be less than satisfactory. I borrow from my Buddhist practice of mindfulness. I examine my intentions, thoughts, words and actions and feel them interiorly. First of all I want to be a good human being—free from hurting myself and others—with a primacy of my own conscience and intelligence—not hypnotized by either guru or Pope. I discover that I am an ongoing process towards a brightness-wakefulness based in just the way humans are; negative thoughts lose their power in the face of a joyful spirituality.

            And finally I extend the examen of my consciousness to all beings, as a society, as we relate to our environment and to our local and global politics. I “purify” myself, my thoughts, speech and intentions. Thus I minimize emotional distraction, which can overwhelm my particular, unique and undivided expression of a loving life.

            The first week deals with our distorted view of the world and the universe. It is often called the “purification” stage of the spiritual process. Much as in Buddhism, sila, moral correctness is a foundation of meditation and wisdom. There are certainly hells to confront in ourselves and in our global spinning together. I find the first week to be the opportunity to sit down and be honest with ourselves, inside and out, in our intentions, words, and actions.

            For me “sin,” is missing the mark of the living heart. There’s no need to dwell on guilt and shame, even though there remain emotional negative thoughts about my human nature. As Faulkner says, “the past isn’t dead for us; it isn’t even past.”

            The First Week was a call to be brutally honest, and at the same time, not harsh with myself—a time to imbibe my own mortality. Once my dearest friend, Marcus Holly, told me: “Morgan, you make yourself more than you are sometimes, pay attention when you do that. You want others to think you are better than you are.” Ignatius suggests we concentrate on what particularly is hanging us up; in my case it was a kind of dishonesty not to present myself just as I am, but wanting to “look good.”

            My first week was a reflection on the feelings of greed, jealousy, anger, even hatred in myself, to “see it,” but also let it go. I had to deal with losses and death, the impermanence of my body. I had to pay more attention to my body. Ignatian retreats may stress that we should want to feel shame, embarrassment, confusion, sorrow that my sins have tortured Jesus. For myself, I no longer find any of that helpful or true. But I feel we do torture the Jesus in our contemporary world by hurting those Jesus said would represent his presence on earth: the oppressed, the poor, the abused children, and the forgotten people.

            The culture and theology of Ignatius’ time has its own way of expressing sin, hell, impermanence and death; Ignatius’ genius, in my opinion, is that essential spiritual insights can come from the Spiritual Exercises, even for a non-theistic Buddhist. I’ve found some First week exercises helpful in counteracting lust and vanity.



            Ignatius begins the second week with the famous contemplation of God’s kingdom and the Incarnation. It begins with an examination of a personal response to a command from an earthly king and then asks the person who is making the Exercises to use those same feelings and listen to the Gospel as a call into the service by the second person of the Holy Trinity.

            Here are Ignatius’s instructions for beginning the contemplation.


The Call of the Temporal King

            It helps to contemplate the life of the King Eternal.

            First Point. The first Point is, to put before me a human king chosen by God our Lord, whom all Christian princes and men reverence and obey.

            Second Point. The second, to look how this king speaks to all his people, saying: “It is my Will to conquer all the land of unbelievers. Therefore, whoever would like to come with me is to be content to eat as I, and also to drink and dress, etc., as I: likewise he is to labor like me[6] in the day and watch in the night, etc., that so afterwards he may have part with me in the victory, as he has had it in the labors.”

            Third Point. The third, to consider what the good subjects ought to answer to a King so liberal and so kind, and hence, if any one did not accept the appeal of such a king, how deserving he would be of being censured by all the world, and held for a mean-spirited knight.


            As I do this contemplation, I am struck by how much of Ignatius’ life experience is reduced to a few words and distilled, allowing me to experience—as much as I can as twentieth century American who cherishes democracy—what Ignatius felt as he underwent his conversion.

            In 1491 Ignatius (Iñigo) Loyola was born into a wealthy family, the youngest of thirteen children, in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in northern Spain. It was the time of discovery, the New World of the Americas, European wars, corruption in the church, and the stirrings of Humanism. As a young man, he was a page for Juan Velazquez, the treasurer of the kingdom of Castille. The free-spirited Iñigo developed a taste for royalty, gambling, swordplay—and, most definitely, the ladies. He was ambitious, romantic, “sinful,” vain, anti-religious.

            At age thirty, as an officer defending Pamplona against the French, Iñigo was wounded. A cannon ball broke one leg and damaged the other. It was a very serious injury—he would limp for the rest of his life. While recuperating, he read a life of Christ and a book about the saints, it is said, because he was bored and that was the only reading material to be found in the castle. By nature exuberant and whole-hearted, he allowed Jesus’ life to deeply penetrate his being. He felt an inner tranquility, as he would lose himself in Jesus, and an equally strong desire to reform himself.

            When he could walk again, he set off for Barcelona with the intention of becoming a pilgrim, and going to live in Jerusalem where Jesus had lived. He stopped at the Benedictine shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat to leave his sword and knife at the altar as sign of his intention to change his life. As he prayed there, he began to experience a series of mystical visions and intuitive insights which he knew he had to follow, and he took shelter in a cave along the Cardoner River in the town of Manresa where he stayed for ten months. The principles and practices he created as he underwent his spiritual transformation were the seeds for the Spiritual Exercises.

            I’ve often been struck by the similarities between Ignatius and the Buddha. The onset of the Buddha’s spiritual crisis is told in a story: the scene, dawn in the palace of Prince Gautama Buddha. After a night of revelry, the rich connoisseur, the admired and accomplished presumptive prince notices the unattractive sleeping poses of the beautiful women who had been dancing for his enjoyment just a few hours earlier, and he sees through the enchantments of the evening. He begins to feel somehow empty living his “perfect” life. All the wonderful entertainments and sumptuous occasions with beautiful women, food, and drink somehow no longer satisfy the Buddha, Ignatius—or me. Both Iñigo and the Buddha begin a quest: I must get to the true Source of life that will bring me peace and happiness.

            I can make this contemplation with enormous benefit. I can further expand it into a world where human nature also shows, as I read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and his stories, how we all get into “name, fame, and gold.” How we love ourselves in a narcissistic way, our eyes/ears wanting always to receive flattery. Our tightening ourselves around our money, power, positions and the contrast between that call and the message of the teachings of Jesus.

            The rest of the Second Week is filled with contemplations of the accounts of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Here are two counsels, “preludes” in the language of his manual, that Ignatius gives for beginning these contemplations, the “Application of the Senses” and, then as usual with Ignatius, an inquiry into what actions follow from prayer.

            First Prelude. The first Prelude is a composition, seeing the place: it will be here to see with the sight of the imagination, the synagogues,[5] villages and towns through which Christ our Lord preached.

            Second Prelude. The second, to ask for the grace which I want: it will be here to ask grace of our Lord that I may not be deaf to His call, but ready and diligent to fulfill His most Holy Will.


            Before I begin to share some thoughts about the Application of the senses, however, I would like to point to another place where I found a parallel between the instructions of Ignatius and that of many of my Buddhist teachers. Ignatius writes: “Before entering into prayer, I should rest my mind for a while, either seated or walking; and I will reflect on where I am going and why.” (Spiritual Exercises [SE], 239) It is about intention, not achieving a particular result. Many people who begin to use the imagination in contemplation question whether they are “doing it right.” For Ignatius, the “soul is not satisfied and filled by knowing a lot of facts but by feeling and tasting things in the depths of the heart.” (SE 2) When relaxed and focused, Ignatius suggests one’s inner Source will communicate directly and intimately with the individual person as “speaking as a friend speaks with his friend.” (SE 54). And we know that our friends have different voices. The Exercises allow us the necessary time to be in touch with one’s own personal, living mind and heart through meditation, contemplation and reflection. Don’t even worry what we’re supposed to hear. Taking time to listen to one’s self in a friendly way is spiritual exercise.

            Contemplations, meditations and prayerful reflections using the technique of concentrated imagination have a certain dynamic: Getting in touch with our genuine desire for total freedom and realizing that such freedom for making decisions and taking action requires making ourselves spiritually “indifferent.” Ignatius makes his notion of “indifference” clear in the Principle and Foundation. It is not a listless state of not caring, but an active state of being open without as many self-prohibitions and prejudices as possible.

            By contemplating Jesus, in the imagination, the mind’s eye, one may feel that his or her heart has been opened by “encountering” Jesus, and that his teachings about kindness, fairness, prayer, speaking out against injustices, feel real in a defining way. One of my contemplations was John the Baptist with Jesus. I see how they dress, smell the water; hear the insects buzzing around Jesus’ shoulders. I tune into John’s preaching; so wild, crazy in his quest for God, in his garment of camel’s hair and a leather skirt around his waist, his food of locusts and honey—how sweet that honey must have been. I can taste it. What courage to face up to the Pharisees, while baptizing Jesus: “ … the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting, alighting on him.” I can feel it.

            As I contemplate the life of Jesus, I try to place myself as best I can in the living conditions of the time Jesus lived. Even in his parables, I can become the prodigal son welcomed by his father, unconditionally, even after I’ve messed up and squandered my money and time. I can live this emotionally—my father just loves me; he’s not angry or berating me. He enthusiastically wants us to eat and talk and share life with each other, to continue to grow together.

            I watch Jesus teaching us to be gentle, peacemakers, to serve everyone but most especially the poor, to value meditation and prayer; before his horrific execution, what we call his “passion.” I see him wash the disciples’ feet. Though I’m going back in history, applying my senses and imagination, I’m simultaneously exploring what’s going on in my life, at this time. I’m asking what I desire most deeply for myself. How can I live in the conditions that I find in my life, here and now?

            I’m seeing Jesus before any religious authority or organization tells me who Jesus is and what Jesus wants me to do. I’m looking, as best I can, with unbiased “eyes of my imagination” within stories of Jesus. I experience Jesus as a man of unconditional loving, brave activism, a critic of religious authority that is abusive. His humanity is divine.

            Such exercises—as a witness or as a participant—of contemplating the life, suffering and death, resurrection of Jesus allow us to be with a divine mystery, to participate in a spiritual experience of giving one’s heart and energy in response to a deep listening from within. We allow ourselves the space and attention to touch our deepest, most creative desires; to feel and accept our fears, hurting, with gentle embracing; to be with the goodness, energy and wisdom which we are. We are what we wake up to. We have what we most desire.

            At this point in the Exercises, Ignatius introduces his notion of the “Three Kinds of Humility.” This is from the text of the Exercises:

            First Humility. The first manner of Humility is necessary for eternal salvation; namely, that I so lower and so humble myself, as much as is possible to me, that in everything I obey the law of God, so that, even if they made me lord of all the created things in this world, nor for my own temporal life, I would not be in deliberation about breaking a Commandment, whether Divine or human, which binds me under mortal sin.

            Second Humility. The second is more perfect Humility than the first; namely, if I find myself at such a stage that I do not want, and feel no inclination to have, riches rather than poverty, to want honor rather than dishonor, to desire a long rather than a short life—the service of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul being equal; and so not for all creation, nor because they would take away my life, would I be in deliberation about committing a venial sin.

            Third Humility. The third is most perfect Humility; namely, when—including the first and second, and the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty being equal—in order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, opprobrium with Christ replete with it rather than honors; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.


            I feel that I didn’t benefit much from thinking about, praying over, or meditating on these three kinds of humility. In fact, I had totally rejected self-punishment as a spiritual practice. I would not seek out physical pain, humiliations, or insults to be like Jesus. It had the flavor of masochistic, self-destructive behavior. However, I can reach out to those who are suffering, even to myself, and learn how Jesus forgave and loved even when he was hurt so much, and I would later learn that this spiritual practice is really about how we react, how we respond when we suffer physically or if we are insulted and humiliated.

            Knowing Curtis Bryant, S.J., a dearest, sweet friend from high school, and the generosity with which he shared his life struggle finally allowed me to go more deeply and make sense of Ignatius’ counsel. Our friendship allowed both of us to grow into this insight. Together we would learn a way to unite our own suffering with that of other people in the world who are suffering, connecting with them and working with the intention that they be happy. [Curtis died from cancer on November 18, 2003 at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. My telling his story is also my eulogy for a wonderful man. May he be in Peace.]

            Curtis was a licensed psychologist. In his fourth year of theology studies, he took a Clinical Pastoral Education course at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., and he knew that therapy and counseling would be “the backbone of my life in the future.” He went on to earn a Ph.D. at the Californian School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley, in 1983.

            Once Curtis and I talked for a long time about these three levels, traditionally taken as expressions of Christian commitment: the first level, not committing grave, mortal sins, and avoiding evil; the second level, developing indifference to honors, wealth, not even intending to do a minor, venial sin; and finally the third level, seeking to emulate Jesus who was poor, insulted, taken for a fool. Curtis said the notion sin—in the sense of self-condemnation and exaggerated guilt—is both psychologically and theologically unsound, not reflective of our spiritual understanding in the light of what we know about the workings of the human mind, and the church did not have a wise and compassionate perspective in regards to sexuality, sin and guilt.

            Curtis lived openly and bravely as a gay celibate priest. We spoke about the prejudice towards gay people and saw that the church’s teaching on homosexuality was cruel and ignorantly discriminative. We both felt that the church’s people call women to be priests, no longer to be second-class citizens in the church. I’d share stories about Buddhist communities who were facing the same prejudices. We discussed how difficult it was to be gay, how scapegoated gay men and lesbians were in many Muslim and fundamentalist Christian communities.

            In 1996 Curtis had landed what he thought would be a tremendous job, working just under the Cardinal as the Assistant Vicar for Clergy for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He now had it made. He was proud to show me his posh office, but most of all he shared with me his intention to promote psychosexual development for priests. He also knew that he could help priests who were involved in the terrible sexual abuse scandals that were shaking the Catholic Church to its core, using the best psychotherapy available.

            Then in 1998, one imprudent incident, one phone call to the Cardinal and boom! Curtis was shown the door. No longer Assistant Vicar with the cool office and impressive title, Curtis was devastated. But he said he understood for the first time a way to practice the third kind of humility. We could not and should not pray for insults, humiliations to be united with Jesus, but suffering still exists. He didn’t deny his suffering, but was able to form more healthy perspectives around it. Once he let go his extreme disappointment in losing a high-ranking job, he felt more compassion toward others who have very hard times. He said his suffering was really minuscule, and he could finally name his pain of going from being a “somebody” at last and then being indecorously dumped. He saw through his attachment to name and fame. He said, “This suffering has helped me grow spiritually, connect to others, and I’m happier.”

            Curtis began to pray: “Let these feelings of humiliation, and hurt be of benefit to others, as was the life of Jesus.” Yes, our suffering unites us to the Christ here today, those suffering loneliness, those misunderstood, those in terrible poverty and violence. We cannot ignore that fourteen thousand children die every day from hunger. We, in some tiny way, take that suffering into ourselves and send out vibrations of loving care to those suffering in such poor, squalid conditions. Curtis and I talked about how we didn’t cause Jesus’ suffering, even in some remote sense; rather we were inspired to acknowledge how we create so much of our own suffering by refusing to love, by wanting honors and power and also are hurtful to each other in order to achieve such honors and to fulfill our own desires. As in Buddhism, compassion for oneself and others, love is the foundation. We understood Jesus died for his own particular love. We don’t need to add to it by making ourselves guilty.

            Curtis told me how he felt a freedom from not caring anymore about having the great reputation and enviable position. He said he could be proud and build on the good work he did accomplish during his short stint at Catholic corporate headquarters, L.A.

            And what joy he found just going into private practice as a psychologist; we had spectacular lunches together, conversation and good food, at times, wine, but again the open Curtis, spoke freely about his need to abstain from wine. But wine or not, what laughter and freedom from talking to each other without any secrets from each other, with such zest and joy! And some insight, for us at least, into the third degree of humility.


The Election and the Discernment of Spirits

            One of the distinctive characteristics of the Exercises is what Ignatius calls making an Election, the choice to enter into a deep commitment to a way of living commensurate with what you learn about yourself. God is in the Love. Our love is reflected in our deeds, what we do, not what we say or pretend to do. Love is in the doing.

            After the distinction of three levels of humility, Ignatius has a long examination of the kinds of choices that someone on the spiritual path might have to make and gives advice as to how to get to a decision. He counsels the person making the Exercises to achieve some degree of indifference so that the soul is free to use “its natural powers freely and tranquilly.” [It is the only place in the Autograph, the edition of the Exercises which has Ignatius’s marginalia, and presumably the copy he used when he gave the Exercises, where I note his emphasis: “I said time of quiet .… ”]

            Here is one section from Instructions on making an Election; the list includes the most distinctive Ignatian methods, “discernment of the spirits,” as one of several options:



            First Time. The first time is, when God our Lord so moves and attracts the will, that without doubting, or being able to doubt, such devout soul follows what is shown it, as St. Paul and St. Matthew did in following Christ our Lord.

            Second Time. The second, when enough light and knowledge is received by experience of consolations and desolations, and by the experience of the discernment of various spirits.

            Third Time. The third time is quiet, when one considers, first, for what man is born—namely, to praise God our Lord and save his soul—and desiring this chooses as means a life or state within the limits of the Church, in order that he may be helped in the service of his Lord and the salvation of his soul.

            I said time of quiet, when the soul is not acted on by various spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly.


            In the first “time,” we might be intimately connected to our Source, God, whose nature is to shower gifts continually in the form of our universe together unfolding, evolving, ever changing. The spiritual exercises open our awareness that all of life is gift, and that it is holy in its essence. Through practice, first paying attention, learning to relax ourselves and establishing a modicum of inner peace, spaciousness; reflective wisdom may then arise, an attitude of finding more and more enjoyment in being truly “persons for others.”

            We see through ourselves, being in our hearts, reflecting about wisdom of Jesus, of Buddha, not “inordinately attaching” to anything, appreciating, not pushing anything away, understanding likes and dislikes, distastes; responding to the yearnings of our heart, making choices from and by our best self, allowing ourselves to be influenced by the life and teachings of Jesus or whatever our religion or flavor of a religion we may live; we begin “finding God in all things,” in all people. Ignatius says our first aim is to serve God and that we should not use anything nor deprive ourselves of anything, apart from that natural purpose. Non-theists may change this to say our first aim is to serve, without “inordinate attachments.”

            I was interested in how the making of an Election fits with my understanding of psychology, but I also wanted to “reform” my expectations in my work and family and friend life; to just pay a bit more attention and caring to them, what Ignatius would call an Election of Reformation of Life. I wanted to take the time to see if I could live more from my heart and intelligence, breathing more life in relationship to being a teacher, a family man, a friend, a volunteer in programs for those less fortunate. I didn’t want to change my circumstances of living, but, through an interior effort, to refocus intentions and actions within my daily life as it has already unfolded for me. During this period of making my Election, I find that each day of my very ordinary life feels more full and interesting, with a sense that life—with its “good” and “bad”—is an unexpected gift.

            However, if a person needs to make a decision and the methods of “election” are not producing results, Ignatius advises him or her (as any good coach or psychologist might do today) to list the pros and cons of a specific decision in order to gain clarity. There is nothing in Ignatius that hints of neglecting the use of reason or common sense. He even suggests that we consider the examples of men and women we hold as role models. But his unique contribution to the process of election, or decision-making, is the “discernment of various spirits.”


“Interior Movements”: Consolation and Desolation

            Ignatius asks us, as he practiced himself, to use not only our intellects, but also our imaginations, emotions and feelings to discover what we most truly want and desire, what we yearn for and then to find out that those feelings are “God’s will” for us, and then to live from those deepest yearnings “without inordinate attachment.”

            Ignatius observed from his reflective and devotional reading that he was becoming peaceful and felt an inner satisfaction—apart from “worldly” lusts and desires. He was growing within himself. He also noticed when he gave into his thoughts, such as “winning over some noble woman,” he would be agitated, restless, and unsatisfied. His “discernment of spirits” would later describe the process of being able to discern/discriminate/understand within oneself, in silent awareness, what brings one a satisfying peace and, in contrast, what is disturbing one’s calm. How can we be in touch with our truest needs and desires for happiness? In discernment, Ignatius would recommend that one pay attention to one’s feelings, seeing if they bring a sense of calm/satisfaction (as “water filling a sponge”) or if they bring conflicting/unsatisfactory states (as “water on a rock”) unable to enter us and feed us with spiritual nourishment.

            Discernment of spirits leads to an understanding of what is authentic satisfaction, authentic self, and to be aware when we identify with a “false” self.

            Consolation and Desolation describe our inner lives. Consolation is great enthusiasm for the love of God. We see everything and everyone as in the context of God; it may include tears of sadness for infidelity to that love. When we find tears of joy or extreme happiness in serving God and just being a loving person, there’s a deep peace and satisfaction in living life. It comes naturally and is not merely psychological; it comes from being connected with the Spirit.

            Desolation is the spiritual darkness we go through, maybe a terrible heaviness or doubt about the goodness of one’s own life; a lack of love felt in our lives, a confused restlessness. We may feel in ourselves emotions of greed, over-selfishness, hatred, dullness of mind, a reluctance to serve others.

            Of course, if one is suffering from clinical depression, then this is based in affectivity and in the chemistry of the person and so must be addressed by psychology and medicine rather than by the discerning heart alone.

            Desolation is contrasted with depression in that desolation is a spiritual experience (part of a spiritual journey); depression is an affective mental disorder, rooted in our biochemistry and affectivity. Depression can be used for a spiritual effect (such as to understand others). Or depression can negate any taste for spirituality. Desolation isn’t as pervasive as depression; it doesn’t usually lead to not being able to function which depression can often occasion. Those with desolation don’t usually suffer the “somatic” effects of depression, such as not being able to sleep, excessive fatigue, unable to concentrate very well, having to withdraw. One can be desolate spiritually but mostly content in other areas of life. The spiritual desolation is often associated with “an inordinate attachment” the person may recognize, but can’t let go, not being spiritually free as yet. The spiritual desolation may be an unexpressed anger toward God, of being abandoned by one’s Source. Depression is often described as inwardly turned anger, repressed anger toward others, oneself, and maybe God too. Some depressed people may or may not be into spiritual discovery. Ignatius advises that in desolation, just tell God, acknowledge how you feel, be open to help, to learn, to change, don’t just be alone and keep things inside and also be willing to help others, even when you’re having a hard time; keep time for prayer and reflection. When you’re feeling consolation, be thankful and joyful; also store such experiences in your memories. Such full memories will soften one’s inevitable feelings of “being down.”

            As Buddha also taught, all emotions and feelings and conditions come and go. Ignatius advises when we are feeling the best, in consolation, at peace with ourselves, that’s when we should use that energy to devote to our most intimate, deepest desires for our lives. We feel up to the inevitable work, which calls out to the great energy, we’re feeling when spiritually happy, in consolation. Ignatius writes about what I might profoundly yearn for in “The Contemplation to Obtain the Love of God”: “ … an intimate knowledge of the many blessings received, that filled with gratitude for all, I may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty.” (Louis Puhl, S.J., Second Prelude of Contemplation to Obtain the Love of God)


Finding God in all Faces, finding exercises that adapt to the needs of each individual.

For Christ plays in ten thousand places

lovely in limbs

and lovely in eyes not his

to the Father through the features of men’s faces.

—G.M. Hopkins


            It’s been ten years since I completed my Nineteenth Annotation Retreat with the fourth week, the Contemplatio ad Amorem, “the Contemplation To Attain the Love of God.” It is now part of my practice to check my deepest yearnings within and to discover how to translate them into my daily life, living with awareness and joy and a disposition to serve others, attuned to the continuing gifts of God. At times this experience is as bright as the rays of the sun. I try to recognize everyday that we are all part of the universe working together to bring life, God, part of us, “laboring with us” in everything that is. “Consider all blessings and gifts as descending from above.” (Louis Puhl, S.J. #237) Love of God is a mutually sharing friendship; I ask “for an intimate knowledge” of all blessings, so that I can be equally grateful. To check to see how I am doing, I ask myself if I can completely embrace my life without greediness, and without fear of enjoying the gifts of life with full gusto.

            The last formal part of our work together as a group was a training for prayer/seminar leaders and spiritual directors for the Exercises at the Loyola Institute of Spiritual Training in Orange California. The sessions were lead by Sister Jean Schultz and Allan Deck, S.J.

            Sister Jean begins our sessions with silence, focusing on the breath, centering our energy in our hearts, listening from the silence within, paying attention to the individuals who were speaking to us in our particular lives at the time, the elderly, the teenager, the person with AIDS, the poor, our families and friends. The practice shares many characteristics with the Zazen of Mahayana Buddhism as well as the prayer for the release from suffering that is the aim of the metta meditations in Theravada Buddhism. I sense that enrichment of both my practices, Buddhist and Ignatian, is already beginning to take hold of me.

            The first key to her training is to have the “novice” spiritual counselors learn to listen, inner and outer. The process is based on the heart, on feeling. Underneath our anger, disappointments, behind faces we put on for each other, our own hearts yearn to express our selves and engage life.

            We explore ourselves, in a non-judgmental way. We ask if we were spiritual directors, how would we be spiritual friends with those we counsel, being able to give guidance when really asked for. The first quality mentioned for a spiritual director was gentleness, a very present enabling quality to let the person express his or her spiritual need, most important questions, deepest cherished desires, afflicting emotions as well, relaxed—but very honest and rich—spiritual conversation. The spiritual director gets out of the way, not imposing, really enabling, encouraging the individual to re-discover and deepen her or his wishes/actions for life, at whatever the changing stage we may be. The truest direction will come from within the person herself or himself. The spiritual counselor helps the person by listening to the learning and experiences going on within the retreatant, answering questions too as best as one can.

            The Exercises teach me to listen from a peaceful place inside of myself when I am making decisions or am thinking about some important matters. I am still exploring and deepening that practice. Sometimes in meditation, I have the insight that theologies aren’t nearly as important as genuine spiritual practice that always includes tolerance and civil kindness—so many views, so many chances to grow, as long as we keep out the preachiness and the combative, religious “either-or” thinking of some communities.

            Since completing the Nineteenth Annotation retreat, I notice that I apply some of the practices to my job as a teacher and also to my work in hospice: listening, creating an ambiance for the dying person to connect heart to heart, without judgment, unconditional acceptance with all the good and bad. Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics ask me how they can be more aware, more human, living fully to the end of our lives, and how to face the death of someone in our family and our own coming death. I have seen how religious tradition can be a great solace for individuals in hospice as well as a few unfortunate circumstances when “religion” is forced on a person who doesn’t want it. I am able to have conversations with patients and ask what allows them to feel most at peace within themselves, and to recognize what they can do to say goodbye to life, regardless of what others think or even what their religion or philosophy or religious ministers may tell them.

            In my early Catholicism, I was taught to avoid Buddhist thought, or Islamic or Hindu spiritual teachings. As I’ve matured, I find myself admittedly on the fringes of church Catholicism, as I can no longer be Catholic without including my deep love for the teachings of the Buddha, Indian saints such as Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramakrishna, Vivekenanda.

            Those of us interested in spiritual exercises today can adapt exercises to individuals, to our culture, and to a pluralistic theology. I’m open to do the Ignatian Exercises, accepting them as an efficacious way even for those who may not identify with being Catholics or Buddhists or even believe in a personal god such as Jesus. There is a fluid mystical imagination and a rational reflective under-pinning that allow the Exercises of the sixteenth century to spill beyond its rich Christian roots. In Iñigo’s time, Catholicism would never have permitted the enriching ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue possible for us today, in a way that may alleviate some of the world’s problems, sadly many of them coming from religion itself, and its abuses of spirituality and power.

            Sometimes spirituality—including the Exercises—is used to imply that the human person is not good and divine, but is inherently a sinner, “born bad.” Yet the Exercises, or any genuine spiritual practice, provide a direct experience of the peace that comes from knowing what’s within our hearts, our own most cherished dreams; knowing and realizing for ourselves whether or not we are already that which we’re seeking; and knowing, through meditation and The Examen of Consciousness how we ourselves, in our thoughts, intentions, projections and actions somehow “block” and shrink from the love, the life “locked” within us. I’m encouraged to learn that some theologians in the Catholic Church acknowledge the primacy of one’s conscience and intelligence, based on the fundamental goodness of the person and respect for varying individual-cultural images of God, personal or impersonal.

            We discussed our experience of doing the Examen, which was of great benefit to me personally, to help me pay more attention, ponder carefully, open myself to a “meditative” review and feeling of body, mind, spirit, heart. We particularize whatever afflictive, negative expressions of sin (missing the mark of the heart) were active in us, deflecting the course of our lives away from harmony, balance and a pervasive feeling of gratitude for being alive and a human being too. We share how we “subtly” undermine our own true happiness and discerned the importance of good judgment, good plans for one’s life. Meditating helps me release a lot of anger and feelings of lack of success; I also observe how my thinking can fall into the heart, very consciously being grounded in the dynamic circle of life. My friend, Al Duffy, at Rosemead Buddhist Monastery answering a query about whether Buddhism is atheistic, said “I can accept God as being all the Energy, all together, in the Universes.”

            We meditate on forgiving ourselves for hurting ourselves and others; we accept internally the forgiving of others towards us and we forgive all who hurt us. We give up the idea that “sin” requires “hurting back,” even if we have a broken heart. What’s really going on in our deepest emotional lives? Feel it, reflect, become aware of the spaciousness around it and let that expansiveness reveal the wisdom we may need at this time of our lives.

            When I was struggling with Ignatius’ Three Kinds of Humility, I did a Tibetan meditation called tonglen (means “giving” and “taking”). On the inhalation, one takes in the suffering of the world, as concretely as possible, the suffering, sickness and death of any human. On exhalation, one breathes out peace, release and joy. The practitioner uses personal suffering, not trying to deny it, but rather to feel compassion for the suffering of others, in our lives together; to unite with the sufferings of others, in order to bring others joy, peace, and happiness.

            When I do the Contemplation to Obtain the Love of God, I give up being anything less than what I inherently am. I finally release the guilt of “I’m not good enough” while realizing that I am what I’ve been searching for so desperately. I am open to giving up theological brainwashing such as “Original Sin,” “Eternal Hell,” while recognizing that St. Ignatius was living in a theology that matched his particular times. I can give up “literalness.” I understand that the meaning of Jesus’ teaching on Hell is important; the literal words are helpful, but point to spiritual insight, yet if I cling to literalistic interpretations and push other ideas away—as we see so achingly today—I see the dog days of dogmatism ever-thriving. Let’s not miss the joy of Christ playing in “ten thousand places.”

            May all our intentions, actions, and words be directed to deep understanding, real joy, and unselfish service!