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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Advice from St. Ignatius

What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor
When we say “Thy will be done,” we are giving over to God our illusion of being in control. We are giving over to God our illusion of being self-reliant.

Fr. John Powell SJ is a favorite writer and lecturer of mine. I first discovered his books and tapes in the early eighties during my period of formation for the diaconate and have enjoyed him ever since. Father Powell is a Jesuit priest and associate professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago. Over the years he has authored many books of spiritual insight and inspiration. Recently I discovered a series of tapes he made in 1982 and treated myself to an extended visit with this old “friend” by listening to the tapes.


He shares a story in one of the tapes that goes back to his graduate school days in Rome. One weekend he and another young priest were traveling by train when they realized that the train had stopped in the Italian town where Padre Pio lived. Even though they had not planned on stopping there, the two young priests got off the train and headed toward the Capuchin friary in hope of meeting the saintly man.


By this time the friars were used to unannounced visitors hoping to visit with Padre Pio, and did their best to shelter the priest from them. So, when Fr. Powell and his friend showed up at the friary, they were met by an English speaking friar. The friar explained the situation and engaged the young American priests in a pleasant conversation.


A few minutes later the friar suggested that Fr. Powell and his friend follow him, as Padre Pio would be completing his time listening to confessions that day and might be in the corridor. Perhaps, they could at least say hello to Padre Pio. Quite excitedly they followed the English friar through the corridors and sure enough a few minutes later the English friar was introducing the young priests to Padre Pio. As was the custom, Padre Pio gave the two young priests a hug. When he held Fr. Powell, he sniffed a bit, which caused Fr. Powell to hope that he hadn’t sweat too much since his shower that morning. Padre Pio asked Fr. Powell if he had been to the Holy Land recently. He answered yes, as he returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land only weeks earlier. Padre Pio nodded and smiled, saying, “I thought so. I smelled the scent of holiness on you.”


After the priests left the friary, they thought it would be nice to get a picture of Padre Pio. So, instead of going directly to the train station, they stopped at a little shop. The shop owner was a pleasant woman who had a variety of photos for sale. As they were talking Fr. Powell explained that he had just visited Padre Pio and wanted the photo as a memento of the experience. He asked the shop owner if she had met Padre Pio, since she lived in the same town. She explained that years earlier she had terminal cancer and sent a letter to Padre Pio asking for his prayers. A week or so later the strong perfume of flowers followed her around during the day, yet her sister could smell nothing. A few days later she went to the doctor and it was discovered that all traces of cancer were gone from her body. Since then she moved from Rome to this town and met with Padre Pio every couple of weeks, as he was her spiritual director.


She offered to ask Padre Pio to remember Fr. Powell in her prayers, if he desired. Of course, Fr. Powell appreciated this very much. She went on to explain that every time she asked Padre Pio to pray for someone, he would offer some commentary on the person. For example, she once asked Padre Pio to pray for her cousin who was getting married. Padre Pio said that he would pray, noting that the marriage would not work out. Padre Pio didn’t know the woman’s cousin but his comment was accurate. The marriage didn’t work out. She described a few more examples of his prescient comments, which left Fr. Powell anticipating what Padre Pio might say about him. She promised to write Fr. Powell and let him know what Padre Pio said.


Months passed; there was no letter from the woman. Fr. Powell wondered what happened, as the woman seemed to be sincere in her offer. So, he wrote her a short letter and reminded her of the promise.


A few weeks later he received a response from the woman. She was quite apologetic and explained that she did mention Fr. Powell to Padre Pio and asked for prayers. However, for the first time in all the years that she had commended people to Padre Pio for prayers, Padre Pio said nothing. She did this two more times and each time Padre Pio said nothing. When she offered other persons to be prayed for, he continued with his comments. She was unsure what to tell Fr. Powell and this resulted in her delay in writing.


As Fr. Powell read the woman’s letter he grew concerned. What was wrong that Padre Pio had nothing to say, no message for him. He asked his spiritual director about this and was told jokingly that either Fr. Powell was so holy that he didn’t need a message or so hopelessly evil that it would do no good. This continued to bother him, so eventually he wrote to Padre Pio, explaining the situation and asking for any instruction the saintly friar might have for him. A short time later he received a brief note from Padre Pio extending his best wishes and offering his prayers for Fr. Powell. His message was that the most powerful prayer one can offer is, “Thy will be done.”


Every time we say the Our Father we say these words. How often do we rush through them, mumbling the words with no thought of what we are saying? These are not easy words to say and truly mean. They require a great deal of us.


One of my favorite prayers is the Prayer of Abandonment of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. One of the lines of the prayer says, “I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me…”


I love this prayer but I struggle to pray it because the words are so total, so encompassing. It frightens me. I think of the Book of Job and how everything and everyone was taken from him. It frightens me. I am giving over my successes in life, my job, my friendships, my family, my life goals and leaving it all up to God. Even worse, I am placing my family and those I love in God’s hands, trusting that God will do what is best. What if God’s ideas of what is best and my ideas about what’s best disagree? That is what scares me so.


Ultimately it is a matter of giving up control, or perhaps the illusion of control. I have found that when I speak to people of death most are not frightened by death. Rather, it is the process of dying that frightens them.


What is so frightening about the process of dying? For many it is the loss of control. One friend explained that he enjoyed fishing and gardening for much of his adult life but now he was too weak to indulge in these simple pleasures. He had been the rock and foundation of his family, now he was dependent upon his children. He had to use adult pampers when he slept and dreaded the day when he lost even the little bit of control over his bodily functions he now exercised.


The ability to exercise some control over our environment and ourselves gives us a sense of security. It is the lack of this sense of security that is so unsettling.


If we can not depend upon ourselves, who can we depend upon? As children we depended upon our parents. Yet, as adults we learn that the secure world of our childhood is largely an illusion. It is an illusion that we promote to protect our children from the worries of an unstable economy, job loss, and an array of social evils from substance abuse to violent crime and even terrorism. If I can provide some degree of security in a chaotic world, then I want to make the effort and exert what control I can to protect myself and my family.


When we say “Thy will be done,” we are giving over to God our illusion of being in control. We are giving over to God our illusion of being self-reliant. Part of what makes us adults is our ability to care for ourselves and those we love. It is easy to place great pride in this ability and to focus our attention on our incomes, awards and degrees as measures of our competence as adults, as measures of our self-reliance.


Yet, there is little security in any of these measures of success. A brilliant and compassionate professor I had a few years ago, a man well respected throughout the world for his wisdom, got sick and within a few months was dead. The sister of a deacon friend went to the store a few evenings ago; on her way back home her car was struck by a drunk driver. She died 24 hours later. It is not all that long ago that Fr. Roger Tenorio got sick and died. He was a good priest, one of the best I’ve known. He was a compassionate pastor and had the makings a great Church leader in the years to come. Yet, he died suddenly in his mid 30’s. None of these people had any real control over their fate, even though each had a fair share of the things we cling to as signs that we are in control of our lives.


It is difficult to admit that self-reliance is only an illusion. Yet, this is what we do when we say, “Thy will be done”. More than admit to our illusions, we also place our trust in another—God.


Yet, how can I come to trust in God. After all, God is the ultimate mystery. My mind can’t begin to comprehend God. How can I trust in something as ambiguous and mysterious as God?


We are suspicious and don’t really trust each other. We may offer conditional trust toward certain people, but such trust is always guarded. We extend a certain degree of trust toward a friend and as he or she proves they are trustworthy we enlarge the areas of trust we extend to the person. Yet, our trust is always guarded. We tell our friend what we want them to hear, so that we can hide from them those aspects of who we are that make us ashamed. We hide those parts of ourselves that frighten us. We don’t want to scare the friend away or, even worse, give him or her weapons that can be used to hurt us.


Real trust is being totally open, so that we are not trying to manipulate the image that we convey to others. Real trust is being able to expose our failures, shamefulness, and vulnerability to another. We reveal who we really are to the person, making it possible for him or her to love and cherish us as we are; or, making it possible for him or her to hurt us to the core.


The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that in prayer we interact with persons. As Christians, in prayer we enter into a relationship with the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a personal relationship. As we reflect on Scripture and what God has done in our lives we discover that this is a relationship that has been tested and continues to be tested by us. It is a relationship in which God continually reveals more and more of His love for us and His faithfulness even in our faithlessness. I begin to perceive that as I have been open to that relationship and trusted in God, God has worked wonders in my life—even in the darkest hours.


As I learn to trust in God I soon discover that, I am giving up nothing except the illusion that I have control over what happens to my dreams, my successes, my job, my friendships, even what may happen to my family and me. The only control that I really have is the decision to cooperate with God’s grace. To trust in God is to be open to God. To trust in God is to find the willingness to face the unknown and uncertain, hoping that somewhere in the darkness and confusion God’s grace is at work. To trust in God is to believe, not just intellectually but in my bones, that God loves me. To trust in God is to believe just as deeply that God loves my wife, children, and friends with a much deeper and more profound love than that of which I am capable. To trust in God is to believe that God’s vision of what I am to become is more blessed and love filled than any dream that has yet stirred in my soul.


We’ve grown suspicious of religious leaders who claim to know God’s will and then lead those who follow them to ruin. Images of Jim Jones and the murder/suicide of hundreds of his followers come to mind, along with Waco, Texas and the death of scores of people. Even the recent sex abuse scandal in the Church evokes images of people using respect for a sacred office as a means to hurt the innocent. Indeed, we must be suspicious of anyone who says that he or she knows God’s will for us. Such persons are not giving us spiritual guidance but tempting us to idolatry, with themselves as the idol to be worshiped. Don’t just walk away from such people—run!


One of the characteristics of many psychological disorders is the willingness to allow ourselves to be controlled by another. A person turns his or her will over to another and simply does what he or she is told. You see this pattern in families where one spouse is dominant over the other; particularly in homes were there is domestic violence or substance abuse. The abuser may suffer from psychological problems. So is the spouse who enables the domineering partner to continue the abuse. In similar manner, one of the issues that has rightfully been opposed by feminist authors is the marital relationship in which the wife gives up her personhood and becomes little more than the shadow of her husband. In effect, the woman says to her husband, “thy will be done”. Is this what God wants of us?


I don’t believe so. God wants what is best for each of us and being someone’s shadow is not what is best for anyone. God has created each of us to be a saint. Sainthood demands heroic virtue that calls upon every one of the gifts and talents that God has given us.


If we can gather the faith and courage to say “Thy will be done” to God, how can we know what God wills?


The King of France asked St. Joan of Arc if it was true that God spoke to her. She told the King that yes it was true. He then complained, “Why is it that God speaks to you, a peasant girl, and you hear him. Yet, God does not speak to me, a King?” St. Joan responded, “God speaks to you as well as to me but I listen.”


We can know the will of God by listening to God. St. Ignatius Loyola provides some guidelines on discerning God’s will for us. Notice that St. Ignatius gives us some criteria by which we can discern God’s will. He does not tell us what God’s will is.


He begins with advice for the person who is easily inclined to sin. In such a case, it takes little more than simple logic to conclude that God’s will is the opposite of our inclinations. God’s will confronts those who are doing wrong and encourages those who do what is right. Thus, if our inclinations tend toward sexual immorality, alcohol abuse, ruthless business practices and selfishness, we can be certain that these inclinations find their source in Satan and not God. We have Scripture and common sense to tell us that much.


When I am living a moral life and pray frequently, so that conversation with God is natural, my inclinations will tend toward God’s will. The process begins when I pray for guidance. In the course of events, options will come to mind. I must be open to every option and consider each as it arises. Some options may have a natural attraction for me and be exactly what I desire in my fantasies. Other options may frighten me or seem improbable. The way I discern among the options which one is consistent with God’s will for me is to find the one that leaves me with the deepest sense of peace. This may not be the easiest option or the most logical. The option may even be frightening in its demands on me. However, when I meditate on that option my heart is at peace.


I can pursue that option and run into opposition and obstacles. Sometimes such circumstances are meant to tell me that I need to consider the options more carefully. However, opposition and obstacles will be encountered on the path of God’s will as well. The key question is whether my heart is at peace as I pursue this path?


Years ago I felt an attraction to the diaconate. At the time it made little sense. I was busy with my professional responsibilities. Also, there was no active deacon formation program in the diocese. When I discussed the attraction I felt to the diaconate with then Msgr. Tomas Camacho, he supported me but let me know that pursuing it at the time was unlikely. He checked with Bishop Flores and informed me that Bishop Flores was not inclined to accept anyone into deacon formation at that time. Even though I ran into obstacles, the attraction to the diaconate was still there as strong as ever. When I thought about the diaconate it felt right for me. I was at peace in considering the diaconate as a vocational call to me, even though from every practical perspective it made no sense. I began to take college level theology courses on my own, hoping that in some way this would lead me further in the direction of  what I perceived to be God’s will for me. A year later Msgr. Camacho approached Bishop Flores again and this time the bishop approved my request. Every obstacle that seemed to prevent me from entering formation melted away.


There has never been a time since I first discerned the call to diaconal ministry that I ever perceived anything but deep peace in my response to that call. I have had my share of difficulties and frustrations in responding to that call over the years but I am at peace in knowing that this is a part of God’s will for me.


St. Ignatius speaks of various movements of our hearts he describes as spiritual consolations and desolations. He describes consolations as the experience of surges of love for God. We may be moved to tears and feel deep emotions as we consider God’s overwhelming love for us, the sufferings of Christ, or the need of our brothers and sisters in Christ. They may be associated with some spiritual insight that deepens our understanding and brings light to our faith.


He describes spiritual desolation as gloom and confusion, restlessness, turmoil and temptation to doubt one’s role in the Paschal Mystery and leave no room for hope and charity.


There are different causes for spiritual desolation. One cause is allowing our lives to deviate from God’s path.  The cure is to return to God with our whole heart. Another source is when God lets us test our wings. We are given difficult times with little sense of support to allow us to overcome these challenges and grow. We have the grace to get through this time of difficulty.


An important rule of thumb is never to make changes regarding one’s interior spiritual life at such times. Rather, be faithful to existing commitments and make use of the tools God has given us; prayer, meditation, and reflection on one’s life, as well as acts of charity.


We have seen that desolation can be used by God to help us grow strong. In a similar manner, consolation can be used by Satan to hurt us. If the fruit of consolation is pride and self-glorification leading us to moral failure, then the consolation is likely of diabolic origin. To be sure if our desires and consolations are of God, we must be careful to identify their origin, development and logical outcomes. If all three are positive, then we have reason to believe that they are of divine origin.


So, we began with Padre Pio’s admonition that the most powerful prayer is “Thy will be done.” This is not an easy prayer, if prayed sincerely, because it involves letting go of the illusion that we have control over our lives. It involves placing our trust in the reality of God’s love for us. Yet, this is not a blind turning over of our wills to someone who claims to speak or act for God. To trust in God’s will is to grow sensitive to what God is asking of us through the circumstances of our lives, our inclinations and the movements of our hearts. It requires learning to discern truth from falsehood, good from bad, better from best. It requires prayer and reflection. Finally, it requires commitment.

Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius
Anthony Mottola

Path Through Christian Living
John Powell

Fully Human Fully Alive: A New Life Through a New Vision
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Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Insights into Personal Growth
John Powell

Unconditional Love: Love Without Limits
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