Over the past five days I’ve been working through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. The exercises ask you to read and pray on a passage from the Bible, and then reflect on a few specific questions.
What does this look like when I do it?
The night before I am supposed to conduct a specific exercise, I read the passage for that exercise. I copy and paste the passage into Evernote. I then jot down my initial impressions of the passage and try to answer the questions.
The next day, immediately before I start the exercise, I re-read the passage and try to memorize the gist of it. Then I go and sit in a dark closet for 30 minutes to think about it.
I’m not on my knees with hands clasped together asking God for things and saying Hail Mary’s, it’s really just a 30 minute period where I can be alone and think.
Prayer is supposed to be the act of communicating with God. Of course, as someone who is unsure about this whole God-business, I’m not sure if it’s working; I don’t hear a deep booming voice commanding me to do stuff.
The Spiritual Exercises, however, ask you to be open to different ways God may communicate with you, even if you are an atheist.
One of the books I’m reading, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything tells the story of the atheist in the flood.
“It’s like the story of the atheist caught in a flood. The fellow figures that the flood threatening his house is the chance to prove conclusively whether God exists. So he says to himself, If there is a God, I will ask him for help, and he will save me.
When he hears a warning on the radio advising listeners to move to higher ground, he ignores it. If there is a God, he will save me, he thinks. Next, a firefighter knocks on his door to warn him to evacuate. “If there is a God, he will save me,” he says to the firefighter. When the floodwaters rise, the man climbs to the second floor. The coast guard boat motors by his window and offers him rescue. “If there is a God, he will save me,” he says and refuses help from the coast guard.
Finally, he ends up on the roof, with the waters rising around him. A police helicopter hovers over the house and drops a rope to climb. “If there is a God, he will save me!” he shouts over the roar of the helicopter’s blades.
Suddenly a giant wave sweeps over him, and the “man drowns and finds himself in heaven. When God comes to welcome him, the atheist is first surprised. And then furious. “Why didn’t you save me?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” says God. “I sent the firefighter, the coast guard, and the police officer, and you still wouldn’t listen!”
So, I’ve been watching out for signs or clues that God is trying to communicate with me.
The exercise yesterday asked me to consider the questions, “How does God gaze upon me?” and “How open am I to receiving this intimacy?” while praying over Psalm 139:1-18.
The second question led me to consider my personality, and how “reserved” I am to most people. While I’m certainly friendly with most people, it takes time to develop a relationship where I can be more open about sharing personal feelings and be open to hearing their personal issues.
But the most interesting thing happened to me when I considered the first question, “How does God gaze upon me?” It’s as if I have this mental block that does not allow me to visualize God looking at me. Though I like the idea of God as a sort of universal goodness or feeling, it’s weird to think of some abstract spirit force looking at you.
I became frustrated, and I thought maybe this whole spiritual exercise thing would only really work for “believers,” disproving my entire project.
Then the strangest thing happened. I re-framed the question to “How does God gaze upon others?” and I immediately thought of the homeless guy I blew off the other day. He told me a sad story about losing his job, and I couldn’t help him. I felt guilty.
And then I thought about all the people he encounters that constantly write him off and how painful and lonely that must be. To be middle-aged, unemployed, and without prospects would be devastating!
A great sadness came over me and I cried.
Then I felt the overwhelming need to get know him, to hear his story, to help him. I certainly can’t “save” him, but I can be kind and open to him.
I’m now looking for soup kitchens or homeless shelters where I can volunteer.
But is it God?
Of course, I don’t know if that was God or some sort of brain malfunction. I’ve certainly felt unexplainable waves of emotion. The comedian Louis CK heard a sad song on the radio in the car and was so overcome with sadness that he burst into tears and had to pull over.
And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’
And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.
And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.
I don’t know where my sadness came from, but it is forcing me to take action and help other less fortunate than myself. Perhaps St. Ignatius just found a way to induce some weird state of psychosis that makes you want to be better and falsely gives credit to God.
Who know? But one of my goals for Catholicism month is to develop love and compassion for others, and perhaps this is a sign I’m moving in the right direction.