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Father Tim Gallagher, retreat master and expert in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, speaks about how the Ignatian method can help us understand ourselves.
BY Bob Horning
Father Tim Gallagher
He has spent the past 25 years
bringing the reform-of-life method in St. Ignatius’ teaching to life through
retreats and seminars. Father Gallagher, a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin
Mary, is the author of five books on the Ignatian method, including Meditation
and Contemplation: An Ignatian Guide to Praying with Scripture,
published recently by Crossroad.
He spoke recently with Register
correspondent Bob Horning.
Advent this year brings hope at
a dark time. Is that the same appeal of St. Ignatius’ teaching?
Ignatius simply puts into words what
we all experience spiritually and so helps us understand ourselves. Many people
who love God and want to follow him experience heaviness of heart — what St.
Ignatius calls “spiritual desolation” — and aren’t even aware of it because it
has become a kind of second nature. Others are aware, but don’t know what to do
about it. And this discouragement, fear, loss of hope and other troubling
movements of the heart are, for most of us, the main obstacle to growth in
In some ways, this heaviness has
become more felt in recent years: 9/11, its aftermath, and scandals in the
Church may lead to spiritual desolation today. St. Ignatius gives us a
marvelous hope by teaching us how to become aware of such movements in our
heart, how to understand them, and how to respond wisely to them. This daily
discernment frees our hearts from captivity to such heaviness; it energizes us
to love and serve the Lord. St. Ignatius’ teaching is not just for saints and
religious — it is for the ordinary member of the Church, for all of us.
How did you become interested in
A year before my ordination in 1979,
I made the 30-day Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. For the first time, I felt as
though someone had really taught me to pray, and that was through learning St.
Ignatius’ principles about prayer. The principal focus of my religious
congregation, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, is Ignatian spirituality and
Ignatian retreats. After I was ordained, when people began asking me to give Ignatian retreats, I soon realized that I
needed to learn more about discernment in order to give these retreats well.
concentrated study of Ignatius’ teaching, I began speaking on discernment in
retreats. I’ll never forget the first experience of doing this in a retreat.
The response of the people, as well as mine, was recognizing that St. Ignatius
had given us a treasure; it opened my eyes to the value of Ignatian discernment
in a whole new way. People loved learning about St. Ignatius’ practical wisdom
about daily spiritual living.
this teaching developed into weekend seminars, and then into a book [The Discernment of Spirits]. Now I
spend most of the year giving retreats and seminars on Ignatian discernment and
prayer. In these years, I have written other books on related teachings of St.
Ignatius: The Examen
Prayer, Spiritual Consolation, An Ignatian
Introduction to Prayer, and Meditation and Contemplation.
How did St.
Ignatius develop his teaching?
conversion occurred while he was recovering from injuries in battle. Until
then, he had sought fame and glory through military and romantic pursuits. He
read the life of Jesus and of the saints and noticed that this left his heart
happy, while dwelling on dreams of worldly glory left his heart empty. He
describes this life-changing realization very simply by saying that “one day
his eyes were opened a little.” This awareness was the beginning of his later
teaching on discernment. Through observing his own experience, he formulated
his rules for discernment and perfected them over many years. St. Ignatius is
rightfully regarded as the classic source for the Church for discernment:
becoming aware of, understanding and knowing how to respond to the spiritual
ups and downs we all experience in daily life. Once we understand what is going
on in our spiritual lives, we have a new freedom to make choices that lead to
holiness. Basically, St. Ignatius helps us to understand our daily spiritual
experience, and people love the hope this brings.
your background growing up, and how has Ignatian teaching affected you
family is from Maine, N.Y., a small town outside of Binghamton, in upstate New
father is a Catholic of Irish descent; my mother converted to Catholicism in
her 20s. They raised us to love our Catholic faith and to live a life of
prayer, especially the sacraments, the Bible and the Rosary. I am one of 13
children, and my parents have 43 grandchildren. All of them are faithful
members of the Church. We owe it to my parents’ teaching and example, and we
are deeply grateful to them. They created a setting in which a religious and
priestly vocation could grow. We went to
Catholic schools, and we were active in our parish. When the time came to
decide about my vocation, I simply knew that I wanted to be a priest.
I joined my religious congregation,
the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, 36 years ago, and have always known that I am
where God wants me. I did my seminary years in Rome at the Angelicum and then
the Gregorian pontifical universities. Witnessing the Church in Rome, and Pope
John Paul II close at hand, was a wonderful experience.
I came to know our founder, the Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri (1759-1830), I
found there the spiritual ideal I was seeking. He loved the Church and the Holy
Father in a special way, proclaimed God’s mercy, was devoted to Mary, trained
many priests in holiness and worked with great numbers of religious and lay
people. He believed that there was no more effective instrument toward holiness
than Ignatian retreats — by helping people to stop and reflect on their faith,
to pray from the heart, to live the sacraments in a new way, and to bring
Christ to people at home and at work. As I learned about the Spiritual
Exercises, I came to love them. Making the 30-day retreat was a turning point
in my life. I did my master’s and doctoral thesis on the Spiritual Exercises,
and, as I mentioned, began giving them after I was ordained. I’ve continued
lots of books on St. Ignatius and what he taught. What niche do yours fill?
I’ve mentioned, St. Ignatius wrote these guidelines for discernment by
observing his own spiritual experience. His guidelines are a kind of digest of
his own experience, expressed in a way that helps others understand their own
spiritual experience. So I’ve presented his rules through many examples of
concrete experiences in the lives of saints and ordinary people in the Church.
I find that people appreciate that concrete approach; it helps them to apply
the rules in practice.
when I was learning about discernment, I was struck by how packed St. Ignatius’
words are. His text is only a few pages long, but each sentence, each phrase,
and, at some points, each word is filled with meaning. In my writing, I’ve
tried to be attentive to that and unpack the richness of St. Ignatius’ brief
hope is that these books make the fullness of St. Ignatius’ teaching on
discernment more accessible to a wide readership. This is a largely unknown
spiritual treasure, and it can make an enormous difference in our spiritual
lives. One person told me that applying St. Ignatius’ teaching was like shining
a light in a dark room, another that St. Ignatius had given her tools for the
spiritual life. Stories of this kind are endless.
been doing this for almost 30 years. Does it become stale?
never. I see the thrill of discovery in people and new hope dawn in their eyes,
and the work is always fresh and new. And it’s not just a momentary uplift of
heart, but a solid, spiritual formation that they can always use. My hope is to
share this teaching with as many people as possible.
Bob Horning is based in