Advent for the Heart
St. Ignatius and Today’s ‘Spiritual Desolation’
BY Bob Horning
November 30-December 6, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/24/08 at 2:31 PM
Father Tim Gallagher knows Advent.
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 holiness.
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 Ignatian spirituality?
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.
After 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.
Later, 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?
His 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.
What was your background growing up, and how has Ignatian teaching affected you personally?
My family is from Maine, N.Y., a small town outside of Binghamton, in upstate New York.
My 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.
As 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 ever since.
There are lots of books on St. Ignatius and what he taught. What niche do yours fill?
As 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.
Also, 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 text.
My 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.
You have been doing this for almost 30 years. Does it become stale?
No, 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
Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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