This summer I set out to learn about Ignatius of Loyola and computers. It’s a strange mix, but it makes for a nice agenda. As the Gospels would have it, a good scribe reaches into his bag for the old as well as the new. So far I have not gotten to the new. Ignatius has been absorbing. My journey into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius might have been profitably recorded, not because it is extraordinarily significant, but because it is, at least that is my hunch, extraordinarily typical. Most folks, I would guess, would undergo very similar things. I took up the Exercises of Ignatius for a typical reason. I was tired, felt dissipated, uncentred, emotionally and physically I needed a vacation. I looked for it in a prolonged prayer experience. I entered a retreat house for 40 days of withdrawal and Ignatian prayer. The experience was very rich, though very painful. As spiritual writers have always pointed out, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God and the peace which is found there is quite other than that which is described in travel brochures. The overriding experience is one of being slowly, painfully, though surely, centred. I want to share a bit of that experience of centering in the hope that it might help some of you in your own struggles to find a centre.
Through the Ignatian Exercises one thing becomes inconfusably clear: All rest, all freedom, all peace depends upon focusing upon God as centre. It does not take many days in the desert before a mirror starts revealing more. I began to see myself and my life more closely. What a curious mixture of things I am! I looked at the 10 years I have spent teaching and ministering and I saw some habitual patterns – perpetually tired, overextended, dissipated, behind and distracted in my work, driven compulsively to succeed, worried that I will disappoint, too busy to pray properly, too preoccupied to appreciate properly, tired but unable to relax, tired but emotionally unfree to pull away from relationships and work in order to enjoy a needed vacation, tired but unable to step off the treadmill, tired by still increasing the activity. When you see those patterns you become frightened, frightened by your attachments, frightened that you are not free, frightened that you are growing more tired and yet cannot do anything about it, frightened that you cannot relax emotionally, and frightened at how badly you are uncentered and at how badly you need certain things and persons.
After a few days in withdrawal with St. Ignatius, you realize that, like a rationalizing alcoholic, you have been sneaking far too many drinks in secret. But with that realization comes the beginning of healing because that brings the desire to change. Desire is always the beginning of surrender, even in our relationship with God. I began to look at what my life was centered on. What motivates me? What calls me out of myself? Relationships, work, the expectations of others, the fear of disappointing others, pride in what I do, greed for experience, love of honor and success, the desire to help others, the hunger to learn, to experience, to expand my horizons. You end up restless, compulsive, driven, unable to relax emotionally. You also end up habitually tired, but unable to rest. Like the tortured soul of Psalm 127, you end up getting up ever earlier and going to bed later so as to eat a very anxious, fragile and fleeting bread.
What is needed? The solution that God himself proposes to Israel, the SHEMA, the prayer which every pious Jew has nailed to his or her doorpost and which he or she prays three times daily: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might… “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gate.” (Deut. 6:4-9) Under Ignatius’ influence, I wrote my own SHEMA. “Hear, O Rolheiser: The Lord our God is one Lord; you must put him before all else, then all else will fall into place. Brand that into your heart and into your mind. Teach it to your students; write it in your column and talk about it at table and to your friends. Put it on a sign by your mirror, and pray it daily, and mean it! Then, and only then, will your dissipation and tiredness turn to peaceful solitude, your compulsiveness to freedom and your restlessness to restfulness.”
When I pray that three times daily, there is a lot less compulsiveness.