Good Advice from 400 Years Ago

I am often amazed at the everyday contemporary wisdom I find in the writings of St. Ignatius. This month marks the 400th anniversary of his canonization, so I’ve reviewed some of the lessons I’ve learned from Ignatian Spirituality.

Ignatius (1491-1556) was born in northern Spain. When he was 15, he was sent to the court of King Ferdinand to train for courtly life. There he developed an ambition for feats of arms and chivalry and became enamored with fine clothing and his appearance. He sought worldly praise and glory and aspired to distinguish himself by daring deeds (which often bordered on recklessness). In summary, he was egotistical, self-absorbed, and vain – not what we would expect from someone who became a saint.

A turning point in his life came when Ignatius fought against the French in the battle of Pamplona. A cannonball shattered the bone in one of his legs, effectively ending his military career. He returned home to Loyola to recuperate, where he passed the time by reading whatever he could find in his family home. This consisted of novels of chivalry and courtly love, and books about the life of Christ and the saints.

As his recovery progressed, Ignatius noticed how he felt after reading each type of book. The chivalrous novels, while initially entertaining, left him dissatisfied. But the religious books left him with a more prolonged feeling of what he calls “consolation” – joyful and satisfied long after he finished. In his typical bold, overconfident manner, he decided that he could do what the saints had done. This began his spiritual journey.

Ignatius accomplished a lot in his relatively brief life. He became quite humble and had remarkable insights into his psyche. He developed his insights into techniques he taught to others who wanted to create a closer relationship with God. But he also struggled with the less than saintly aspects of his personality and continued to push the edge of recklessness, now pursuing of his spiritual advancement.

One of his best-known writings is called The Spiritual Exercises. This is a set of meditations, prayers, and practices (usually done as either an 8-day or 30-day retreat) done accompanied by a spiritual director. The intent is to open yourself to the work of God in your life and develop a personal experience of God.

I find a lot of wisdom for contemporary life in the Spiritual Exercises. One of the first is what Ignatius (somewhat awkwardly) calls the “presupposition.”

That both the giver and the receiver of the Spiritual Exercise may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian out to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it.”

— St. Ignatius of Loyola, Annotation 22, The Spiritual Exercises

This simple instruction at the start of the Exercises has always stuck in my brain. And I try to remember it when I get irritated or hurt in a conversation because it seems like a wise mindset for interacting with others. This text basically says to give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have good intentions and are not deliberately trying to be cruel, dismissive, or uncaring. If their words are causing distress, and you’re not sure they have good intentions, then ask for clarification.

Of course, not all people have good intentions. Some people may be deliberately hurtful or mean and only concerned with themselves. I think we can usually detect who these people are after a few interactions, and we should avoid engaging with them when possible. But I don’t believe that most people fall into this category. And so, for most of our relationships, I think Ignatius’ words are a good reminder.

It’s so easy to create a story in our head about what someone is thinking about us, especially if their words aren’t clear. But those stories often have more to do with us – hurts from our past relationships, our deepest fears – than them. And I think it’s always a good idea (although not always easy to do!) to ask for clarification before creating our own story about someone’s intent or implied meaning.

I’ll give an example to illustrate my point. If I’ve suggested a restaurant for lunch, and my husband points out something he doesn’t like about the food/service/environment, my first reaction is to feel that he’s criticizing me for picking a terrible place. In my head, I hear his comments not as an observation on his experience that he’s sharing with me (and probably wanting to see if I feel the same), but as an accusation that I screwed up. But if I take a breath and remember the presupposition, I can see that the story in my head might not be what he is thinking at all. And the times I’ve asked about it (and explained what was going on in my head), he’s shocked that I would think he was implying such a thing, and we get a good laugh from it all. Something that I almost made into a strain on our relationship ends up bringing us closer together.

I still can’t catch myself every time my brain rushes to a judgment based on words that I may have misinterpreted, but the more I practice, the easier this gets.

A Closing Prayer

God, help me recognize when I believe a story that I’ve created in my head rather than the reality that is present. Give me enough belief in myself and other people to ask for clarification when I need it. Remind me that the people I love and hold close in my life usually have good intentions toward me, even if their words sometimes aren’t exactly what I want to hear. And in the cases where my words may unintentionally cause hurt, give me the ability to see that situation and apologize or clarify. Amen.

3 comments

  1. Very interesting post, Tacky, and one that applies to all of us. You remind me of an expression I used to say to the team of consultants who I guided at work: “Think about intent vs impact when you speak.” What we intend may not be received and the impact caused by our words may not be what we wanted to communicate. Asking for clarity seems so simple (and obvious) and yet it’s so difficult to do. As you note, recognizing the need for clarity is often missed bc we just assume our response is warranted. I enjoy starting my Wednesdays with your blog to kickstart my brain to think about something other than the items on my to-do list.

    Like

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