I believe the key to understanding the writings of the saints is found in an important phrase of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Spiritual Exercises.” His idea was simple. One undergoes a series of imaginative and discursive meditations in order to come to a place of spiritual freedom through experiencing God’s love. His exercises encompass a series of progressive reflections in which one learns to reject the lies of satan and embrace the work of the Holy Spirit. I think that we can benefit from the writings of the saints in realizing that many of their counsels are in fact spiritual exercises meant to help us come to spiritual freedom.
In this way, while dogma and doctrine inform and nourish spiritual exercises, not every component of a spiritual exercise is meant to be absolutized. For example, when people read the writings of St. John of the Cross, they tend to read it in ways that resemble of the philosophy of Immanual Kant. For Kant, the only true moral dictates were those that could be universally applied to everyone without distinction. That is not the way to read St. John of the Cross.
One of his most famous spiritual exercises is his series of counsels often referred to as the doctrine of Nada (which means nothing in Spanish). For the sake of this discussion, I will discuss only one of them in which he writes, “Strive always to prefer not that which is easiest, but that which is hardest.”
If we follow the methodology suggested by Kant, it would seem that our goal is to be as miserable as possible. Instead of seeking rest and refreshment, it seems as though the saint is calling us to run ourselves to the point of exhaustion. Thus, one could read this as a call to forget ideas of moderation and patience for a kind of dramatic and heroic path of misery. However, I would suggest a different interpretation.
I would argue that this phrase is one in a series of spiritual exercises in which were are allowing ourselves to be freed from our attachments to comfort. Often, we make bad decisions because we subconsciously think that our happiness depends upon maximizing our comfort and ease. In this way, to be freed from this disordered attachment, we must learn to be able to look past our comfort and discover God’s will, which sometimes requires us doing things that we don’t enjoy.
As we use this counsel as a kind of spiritual exercise, we learn to accept that sometimes God’s will will require us to work to the point of exhaustion. Of course, this will not be the case always and in all circumstances, but we should be willing to forgo momentary comfort if we are so called to do by God.
Today, let us nourish our intellects by allowing the writings of the saints to help us come to a place of freedom and detachment. In this way, let us allow the saints to guide us towards the discovery of God’s will.
The Spiritual Exercises are a wonderful way to grow closer to God. I have been on several weekend spiritual exercises retreats and each time I have learned something new about God and about myself.