The sixth: although in desolation we should not change our first proposals, it is very advantageous to change ourselves intensely against the desolation itself, as by insisting more upon prayer, meditation, upon much examination, and upon extending ourselves in some suitable way of doing penance.THE RULES OF SAINT IGNATIUS AS TRANSLATED BY FR. TIMOTHY GALLAGHER
My First Impression of the 6th Rule of St. Ignatius
When I read the 6th Rule of St. Ignatius I wondered how Fr. Gallagher could possibly make this make sense for me. The fifth rule, I got, mostly because making impulsive changes when things are going badly is a go-to for me.
But the sixth. The idea of working against something when you most feel like giving up is a tough one. And often, we don’t. Often we just wait it out. And wait and wait. Hoping that time is our alley.
But time, as Martin Luther King so wisely said, is neutral. And this has been my experience too. Things don’t necessarily get better with time. Sometimes they get worse.
The Problem with Schlepping
Schlepping is a Yiddish word that means carrying something with great effort and I think that it fits well here. Carrying the burden of spiritual desolation because we think that is what God wants is always problematic. Or, as Fr. Gallagher says:
When endured in this good-willed but resigned manner, the spiritual desolation is likely to persist and, often enough, to deepen. The captives have not been set free….THE DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS BY FR. TIMOTHY GALLAGHER
Fr. Gallagher goes on to point out that the 6th Rule of St. Ignatius is NOT addressing situations that can’t be changed. All of us have crosses we must carry. But unending spiritual desolation isn’t one of them.
Spiritual Means for a Spiritual Struggle
As we begin to find answers to our questions, what may have seemed an all-encompassing and unbearable heaviness is reduced to a manageable concern, an experience of spiritual desolation; and, with lightened hearts, we can begin to adopt effective spiritual measures to overcome the darkness.THE DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS BY FR. TIMOTHY GALLAGHER (Examination)
Fr. Gallagher helps us understand that the means St. Ignatius recommends (prayer, meditation, examination, and penance) are spiritual in nature and therefore effective against a spiritual problem. But why these means specifically?
Here is the short answer as I understand it from Fr. Gallagher’s book
- Prayer, directly counters the sense of separation from God that is at the heart of spiritual desolation.
- Meditation on the truths of our faith (as contained in Scripture, for example, or our own personal experience of God) replenishes and revitalizes us at a time when we need it most.
- Examination encourages us to ask questions that can lead to specific spiritual counter-measures (as Fr. Gallagher notes in the quote above).
- Penance is important because it is a way of resisting the influence of the enemy and a tendency to give in and indulge ourselves when we are in desolation.
While much, much more can be said about each of these spiritual remedies there are two I want to talk about a bit further. I’ve decided to cover examination in a separate post on the Examen prayer. But I’d like to share a bit on penance below.
The Spiritual Means of Penance
Each small act of resistance engenders further courage … and thus, step by step, the desolation is vanquished.THE DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS BY FR. TIMOTHY GALLAGHER
I have to admit that I never really understood penance. I always thought of it as a punishment but it isn’t that at all. Instead it is a way to resist the evil influence of the enemy. And resistance, just like with weight lifting, serves a purpose. It makes us strong.
Except, in this application, we are building up our spiritual muscle. Instead of punishing ourselves we really being kind because we are improving our own spiritual health.
This is not to say, of course, that this is an easy or simple matter and it was that St. Ignatius explores further in the seventh rule but it does about, in my experience, work. Not because we are strong or determined or courageous but because we’re not.
As Fr. Gallagher says:
A doubt may arise even as we read: can we really live with such courage when burdened and confused by spiritual desolation? Is such spiritual initiative truly possible? Ignatius believes that it is. This courage is born at the point where God’s grace and human effort intersect. Certainly, the practice of each of these spiritual means requires courage, but this courage is itself more than the fruit of human effort alone.THE DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS BY FR. TIMOTHY GALLAGHER
Or in the words of Jesus:
I can do all these things in him who strengthens me.Epistle of St Paul to the Philippians 4:13
As with all my posts in the Rules of St. Ignatius series please keep in mind that what I’m sharing here is just the tip of the iceberg. To go deeper than my very limited understanding, please consider reading or listening to Fr. Gallagher’s incredible book: The Discernment of Spirits (affiliate link).
To read the entire St. Ignatius spiritual discernment series (which posts monthly) please click here: St. Ignatius Series