In case you haven’t guessed, I am a big fan of Ignatian Spirituality. And with that couplet is the genesis of a problem. By using the phrase ‘Ignatian Spirituality’, I am already creating something that I’m not sure has much substance. I’m a fan of God and Jesus. I’m a fan of prayer. I’m a fan of The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius wrote. But when people talk about Ignatian Spirituality and, worse, Ignatian Framework or Ignatian Structure or Ignatian System, I get twitchy.
We know where we want to get to. Our aims are intimacy with or yielding to God (whatever it is we mean by that difficult word) and life in all its fullness. These two aims are coterminous. The word ’spirituality’ denotes our fumbling attempts to orient our lives with these aims in mind.
God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformations I can’t imagine; very much a mystery but also very much a presence, very much a person.Rowan Williams, interview, quoted here
Many people prejudge Ignatian Spirituality: rigid; highly structured; cataphatic, not apophatic; active, not contemplative; on so on. To call it a ‘framework’ or a ‘structure’ implies a fixed programme that defines the shape or structure of the intended article.
I would like to replace the word ‘framework’ with ‘scaffolding’. A framework is “a basic structure underlying a system, concept, or text”. In construction, it defines and is essential to the shape and extent of a building. Scaffolding allows building or repair work to be undertaken but is temporary, adaptable, and removed when unnecessary.
Here is a helpful précis of “three essential features of scaffolding that facilitate learning”:
1. The interaction between the learner and the expert should be collaborative for it to be effective.adapted from Wikipedia
2. Learning should take place in the learner’s zone of proximal development. To do that the expert needs to be aware of the learner’s current level of knowledge and then work to a certain extent beyond that level.
3. The scaffold, the support and guidance provided by the expert, is gradually removed as the learner becomes more proficient.
The support and guidance provided to the learner are compared to the scaffolds in building construction where the scaffolds provide both “adjustable and temporal” support to the building under construction. The support and guidance provided to learners facilitate internalisation of the knowledge needed to complete the task. This support is weaned gradually until the learner is independent.
Well! Mutatis mutandis, that sounds a lot like spiritual direction and The Exercises to me.
The Exercises and Ignatian spirituality are scaffolding within which people can find their unique relationship with God and life in all its fullness. So, quite differently from any ’framework’ or programme or system, Ignatian Spirituality and the Exercises flex and adapt to this one-and-only created-and-called person. All good spirituality is like this. The ultimate aim of all good spirituality is to allow the person to inhabit their unique home (or niche) within the Ecos (οἶκος) of God.
Some important elements of Ignatian Spirituality:
- God in the everyday
- the value of noticing consolation and desolation
- the value of repetition
- election and the consequent discernment of the will of God in history
Ignatian Spirituality is not to be identified with praying with the imagination. Let’s clear that bit of deadwood out of the way. If Ignatian Spirituality is anything it is “finding God in all things.” Ignatius was a mystic. This can be seen in his final offering in the Exercises: the Contemplation to Attain [i.e. be utterly at one with] the Love of God.
That being said, imagination is a great way to pray. Ignatius suggests that we involve imagination in prayer. Of course! Imagination is a Divine gift. Not using imagination is irresponsible, wasteful and, frankly, rude. It is a wonderful way to encounter Jesus (and other scriptural characters) through contemplation of scenes from the gospels. I’m a big fan of it; it marks a crucial shift from studying scripture to encountering the One about whom scripture is written. However, it is only one of many ways to pray that Ignatius offers. Even so-called ‘Imaginative Contemplation’ is a complex and fluid amalgam of practices.
Ignatius’ trajectory is towards what he calls ‘Colloquy’, which is to say the relationship with God, in whatever way you relate to whatever you know of God. Everything else is scaffolding for the more-than-life-long journey in God.
Benedict, Francis, Julian, Ignatius, Theresa, John, John, Thomas, Cynthia, Julian. And, dare I say it? Jesus. (As another master-scaffolder, Richard, says, “We are supposed to follow Jesus, not worship him.”) Scaffolding!
These various spiritualities are beautiful and necessary. We need scaffolding. We need scriptures, traditions, wise guides, spiritual practices, sacred objects, and wordless, imageless silences. We dismiss them at our peril. But let’s not forget what all our spirituality serves. Jesus points to the Father.
In Buddhism, there is a word, Prajñāpāramitā. Thích Nhất Hạnh translates this as The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore. (See also this.) Prajñāpāramitā is scaffolding. Once insight has brought us to the other shore, we let it go.