Peter Paul Rubens, Miracle of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a story I really like in James Martin’s Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. An editor-at-large of America magazine who has written several New York Times best-sellers, Martin sets it up the by saying the Jesuits pride themselves on being practical. Then comes the punch line:

One joke has a Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit celebrating Mass together when the lights suddenly go out in the church. The Franciscan praises the chance to live more simply. The Dominican gives a learned homily on how God brings light to the world. The Jesuit goes to the basement to fix the fuses.

Me? I’d probably try to do all three. As a newbie Dominican lay associate, I love the Dominican charism of study, prayer, community and preaching. (I blogged about it HERE.) And key aspects of my theology are probably more Franciscan than anything else, combined with 12-step recovery and the Finnish school of Luther studies. (I’ve blogged about that, too, HERE and HERE, for example.) In fact, I think all the world religions point at the same moon. But for all of that, I can always use a good stiff dose of the practical.

Especially now. I’m facing decisions about things like chemo and radiation, so I’m studying the IgnatianSpirituality.com website and a variety of blog posts for support and advice on what to do when times get tough. Spoiler alert: I’ve been finding what I’m looking for.

I’m especially interested in a process called the discernment of spirits. It was developed by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, for “examining the motives, desires, consolations, and desolations in one’s life.” (The exact terminology, including “consolations” and “desolations,” is Ignatius’, and the links embedded in the quote are Wikipedia’s.) The concept of spirits working on us for good or evil seems awfully 16th-century to me (so does a lot of Luther), but I think there’s good common sense behind it. “The good spirit brings us to peaceful, joyful decisions,” explains Wikipedia. “The bad spirit often brings one to make quick, emotional, conflicted decisions.”

Wikipedia adds that in order to get the full benefit of Ignatian discernment of spirits, you need a spiritual director. More good common-sense advice, I think. According to an introduction by Joseph A. Tetlow SJ on Loyola Press of Chicago’s IgnatianSpirituality.com website, the good and bad spirits reflect a “dense complex of motives” — including “images, ideas, attractions, [and] revulsions” — that guide us all, or lead us astray, when we make decisions. Tetlow puts it like this:

Some basic patterns are easy to grasp. For instance, as you would anticipate, the good spirit usually brings love, joy, peace, and the like; the evil spirit characteristically brings confusion, doubt, disgust, and the like. Another pattern: when you are leading a seriously sinful life, a good spirit will visit you with desolation to turn you around; an evil spirit will keep you content so that you will keep sinning. Another clear pattern is the opposite of this: when you are seriously serving God, the spirits change roles. The evil spirit clouds your day with desolation to lead you away from God, while the good spirit fills your day with trust and love of God. And a final, easily grasped pattern: a spirit that works in light and openness is good, while a spirit cloaked in secrecy and deception is evil.

For all of those ins and outs, I think I can benefit from at least the broad outlines of Ignatian discernment. Luckily, there’s a guy who has boiled it down, combined it with principles from sources as varied as 12-step recovery and cognitive behavioral therapy, and made it readily available on the internet.

As I remembered Father Martin’s story about the Jesuit and the fusebox, I did quite a few keyword searches. And I kept coming back to Brendan McManus SJ, a retreat director and inspirational writer of Belfast. I’ve read his Channelling the Inner Fire before (blogged about it HERE, just the other day), and I have a couple of his other titles on order. I’m getting a lot out of his approach. He’s been through a career change more radical than mine — from a cushy job in information technology to a religious order — and in an interview with Eileen Quinn Knight for the CatholicProfiles.org website, he said his focus has grown out of his life experience:

For example, originally, I worked with young adults helping people make life decisions through situations similar to ones I had lived as an I.T. professional. Then when my brother died by suicide I was launched into the ministry of bereavement counselling and my book Redemption Road (Grieving on the Camino) spoke to lots of people about how to approach healing spiritually as well as through other means. I have moved on from the suicide/grief work having given it 4/5 years, and now work mainly in Spiritual Direction and retreats, especially around the theme of ‘Finding God in the Mess’, the name of a book/workshop that I co-authored with a lay colleague, Jim Deeds. We have been travelling around Ireland helping people understand that God is always with them at all moments, and how to respond to God’s compassionate invitation.

Along the way, he has worked extensively with 12-step recovery. “At the moment my ministry seems to be concerned with those with addiction issues and especially with alcoholism,” he told Knight. “I recently discovered a strong connection between the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) programme and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.” Something to make a note of for later. He also finds a connection with CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, that’s worth checking out later.

McManus is nothing if not practical. (You knew I’d say that, didn’t you?) He contributes regularly to the blog In All Things on the Jesuits in Ireland website, and during the Covid-19 pandemic he wrote a remarkable series of posts with headlines like “Praying with grief in a Covid-19 world” and “Why lockdown is like an Ignatian retreat.” Quite a bit of this got into Channelling the Inner Fire, but the posts were written to stand alone. They’re uniformly helpful, and worth checking out. He’s on Facebook, too, at https://www.facebook.com/BrendanSJ. “With my Information Technology (IT) background I am a big supporter and user of social media,” he told Eileen Quinn Knight. “Facebook is my office!” There’s a directory HERE of his blog posts at http://www.jesuits.ie. Check it out!

Typically McManus ends a post with bullet points listing concrete steps for readers to take. (Did I mention he’s practical?) A post he titled “Ten Ignatian tips for surviving autumn lockdown,” half a year into the pandemic on Oct. 27, 2020, is a fine example. He numbered the tips, and they’re worth listing here:

  1.  Life is messy (Covid especially: world-wide mess, winter weather, weariness)
  2. God is in the mess with you (i.e. the Covid pandemic)
  3. There are two forces working on us (one of light and one of dark)
  4. Learn how to discern (tune in to God’s guidance)
  5. The answer lies within us (God in our deepest feelings, not superficial ones)
  6. Fear or anxiety is not a good counsellor (fear around Covid, illness, work, safety etc.)
  7. The paradox of suffering (the experience of the Cross)
  8. Prayer is about finding God’s will
  9. It’s about God working through us
  10. You always have a choice

Any of this sound familiar? A couple of things stand out as I read over the list: One: The tips are about discernment. Especially 3, 4 and 5, but in one way or another, they’re all about making choices. And two: This is all good stuff, with or without a global Covid pandemic in the background. Tip No. 1, for example, got my attention right off the bat:

If we lived in a perfect existence we would never grow. Life is not always a smooth ride. It is, in fact, by its very nature messy at times. Knowing this can help us attain a kind of freedom to examine the messes we find ourselves in without getting wrapped up wondering ‘why me’ or ‘what have I done to deserve this’. Remember God didn’t send Covid like an Old Testament plague, so forget about conspiracy theories or superstition. Faith doesn’t protect you from the storms of life but it gives you courage to steer a course.

Yup. Exactly.

Substitute “cancer” for “Covid,” and I’ve got a perspective for decisions I’m going to have to make: Radiation or chemo? Surgery? What else should I be doing? McManus’ step No. 8, on prayer, also gives me a perspective. More accurate to say it underscores something I already know from the 11th Step of AA, which counsels “praying only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry it out.” McManus puts it like this: “Prayer is about finding God’s will.” He explains:

This is the most challenging thing as it demands prayer is not about my needs, rather I need help from a higher power to face situations and make good decisions. A bit like charging a battery, there is no shortcut for being plugged into the source for a certain time and frequency. This prayer has to result in some positive, practical action, acting more like Christ, reaching out to others for example. It becomes easier with practice.

Part of this is Ignatian Spirituality 101 — Jesuits like to call themselves contemplatives in action, “where your intellect is engaged as you go about doing the nitty-gritty work of the world,” as one Ignatian retreat director puts it. But it’s pure AA, right down to the reference to God as a “higher power.” And a 12-step mantra: “Thy will, not mine.”

In another post a year later, just before the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus flared up world wide, McManus elaborated on the theme of praying for guidance when times are tough. In a very helpful October 2021 post titled “Doing the unthinkable: Facing phobias and anxieties,” he suggests a process for doing exactly that by “[p]raying through a phobia.” Again, it grows out of his experience. “I had to go in for a medical procedure recently, which I have a bit of a phobia about, and found myself driven to prayer to get through.” (Well, that I can relate to!) McManus boils it down to six bullet points (in boldface type, no less):

  • Name clearly the issue facing you
  • Remind yourself nothing is impossible for God, make an act of faith (e.g. ‘I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.’)
  • Acknowledge how you are feeling, the dread or anxiety, for example, and remind yourself you have a choice about how to respond (feelings are not reality, no matter how overwhelming)
  • Try to think about what God wants for you, what would be liberating and life-giving, try to see it with God’s help, what might be possible
  • Turn the issue or problem into a prayer, demand what you need, whether it be courage, calm, resolve, peace of mind, etc.
  • Repeat your mantra or phrase; act courageously in line with what God wants!

He elaborates on all his points, and they’re all worth reading. But the middle points especially speak to me:

This is where real prayer comes in, not just a pious thought or a superficial plea, but a real struggle with the demons we face daily. One thing is to become aware of the issue and name it accurately, whether it is anxiety, fear or repulsion. The next step is to turn it into a prayer directly, praying with the problem and bringing God’s grace directly to bear on it. The combination of admitting vulnerability and humbly asking for help seemed to work.

It’s not an easy process however. It demands humility and courage, to face into the storm and believe that God is there, guiding and supporting. It can be helpful to ask yourself the question what does God want for you. Often we know what we want for ourselves: an easy life, trouble free existence and the absence of pain. But reframing the issue in terms of what God wants is liberating, it takes a higher perspective and enables us to rise above the merely human. It often allows us to escape from our own demons and find a way though apparently impossible situations.

But what’s this about a mantra in the last bullet point? McManus explains how we can let go of a negative, self-defeating thought — Ignatius of Loyola would have called it a demon — by repeating a phrase to crowd it out of our consciousness. Then we can let go of it and carry on. “Act as if,” as the AA slogan has it. Says McManus:

It can really help to create a mantra or phrase that you repeat to yourself, often taken from scripture or a spiritual writer. For example, ‘Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10)’ is very consoling and helpful when you are in the emotional storm to be able to find calm. Also, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for woe (Jer 29:11)’ or ‘God’ power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9)’.

One crucial Ignatian rule of thumb is to try to ‘act against’ the negativity, fear or narrow thinking. That is, regardless of how we feel in terms of fear, anxiety and dread, we still have the option to choose to act differently. Practice of this can lessen the fears or phobias the next time we find them on our minds. This is genuinely liberating and enables God to work in our lives: waiting to be invited in, and allowing us to act in creative and life-giving ways.

The mantras seem to work, too! (I’ve blogged about a similar technique HERE, in a spiritual practice called centering prayer.) My mantra is similar to what McManus mentions in the second bullet point: “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.” Instead of belief, I talk to God — and myself — about trust. “Trust in the Lord.” That’s what I most need to work on, trust, and the mantra helps keep me focused.

There’s a lot to absorb here, and I’m only barely scratching the surface. Again, for anyone who might Google into this post on a keyword search, I need to make it clear I’n not an expert and I am not talking about the discernment of spirits as Ignatius of Loyola outlines the practice in the Spiritual Exercises. That is something I’ll have to work up to.

In the meantime, I’m grateful to Brendan McManus for repackaging some of its basic principles in easily accessible blog posts. They’re practical. (You knew I’d say that again.) And they’re exactly what I need as I face into the storm.

Links and Citations

Alcoholics Anonymous, The Twelve Steps https://www.aa.org/the-twelve-steps.

Eileen Quinn Knight, “An Interview With Brendan McManus SJ,” Profiles in Catholicism, Nov. 30, 2020 https://www.catholicprofiles.org/post/an-interview-with-brendan-mcmanus-sj.

Brendan McManus, “Doing the unthinkable: Facing phobias and anxieties,” In All Things, Jesuits in Ireland, Oct. 11, 2021 https://www.jesuit.ie/blog/brendan-mcmanus/doing-the-unthinkable/.

__________, “Filter your thoughts against reality,” ibid., Dec. 15, 2020 https://www.jesuit.ie/blog/brendan-mcmanus/filter-your-thoughts-against-reality/.

__________, “Ten Ignatian tips for surviving autumn lockdown,” ibid., Oct. 27, 2020 https://www.jesuit.ie/blog/brendan-mcmanus/ten-ignatian-tips-for-surviving-autumn-lockdown/.

James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 2.

Shōhaku Okumura, “Ryōkan Interpreted: finger pointing at the moon,” Dōgen Institute, Sept. 26, 2021 https://dogeninstitute.wordpress.com/2021/09/26/ryokan-interpreted-finger-pointing-at-the-moon/.

Andy Otto, “Contemplatives in Action,” IgnatianSpirituality.com https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/contemplatives-in-action/.

Joseph A. Tetlow, “Discernment in a Nutshell,” IgnatianSpirituality.com, Loyola Press, Chicago https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/making-good-decisions/discernment-of-spirits/discernment-in-a-nutshell/.

William M. Watson, “The psychological insights of St. Ignatius Loyola,” America, Aug. 6, 2018 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2018/08/06/psychological-insights-st-ignatius-loyola.

Wikipedia pages on consolationsdesolationsdiscernment of spirits and Spiritual Exercises.

[Published Nov. 25, 2022]

3 thoughts on “Practical ways on a Jesuit website in Ireland to ‘face into the storm’ of cancer diagnosis and treatment

    1. Thanks, Debi. They’re hard to write — seems like I have to think five or 10 minutes before I write every word, then think another five minutes, “is that the right word?” Delete it, think five minutes more, put it back in and go on to the next word. I’m glad, all wisecracks aside, we’re facing into the storm together.

      Liked by 1 person

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