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Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love

Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Here St. Ignatius provides a practical method of living out the exercises until the dawn of eternity. Whatever else we do in life, whatever decisions we have made or resolutions we have reached, the heart of the spiritual life is our responsive love for God in return for His great love for us. The joy in our heart, the zeal for the faith, the consolation of the truth, the desire to evangelize, may have result in a firm determination to share these exercises with a multitude of other starving souls. How? Pray for the grace.

Suppose we start with a prayer.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Mother of Divine Love, pray for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is our closing meditation for the retreat that we have been making. It is on the contemplation for obtaining divine love. As we should expect, throughout the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius there is one pervasive theme and that is the love of God. It is no wonder then, that St. Ignatius would have the retreatants concentrate and you might say, synthesize, as we come to the close of the Spiritual Exercises with that which is a compendium of everything that Christianity stands for, namely the love of God. There are three basic areas that St. Ignatius undertakes to both examine and reflect on in this meditation.

  • The first is, to obtain a deeper understanding of what love means.

  • The second is to examine how God is be loving us and therefore we should be loving God accordingly in return.

  • And thirdly, the climax of the retreat, the prayer, Suscipe or Take, O Lord and Receive.

First then, The Meaning of Love

If there is one word in every language that needs to be, both understood and clarified, it is the word love. And the reason for the need to clarify this word is obvious. Behind our love is what people mean by goodness, because we can love only that, only that which we consider good. And then depending on what people consider good, this will determine what they are to love. But it’s here, at this crucial beginning of the closing meditation, of the Spiritual Exercises that one judgment on what is the good and therefore what is lovable, is so crucially important, that is good what God considers to be good. That is lovable what God considers lovable and surely there is no one who is more deserving of being loved than God. God is not only good He is, as our faith tells us, Infinite Goodness. We go on.

The first distinction that St. Ignatius makes in order for us to grasp the meaning of love is to make sure we realize that the true meaning of love is grasped. Not from the words that people use to describe love, not from the literature that over the centuries has been written about love, the heart of love is to be recognized in deeds. There is then a divine pragmatism in Christ’s teaching that is reflected in every paragraph of the Spiritual Exercises. Time and again Our Lord insisted that love is indeed interior in its source but if it is true love it shows itself in action. And throughout the gospels and among the gospels none more than the gospel of St. Luke shows what Ignatius is at such pains to point out. If we are to understand the meaning of love, we are to ask ourselves how is love shown in action. Love is proved by deeds. What are we saying? The One who loves expects His will to be followed. Christ could not have been clearer, “If you love me,” said Our Lord, “keep My commandments.” That’s the first lesson we learn from the first triad of this meditation.

What is the meaning of love? Love is shown in deeds and shown especially in the conformity of the one who loves with the one who is claimed to be loved. We go on.

If love consists in deeds, love is especially shown in sharing. What kind of deeds does love manifest? Love manifests that it loves the one whom it claims to love by doing good for the one who is said to be loved. The lover, in St. Ignatius’ words, gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses or something of that which he has or is able to give. Love gives, love shares. One more aspect on our first of the three parts of this meditation; love here means “sharing with God.” I put the word sharing in quotation marks in my notes. Even as we say this we must immediately qualify the idea of sharing between ourselves and God. No doubt the language is familiar, but absolutely speaking, whatever God gives us, He does not actually, hear it, He does not actually, in the verbal literal meaning of the word share. God parts with nothing when He loves. God gives up nothing when He loves. God does not deprive Himself of anything when He loves. Then we turn to ourselves. On our parts, too, whatever we give to God does not enrich Him in any way. God is infinite. He has a fullness of all the Divine Perfections. God not only has wisdom; He is Wisdom. He not only has beauty; He is infinite Beauty. He not only has power; He is Omnipotence. Consequently, when we speak, and let’s be clear, when we speak of being generous to God. The word generosity does not mean that we somehow enrich God or give Him something which He lacks or give Him more than we had than He had before we gave Him, as the expression goes what we shared with Him by our loving. It is here that the mystery of the Incarnation takes on such profound meaning.

Once God became man, ah what a difference, then we can literally give Him, give God, what except for our generosity God would not have received, namely, our love. When Christ on the cross said, ‘I thirst’, it was indeed God speaking but He was speaking in human language. God became man in order to thirst for our love. And on this profound mysterious level we can enrich God, the God who became man so we might give Him as man what except for our generosity He would not have received from us. As those of you who have made either the exercises or have been using the ‘Retreat with the Lord’, remember there are passages in this first part of the triad of this meditation drawing on the riches of the sanctity of the ages, no one has improved on St. Augustine’s prayer to God. Speaking to God says Augustine for all of us, “Thou has made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The whole beneficiary in loving God, all the wealth, all the riches, all the blessing, for our loving God is ours. And the reason of course is that, that is why we were made, we exist for one purpose, to love God. How the world, how today’s Godless world needs to hear this. No wonder it is so pathetically, pathologically unhappy. Seeking satisfaction where it cannot be found in any creature but only in God. We go on.

Part two of our meditation, on growing in the love of God. Here we center on gratitude, gratitude is at once the foundation and the model of our love of God. This bears some emphasis, the relationship of gratitude in love is much closer than most people realize. This is surely deeper than modern psychology tells us. That we benefit from giving and this is where St. Ignatius tells us, it is God whom we are to love and we shall grow in our love for God, hear it, and there’s no single sentence that I can share with you that is more necessary in the spiritual life. Our love for God will grow in the measure of our gratitude to God. Our love for God will grow in the measure of our gratitude to God. What are we saying? We are saying and all the great minds of Christian history have attested to this principle, the foundation of love is gratitude, the food of love is gratitude, the nourishment of love is gratitude, the condition for love is gratitude, the measure of love is gratitude and so the proportion goes on. And that is why if we are to grow in our love for God and be inspired to love Him and love Him more we must grow in our awareness of His goodness and not just His bounty or His goodness in the abstract, no. We are to become daily, every hour, dare I say, every minute more and more aware of God’s goodness to us, better, of God’s goodness to me. And the measure of my constant awareness of God’s goodness to me, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, moment after moment, in that measure will I grow in my love for God.

Where you might ask, shall we begin? Where to start to estimate the gifts that we received from the divine bounty. Except for God who freely chose to create the human race, there wouldn’t be a human race and except for this same divine freedom choosing to create me, I would not exist. I cannot tell you in the years of teaching the divine attributes, how I stressed the importance of recognizing the freedom of God. God is a free agent. God is free, free to create or not create. God was free to create either this world or another world. God was free to create me or create someone else instead of me. I must make this realization of God’s goodness personal and I cannot emphasize the prepositional phrase, personal to me. Says Ignatius, ‘how I ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me and how much He has given me what He possesses’ and I repeat with absolute, utter, total, consummate, freedom.

Nor is that all, God has not only been giving me creatures He created the one creature, for which needless to say, I’m especially grateful to God, O Lord, thanks for all the creatures You’ve given me, but thanks, ah thanks, for me. How blind, how poor blind we can be in not seeing the utter, absolute, total, freedom of God in creating each one of us. But we add, it is not only that God has given me, me, His intention is to give me Himself. And God became man and wants us to receive Him as man in Holy Communion as a prelude to possessing Him in a way we cannot comprehend in seeing Him, hear it, as He sees Himself, enjoying Him, dare we say it, as He enjoys Himself, becoming literally, mysteriously, but literally, part of the family of the Holy Trinity. In other words, God has in store Himself as the supreme and eternal gift of His love to me.

Ah but then remember, St. Ignatius was nothing if not a realist, even as we reflect on God’s past goodness to me, on His constant present generosity towards me and the ocean of blessings the beatitude ( ? inaudible ) the eternity of possessing Him, my God, He embracing me and I embracing Him. Since and here’s the painful conclusion, why? Why? Why has God been so generous to me? Why is He, why is He still to be more generous than ever? So that I by my realization of His goodness to me might out of my gratitude give myself entirely, utterly, totally to Him. Only God knows how deeply what I’m sharing with you has penetrated my own soul. All I know is that in the measure that it penetrates your heart and I mean this, you are a changed person. But you must realize, you not someone else must and that’s the verb, you must realize God’s goodness to you and then out of sheer gratitude there should be no limit, the only limitation is the capacity for loving God. And then what do you do, you pray and ask God to increase your capacity for loving Him more. You want to give and give and give and give and give. How I like to say this, on two traumatic occasions collapsing, was hospitalized as a result, in giving lectures. Isn’t that wonderful? One of my great inspirations is a Jesuit, St. Francis Regis, who collapsed in the confessional and died shortly after. Great.

We go on. Our gratitude arises not only from all that God has given and plans to give us. Ignatius dwells on God dwelling in His creatures. We know even by reason, not to say by faith, nothing would exist; no creature would be unless God were, what a cheap verb, present in that creature. As I’m sure you’ve heard more than once, my favorite definition of nothing is where God is absent. God is within, penetrates, profoundly and we’re just scratching for adverbs to describe how deeply, how inwardly God is present in everything that He gives. He has to be otherwise it wouldn’t be. But now the lesson and notice here the Ignatian formula, I reflect on God’s love for me and then remember, God’s love for me therefore is not just a foundation, the basic reason for my loving God, oh no. God’s love for me is the measure, the barometer; it is to tell me how I am to love God. What a difference between doing something, well because, God wants it and doing something because I love God. What a difference, what a difference, where I put my whole heart into what I do out of love for God. What an examination of conscience we can all make beginning with the speaker. How wholeheartedly am I doing God’s will in my life? How totally immersed is my will in what I am doing, as I say, for God? And of course, there is such a thing as doing what God wants and doing it, the job externally looks the same, but God knows the difference. God wants our hearts. And through all eternity we shall be mainly judged on how much of our heart we have put into what we believed was God’s will in our lives. We go on.

Not only does God dwell necessarily in whatever He gives me and then correspondingly I should, do I use the verb, dwell, in what I give to God. Put myself entirely into everything that I do for God. But as far as language can apply to God we may say that God labors for me. I’ve recommended over the years that people read, and if you have the time even memorize, Francis Thompson’s ‘Hound of Heaven’. Talk about God loving us, going after a soul, laboring, chasing, hunting down. But hear it, God was not satisfied with everything we’ve so far said, God became man in order to add one more dimension to His love for us, God wanted to suffer out of love for us and that in the last analysis is the unexplainable and unspeakable divine motive for the Incarnation. Should I say it, I will, Love wants to suffer, do you hear me? Love wants to suffer for the one it loves. Ah, how much we poor mortals have to learn. How cheap the word love can be on human lips, that is why, why God assumed human lips, so He could say as man, I love you, and mean it, because He became man. When all has been said, all the theology on the Incarnation has been read, all the soteriology, the theology of the salvation of the human race has been mastered, in last analysis the unexplainable mysterious reason why God became man is because love wants to suffer.

Clearly this has, dare I say it, profound implications for all of us. If the Lord spares me to the eighteenth of this month, I will have been ordained 48 years. In these years in the priesthood I’ve learned a great deal, most of which I would never speak and of course never print. One thing I’ve learned and I’m sharing with you now, real, real love wants to suffer, I mean it from the depths of my soul. As by now we all know from experience we don’t have to go around, shall I say, inviting people to cause us pain. Or stay up nights, ‘gosh what suffering will I be able to endure tomorrow?’ God provides. And the deepest suffering in all of our lives, how wise of God, comes from human beings. That is why when God became man He told us, that’s why He told us, your love for me will be shown by your love for others. They will cause you pain and let’s be honest, all that other human beings have to do to cause us pain, what a cliché, is just be themselves, that’s all. I can say this, some time ago a very fervent cloistered nun told me, ‘Father, the pain I’ve been suffering for years is, one of my fellow religious has a screeching voice’, I inquire, ‘she screeches, I’m very sensitive to that kind of sound.’ I don’t think this nun told anybody else except God and me. That’s all it takes. We go on.

Part three of our meditation. This is the famous Suscipe, by the way one of the most beautiful hymns in Latin, if you don’t know it in Latin, pardon me, learn it and learn the melody too. But for obvious reasons, we’ll go over the English. It comes in three parts. This is the crowning point, not just of the Spiritual Exercises; this is the acme of the spiritual life. Over the years I’ve told many people to recite the Suscipe and of course I recommend memorizing this prayer.

Part one; “Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding and my entire will.”

What are we telling God? We are telling God to take back what He gave us, but notice where we begin, ‘Receive, O Lord, all my liberty’ and the key word is all, all my liberty. It is the only faculty that God has given human beings which and we have to use the vocabulary, we can call our own. It all depends on our liberty whether we shall reach heaven or not in eternity. Everything in our lives depends on our use of that precious gift of liberty. But notice, ‘take, O Lord, all my liberty’, others are to sacrifice their freedom to God, I have mine. Then surprisingly, ‘take my memory, my understanding and my entire will’. You have three faculties of memory, understanding and will depend on freedom. My mind will understand; I will learn what my freedom chooses to learn. Again, my mind will remember what I want to remember. In other words, everything in our lives depends on how totally we have surrendered our freedom to God. Hear it, our freewill has two kinds of power, it has the power of giving itself, give the freewill itself to God. But this same freedom has the power to command all the other powers of body and soul. If I want to open my mouth, I will, if I don’t I won’t, if I lift my hand, I will, if I don’t I won’t, if I want to bend my knee, I will, if I don’t want to bend it I won’t. I cannot tell you how critically important in the spiritual life is the power of human freedom to command all the other faculties of body and soul. In other words, this is the first part of the Suscipe with which the Spiritual Exercises close. Where we sacrifice our freedom to God because by sacrificing our freedom we are in effect sacrificing what our freedom has power to give up. We go on.

“Whatsoever I have or hold you have given to me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by Your will.”

What are we saying here? In the first part of this prayer, notice we surrender our freewill and by doing that we implicitly surrender everything else. However, in part two of the Suscipe, what are we offering God? Everything that I have, which is not only my faculties, but the knowledge that my mind has acquired. The experiences that I’ve had, what I’ve learned and I cannot tell you how important it is to be ready and willing to give and if need be to give back to God everything, in Ignatian language, to be governed by God’s will. Having taught some of the finest minds of the Society of Jesus could provide, I can tell you it makes a large difference whether the one who is making the exercises is surrendering to God not only the faculties but the use of the faculties. For example, what the mind will learn. I remember for years having been put into the physical sciences, my heart was in philosophy and theology, but for years, because obedience told me to concentrate on the physical sciences, what did I do? I surrendered the satisfaction of my mind and gave up what I would have much have preferred. And this let me tell you, we are called upon by God to give Him, not just our faculties generically, but the contents of our minds, memories and wills according to His divine will. Finally, what do I ask? What alone do I ask from God? “Give me only Your grace and Your love, having but these I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.” Let me be as open as I can with you, it is here especially here, that our true love for God is manifest. It is one thing to tell God, Lord, I’m giving You everything, it is something else to close the Suscipe by telling God, ‘all I want from You is Your love and Your grace, having but these I am rich enough and ask for nothing more’. In all of our lives, God will both deprive us of things we had, remove from our lives precious possessions, persons, objects we’ve enjoyed. God may send us the last thing on earth, if we had our choice, we would choose. But if we are really, really, I’ll read once more, really in love with God, then all we want from Him is His love, which we cannot see and His grace which we can’t experience, but let’s be clear, God’s grace can be costly. God’s grace can be painful. But whoever said that what is painful cannot be and I mean it, ecstatically enjoyable. All of this is locked up in the closing words of the Suscipe. How many times over the years I’ve used this phrase, Proverbs 8:17, it is God speaking, “I love those who love Me”. All that God wants from us is our love. Which means our wills surrendered to His divine will. And what can we expect in return, ah, His will with all the infinite generosity that only God can confer on us. St. Augustine in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, tells us, ‘when we pray, Our Father, who art in heaven, the heaven we are speaking of is first the heaven on earth. The heaven reserved for those who love God with their whole heart and whom God in turn loves with His whole heart and they in turn have a foretaste of heavenly beatitude here on earth.’ Amen.

Thank you for listening.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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